Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 22nd 2006
When four incredibly handsome 15-year-old guys move into a luxurious boarding house for school, it ought to be a charmed existence—but there's a catch. In exchange for free rent, these pretty boys must transform the landlady's niece Sunako from a morbid, antisocial occult-freak into an outgoing, ideal young woman. Faced with the ultimate psychology experiment, this unlikely group of houseguests gets into various misadventures at home, at school, and around town. However, as Sunako and the boys gradually warm up to each other, there might be other transformations and changes in store.
Read through the author's notes in any chapter of The Wallflower, and the motivation behind the series becomes clear: manga-ka Tomoko Hayakawa simply created a series with all the things she likes. Fortunately, there's a pretty big audience for her kind of tastes: bishounen, J-rock performers, horror and gothic pop culture, and the EGL style. What makes the story work, though, is the comedic conflict between that subculture and the popular crowd. Who will win—the pretty-boy quartet that everyone loves, or the macabre girl that everyone fears?
The series gets off to a good start, with Volume 1 having the strongest plot direction of the first three. Although the early chapters go through the usual introductory motions, the humor really takes off in the second half. Sunako reveals her true character through a series of unlikely perils; at one point, Kyohei gets kidnapped by the manager of a seedy host club and she grudgingly steps in to save him. In the rousing finale, a surprise visit from the landlady forces the tenants to put on an impromptu My Fair Lady act. It's a plan that almost works, if not for Sunako's repressed tendencies...
But Kyohei and the gang are no Prof. Henry Higgins, and by Volume 2, Sunako is back in her room, reveling in the darkness. The story wanders aimlessly here, mostly relying on seasonal sitcom material—the school festival, Christmas, and New Year's. Still, Hayakawa manages some delightful absurdities: girly-boy Yuki in a dress (who didn't see that one coming?), and everyone spending Christmas with a vengeful spirit beneath the mansion. We also learn more about the bishounen quartet through their interactions with various girlfriends.
Volume 3 opens with the finale of a murder-mystery that began in the previous book, but quickly reverts to the usual character-driven comedy. New gags and scenarios pop up, like Kyohei turning into a four-eyed study geek to ace a test, and an unexpected modeling gig for all five of them. Most surprising, though, is how the character dynamic has changed—rather than striving towards a transformation, Sunako and the boys have reached a grudging acceptance of each other. They know that she can be beautiful, but they let her keep it under her gloomy exterior, because that's just how she is.
Hayakawa's artwork, like the story, is a showcase of things she likes: all the detail goes into specific elements like the bishounen characters, Sunako's horror props, and elaborate period dresses. However, she gets lazy everywhere else—backgrounds are sparse or nonexistent, crowds get rendered as simplified cartoon figures, and Sunako is regularly seen as a faceless mass of black hair. (Sounds like a certain character from The Ring, no?) While the chibi-Sunako design is a humorous contradiction to her morbid nature, it also makes some scenes hard to understand—for instance, her explosive nosebleeds in the presence of handsome men looks more like random black-ink splatter. Many of the gags depend on one's ability to understand the super-deformed look.
This being one of Del Rey's earlier releases, there are some publishing kinks in the first volume: blurry artwork, dull paper, and blotchy inks, but those problems are gone by the next two volumes. Meanwhile, the company's dedication to good translation is always evident—frequent cultural and language notes accompany the natural, conversational dialogue. Some attempts at dialect feel forced, like the effeminate modeling agent and the hard-talking gangster in Volume 3, but the text is generally a smooth read. Japanese sound effects are left alone, with small, unintrusive translations placed alongside each one.
Even if you're not into pretty boys or horror-themed pop culture, it's easy to appreciate a comedy of clashing personalities. Sunako isn't going to turn into the ideal woman anytime soon, and that's fine, because it just means more awkward hilarity between her and the "perfect" boys at the boarding house. Because of its situational nature, the story doesn't move forward much, and the art could use more detail and effort. But as far as teenage comedies go, The Wallflower definitely has enough humor and heart to entertain.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Art : C
+ Well-defined premise and characters provide plenty of humor.
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