Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Kimi ni Todoke
Her straight black hair, her sinister smirk, and her standoffish demeanor—it's no wonder that all of Sawako Kuronuma's classmates have nicknamed her “Sadako.” Unfortunately, the truth of matters is that Kuronuma is so desperate to fit in that she wishes that she could actually see and summon ghosts, as is rumored. But she is so shy she cannot even disabuse them of these misconceptions about her, and whenever she tries, she just makes things worse for herself. But all that changes when she is befriended by Shota Kazehaya, the most popular and kindly boy in her class. He sees her in a way that nobody else does, and his friendship is certain change the minds of others. Maybe Kuronuma can be one of the popular girls after all? Or will the jealousy of others'—remember, Kazehaya has lots of fans—get in the way?
Since the blockbuster horror movie The Ring, evil girls with long, jet black hair have devolved from objects of terror to objects of satire. Interestingly, Karuho Shiina's Kimi ni Todoke is not the first manga to be released in the United States whose protagonist is a blatant reference to Sadako. The Wallflower by Tomoko Hayakawa is only one example of the way a feminine object of horror can become familiar, even lovable. But where The Wallflower plays for your laughter, Kimi ni Todoke plays straight to your heart.
On the face of things, there is nothing particularly special about either the theme or the plot of this shoujo manga: It's about a misfit girl, and nobody realizes that, in reality, she is smart, conscientious, and caring…except for the golden boy of the school, whom all of the other girls adore. The plot of the first volume plays out in pretty much the expected way. Kazehaya befriends Kuronuma because he has a thing for her, but Kuronuma, being a shy social misfit, does not realize that he is being nice to her in a different way than he treats everyone else. And so, in a classic case of dramatic irony, you the reader know that they both love each other, but neither boy nor girl know the other reciprocates. Meanwhile, those jealous of this obvious relationship are plotting to tear these destined lovers apart, and the the first volume concludes with a cliffhanger related to a gambit of this sort.
Yawn, right? They are destined for each other, so why bother worrying (or reading the next volume), right? Wrong. What matters in Kimi ni Todoke is the exquisite execution of this simple story. It is a story that makes you feel good about the world. Unlike The Wallflower, where the plot's raison d'etre is make a young woman with socially unacceptable qualities into some sort of Vogue magazine-ready high society girl, Kimi ni Todoke is about winning acceptance of other people on the basis of the best part of what you already are. Kuronuma, we learn, is one of the top three students in her grade, and she is deeply altruistic, picking up litter on her way to school to dispose of properly and worrying about the fate of an abandoned puppy. The only reason why she is not beloved already is because she is scary-looking and terminally shy.
And so, over the course of this series, you see her come out of her shell. She starts reaching out to her classmates, and they in turn start to rethink their revulsion. None of her newfound friends are in themselves perfect—girlfriends Yano, a kogal type, and Yoshida, a yanki, are great supporting characters as well. Shiina admits that she loves all of the characters in these manga like her grandchildren, and it's obvious that she means what she writes because in her tender depictions of them, she makes you love them too. Moreover, there is a beautiful optimism about the nature of Human Relations on display here, and the overarching story seems grounding in the belief that people have the inherent ability to reach out beyond their anxieties and into better circumstances for themselves—with but sufficient and sustained motivation. I leave it to each reader to decide whether or not this claim is true, but even if you do not quite believe, you will find yourself wishing that the world actually worked that way. The mangaka is just that good at winning her readers over.
Moreover, her artwork meshes perfectly with her style of storytelling. Though again nothing remarkable on its own terms, the alteration between delicate lines and sensitive expression with quirky, comically exaggerated chibis keeps Kimi ni Todoke from becoming too maudlin even in the most saccharine of moments. The range of expression devoted to Kuronuma is wide, and despite the fact that her classmates' abject terror of her strains believability (do high schoolers still believe in ghosts???), she herself is an eminently believable, “real” character. She comes alive vividly, and you will feel like she could be somebody you know yourself.
Kimi ni Todoke is hands down one of the best new English-translated manga series of 2009. Read this one even if you are not ordinarily a shoujo manga fan. It is simply not to be missed.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B
+ Humanistic, optimistic, and beautiful--a perfect coming of age/first love story.
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