Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kai has been saving up his money to take Riko on an overnight trip with hopes of bumping their relationship up to the next level, and it looks like he might manage it, too – until Riko makes a confession about something going on in her life that derails everything. Kai's been planning on a forever-relationship with Riko from the start, but what if this news brings everything to a screeching halt?
Over the course of its thirteen volumes, Hatsu*Haru has been many things, but perhaps its most remarkable achievement has been in the successful reversal of typical gender norms of shoujo romance. Back when Yen Press released the first volume, many readers were struck by the fact that the narrator, and primary point-of-view character, was Kai, not Riko. While this switch does mirror worldwide romance novel trends (even in the stereotypical bodice-ripper romance it's much more common now to have the hero's first-person voice, either in alternating chapters with the heroine's or as the primary narrator of the novel), it isn't one that's necessarily gotten a lot of exposure in English-translated manga. But the most interesting (and possibly important, depending on your feelings on the subject) feature of this narration style is that it made Kai, not Riko, the more emotionally vulnerable character.
Even when the story wasn't focusing strictly on Kai and Riko's romance (such as in volumes eleven and twelve, when they get almost no page time), we're still allowed to see Kai as the more emotional half of the couple. While this did at times manifest in outbursts more (stereo)typically seen in heroines – crying, overthinking, moping – it also showed up in more interesting ways, such as Kai being more invested in his friends' relationships than Riko ever was, or Kai playing matchmaker/busybody roles of the sort that usually manifest in a character's female friends. That's not only kept Hatsu*Haru from feeling like every other shoujo school-set romance out there, but it's also done a wonderful job of reminding us that gender really doesn't mean anything when it comes to personalities and behaviors. Yes, there are some that are more learned (and Kai does sometimes lament that Riko doesn't behave in ways he's been taught that girls do), but in the end it all comes down to a basic humanity. No one ever suggests that Kai is insufficiently masculine because he's trying to get his friends together with their crushes, and Riko isn't ever really taken to task for not being more “girly.” They are who they are, and it's because of who they are that we as readers have grown so attached to them and invested in seeing things work out.
So after twelve volumes of playing things this way, it would be volume thirteen that decides to throw in the rustiest wrench in all shoujo: the sudden need for one half of the couple to move away. It's a groan-worthy moment in the story, largely because creator Shizuki Fujisawa has done such a good job of avoiding the hoariest tropes associated with the genre, or at least with making them feel fresher than they are. The upside here is that this is really only used in order to force Kai to see that Riko really is just as invested as he is in their relationship while also reminding us of Riko's family situation and how old she and Kai actually are.
The majority of this volume is devoted to the fact that Riko's mother is being transferred to Nagoya and that Riko (and her mother) have to decide whether or not she's going to go with. While this may not feel like anything exciting or revolutionary, what it does is force both the reader and the characters to rethink the way we've been seeing the characters. Riko, despite spending most of her time at home alone, is still a child, and just because she rarely saw her mother around the house didn't mean that she wasn't comforted by the fact that her mother was nearby. Her mom, meanwhile, is aware of the fact that Riko has a boyfriend and a friend group that she'll have to leave, and she's not fully confident that she ought to be uprooting her, especially since all of this would seem to indicate that Riko perhaps needs her peers more than her mother at this stage of her life. Kai, coming from a close family, isn't sure what to think – a piece of him feels that he could take better care of Riko than her mom at this point, and he has to come to understand that not only is the decision Riko's, but that as a high school second-year, he may not really be in the best position to offer her what she needs.
Unlike the previous two or three books in the series, the action in this one is almost entirely emotional. It's a true moment of reckoning and growth for Kai and Riko, even if the answer may turn out to be that they aren't grown up quite yet. This is made all the more difficult for them by the fact that books eleven and twelve were spent arranging happy endings for their last four unattached friends, with the Ayumi/Taka storyline feeling especially relevant here. They all have to come to understand that they're different people with varying relationship and personal needs, and it's interesting to note that the epilogue section of the final chapter takes pains to show us that high school love may turn out to be True Love for some people, but for others, it's just a stop along the way.
Hatsu*Haru's final volume ends well. That's not the same, I realize, as saying that it ends universally happy for all characters, but I think that's part of what makes it work. As Kai learns over the course of the book, there is no one solid path to true love and happiness, and there is no one right way to be – everyone just does their best as themselves. And sometimes, just sometimes, learning how to do that does in fact lead to happily ever after.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Digs into the emotional journeys of the characters, uses the relationship from the previous two books as foils to Kai and Riko.
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