Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
My Clueless First Friend
Akane Nishimura has a terrible nickname in her fifth-grade class: the Grim Reaper. The name comes from her “scary” face, and she's resigned herself to being bullied with it and living a solitary school life. Then one day Taiyo Takara transfers into her class. Takara thinks that her nickname is the coolest thing ever and means that she's super powerful. He bulldozes his way into her life and insists that they become friends. He may be clueless about what the other kids are doing to her, but that doesn't matter when his friendship makes her so happy!
My Clueless First Friend is translated by Ajani Oloye and lettered by Vanessa Satone.
It's a story that's all too familiar: Akane Nishimura is the focus of bullying in her fifth-grade class. The other kids, led by mean girl Kasahara and her male equivalent Kitagawa, all call Nishimura “the Grim Reaper,” ostensibly because of her scary eyes, but probably because she's just an easy target – she doesn't fight back, dresses in black, and is generally isolated. But rather than being a lonely tale of a bullied child, Taku Kawamura's My Clueless First Friend offers a ray of sunshine to break through Nishimura's cloudy life. One day a boy named Taiyo Takara transfers into Nishimura's class, and everything changes.
To call this story “heartwarming” may be selling it short. It definitely is that, though, because Takara's positive influence on Nishimura's life is a joy to read about. True to his name (“Taiyo” means “sun”), Takara sees everything in a positive light. He thinks that “Grim Reaper” is an awesome nickname because it means that Nishimura is super powerful, and when the rest of the class harasses her by “casting” barrier spells whenever she comes near them, he takes that as a sign of her ability rather than them trying to keep her on the outside. (He also is awestruck by the fact that everyone in the class can cast spells.) If he wasn't eleven years old, you might call him chuuni, but instead, he comes off as just a regular happy kid, using his imagination for good rather than evil. And…maybe he's just a little bit clueless?
That question is one that the story uses very well. It would be easy to write Takara off as a moron, someone who simply doesn't get what's happening around him. And to a degree, that's probably true. But then he'll neatly put the bullies in their place, and you have to wonder if he's really as clueless as he seems. At one point, when class bully leader Kitagawa is trying to get Takara to abandon Nishimura and hang out with him and his cronies, Takara questions why he should do that. Kitagawa tells him that Nishimura's a grim reaper, and when Takara says that means she's powerful, Kitagawa sputters back that no, she's not special; she's normal. Takara's response is to ask why they call her “Grim Reaper” if she's just an ordinary girl, something Kitagawa can't answer. It's a brilliant setdown of the bully because it forces him to acknowledge that he has no real reason to be harassing Nishimura in the first place. It doesn't stop the problem, but it tells Nishimura that what's happening to her is wrong and that she doesn't have to put up with it. Takara offers her a ray of hope while letting Kitagawa know he can't keep this up forever. Did he mean it that way? We don't know, and Takara's continual questioning of the bullies gives us something to ponder as we read the book.
He's certainly not the most emotionally intelligent human around, but that's part of the story's charm. Some of it could just be that he's eleven, maybe even a young eleven. He loves holding Nishimura's hand (it gives him some of her magic power!) and isn't shy about expressing his affection for her, which throws her a bit. His older sister, Yukiko, a first-year in middle school, seems to think that he doesn't realize he has a crush on Nishimura, and that may be true, but it's also not really important in the scope of this volume. Yukiko is a little more perceptive than her brother, and she seems to understand that Nishimura is having a hard time at school, at least on some level. However, her giving Nishimura her hand-me-downs and teaching her to do her hair could just be her being nice to her brother's friend. But Nishimura hesitantly blossoms under the positive attention, from finally not lying to her dad when he asks if she has any friends at school to be a little better at asking for what she wants, which includes adopting a stray kitten she finds in the park.
Although this has a straightforward plot, the real meat of the story is in Nishimura slowly learning that Takara truly is her friend. There's something bitterly familiar in the way she's so leery of trusting him, and writing him off as clueless may be a defense mechanism on her part because if he later turns on her like everyone else in the class, she can write it off as him finally understanding that she's not worth it. She does seem to think that way, and it's hard to blame her. On top of being bullied at school, she's still struggling with the emotions engendered by her mother's death. Although her mom died shortly after her birth, she tells Takara that she sometimes still feels like she replaced her, as if the two of them couldn't exist together. It feels like a realistic belief for her, and when Takara hears it, he suddenly understands what the other kids could mean by her cruel nickname. Seeing him burst into tears and then not be sure how to act around her seems to indicate that he's not clueless after all, but more importantly, it shows the genuine connection between them. They trust each other, and he's afraid he's violated that trust.
The art for this series could be better. It's not terrible and gets the point across, but this isn't one of those books you pick up for the artwork. But there's so much more going for it that it doesn't matter. Watching Taiyo coax Nishimura out of her shell while it slowly dawns on her family that she was in a shell to begin with is charming, and him putting bullies in their place is a constant delight. Add in Hino, a tank top-obsessed classmate who befriends Takara and has no problems accepting Nishimura as well, and you have a winner – a story that doesn't ignore the dark while it pulls its heroine into the light.
Overall : B+
Story : A
Art : C
+ Warm and funny, Takara taking down bullies with verbal sunshine and logic is amazing. Nishimura is sympathetic and real.
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