Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kai's done it now – he kissed Riku at their teacher's wedding, and that means he's either ruined his chances forever or managed to finally get across how he feels. But even when he thinks things might be working out, he's reminded that the reason he fell in love with Riku in the first place is that he doesn't quite understand where she's coming from or how she thinks. Mutual feelings don't always mean smooth sailing, as Kai is about to find out.
It could reasonably be said that part two of Shizuki Fujisawa's shoujo romance Hatsu*Haru begins with these volumes. For the first five books of the series, we watched point-of-view character Kai try desperately to first reconcile his feelings for Riku and then try to get her to understand that he has feelings for her in the first place, only to culminate in the kiss at the end of volume five. Book six picks up right after that and continues to show why this is consistently an enjoyable entry into the field: Riku is never going to react precisely how a run-of-the-mill shoujo romance heroine would.
That declaration does need to be backed up a bit by noting that many of the shoujo romances that get an English translation feature heroines who are somewhat more outspoken or stronger than the genre norms, or if they aren't, suffer from a relatable issue like anxiety. (An exception worth noting is Kaho Miyasaka's 10-manbun no 1, published in French as Le fil du destin, where the heroine has ALS.) However many titles instead follow heroines who are much more invested in simply landing the boy, and many times are more passive than western readers tend to like, and Riku can be read as something of a statement on them in particular. It's not that she's not interested in boys, but she's had that long-running crush on her neighbor/teacher, and Kai's behavior in their earlier childhood hasn't done much to endear him to her. Because she's been so fixated on her previous crush and has so many assumptions about Kai, she's far from even thinking of him as a potential boyfriend. She's not flattered that one of the hottest boys in school likes her (or rather, has been paying attention to her); she's annoyed that he still seems to be a jerk. As her opinions of him have changed over the course of the previous books, she's begun to realize that he's not just a one-note person, and part of his attraction to her is based on that same realization. But she's still not leaping into his waiting arms, and that really throws him.
This, then, is where we are when volume six starts – Kai has given in and kissed Riku, and he's swiftly beaten up for his audacity. That Kai realizes that he's done something wrong is both indicative of his growth as a character (he now sees girls as people, not convenient romance partners) and of the changing times; part of what he understands is wrong is that he kissed her without her consent. All of this means that Kai's in totally unexplored territory now: the girl he likes and kissed beat the crap out of him, he knows he screwed up, and he still desperately wants to figure out how to win her heart. This makes for some good self-reflection on his part, while also continuing the humanization process of Kai as a character. In another series, he'd just be the pushy romantic lead, but here we get to see what he's thinking and how he's working things through, making the romance feel sweeter than in stories where we only get the female lead's perspective. This could easily have been another Defying Kurosaki-kun-style story, but Kai being the primary protagonist continues to make it something different.
Volume six does a lot to move Kai and Riku closer, which then opens up the can of worms that Riku has never expected to date someone and really doesn't have the same basic understanding of the social norms of it. (A great moment in volume six is when Kai assumes they're dating, but Riku denies it because he never actually asked her out.) This is almost worse for Kai than when he was trying to win her over in the first place, because he's gone from being a fish out of water to a whale in a puddle, too big for the tiny space he's found himself in and utterly unable to do anything about it. All of his previous “expertise” about girls doesn't apply to Riku, sending his emotions into a tailspin as he tries desperately to figure things out without losing her. What's particularly interesting is the way this also opens up discussions of what things guys should and shouldn't do – is it okay for him to cry at a romance movie if she doesn't? What about making her lunch since her mom doesn't have time and she doesn't have the skill? Kai gets just as caught up in what he's “supposed” to be as a boyfriend as he does in remembering that Riku is her own person, and the idea that he can just be himself seems like a foreign one to him.
This contrasts interestingly with the side plots about his friends and their romances with Riku's friends. Kiyo and Miki seem to be the steady couple, but both have their own insecurities that are similarly tied to gendered expectations as what Kai's coping with, while Taka and Ayumi seem to be building towards mutual understanding with numerous roadblocks, not the least of which is Taka's relationship with his first love. Both of these couples have details in common with the main pair without the issues being completely the same, and the fact that Miki and Kiyo aren't perfect serves to show us (and at some point Kai when he's ready to see it) that even someone who seems steady is going to have to face insecurities and other problems. That this isn't done in such a way as to feel heavy-handed is impressive, and it really does help with the overall tone of the volumes.
As Hatsu*Haru enters its second part, it continues to be funny, heartwarming, and serious. Kai is really growing as a character, and watching him figure out his relationship with Riku (with his friends' support) is a delight. Fujisawa's art isn't the best, with perspective (particularly when characters are sitting) being an issue, but it's good enough to get the point across and she's particularly good at adorable splash pages. If you've been enjoying Shortcake Cake or The Walls Between Us, this is a series you should also be reading, and thus far it looks set to continue to be so.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Strong and continued character growth, parallel storylines don't feel forced
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