Of course, for every notable or enjoyable school-related manga, there are plenty of others that can only rise to middling at best, ones that tend to fall through the cracks of memory and time. Today's review is just one example of this seemingly endless pile of titles.
MONKEY HIGH! (Saruyama!), by Shouko Arika. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.
Haruna Aizawa isn't happy about the fact that she had to switch schools. Her politician father got caught up in a scandal, and to help her family save face she's had to switch from her high-class private school to a rowdy public high school. She likens her new classmates to a bunch of rowdy monkeys, with the rowdiest of them all being the boy everyone calls Macharu. He's short, childish, full of energy, and endlessly optimistic, and Haruna finds his optimism irritating. Soon enough, though, Macharu manages to work his way into her heart, and Haruna starts to realize that she may be falling for goofy little Macharu.
Aside from the metaphor that gives this series its name, there is nothing that is the least bit remarkable about Monkey High!. Everything you've seen here has been done before, from the leading couple to the chapter plotlines to the reluctant romance they enter into, and countless shoujo series have done them better or in a more interesting manner.
Haruna is meant to be a defrosting ice queen, but she's far too bland of a character to make much of an impression on reader before or after she falls for Macharu. Worse still, she always seems to be retreating from the plot instead of engaging in it. Whenever people from her new school try to get her involved in school activities or people from her old school try to get back into touch, she does her best to get away or alienate herself from them. It's a weirdly passive move on her part, and it never feels like the natural choice of a conflicted high school girl. Macharu is a little more fleshed out in comparison, but that's still not saying much. He's certainly more engaging than Haruna, but his perceived immaturity makes the idea of him being in a romantic relationship feel kind of weird. The story loves to milk the fact that he's short and boyish, which makes him less than ideal as boyfriend material. Still, at least he's got something you might call a personality. That's more than his classmates get, as they are mostly relegated to the role of Greek chorus, there either to fuel conflict or support Haruna and Macharu's burgeoning relationship. The same goes for Atsu, Macharu's flirty best friend or the seemingly endless line of rich guys from Haruna's old school. They show up just long enough to tease the possibility of breaking up our leads until they reaffirm the status quo.
The plot itself is just a grab-bag of standard schoolroom and romantic scenarios. As such, we get just as many 'let's put on a play for the school festival!' or 'let's go on a field trip!' moments as we do 'why is my heart beating so fast?' leading up to the all important kiss. I guess I can give Akira the benefit of not dragging out the romance for volumes at a time, as Haruna and Macharu become a couple only midway through the volume. The problem is that Akira clearly had no plan as how to maintain any sense of drama or tension after that, so she just keeps throwing other, taller, more conventionally handsome guys in Haruna's path in a futile attempt to get her to stray. Of course, she never considers it for a minute, so all of this ends up being rather pointless.
Monkey High! is a manga that's deeply lacking in any sense of identity. Its only distinguishing feature is Macharu, and even then there are plenty of shoujo manga out there about short guys in relationships like Lovely Complex. Otherwise Akira just seems to be doing little more than a half-assed retread of a lot of tired old shoujo set-ups and character types.
The story is far from the only thing that feels generic here. Akira's artwork could easily be confused with that of dozens of other B- and C-list shoujo titles, full of generically cute teenagers. Again, the only one that stands out is Macharu. She does manage to make him look both like a big goofy kid and like a monkey, but even then he looks a bit like someone put One Piece's Monkey D. Luffy through a shoujo filter. She uses all these mostly mundane characters to fill up space in her rather crowded panels, which in turn are packed on the page and augmented with a bit of screentone. Overall, it's all perfectly competent in technique, but Akira brings nothing new or interesting to her art.
Monkey High! is an empty trifle of manga. It's not incompetent by any means, but neither does it strive to do anything interesting with itself. It's too boring to be offensive, but that means it's all too boring to stick in anyone's mind once they put the first volume down.
This series was published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan, with 8 volumes available. All 8 volumes have been published and are currently in print.