This week's selection is yet another adaptation of a visual novel, but does it soar about its source material like Alice or is it as flat as the paper it's written on?
UGLY DUCKLING'S LOVE REVOLUTION (Otometeki Koi Kakumei Love Revo!!), by Yuuki Fujinari. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.
Saint Leaf School is home to many fine looking young men. It is also home to one Hitomi Sakuragawa, a friendly young girl with a shortage of willpower when it comes to sweets, which means that she sadly as a figure as big and wide as her heart. Still, her attempts at kindness and weight loss bring her into contact with half a dozen of the cutest boys in school. Will Hitomi win them over on personality alone, or will this ugly duckling never exercise her way into becoming a swan?
I dreaded reading this series for a couple of reasons. The first was that it was an adaptation of a dating sim, which usually means cookie-cutter characters stuck in a puddle-deep plot. The second was that the heroine was overweight, and thus I expected a lot of jokes made at the expense of her weight. I can say now that Ugly Duckling is not as bad as I feared - indeed, in some ways it's rather sweet. It also kind of fails as a reverse harem, although that's not entirely a bad thing.
It fails as a reverse harem becuase ultimately this volume isn't about romance, no matter what the title might suggest. It's really more about Hitomi and watching her come out of her social shell, making friends, and making sincere efforts at losing weight. That last plot thread seems like a last-minute addition, though, as it comes about so suddenly that the first time I read it I had to flip back a few times, convinced I had missed a page or two. It's a little strange because the first half really doesn't make Hitomi's weight an issue. No one gives her any sort of a hassle because of it, which is also rather unexpected and refreshing. It's good that Hitomi takes up exercise out of her own desire to improve her health versus social pressure, but a little more set-up would have made the transition much smoother.
This lack of romance may keep it from being pure female fanservice, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. I rather appreciated how much time was spent developing Hitomi, demonstrating her kindness, thoughtfulness, and insecurities. Unfortunately, Hitomi is the only character that gets any development, and here is where the story's dating sim roots shine through. Hitomi is surrounded by half a dozen tropes - er, boys! I mean boys! - who are all touched by Hitomi's sweetness at one point or another. There's the bitchy boy with issues, the spunky one, the quiet and sensitive one, and so on and so forth, and each of them barely qualify as one-dimensional, much less three. Worse still, it takes Fujinama halfway through the volume to figure out how to fit all these guys into Hitomi's plotline, as before that point they seem to be occupying a completely seperate plotline. Once they are blended, that doesn't really change the fact that there is no romantic tension between Hitomi and any of the boys; neither she nor any of the boys consider one another as anything beyond classmates and possibly friends at best.
Ugly Duckling is something of an odd duck, in that it's a reverse harem that's not about romance, but the lead character. It's not a bad thing per se, but that lack of romantic focus leaves the supporting cast severely underdeveloped to the point of being superfluous.
Ugly Duckling may not make fun of its lead, but the artwork sadly does not take that high road. While the rest of the cast is drawn in a convention, anime-influenced manner, Hitomi is drawn more like a crude caricature, complete with beady eyes, simple mouth, and big, bulbous nose. This choice sadly undercuts some of the gentleness with which Hitomi is treated, because while the story goes out of its way to not mock her weight, the art goes out of its way to treat her differently and not as attractively as the others.
Mind you, even if Hitomi looked like the rest of the cast, she wouldn't necessarily look good, as the character designs are shockingly amateurish. I don't know how much of the blame can go to the mangaka and how much towards the game this series was based on, but they all look like someone's DeviantArt posting of their first attempts to draw bishonen. The guys are all too crude looking and angular to be attractive, particularly when features start to disappear and faces go off-model during perspective changes. The hair in particular is so flat and bizarrely sharp looking as to make it look like these boys are all wearing bad pieces of sculpture on their heads.
Beyond the ugly character designs, the rest of the art is unremarkable. Backgrounds are practically nonexistant, fading instead into gentle gradiations of screen tones. Panel and page composition are simple and straightforward. Ultimately it's disappointing to see such lazy and amateurish art attached to such an unusual story, because it actually detracts from the story and its messages instead of enhancing them.
There are a couple of color pages in the front, along with an author's note and a splash page in the back.
I would have been willing to move this up to a yellow light based on how sensitively and sweetly it developed its heroine, but the awful character designs and lackluster cast dragged it down to a red light.
This series was published by Yen Press. All four volumes were released, and all are currently in print.
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