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Kaoru Tada writes the contemporary romantic comedy shojo playbook in Itazura Na Kiss (1991-1999) but unlike many of her imitators, her characters always seem genuine even when they find themselves in fairly contrived “only in a shojo manga” situations.
Itazura Na Kiss opens with the public heartbreak and humiliation of our heroine, Kotoko. Kotoko’s just given her high school’s resident genius, Naoki, a love letter only to be instantly dismissed by his highness in front of the entire school. More than just a simple act of rejection, Naoki is the kind of ass who can’t even be bothered to read the damn thing, later telling Kotoko he doesn’t like “stupid girls.” In other words, he’s pretty much denied her very existence. Kotoko retreats in order to be comforted by her “Class F” peers, who are all loud, silly, and academically challenged. In the end, it is hinted that Kotoko really belongs with her supportive but dim-witted classmates, rather than chasing the impossible in the form of the apparently intellectually flawless Naoki.
In real life, this would be the end. Kotoko would cry for about a week and flee from Naoki whenever they crossed paths in the future. But in shojo-manga-land this instant rejection will come back to haunt both Kotoko and Naoki. While Kotoko tries to nurse her wounds, her life is turned upside when her father’s house collapses in an earthquake. Taken in by a college friend of her father’s, anyone who is familiar with shojo manga tropes can probably already predict where this is going — yup, Kotoko is taken in by Naoki’s family and she suddenly finds herself face to face with her chilly and emotionally-deficient first love.
Generally, once the romantic leads move in with each other in shojo titles the parents disappear for the most part. Well, not in this story. Naoki and Kotoko’s newly constituted relationship as housemates is always implicated in larger social groups and familial structures. Whether they are competing against each other in their school sports day or struggling (& often failing) to establish certain personal boundaries, Naoki and Kotoko can’t escape the ways in which their actions are transforming the people around them along with each other. Naoki has an invasive little brother who doesn’t appreciate Kotoko stealing his brother’s attention, while Naoki’s mother is determined that Kotoko will become a true member of the family by marrying Naoki. Then the entire school can’t get enough of spreading rumors about this “hot and heavy” live-in “couple.”
Although Naoki comes off as a bit as a sadist and Kotoko a masochist for loving him, it is a mistake to think that we’ve got the usual shojo bad boy + adoring doormat. Naoki may be brilliant but he doesn’t really understand human beings and Kotoko has a strong enough personality that she is able to show him what it means to be a person and not just part of a perfect equation. Naoki learns what it means to doubt himself — how can his perfect world be disturbed by someone like Kotoko? – while Kotoko starts to learn what it means to believe in herself. Just a little. In the end, she offers Naoki the only real challenge he’s ever known in his life and in doing so imbues a sense growth and momentum in both his life and the title as a whole.
This volume is over 300 pages and as I turned the last page I felt I could have read another 300 more, watching Kotoko keep Naoki’s life interesting through the sheer force of her personality. While there is a long way to go before these two come to a love understanding, there is no doubt that the journey there is going to be eventful and amusing. It is worth noting the art hasn’t aged well — it somehow feels much older than the early 90’s, but it isn’t a significant impediment to enjoying this charming tale. In fact, the slight oddness of the character designs is a nice reminder you aren’t reading just another shojo title.
Review copy provided by DMP.
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