Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Love at Fourteen
Kanata and Kazuki have been friends for years. Now in their second year of middle school, the two find themselves in the same class for the first time since elementary school. They're overjoyed, but also very aware of how their classmates now view them. As their relationship turns from friendship to love, the two struggle with becoming who they are versus how the world sees them.
At what point do we stop just being ourselves and start to worry about how others see us? For many people, adolescence and middle school mark the time when we start to wonder how other people will see our taste in clothing, choice of hobbies, or continued fondness for a ratty old stuffed animal. While those things may eventually come into the public light again, there are years where the opinions of classmates matter more than our own happiness, at least for a large majority of people. Fūka Mizutani's Love at Fourteen is a quiet exploration of the beginning of that time. It will not ring true for everyone's experience of being fourteen – most notably those who weren't all that interested in dating at that age – but it is still an honest, thoughtful book that eschews many of the typical school manga tropes and makes for an interesting read.
The story follows Kanata and Kazuki. Although the two have been friends for years, they also haven't been in the same class at school for at least a year, although they've clearly kept in contact. During the time they were apart, both developed a reputation for “maturity,” which in the case of eighth graders means “appealing to the opposite sex” and “relatively quiet.” For Kazuki it also implies that his voice has changed – in fact one of the first changes Kanata notices is that he has a pronounced adam's apple. Both have also had their growth spurts already as well, and an image of them in their middle school uniforms before the start of seventh grade contrasts quite a bit with how they look now. But when the book starts, neither sees themselves as particularly mature; in fact, they can't wait to get out of school so that they can goof around and just be themselves in a way that feels impossible under the watchful eyes of their classmates. Both Kanata and Kazuki think that they wear their perceived maturity like masks...until one day, they realize that the act has become reality, and that maybe who they thought they were underneath is the real mask.
Whether or not this is really true doesn't come clear in this first volume. Neither protagonist has yet realized that they can be, and probably are, a combination of their mature and immature selves. Instead they allow their classmates' view of them and their own increasing awareness of each other as a boy and a girl to color their self-perception. After all, if they are old enough, or “mature” enough, to be attracted to each other, then they can't possibly still be childish enough to want to run around and play. While this is never explicitly stated in the story, it is an underlying issue of the age, and given the abrupt shift in their relationship from buddies to boyfriend and girlfriend, one that an older reader has a hard time ignoring. Kazuki and Kanata are torn and they don't even appear to realize it.
Not that Love at Fourteen is particularly a nostalgia piece. While it is very similar to Kyungok Kang's manhwa Narration of Love at Seventeen (released by Netcomics and which you really should read if you enjoy this book), that series has a much more relateable and nostalgic feel as it spends more time in its heroine's head. Mizutani's story deals more in the expressions on their faces and a sort of general narration that could (and sometimes specifically does) incorporate both characters' voices. More simply put, in Kang's series we are part of the story, while in Mizutani's we are observing it. It is still very effective, and quite honestly less likely to cause traumatic flashbacks of embarrassing middle school moments, but it also gives us a feeling of distance from the story.
Mizutani's art is simply, without a lot of bells and whistles like fancy screentones or innovative panels. That really works for the story, where what we're really concerned with is the characters' body language. Yen Press' edition has included some middle of the volume color pages in addition to those at the beginning, which is a very nice bonus, and Mizutani really does capture the basic posture of the middle school student, from the “I'm a good kid” perfect posture to the defeated slump and uncomfortable sitting of a kid who really wants to be anywhere but where he is. The translation is also very nice, smooth and natural sounding, making the book read easily and quickly.
Love at Fourteen's first volume is quiet and somewhere between difficult and sweet, depending on how much you find yourself relating to the characters. Middle school is a fairly vicious time of life, and Mizutani so far seems more interested in showing the personal development of the characters than what social expectations can do to them, although it feels possible that she will head in that direction as the story goes on. Kazuki and Kanata are trying to sort through their feelings and learn who they really are, and that's not a fast or an easy process, much like adolescence itself. Mizutani respects that, and the result is a book that, though it is easy to read, will stick with you after the last page is turned.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Emotionally truthful, quiet look at a turbulent time of life. Excellent presentation.
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