I know, I know, I skipped last week. Part of it was the fact that I've been playing a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of Xenoblade Chronicles, which is as good as people say. The other part is that I've been kind of dreading this series, and that dread extends even to writing up the review.
LOVE HINA (Rabu Hina), by Ken Akamatsu. First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2002.
Keitaro Urashima wants to get into Tokyo University so he can fulfill a childhood promise to a long-lost friend. There's only one slight problem with that plan: Keitaro is not particularly smart...or talented...or good at anything, really. Despite two years of cram school, his test scores remain abysmal. He's hoping that he can get more studying done at his grandmother's hotel, but gets the shock of his life when he discovers that not only had she turned into a girls' dormitory, but that she's made him landlord while she travels the world. Now Keitaro is surrounded by a bevy of young girls who think of him as an idiot pervert, led by the feisty Naru Narusegawa. Will Keitaro ever find a way to win the girls over? Will he ever have a prayer at getting into Tokyo U? Finally, will he ever figure out who was the girl he made his promise to so long ago?
If you didn't get the jist from the comments above, I was not looking forward to reviewing this one. I've never made my distaste for harem manga a secret, and few could be said to be as popular or as influential as Love Hina. Indeed, many of the harem series we've gotten since owe at least a small creative debt to Ken Akamatsu's creation. After reading this volume, though, I felt like I finally had an understanding of why harem series are like the way they are. If this series is the model for every major modern harem manga, then it's no wonder that the genre has sunk to such lows. How can they do anything but that when they follow in the path of such a supremely stupid, irritating story?
This story lost me on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. I guess I'll start with the tone of the story overall, which is at once broad to the point of slapstick and needlessly mean-spirited. The story plays at being madcap and zany, but it spends so much time ridiculing Keitaro that its antics stops being funny and starts feeling cruel for cruelty's sake. It's not helped that so many of the gags are either lame jokes based around sexist stereotypes or your standard 'boy falls into boobs' sort of gag, which always leads to more slapstick violence and wacky chases. Worst of all, this story pounds those gags into the ground through sheer repetition, and it expects you to laugh all the same EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Akamatsu clearly wants this story to be big, cartoonish, and fun, but he goes too far with everything and it instead comes off as loud, obnoxious, and wantonly mean towards its own cast.
Speaking of the cast, let's talk about them, starting with our leading man Keitaro. He's meant to be a loveable loser, the kind of underdog you cheer for even as you laugh at their failings. The only problem with that is that Akamatsu forgot the 'loveable' part of that phrase. This story is determined to not let Keitaro retain the slightest shred of dignity, which is why all the slapstick targeted at him falls so flat. It's not funny to kick a guy when he's down, only to follow it up by kicking him some more and then having him fall down a cliff like Wile E. Coyote. What's really sad is that for all the abuse he gets from the girls and all the accidents he has, he heaps just as much abuse on himself. He constantly complains to himself about how utterly friendless, dateless, and hopeless he is. Of course, he never really does anything about it, so after a while it just comes off as whining, which only makes Keitaro all the more unappealing. The only thing he manages to succeed at is winning over Shinobu and talking to Naru once or twice when her mood swings were at their mildest. I honestly wonder if this series will ever let Keitaro do well or enjoy one thing without turning it into yet another joke to be made at his expense.
Mind you, the girls of the Hinata House aren't handled any better. Only half of them get any sort of involvement in the story, and it figures that the one who gets the most is the worst of them all: Naru. Tsunderes are nothing new to manga, and this was true even when Love Hina was new. That being said, Naru takes the concept of the tsundere to bold, broad new heights of awfulness. Like Keitaro, all her bad qualities are exaggerated for the sake of 'comedy.' Naru's hair temper has become the stuff of anime legend, and it's still baffling how quickly she can shift from normal to irrational rage. I suspect either the readers or the editors responded poorly to this in the early chapters, because her mood shifts dial down significantly in the second half of the volume. I'm glad they made that change, but I do wish they could have brought that same sense of restraint to the oh-so subtle hints about Naru being the mystery girl from Keitaro's youth or made it a little less obvious that Keitaro and Naru are meant to be our end-game couple. After all, a harem thrives on keeping the reader guessing who the lead will choose. Any strong emphasis on one girl right away spoils that sense of uncertainty.
As for the rest of the girls, there isn't much to be said. Kitsune is a manipulative trickster who likes to troll everyone in the house, including her so-called best friend Naru. Shinobu is the youngest of the group and if she were any more of a wilting violet she would spend her story time shaking in a corner like a Chihuahua. Still, Akamatsu was thinking ahead of his time with her, as her bland kindness, domestic skills, and emphasis on her youth and underdeveloped chest make her something of a trendsetter for what was then the emerging notion of 'moe.' Motoko can give Naru a run for her money in the tsundere department, but her supernatural kendo skills ultimately make her feel like she got lost on her way to a shonen manga and got stuck here. That's only half the cast, but I guess they're being saved for future volumes. Meanwhile, they're just have to settle for filling in space when the girls go on a Keitaro hunt or talk and occasionally fondle one another in the hot springs. What was really weird to me is that we're told that these girls are all good friends with one another, but they're revealed to be rather selfish little things acting for their own cause. Sure, it's not uncharacteristic for teenage girls to be selfish, but it's in stark contrast to the happy harmonious group they paint themselves to have been before Keitaro showed up.
Love Hina wants to be a wild, wacky, saucy sort of manga, but somehow its forced zaniness only makes its flaws all the more obvious. It's hard to laugh at or relate to a story about a ridiculous, exaggerated sadsack who is constantly pushed down by life and by half a dozen girls with cardboard-thin personalities as they repeat the same old gags over and over.
Akamatsu's writing may be full of flaws, but he's a lot more tolerable as an artist. They certainly fit the sort of story he was aiming to create, as they're all generically cute and clean in design while still being broad and flappy enough to fit with all the slapstick. That doesn't explain why they all have those weird little hair attennae, but that just seems to be a particular little quirk of his. He's also surprisingly reserved when it comes to the fanservice. No, it's not that he doesn't use it at all; after all, there isn't exactly a plot-relevant reason there HAS to be a hot spring at Hinata House. It's more that the girls' proportions are fairly modest and what nudity is present is about as explicit as your average Barbie doll.
If there's one thing in this book that does have some real character, it's the setting itself. Hinata House is huge, old-fashioned, and almost a bit eccentric in its design, and there's a certain charm to be found in its many winding halls, spacious rooms, and even the hot springs. He also likes to make use of the background to let the rest of the girls react to events or to have them doing some physical gag, which gives the panels a sense of life and energy beyond what may be going on in the foreground. It's a shame then that the panels are drawn so small, which is meant to make the big broad overreactions seem all the bigger, but it leaves so much less space for the qualities I did like. I feel like the artwork is the only place where Akamatsu's intentions were actually fulfilled, as his art possesses the energy of a zany comedy while still being attractive and even a bit endearing.
Unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on the recent omnibus rerelease of this series, so I'm unable to compare and contrast the translation between it and the original Tokyopop release. I do know that was retranslated, and that the original Tokyopop translation was mildly controversial to fans of the series. Seriously, people use to fight over whether it should be Hinata House or Hinata Inn. Still, as far as Tokyopop's brand of liberal translation goes, this series got off pretty mildly.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics, and formerly by Tokyopop. The series is complete in 14 volumes. The single volumes are out of print, but the 3-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print.
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