CLUB 9 (Heba! Heero-Chan), by Makoto Kobayashi. First published in 1992, and first published in North America in 2003.
Haruo Hattori is a klutzy but sweet farm girl whose heart is as big as the great outdoors. She's off to Tokyo to attend college, but the combination of the cost of big-city life and supernatural events lead her to move in with a couple of classmates. They in turn urge to join them in a part-time job at Club 9, one of the most popular hostess clubs in its district. How will a country girl like Haruo adapt to her glamourous new hostess lifestyle?
Club 9 is a fun little series, one that balances its sauciness with sweetness and ultimately (and unexpectedly) is as innocent and good-natured as its heroine.
It's impossible to not love Haruo. Sure, she's naïve and kind of a klutz, but she's shown to be a very loving person, and nowhere near as dumb as her thick rural accent (an affectation of the translation to try and get across how her particular accent would sound in Japanese) would suggest. Admittedly, the klutziness is mostly there to lead up to moments of fanservice, but it's all played in such a light, even silly manner that it's hard to be offended. You can only just shake you head as Haruo picks herself up and moves one. There's also just a lot of great sources of humor in this manga, be it from Haruo's family (with her oh-so-serious father and her mother who is mid-midlife crisis) or from the contrast between her country ways and those of her friends, coworkers, and clients. Her natural charm and unaffected kindness shines through the whole volume, and it makes her personality just as attractive as her figure does.
The story is casually paced, giving us plenty of time to get to know Haruo and her world before she moves to Tokyo, her time at college, as well as some oddly placed incidents with the ghost of an otaku that haunts Haruo's dorm. They don't gel with the rest of the story at all, but it's mostly there just as a device to get Haruo off the campus and to steer towards becoming a hostess. Once there, we see her struggle comically with her new job and yet still charm her clients (including a mangaka who is a self insert for Kobayashi himself) and make some new friends. It's all just so charming and innocent, two words that I would not expect to use in an ecchi story about a hostess club.
Club 9's art is as charming as Haruo as well, with a compelling mix of realism, fanservice, and rubbery cartoon. There's a great variety of faces - long, short, square, fat, etc. - and while there's a touch of caricature to them (particularly with the men), they still manage to be rooted in reality. The bodies are also rather rooted in reality, in that the ladies are much more voluptuous than what one usually sees in manga. The aforementioned cartoony qualities don't come so much from the character designs, but from their expressions. There's a lot of humor that comes solely from Haruo's big awkward smiles, guffawing laughter, or big surprised gasps. There is also some degree of fanservice-based humor, but Kobayashi actually puts some effort into them, instead of falling into the "boy falls into boobs" sort of rut. Here you have things like the running gag of Haruo falling into holes while getting someone's attention or the family dog pulling off her skirt before she leaves, and it's rare for the gag to lead to anything more racy than a panty shot. It's both unusual and pleasing to see comedy based fanservice where the fanservice isn't the point of the joke, but merely a side effect.
Kobayashi puts a lot of detail into his art, be it the varied hairstyles and wardrobes of the hostesses or the well-traced backgrounds. There's also some moments where there's a wonderful fluidity to the art - when the girls strut down the street, you can almost see the swish of their hips in real time. I wish more ecchi-based works got this sort of effort put into them, because the artwork not only works well with the story, it adds to its charms.
This is an older Dark Horse release, so like older Viz releases this manga was flipped.
This is the kind of ecchi I can get behind, the kind that takes its time, centers itself around a charming lead, and one that uses fanservice as garnish for its humor and not simply as an attention-grabbing gimmick.
This series was published by Dark Horse. 5 volumes were released in Japan, but only 3 of those volumes were published. All are currently out of print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!