One of the biggest hits of this anime season is Ore Monogatari!!, based on the manga of the same name (and one I liked immensely). As such, I was genuinely curious to see if the writer's previous works could compare. What was the result? Well...you'll see.
HIGH SCHOOL DEBUT (Koukou Debut), by Kazuna Kawahara. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2008.
Haruna Nagashima was a star softball player in junior high, albeit one with a soft spot for sappy shoujo manga. All these love stories have filled Haruna's head with dreams of love, and she's determined to make the most of her high school years by getting a boyfriend. There's only one flaw in Haruna's plan: she is completely clueless when it comes to boys. She's poured over every book and magazine she can find on romance and she's tried every bit of advice she can find, but all to no avail. Then Haruna has a revelation - when she needed help with her game, she consulted a coach. Therefore, she needs to find herself a love coach, someone who can tell her how to be stylish and appealing to boys. Her choice of coach is Yoh Kamiyana, a surly upperclassman with a reputation for blunt honesty and a string of broken hearts behind him. He reluctantly agrees to guide Haruna, but sets one condition: no matter what, Haruna can NOT fall in love with him.
I'm trying yet failing to think of another shoujo series that I could compare to High School Debut. I don't know if I've encountered a shoujo manga where the heroine was so endearing and charming, but the story tried so hard to suppress her charms in the name of the story. It's not enough to derail the whole thing, but it does feel a little bipolar as a result.
It would take a harder, more jaded person than I to resist Haruna's charms. She's lively and completely unguarded, and as such I was on her side almost instantly. Yes, she can be naïve and optimistic to the point that it would give Pollyanna pause, but she's perfectly aware and honest about her faults and she makes friends almost effortlessly. She's not your standard shoujo ingénue, and that's always a welcome change of pace. Honestly, I'm kind of baffled as to how someone so sunny, endearing, and talented would be struggling for dates, but sadly the world of shoujo manga doesn't work in the same way ours does. In shoujo, anyone who doesn't conform to the feminine ideal (that is, being cute, tiny, and interested in stereotypically girly things) is doomed to unpopularity, so poor Haruna was doomed from the start due to genre convention.
If I have a problem with the plot, it's that Haruna is so loveable that I found myself resenting Yoh's interference in things. His advice to her sometimes feels like he's trying to suppress what makes Haruna herself - don't show strong emotions, don't show off your muscles, don't trust others. It makes him come off like a giant pill who's projecting his issues onto her. You see, Yoh became a grumpy bastard because of a bad breakup with his former team manager, a breakup which ended up turning the whole basketball team against him. In proper dramatic teenage form, he's turned this trauma into a grudge against girls and romance in general, and after learning that I can't help but see him as a giant drama queen. I will give him this much, though: he does give Haruna good fashion advice, and he is decent enough to come rescue Haruna from the inevitable rape threat that shoujo stories can never seem to get away from. I just wish he didn't have to stomp all over the generally light mood of the story every time he came on screen.
In comparison, the rest of cast doesn't get the same level of backstory or motivation that Yoh does, but they're certainly more loveable in comparison. Most of them are there solely for the sake of the story. For example, Yoh has a few friends and a younger sister who all take a shine to Haruna, and it's their badgering that gets him to relent to Haruna's request. After that, most of them don't factor into the plot save for Yoh's meathead friend Fumi. He and Haruna have a nice bonding moment when she gives him a bit of coaching at a batting cage. The two clearly have a spark between them as well as a mutual interest in sports, and best of all he likes Haruna just the way she is. It all happens in such a short period of time, but Kawahara conveys much more of a spark between these two than she does between Haruna and Yoh, and despite what the story might demand, I wanted to see Haruna happy with someone who likes her for her, not someone who likes her only because she's been molded into something more conventionally palatable. Still, the fact that I feel this way is a testament to her way with characters. Even with the ones I don't like, I got a strong sense of personality and life about them, and that made it all the easier to get swept up in their story.
High School Debut is a rather inauspicious title for what truly is a rather charming book. Kawahara knows how to create endearing characters, and those characters help sell what is otherwise some rather mundane teenage romantic drama. I just hope that in future volumes Yoh will ease up on Haruna a little and let her joyfulness infuse the whole story.
Kawahara's art style is nothing all that special, but it too has a charm that helps elevate the story above most shoujo manga. The character designs are rather conventional at first glance, but Kawahara gives it all an air of delicacy, one that's enhanced by her light (and somewhat flat) touch with shading. She also tends to keep the panels small and tightly focused, which means that the backgrounds are mostly a cycle of screen tones. It does help keep the focus on her pretty characters and their drama, so it all works in the end.
High School Debut is full of charm, at least when Yoh isn't bringing things down. It doesn't play with genre conventions the way Kawahara's later work would - if anything, it falls perfectly into step with them - but her characters are lively and well-written enough that you can't help but be swept up in their romantic journey and want to see things out to the end.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 13 volumes available. All 13 volumes have been published. The single volume releases are out of print, but the 3-in-1 omnibuses are currently in print. This series is also available in e-book form through Viz.com.