Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 13th 2009
Risa Koizumi and Atsushi Ôtani's relationship as a quirky, height-challenged couple may be in danger. One of Risa's co-workers at the restaurant where she works part-time is a cute, young high school boy named Kohori. With Ôtani busy studying for college entrance exams, Risa's friends start joking that she might become attracted to the shrimpy guy at work, but their joke becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when Kohori starts putting the moves on Risa! Ôtani isn't too happy about his girlfriend being around some other guy, and every stroke of fate seems to be bringing Risa and Kohori closer together. Has the time come for the mismatched comedy duo to break up at last?
If familiarity breeds contempt, then it's easy to see why a couple like Risa Koizumi and Atsushi Ôtani might end up bickering to the point of separation. But another contemptible familiarity is also at work in Lovely Complex's tenth volume: this set of chapters almost perfectly echoes the Mimi arc from Vol. 8, except with the genders switched. Once again, the sanctity of our favorite unlikely couple is threatened by a third party, only to be saved by the enduring power of puppy love. Gee, haven't we seen this one before? Yet against all odds, this series still manages to pull out moments of bouncy comedy and deliciously heartwarming romance—even when everything starts to look despairingly familiar.
The repetitiveness doesn't take long to develop in this volume. The first couple of chapters are chock-full of the lead couple sniping at each other as usual, and while there's always some fun to be had by watching them come up with creative insults, it's also getting really old. (Having secondary characters like Nobuko stand off to the side and comment on the proceedings doesn't help much, either.) One would think that Kohori's presence would make things interesting, but sadly, he lacks the cutthroat attitude that made Mimi so entertaining back when she tried to split up the lead couple. Worse yet, Kohori isn't even trying that hard, and so the plot basically ends up moving forward as a result of some highly improbable coincidences. Ôtani "accidentally" catches Kohori trying to kiss Risa, and then he "accidentally" catches Risa borrowing Kohori's umbrella, and "accidentally" meets them while they're coming home from a concert—well, when one's luck is as bad as Ôtani's, is it any wonder that he'd want to split up with his girl?
But that's exactly what he does, and it's what gets the story's dramatic juices flowing again. Sometimes, a relationship has to be pulled to the lowest depths in order to get it back on an upward swing. Risa and Ôtani's period of separation is pretty depressing stuff, as they end up trading even more insults minus the comedy, and it wouldn't be a surprise if this stretch of story makes some readers think about dropping the series. Yet redemption is right around the corner, and all it takes is a handful of sweet little gestures and perfectly timed scenes to make one realize why this romantic story stands so far above its contemporaries. Yes, Risa and Ôtani still do dumb and mean things to each other. Yes, third-wheel characters keep showing up and threatening to tear them apart. And yet, every time they get back together, there's a sense of emotional uplift that just can't be matched anywhere else.
Despite Kohori's ineffectiveness as a character, at least Aya Nakahara went through the trouble of making him visually interesting—the dyed hair, piercings and painted nails do suggest a certain type of personality, even though it never seems to shine through fully. The regulars also get to show off their fine fashion sense with ever-changing wardrobes, although the comical facial expressions—usually a trademark of the series—are sadly lacking this time around. Of course, with most of this volume spent in rocky-relationship territory, it's no surprise that serious faces dominate. But when it's time to step up the artwork, Nakahara always delivers: key emotional moments get plenty of space and allow the images to speak for themselves, and the crisp lineart and toning help to keep things easy on the eyes during busy scenes. Even backgrounds, which would normally be an artist's greatest weakness, manage to strike a pleasing balance between filling in the details and allowing some blank space for breathing room.
Snappy comedic dialogue has always been this series' most distinctive feature (even if the Osaka dialect is lost in translation), and this volume is no exception—but as mentioned before, it's a technique that's also starting to get old. There are only so many ways to poke fun at someone's stupidity or take offense at a backhanded compliment, and our dynamic duo seems to have finally run through the list. The characters also spend lots of time being angry or upset at each other in this installment, which further puts a damper on the entertainment value. Still, this translation manages to make the script flow with colloquialisms and down-to-earth speech, and a short glossary helps to explain the occasional cultural reference. Sound effects, of which there are few, are replaced entirely by English equivalents but have minimal impact on the artwork.
Looking back on the previous nine volumes, some might see this as the point where the series finally falls below its own high standards. Imitating a previous story arc but with a less interesting character, diving into gloomy relationship drama, and recycling the same old comedy shtick—when did this turn into a cookie-cutter school romance? After falling into a rut like this, though, there's nothing left to do but get back up—and the last few pages of the last chapter not only pull the story back up, but make it soar. Is it worth sitting through a hundred-fifty pages of the lousy stuff, though? Well, Lovely Complex on a lousy day is still better than a cookie-cutter romance when it's trying its hardest. Sure-handed artwork, a charismatic lead couple, and the enduring power of puppy love are things that even a dip in the storyline can't ruin.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ Traverses through some serious relationship issues in order to rise up and end on a beautiful, heartwarming note.
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