Buried Treasure
Marmalade Boy

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 16th 2008

I love Marmalade Boy and I'm not afraid to admit it. I am, and have always been, a complete sucker for well-done melodrama and teen angst. This show is practically dripping with both.

Nevermind that it's based on a manga series from Ribon Magazine, Shogakukan's weekly publication for young girls. Nevermind that it features impossibly embellished melodrama, histrionic characters and a famously ridiculous depiction of New York City. It's lovable, compelling, and so tense and nerve-wracking that it hooks the viewer right from the get-go, and doesn't let you go until you have gone through each and every emotional rollercoaster it can muster until you're bruised, battered, and utterly thrilled.

The show concerns one Miki Koishikawa, a cute high school girl whose eccentric parents one day ask her, stone faced, to a family conference. What's so important? Well... they're getting a divorce. And then swapping partners with another couple. Then remarrying. Then all moving into a big house together. Oh, and they have a teenage son Miki's age.

Rattled and unnerved, Miki plans on raising holy hell at dinner the next night, when she is to meet the Matsuuras for the first time. What she isn't prepared for is Yuu, the stunningly attractive teenaged son in question, to be just fine with the whole arrangement. Her parents look desperate for her approval, and finally, she defeatedly relents.

So, the two families move in together, and Yuu transfers into Miki's high school. Her best friend Meiko thinks the arrangement is hilarious, her kinda-not-really love interest Ginta is suspicious, and the girl herself is just desperate to keep the whole situation a secret. Yuu's past attempts at romance follow him to his new school (including the brash Arimi, and later a sickly girl called Anju). Miki is pursued by the piano prodigy Kei and American stereotype transfer student Michael Grant. Yuu gets a fangirl cling-on when he meets the child model Suzu.

All of these characters, at some point in the series' 76 episode duration, conspire to drive the two apart, but ultimately Miki loves Yuu, Yuu loves Miki and that's pretty much that. They realize this pretty early, and become a couple. Unfortunately Miki is so insecure and jealous that anytime she sees Yuu so much as talk to another girl she becomes utterly convinced that Yuu has found someone else, and that there's no way she can compete. Yuu is dealing with issues of his own, stemming from a sudden realization that his father may not be who he thinks he is. Any happiness the two have together is short lived, as Yuu gets distracted and Miki self destructs under the delusion that she's being left behind.

The last arc of the show takes place in a magical New York City that looks like a New England resort town, where Yuu decides to transfer to study architecture. There he meets a fascinating assortment of "Americans" (and has no language barrier), and tries his best to make his dreams come true. The American girls practically throw themselves at the attractive Japanese boy. Miki, utterly lost without him, loses her mind.

Some aspects of things are pretty dated by now. A good chunk of the interpersonal drama could be avoided today by the use of cell phones, and even a move to New York can easily be bridged by e-mail and Skype. That said, the show was never really about literal teenagers anyway. I mean, how many teenagers cut off their hair like Samurai to atone for something awful they did? And Yuu... he actually seems to LIKE watching Miki shop for clothes! For me and pretty much every guy I've ever met, that's our KRYPTONITE, and not even the invention of iPods can make it otherwise!

Really, Marmalade Boy becomes almost a fairy tale-ish take on the teen years, where the inherent hormones and angst of the time are entertained and embellished to the point where they seem as alarming to third party observers as it does to its characters. When Miki suspects Yuu has found another love, her world comes crashing down on her, and panic-inducing music ensues. We get a sweeping shot of Miki looking terrified at her completely unaware boy, the background turned to a nightmarish abstract. No matter how silly this seems (and how many times it happens), it's almost impossible not to get swept up in things.

This focus on drama is further enhanced by the sheer lack of other problems in this fairy tale Tokyo. Nobody worries about money, the culture shock (and jet lag) caused by constant 15-hour flights to New York or mundane things like studying. The high school itself is spacious and as well decorated as a nice restaurant. Everybody's fashion and grooming is impeccable. More significant is that there are zero bullies or social outcasts in this high school: everyone is skinny, good looking, and utterly gentle and empathetic people. These kids are living in heaven, and seem to be completely incapable of enjoying it. The characters are flawed enough so as to make up for the environment's lost credibility. Yuu is insecure and prone to depression. Ginta is overly aggressive, Arimi can be catty and manipulative. Suzu is outright annoying. And Miki... well, she could probably use a Valium or two. But flawed as these kids are, they mature before our eyes as they learn to relax with themselves.

The final arc of the show throws in a twist so wrenching that if one begins an evening's viewing session at around episode 62 or so, one simply CANNOT stop before reaching the series' end, sleep, school or work be damned. And that's what makes Marmalade Boy a true classic: it's simply anime crack. One can overlook the contrived situations, the at-times silly characters, the obvious product placement... because it's simply so compelling that one can't look away, not even for a minute. Its sense of urgency is unmatched.

Marmalade Boy was produced by Toei Animation as the first of three "Trendy Anime" TV series from the mid-90s, which also included Neighborhood Story and Boys Over Flowers. These shows were groundbreaking for their time, as they aimed to mimic the heightened realism of a TV drama series (and adding a touch of theatrical surrealism in there for good measure). They were also aimed as much at adults as it was the manga's original demographics. Indeed, Marmalade Boy ended up being an unexpected sleeper hit, despite airing early on Sunday mornings when most adults would rather sleep in. Ultimately, idealized shoujo melodrama seemed to suit anime far better than it does live action: characters are always perfect looking, the pastel backgrounds and impossibly pretty atmosphere take the viewer out reality, and we don't get nearly as suspicious when people don't act as realistically as one might expect.

I didn't see the English version until many years later (as Tokyopop's DVD release took place almost a decade after I fell in love with the show). It's a serviceable, if remarkably unsubtle dub produced by Olivia Venegas at Studio E in Los Angeles, a studio that never really did much anime other than Tokyopop's titles. I'll never have the same connection to it as I did the Japanese, but I did appreciate Michelle Ruff's slightly understated interpretation of Miki. Michael Lindsay is decent as Yuu, though a little miscast. The script sticks REALLY close to the raw translation, and is free of awkward moments at least. Well, at least none that don't involve a main character's name sounding just like "you".

The subtitles caused a little grumbling upon the discs' initial release. Tokyopop tried to emulate the more literal translation style that has become popular in fansubs, but kind of overshot its target. In addition to leaving in honorifics, they also left common Japanese phrases like "yoroshiku" and "gochiso-sama" completely untranslated. Every anime fan knows what these phrases mean (and if they don't, a booklet from the first box explains them), but it's just a bit distracting.

Marmalade Boy will always have a special place in my heart. Despite its flaws and its inherent silliness, the show will always be about the excitement and the terror of falling in love, and the white-knuckled voyage back to emotional stability. It was a watershed moment for shoujo anime, and its influence can be seen on nearly every romance show made since. Yes, I love Marmalade Boy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It:
When Funimation took over Tokyopop's DVD business a few years back, Marmalade Boy's first season was close to expiring and so the series was never put back into production. The show's popularity had long since waned by the time Tokyopop's original DVD release happened, so the series sold quite poorly. Most of the four boxed sets (it was never released in single volumes) can be found online for as little as $30 each. Despite the minor nit-picks with the subtitle track, they're well produced and look as good as can be expected of a TV show of this era.

Screenshots ©1994 Wataru Yoshizumi/Shueisha, Toei Animation ©1994 TOEI ANIMATION CO., LTD.


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