Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kaiju Girl Caramelise
Anxiety and poor self-image are all a part of being a teenager, but what if your problems went a little…deeper than that? Poor Kuroe Akaishi's definitely do. Ever since she was little, strong emotions have caused her body to sprout weird kaiju-like appendages, and it's hardly made life with her peers easy. Now in high school, Kuroe has taken to wearing baggy clothes to hide any monstrous bits that might appear and made herself into an isolated loner. But when class heartthrob Arata starts to indicate that he might see the girl she really is, will Kuroe's carefully constructed walls fall – or be torn down by a rampaging beast?
No matter who you are, you've probably felt like a monster in your own skin sometimes. Whether that comes from plain old adolescent angst or something much more serious, everyone has those days when you just can't bear to look in the mirror or to be seen by anyone. For Kuroe Akaishi, protagonist of Spica Aoki's Kaiju Girl Caramelise, things are a step more difficult: ever since she was a little girl, strong emotions (either negative or positive) have caused parts of her body to actually transform into something monstrous. That can be a clawed hand, spikes sprouting from her spine, or the growth of a big lizard-like tail; whatever the appendage, suffice it to say that it just makes her life harder.
And it's about to get worse: after being picked on by her class' mean girls (OMG, how dare she want to sit in her own chair when they're taking pictures of the class hottie?!), she catches the eye of the school's heartthrob, Arata Minami. Minami, it turns out, is not quite who the girls assume him to be, and he really isn't into all of the attention they lavish upon him. He finds Kuroe's unwillingness to engage with them interesting, and he seeks her out in her private lunch spot on the back stairs. Before Kuroe quite knows what's happening, Minami is showing up there frequently and asking her out for premium pancakes instead of being put off by her professional-level off-putting skills. When he deliberately takes her hand out in public after hearing the Mean Girls call her ugly, Kuroe's emotions go into overdrive – and she transforms into a full-blown kaiju, quickly nicknamed “Harugon” by the townsfolk.
While this is obviously a set up being played for some laughs – just look at Harugon's heart-shaped bulges on her wings and the entire character of Manatsu, a girl who lusts after Harugon's attention and “his” skin like the landscape of hell – there's a surprising amount of depth to the metaphor Aoki is working with. This perhaps shouldn't be a shock, given that her previously licensed work, Beasts of Abigaile, brought over by Seven Seas, also dealt with a girl who could not necessarily control her inhuman attributes, although in that case, the beast in question was a werewolf. Kuroe's particular issue, however, sticks a little closer to home in terms of disliking, or outright hating, your own body. Both she and Minami suffer from this issue, as we find out halfway through the book, with his body problems being the more shoujo-typical story of having been overweight and bullied for it in middle school. That not only makes sense of several clues dropped during his earlier interactions with her, and his compassion for the treatment she gets at the hands of the other students, but also positions him as someone who has at least a starting point for understanding what Kuroe is going through. While it would be far too simplistic and disingenuous to suggest that his issue could give him immediate understanding of hers, which is much more akin to a form of dysmorphia, it does make for a good way to open up a discussion when eventually Kuroe feels she is able to.
That's where this manga could easily overcome its basic romantic comedy roots. The language used in the translation seems to support that as well, with Kuroe's scaly moments being referred to in the same terms we'd use to discuss acne – she “has a break out” and the more she worries about her eruptions, the longer it takes for them to go away. The full-on kaiju transformation can be read as her losing all control of herself or her sense of self-worth when she's too invested in her emotions, like a more extreme form of anxiety. But more importantly than that, we could also read it as Kuroe just wanted to be able to like who she likes without having to worry if that's okay – while still believing, deep down, that she's never going to be the “right kind of person” for them. It isn't a perfect metaphor, but it's also difficult to believe (particularly if we also consider Beasts of Abigaile) that Aoki created this entirely devoid of subtext.
Aoki herself describes her art as “sparkly,” and that does feel like an apt descriptor. There are plenty of hearts and flowers here (primarily the former), and there's also a pleasant softness to Kuroe's human face. Pages make good use of varied panel formats, keeping things interesting while not sacrificing readability, and the inclusion of an extra couple of color pages at the start of chapter two is a very nice bonus. There's also a four-page bonus manga after chapter four, giving us the aftermath of its events, which is also a good treat.
Kaiju Girl Caramelise is an enjoyable blend of adolescent metaphor and entertaining rom-com. Neither aspect detracts from the other, and none of the characters seem too drastically stupid to figure things out in a reasonable amount of time either, so this is looking like a good bet to follow. But perhaps most importantly, it reinforces that universal truth people like Mr. Rogers told us about in our youth – that at the end of the day, we just want someone to love us, just the way we are.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ Good story that works on both metaphoric and literal levels, fun art
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