In recent years, it seems like more and more manga publishers are willing to pick titles that shake up the old shoujo formulas, giving us something other than yet another tremulous high school girl in love with the BMOC. Even Viz, who tends to play things safe with their manga licenses, managed to pick up a title that not only puts a few new twists into an old genre, but also ended up being one of the most charming titles of the year.
MY LOVE STORY!! (Ore Monogatari!!), written by Kazune Kawahara & art by Aruko. First published in 2011, and first published in North America in 2014.
Takeo Goda is a giant with a heart of gold. He's kind, gentle, super-strong, and always willing to help out those who are in need. Unfortunately, his size and thuggish looks tend to scare those he wishes to help. While Takeo always has the support of his handsome and stoic best friend Sunakawa, what he really wants is a girlfriend. He's had plenty of crushes, but all of them preferred Sunakawa and Sunakawa ended up turning them all down. When Takeo saves the sweet and lovely Yamato from a train groper, he starts to wonder if this time, he might just have a shot at true love.
Being a 30-year-old cynic who's read more shoujo than strictly necessary, it's hard to find stories in that genre that can impress me. A lot of it tends to blend together in my mind like so much melting cheese. My Love Story!! is an exception to that, though. It's not just that Takeo is decidedly NOT like the typical shoujo heroine. It's also that it's all centered around a pair of genuinely touching and nuanced relationships and that everything is done in perfect, unironic sincerity.
Well, maybe I exaggerated things a little. While Takeo might look like a thug, at heart he really isn't all that different from your standard shoujo heroine. He's a simple, affectionate boy who is selfless to a fault, especially where his best friend is concerned. He's a romantic at heart, but has a hard time communicating with girls, especially since it seems they all end up falling for Sunakawa instead. Despite that, he would never dream of resenting him, because Sunakawa has always been a good and loyal friend to him in return. All of these sweet, delicate qualities also just so happen to be contained within a judo champion who is built like a brick outhouse and has a face that only a bulldog could love. The story derives a lot of humor out of the contrast between Takeo's appearance and his innately moe personality, but it never crosses the line into mean-spiritedness. We may laugh at the situation he gets himself into, but we're never invited to mock Takeo for his actions.
Something that I find interesting is that the strongest relationship in the book isn't the romantic one. Instead it's the friendship between Takeo and Sunakawa. Sunakawa tends to be a boy of few words or expressions, but people will forgive him everything because he's good looking, even thanking him for Takeo's good deeds when the two are together. Over time, though, we learn that there's also a lot more going on under his pretty face. Despite his lack of experience, he's the one who Takeo turns to for romantic advice, and Sunakawa is always straightforward, perceptive and sensible. I suspect he's also the more genre-savvy one, considering that most of his advice boils down to "just talk to her and tell her how you feel," a tactic which few ever seem to use in this genre. He's also completely loyal to Takeo in return, as we learn that the reason he's turned down every girl who has asked him out is that they all insulted Takeo to his face. While shoujo tends to focus on celebrating female friendships for obvious reasons, it's really refreshing to see the same focus and approach used for an all-male friendship. It's constructive and supportive, and always feels in-character for both Takeo and Sunakawa.
That's not to say that the romance between Takeo and Yamato isn't well-done either. Yamato is in some ways a lot like Takeo - simple, good-natured, sincere to a fault, and not so great at picking up subtle social cues. It's her simplicity that allows her to look past Takeo's face and love him for his size, his strength, and his innate goodness. It also doesn't hurt that he also loves her baking, and she uses this as an excuse to get close to him. Thankfully the story has the good sense to not drag things out between these two for too long thanks to Sunakawa. He's the one who sets up a scenario at his place to finally make both Takeo and Yamato realize their feelings, and thus it's thanks to him that they are able totransform into a couple that would be sickeningly sweet if they weren't so darn sincere in their innocence.
I keep coming back to the sincerity of My Love Story!!, because that seems to be the thing that truly distinguishes this title from the rest of the Shoujo Beat crowd. It genuinely loves its characters and wants to see them happy without having a laugh at their expense. It's not deconstructing the character types solely for the sake of satire, but instead because doing so adds to the comedy. It's not content to simply spew the usual characters and plot points at us because the crowds demand it, but instead to forge its own path and create something lovely and memorable as a result.
A quick glance at the soft colors and rounded character designs on the cover will tell you that Aruko took a slightly more old-fashioned approach to the art. She certainly makes the most of the contrast between Takeo's looks and Takeo's actions. Surprise and shock tend to make Takeo make all sorts of ridiculous faces, and the horror of them is often highlighted through the use of weird patterns or lightning. It also serves as good visual contrast to both Yamato's cherubic cuteness and Sunakawa's scruffy sort of handsomeness. Still, there's a lot of expressiveness and subtlety to these characters, a lot more than what is usually seen in these sorts of silly stories. As such, the panels tend to keep things close to the characters, leaving the backgrounds to be filled in with bits of screen tone. Overall, Aruko's artstyle here finds a good balance between comedic exaggeration and shoujo cuteness.
My Love Story!! is as loveable as Takeo himself. I laughed, I smiled, and I wanted to read more immediately. It's hard to make something as simple as a love story feel fun and fresh, but this story achieves it with panache.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 7 volumes so far. 2 volumes have been published so far, and both are in print.
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