House of 1000 Manga
Kimagure Orange Road

by Jason Thompson,

Kimagure Orange Road

Summertime in Tokyo, 1984. Green trees and blue sky. A teenage boy is walking up a long steep street along a hillside when a breeze comes and a straw hat, carried by the wind, sails through the air. ("A UFO?" he thinks for a second, seeing the saucer shape.) The boy jumps and grabs the hat, and then the hat's owner comes looking for it—a beautiful girl. She thanks him for catching his hat, she smiles, and then she's gone, and it's a total meet cute. For boy's manga, it's the meet cute. It's Kimagure Orange Road.

If you were an anime/manga fan in the '80s and early '90s, you already know all this. It was super-popular then, and I watched it every Tuesday night at the anime club with all the other 18-to-23-year-old Americans imagining being a Japanese 14-year-old. My dorm-mate in college watched all 48 episodes on fansubbed VHS in one all-nighter and later dropped out of school (these two things may or may not be related). Later on came Video Girl Ai, which was more sexual and angsty, and before KOR there was already Maison Ikkoku, which was slightly more sophisticated since the hero was a college student (it was technically a seinen manga). But Kimagure Orange Road was THE archetypal shonen rom-com, maybe not the "first" if there were others that were not quite as popular (hooray weasel words!), but sweet and wistful and funny and majorly influential on the whole genre. It's available in English on emanga now, a license announcement that would have been the biggest thing ever if it happened 20 years ago.

The guy who catches the hat is Kyôsuke Kasuga. His family just moved to a new town, and he's just transferred to a new school for the Nth time. The reason his family has to keep moving is because they're psychics (DONNNNNN!!!), not the mind-reading type, and whenever one of them bends a spoon or levitates a cat or something, they have to get out of town to protect their privacy. ("The fact is in my family, even though it's embarrassing, we're all ESPers," he confesses to the reader.) Mom's gone (RIP), dad is a stern but sensitive breadearner, and he has two tween sisters about a grade behind him, Manami and Kurumi. Manami's the one with glasses, Kurumi's the glutton, and they both think their big brother's the biggest dork, even though they're the ones who are always irresponsibly using their powers and sending drawers full of bras and panties psychokinetically flying around.

Kyôsuke goes to his new class, meets his new classmates…hey! It's that girl with the hat! Her name is Madoka Ayukawa. But he's surprised to discover that, in school, Madoka's attitude is completely different: no longer the nice girl who talked to him on the stairs, she's standoffish and cool, a tough girl who smokes in the girls' room with the other tough girls and skips class. Later we discover she also rides a motorcycle, plays the guitar, and occasionally uses guitar picks as weapons to beat up creeps. Their second meeting does not go well: Kyôsuke puts out her cigarette with his secret ESP powers and scolds her that smoking is bad for her health. She slaps him in the face and calls him "kid", leaving him speechless.

Luckily, Kyôsuke apologizes, and soon they're on speaking terms again. In the meantime, he goes sadly and obliviously off to the gym, wondering what went wrong, and tests his psychic powers by using them to shoot hoops at the basketball court. Little know to him, he's secretly being watched by Hikaru, a tomboyish girl who hangs out with Madoka. Hikaru sees his mad (and, unbeknownst to her, psychic) basketball skills and decides: Kyôsuke is cool! She gets a crush on him, and even asks him out on a date. Kyôsuke likes Madoka, but he's flattered, so he accepts: after all, it's just a platonic, friendly kind of date, right? But soon the pushy, perky Hikaru has claimed him as her boyfriend, and Kyôsuke is pulled in two directions, between the seemingly unattainable Madoka and Hikaru, who's right there. Madoka is inscrutable, changeable, capricious—kimagure is the Japanese word for it. She's too cool for Kyôsuke, and to make matters worse, she's Hikaru's best friend, so even if she did like Kyôsuke—not saying she does—she could never do anything to hurt the girl who's like a little sister to her. Kyôsuke is caught in the middle…will he settle for Hikaru, will he fight for his true love, or, by being indecisive, will he lose them both?

