“Kare Kano” hilarious, touching

by Kory Cerjak

Title: His and Her Circumstances (Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou)
Author: Masami Tsuda
Publisher: Tokyopop (former)

CC1EFDB3DKare Kano, after Fruits Basket, has to be the best-selling shojo manga of all time for Tokyopop. Kare Kano also holds the distinction of being one of the first manga Tokyopop ever released “unflopped.” This was a big decision for Tokyopop, since it meant they could save about $10 per page in producing the manga for a North American market. But enough about history, let’s get to the story. What makes Kare Kano’s story so endearing is how Miyazawa and Arima grow throughout the series. And with 21 volumes, there’s a lot of material to watch them in.

The story is simple, a love story of two high schoolers trying to grow up and grow closer together. Your usual complications come up throughout the story (I’ve read the entire series, but I’ll only be reviewing the first three volumes here), like the “new kids in town” Hideaki Asaba and Maho Izawa and typical high school kid problems. It’s dramatized, perhaps overly so, but it always feels realistic and it makes you want to root for the Arima/Miyazawa couple.

Miyazawa was top of her class in middle school and the self-proclaimed Queen of Vanity. She does all her hard work and studying so that people will praise her. Arima, on the other hand, holds a dark past on his shoulder that isn’t made immediately evident. He’s also top of the class, and beats out Miyazawa in the high school entrance exams. It is then Miyazawa’s goal to defeat Arima in the field of school.

You immediately see the growth in both Arima and Miyazawa from chapter one. Miyazawa puts on a persona that makes her look like the perfect girl. But in reality she is an ego-maniac, or the self-proclaimed Queen of Vanity. But it’s Arima that peels away at that façade as we watch it slowly trickle away from Miyazawa to reveal her true self. These are the moments in the manga that make you want to keep turning the page and watch these two characters and their lives unfold.

That’s the tremendous thing about the manga, Tsuda’s character writing, which makes Miyazawa and Arima feel so real, yet exactly like characters in fiction. That’s oxymoronic, but they do seem like completely separate characters after their respective façades break down. Miyazawa wants everyone to love her, so she acts perfect. Arima wants to hide his bitter past, so he acts perfect. The complete 180 is what feels so fake in both these characters. But as we delve deeper into their lives and their backstories, we learn that they have good reasons to act so perfectly and to put up their façades. And we realize, somewhere inside of us, that we act differently based on who we’re around. We wear the same masks that Miyazawa and Arima are, just to varying degrees. It’s the way that Tsuda portrays their masks is what works best.

It’s the comedy that follows that works the best, though. [Another interesting tidbit is that the anime was actually cancelled after Hideaki Anno, the director, and Masami Tsuda, the mangaka, had creative differences about the representation of the characters and the comedy.] Comedy is inserted at just the right times and never feels intrusive. There’s an entire chapter that’s essentially dedicated to Miyazawa trying, and failing, to confess her feelings for Arima. It’s both funny and frustrating to watch her go through this and struggle to say three words. But the payoff is tremendous in the end, when she just grabs his hand as they’re both in a student council meeting, quietly declaring, “Yes Arima, I do love you.” It’s the timing that Tsuda gets best when writing Kare Kano, and comedy is all about timing.

The story is perhaps at its most interesting when a “new kid in town” arrives. After settling their relationship, Miyazawa and Arima’s story by itself was worn out. Asaba spiced things up with his extremely insulting “Hideaki Girl Farm,” as it is translated (the anime translates it as the “Asaba Merry Land,” a play on words with the sheep theme and much less insulting as a phrase). It is in fact Asaba that allows Miyazawa and Arima to become closer to each other after their debacle of a first date. Asaba’s ideals toward women, while initially appearing misogynistic with his farm, are actually rather sympathetic to women and he, like all the characters, warm up to the audience as time goes on and we learn more and more about him.

The second “new kid in town” is guidance counselor Mr. Kawashiba. Kawashiba believes that Miyazawa and Arima are wasting their potential by dropping to 13th and 3rd in the student body during exams and implores them to break up and focus on their studies. Its stories like this that have an extreme Japanese sentiment to them, as this would never happen in a US school. It’s very interesting to see the cultural difference here, and the focus on exam scores over creative freedom, between Japan and the US. This is perhaps the first really great story in the series, because it focuses on the closest thing to Miyazawa and Arima: their parents. It’s very touching to see an impassioned defense of the kids’ decision by Miyazawa’s father, who has a very US way of thinking about education. As a Japanese person reading it, it might only be a touching story about how parents defend their kids. But as a person raised in the US, I’m able to look at it from a different context and recognize the cultural differences.

The third “new kid in town” is Maho, who is barely in the volume, yet graces the front cover. A quick scan of Amazon Japan tells me that Tokyopop may have changed the covers for their US release, which may explain the unusual cover choice.

The translation and script are mostly fine, but there is one thing that I’d like to point out. Starting in the third volume, they start calling each other “Yukino” and “Soichiro,” their first names. This is a normal thing for us in the west, but it’s slightly larger for those in Japan. Calling people by their last names is considered more polite and what you’d do for casual friends and especially superiors. The problem is that—and I only know this since I’ve finished the series in the past—they have a moment later on when it’s a big deal for them to call each other by their first names. It’s not just something that happens in anime and manga, it has to be dramatized and pointed out. I’m thrown off by the seeming carelessness of Tokyopop in this case. But on the other hand, they might not have known about that future volume when they licensed the series (or didn’t care to research it).

The artwork in this is absolutely beautiful when it matters, and lacking where it doesn’t. Tsuda was, at Kare Kano’s premiere, three years into being a professional mangaka and it seems she had to put the series on hiatus to figure out what she was going to do with it. Despite her only being three years into the business, it’s clear she knows how to draw characters. Individual hairs are sometimes seen flowing in the wind, and that’s simply time consuming for a mangaka with little time to push out a chapter to do. It’s the backgrounds that are lacking, because they’re barely there if they’re there at all. It depends a lot on flighty backgrounds that are idealizations of Arima in Miyazawa’s mind or Miyazawa in Arima’s mind, and so on. When backgrounds are there, they look a little boring and stilted, like it’s just a cookie cutter background that she threw in to fill the panel. It’s unfortunate, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the series.

I’ve loved Kare Kano since my beginning days as an anime fan watching that usually brilliant, sometimes train wreck of an anime that Gainax and Hideaki Anno put out in the late 90s, so my viewpoint of the series may be clouded by nostalgia. But despite that, my critical faculties have grown considerably since when I was a blossoming anime fan and it still holds up after five years. I find myself turning each page with eager anticipation, even though I already know what’s going to happen. I think that’s a sign of quality storytelling, if there ever is one.

Tokyopop released the manga back in 2003, but we all know that they’ve since lost all their US licenses in a weird restructuring. For now, the books are some out of print, some easily attainable. Amazon Marketplace definitely has them all, quality will be questionable for the used ones of course. I can’t imagine it’ll stay out of print for too long once some enterprising licensor picks it up.

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Resident of Japan since 1989, creator of "The Crazing Spider-Hag"

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