Archive for June 9th, 2010

High School Debut

TITLE: High School Debut
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Kazune Kawahara
RATING: Teen (13+)
SCORE: 9 (Great)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Kazune Kawahara, Imadoki, Fruits Basket, romance, drama, comedy

Ah, high school romances — the backbone of shoujo manga. Many mangaka have tried their hand at drawing one at least once in their careers, but few are truly memorable. Fortunately, High School Debut manages to rise above a cliched story line to become one of the best examples in the genre.

Freshman Haruna Nagashima gave her all to softball when she was in middle school; now that she’a a high school student, she’s dedicated herself to pursuing another goal: finding a boyfriend! Putting into practice all the things she’s learned from reading shoujo manga and teen magazines, she tries her best to attract guys, but has no success. Her best friend Mami suggests she might have better luck if she found a coach to teach her how to be more appealing to boys, just like the coach on the softball team helped make her a better pitcher.

Taking Mami’s advice, Haruna decides to ask popular upperclassman Yoh Komiyama to be her love coach after overhearing some people talking about how he knows what appeals to guys. Though Yoh rejects the idea at first, having a dislike of girls after a bad break-up with his first girlfriend, he eventually changes his changes his mind, under one condition: Haruna has to promise not to fall in love with him. Of course, since this is shoujo, it’s inevitable that she does.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take long for Haruna and Yoh to confess to each other and start dating. A premise like that could wear really thin over thirteen volumes. I mean, can you imagine how repetitive it would be to have Haruna go after a new guy every volume and Yoh trying to help her get together with him, all the while the two of them denying their obvious feelings for each other because of a silly promise? Instead, Kawahara wisely decides to focus the story on their relationship as a couple, deftly portraying the high and lows, the awkwardness and the excitement of a teenage romance.

The key to High School Debut’s appeal, in my opinion, is the chemistry between its main characters, Haruna and Yoh. The two of them make a great couple and are terrific characters in their own right. It’s hard not to love Haruna, who is so enthusiastic and determined. She truly does give her all when she puts her mind to something — maybe even a little too much at times, yet she never comes off as annoying. Whenever she makes a mistake, she endears herself to the reader and makes us root for her even more.

As for Yoh, I love how he accepts Haruna for who she is, no matter embarrassing she can be at times. Even when he was “coaching” her to be attractive to guys, he never really tried to turn her into someone she wasn’t. (For those fearing from the summary that Yoh turned Haruna into his idea of a perfect girl before falling in love with her, don’t be. The bulk of his coaching was more along the lines of helping Haruna find clothes that suited her sporty style (instead of the trendy stuff she tried to pull off because of what a magazine said) and giving her advice on dealing with guys. There were a couple of things he said that I thought were a little on the questionable side, but this isn’t a manga version of My Fair Lady.)

I also enjoyed seeing Yoh’s growth as a character after he begins dating Haruna. He starts out the manga kind of stand-offish, very blunt and straightforward, but due to Haruna’s influence, he becomes warmer and more open, though still keeping his refreshing honesty. I think one of my favorite parts of the manga is when Yoh is chosen as captain of the rooters for the school’s sports festival. It’s not a position he particularly wants — he’s not somebody who likes being the center of attention, despite his popularity — but seeing how excited Haruna is about the festival, he decides to give it his all, too.

The supporting cast, consisting of Mami, Yoh’s younger sister Asami, and Yoh’s friends Fumiya and Asaoka, are also a fun bunch. The portrayal of Asami impressed me the most because even though she’s selfish, greedy, and self-centered, she never crosses the line into becoming unlikeable. I’m still not sure how Kawahara managed to pull that off, because Asami does some pretty terrible things and never really does anything to redeem herself. Asaoka’s another interesting case, because while he can be quite the manipulator at times, he never comes off as being truly malicious. (Kind of like Shigure from Fruits Basket, I suppose.) He’s more of a jokester than anything else.

Though the plot itself does feature some of the usual cliches of the genre, Kawahara has a way of making them seem fresh and original. For example, Yoh’s ex-girlfriend (of the infamous “beads incident”) shows back up a little later in the series, wanting to see Yoh, but the plot doesn’t go where you might expect, with Haruna having to compete with her for Yoh’s affections. In fact, though both unaware of their connection to Yoh, the two of them actually become friendly with each other. Even though their budding friendship (understandably) comes to an end once Haruna learns who she is, it’s not like they become enemies either, something I found refreshing.

I will say that I think the series does start to lose a little steam near the end, though. There was one particular plotline I didn’t care for, involving the appearance of an unexpected rival for Haruna in regards to Yoh. I don’t want to spoil too much about it, but I hated how Haruna and Yoh let her get in between them when one of the great things about them is how well they communicate with each other.

I also found Yoh’s decision of what to study in college to be completely out of left field. There were no hints whatsoever that he ever had an interest in that particular subject prior to that point. Admittedly, that was kind of the point, since Yoh had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but even just an offhand remark earlier in the story that he had an interest in such things might have made it seem a little less random and out of the blue. At least Haruna’s choice of career made sense, although I could have lived without hearing Haruna saying the words, “My dream is to be your wife,” to Yoh when he asks her what she wants to do with her life. Nothing wrong with wanting to marry the man you love, of course, but I never pictured Haruna as someone who would be happy being a housewife. (As shown when she decides to get a part-time job, Haruna enjoys working.) Glad that she managed to find a more ambitious goal that really suits her.    

As for the artwork, the style is not my favorite, but I give Kawahara props for giving most of the characters unique, distinctive faces — great character designs, definitely not cookie-cutter. (It’s not often, for example, you see a main character like Yoh, who is supposed to be super-handsome, drawn with permanent bags under his eyes.) I especially love how she draws smiles.  It’s like the character’s happiness is jumping off the page. Seriously, I dare you to flip to a page where either Haruna or Yoh is smiling and not feel the urge to smile back. It’s impossible; they’re infectious. At times, though, Kawahara’s body proportions seem a bit…off. In the beginning, I thought it was a stylistic device to show Haruna’s inability to dress for her body type, but the problem extended to other characters as well, most notably Fumiya.

Despite a few minor problems, the series overall is one of my all-time favorites. If you only read one high school romance in your life, I highly recommend you make that title High School Debut. It’s one of the best.

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