I've mentioned more than once that CMX's collection of titles often felt like a treasure trove of obscure and overlooked gems. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, though. For every great series they published, they also put out more than their fair share of unremarkable titles like today's selection.
STOLEN HEARTS (Toraware Gokko), by Miku Sakamoto. First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.
Shinobu is a tiny high school girl who happens to run into tall, tough Koguma. She does so quite literally, spilling her drink all over his bag. Afterwards, Koguma reveals that the bag contained an antique kimono from his grandmother's shop, one that now requires cleaning. To repay her debt, Shinobu agrees to work in the shop as a promoter and in-shop model. She soon comes to learn and love the intricacies of kimonos, but she also learns that Koguma is softer and sweeter than his appearance suggests. This part-time job just might lead to a full-time romance for Shinobu and Koguma.
Stolen Hearts is a sweet and simple romance. There's nothing wrong with that, right? Well...you'd be half-right. There is nothing wrong with a sweet and simple romance, but if you want that story to stand out from the crowd, it needs a compelling cast of characters or some new and/or original twist on an old idea. Otherwise, all that sweetness can come off as feeling a bit empty, and that's Stolen Hearts' biggest flaw.
Shinobu and Koguma are perfectly nice kids onto themselves, but the only mildly interesting thing about them and their romance is their extreme height difference. Over the course of the volume, Koguma opens up a little to others, but it's not a terribly exciting revelation to learn that his tough exterior hides a softer, sweeter self on the inside. Shinobu doesn't change in the least, being the same vaguely defined girl she started out as, and most of her inner monologue isn't about herself, but how Koguma keeps getting more and more attractive to her. Neither of them have any sort of hang-ups about their lives, themselves, or about what goes on in the shop, which means that even at this early stage, Sakamoto is struggling for a good story hook. In its place, Sakamoto has to resort to a lot of kimono trivia.
She kind of hamstrung herself from the start by focusing on kimonos. While the complexities of kimonos is mildly fascinating on its own, they're also rarely worn today in Japan outside of a small handful of holidays and special occasions, and it seems like Sakamoto could exhaust them all within a volume or two. She's already broken out the two most obvious occasions for a couple of kids like Shinobu and Koguma: the school festival and the summer festival. Of course, she could space them out more evenly by shifting the focus to our leads, but as noted above, she's made her leading couple too well-adjusted to allow for any stories to bloom from their romance. She also focused so hard on these two that she didn't allow for either to have a life outside of one another. Many other shoujo manga get lots of great material out of exploring the friends and foes of their leading couple. It allows them to expand on the world of their series and when done well allows them to interweave the supporting cast's narratives with that of the leads. Stolen Hearts doesn't have that quality, and it feels emptier for that absence.
Stolen Hearts is sweet enough, but it doesn't feel deep enough to support an ongoing series. I think Sakamoto pushed the leads too quickly into a relationship, as she clearly had no idea with what to do with them once they became a couple. She also focused too much on the kimono shop and not enough on the stories of the friends and customers around it, leaving their world feeling flat. As a result, Stolen Hearts lacks the kind of personality and drama that keeps shoujo readers coming back for more.
Sakamoto's art style is nothing special, but it's clear that she does harbor a great interest in kimonos. She clearly savors every opportunity to draw her characters wearing them, and each one is rendered with fantastic patterns and a beautiful, cohesive style, right down to the last stray hair. It's just a shame that she couldn't lavish that same level of detail to the rest of the art. The character designs are unremarkable and flat, and the backgrounds are equally underdrawn. Not even the kimono shop possesses any sort of beauty or distinctness, being nothing more than an old-fashioned interior. I wonder if it might have been more lively in color. I suspect that CMX felt the same considering that the only extra included are some coloring book pages, an odd inclusion for a medium targeted mostly towards teens. Isn't that a telling inclusion, though? Sakamoto couldn't be bothered to give her world much attention outside of the kimonos, so it's up to the reader to add the color and variety it so desperate needed.
Stolen Hearts is too mild and plain to steal any hearts of its own. It's perfectly enjoyable, but unless you love kimonos in the same way Sakamoto does, you'll find yourself growing too bored to continue.
This series was published by CMX. This series is complete in Japan with 6 volumes available. 2 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.