Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
It's always been important to high schooler Nanaki to be pretty and desirable, the number one princess. She's carefully crafted her image to that end and it's paid off in a hot boyfriend and the leadership of her clique at school. As mean girl in chief, she doesn't care about girls like Kanade, a geek who cares more about her favorite manga than her appearance, but all of that changes when Nanaki finds out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her and Kanade offers her (unintentional) comfort. Suddenly Nanaki is realizing that her way of life isn't the only one, and that maybe there's something to be said for having a real friend – even if it's one you never expected.
How do you remember high school? While everyone's experiences vary, for a group of us, the answer is far from “the best years of your life,” as so much nostalgia-based fiction tries to frame it. High school can be a time of cliques with very firm boundaries, casual cruelty, and a deliberate unwillingness to move beyond a perceived safe zone in order to preserve some semblance of comfort. Simply put, it's a fraught three or four years.
That's something that Ajiichi, creator of Failed Princesses, knows very well. The main characters of the series, Nanaki and Kanade, come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, and as a result have barely interacted with each other prior to the story's opening. Neither of them thinks that's all that odd – Nanaki's pretty and vivacious and that just naturally places her higher up the food chain than everyone of Kanade's stature, the kids who care more about what they're reading than how they look. But of course there's more to it than that – Nanaki has deliberately striven to reach the social heights she currently occupies, pushed by her desire to be, well, desired and loved. Kanade, meanwhile, learned early on that she didn't have the socially accepted looks to be the lead and has just accepted her lower-class status ever since. She's not jealous of Nanaki because she doesn't believe that what the other girl has was ever in her reach. She's not exactly happy about being teased or ignored by her more popular classmates, but she accepts it as what's due.
It's into this stiflingly familiar atmosphere that the plot bomb drops: pretty, perfect Nanaki's boyfriend has not only been cheating on her, but she's not even his “main girl;” technically she's the “other woman.” It's both humiliating and hurtful, and her shame is unwillingly witnessed by Kanade, who had been reading in the out-of-the-way spot where Nanaki and her now-ex had their confrontation. Although Kanade doesn't really feel sorry for the girl who has loudly criticized her, she still offers her a handkerchief. Nanaki is shocked – not only is Kanade being nice to her (she's aware she's never been particularly kind herself), but the handkerchief Kanade lends her is a fashionable one.
This is the catalyst for Nanaki's dogged pursuit of Kanade's friendship. (Despite the yuri label, that's what this volume is about: the girls coming together as friends.) Kanade's actions are so different from what Nanaki ever expected that she becomes curious about the other girl, to the point where she begins preferring Kanade over her popular companions. In part this is just simple curiosity, but it could also be framed as Nanaki realizing that Kanade is being nicer to her than any of her so-called popular friends ever were, and she's doing it even though Nanaki's never been nice to her. (Kanade doesn't see it that way, but this phase of the relationship is much more of Nanaki's making.) One of the most striking examples of this is when Nanaki gets mad at a member of her clique for assuming that Kanade is now the group's errand girl; not only is it her repudiating her previous social rank, but she's also showing that she's always known that her treatment of others wasn't nice or fair and she's finally ready to do something about it.
That's not to say that she's fully comfortable with the changes. While she enjoys helping Kanade to look prettier, she's definitely still conflicted about whether or not she's still the fairest of them all, and she's at least a little baffled by some of Kanade's reactions to her efforts. But she's truly trying to be a better person and a good friend, and that goes a long way. For her part, Kanade is having to face up to the various cruelties girls like Nanaki have been subjecting her to since early elementary school – a classmate once told her that she couldn't be the princess because she's not pretty like her mother – which have left her with a deflated sense of her own self-worth. That her own mother doesn't seem to understand her daughter certainly doesn't help; the one scene we see of Kanade interacting with her family is her mother wishing her daughter would take more interest in clothes and being pretty and fashionable. To Kanade this sounds like her mother doesn't understand her or care that those just aren't things she comfortable with or interested in, a rejection of who Kanade is. While this may not be the case in reality, it is Kanade's perception of it, which makes it real enough that she's not comfortable with the idea of Nanaki making her over.
Things are only just starting to develop between the two girls in this volume, and there's definitely room for them to not only grow closer, but also to move into a romantic relationship. Certainly Nanaki's use of the phrase “repay you with my body” (meaning her make up and shopping skills) is loaded, with Kanade giving it a sexual connotation in her mind, but right now that's less important than the validation the girls bring to each other: that they are worthwhile people no matter what anyone else says. That's a story worth following, no matter what your memories of high school are.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Believable depiction of characters and setting, slow but steady progress in their development.
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