If you look at the early art, with its simple, cartoony lines, it's hard to imagine how this manga became such a hit. But KOR is all about being elegantly simple: it's one of the few shonen romances that sticks with its three core characters for the whole story and never degenerates into a harem manga with dozens of women crowding around the protagonist. (And the art improves a lot over the 18 volumes. One of Matsumoto's assistants was Kazushi Hagiwara, and a longstanding rumor says that it was Hagiwara who made KOR's female characters more beautiful, but KOR's Japanese wikipedia page specifically refutes this; maybe it was Hagiwara who was influenced by Matsumoto-sensei.) KOR is about first love and indecision, about the blurred lines between love and friendship, and it's all very close to reality, or better still a sweet, idealized, gentle reality. It was realistic enough to appeal to real Japanese teenagers from 1984-1987, but it also has a sense of nostalgia for youth, being after all the product of a 25-year-old mangaka for whom high school days were already long past. "Natsu no Mirage" (Summer Mirage), perhaps the most famous song from the anime series, is a melancholy song, a yearning song.

This delicacy and restraint is one of the things that makes it unique; shonen romantic comedies had existed before Kimagure Orange Road, but KOR was no Boku no Brassiere Island. "It was a kind of manga no one had seen before," said Michitosi Isono of Japan's Gallery of Fantastic Art, which runs anime and manga exhibits. "It was calm, quiet, contemplative…it wasn't action-packed. It wasn't zany." (Never mind the telekinesis element, which gets used less and less as the series goes on.) Matsumoto said he was a shojo manga reader, and a faint shojo influence is detectable in KOR's focus on internal states. Maybe the mid-'80s, the prosperous peak of Japan's bubble economy, was also a more innocent time. Komatsu, Kyôsuke's pervy best friend who is always trying to hit on Kyôsuke's sisters, represents the dirty side of readers' minds, but in this manga the characters' idea of being naughty is going to the "disco" for "cheek time." ("This school bans coffee shops, let alone discos! If they found us out, we would be expelled!") Matsumoto draws Madoka in the shower, but he never gets into major fanservice, speculum-cam-style, like Video Girl Ai a few years later. On the other hand, lots of the teenage characters casually smoke and drink alcohol. One fan online speculated that this was a reason why Viz (who, through Shonen Jump publisher Shueisha, had right of first refusal to publish Kimurage Orange Road) never published the series in English.

More realistically, Viz never published the series because it was just too long and too old-fashioned, even back in the 2002-2007 USA manga boom. Some other old manga that were translated at that time, like Saint Seiya, were translated because they had a current anime tie-in, and others were translated because the mangaka was a big shot in Japan and their titles were basically published in America as a favor to them. Sadly, KOR had neither thing going for it, despite some attempts to relaunch the series in the '90s with an inappropriately serious anime movie (it's the future, and Kyôsuke is a war journalist in Bosnia!), light novels, and so on. Izumi Matsumoto, the artist, never created another long series: he spent the '90s on a number of unsuccessful short projects, including a CD-ROM manga, ComicOn!. But his output slowed dramatically as he began suffering from blackouts, headaches, neck pain and insomnia, culminating with his diagnosis with cerebrospinal fluid leakage. For the past 15 years he has learned to live with his condition, slowly working on a variety of manga including Tobyoki ("Recovery"), an essentially autobiographical manga about a female mangaka who suffers cerebrospinal leakage, and Bakumatsu Rashamen-musume Jyôshi ("The Far Eastern Romances"), an 1850s historical manga about Henry Heusken, the translator the first U.S. Consul General in Japan, and his Japanese mistress. A few years ago, Matsumoto gave an interview to The Japan Times where he talked about his manga career. Walking through the Umegaoka and Gotokuji neighborhoods in Setagaya, which inspired the breezy green streets of KOR, he revealed that Kyôsuke was based on himself. "His nature was always my own," he reminisced, looking back on drawing the manga 20 years ago, nostalgia upon nostalgia. If you're in California, you can see Matsumoto from August 22-24 at the Japan Expo in San Mateo County Expo Center, where he's a guest of honor.

Say it's the year 2014 and you have no interest in all this '80s stuff (even *I* feel I've overdone it this column): should you read Kimagure Orange Road? For historical value, yes: this is the root from which all modern shonen rom-coms grew. (Including the tsundere archetype, which Madoka basically embodies.) For entertainment value, yes: the art's not great at first, but it gets better, and this is a cute, gentle series with a lot of emotion. Love triangles are even harder when the characters are all basically good and are friends with each other and you don't want to see anybody get hurt. Kimagure Orange Road is about this exquisitely tempting, exquisitely painful feeling, and I'm glad it's available in English. I want to go track down my ex-dormmate on facebook and go to his house and bang on his door and shout "LOOK! LOOK! IT'S BEEN TRANSLATED!" And maybe he'll skip work and read all 18 volumes.

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