Sorry for the late start this month. I had a theme in mind, but the books I had on hand for it were all so boring that it was hard to muster up enough enthusiasm to write them up.
Seriously, for something as awesome as ninjas, there's shockingly little good manga about them.
Anyway! We're going to take things back to school with manga about high schools, and this one in particular serves as the perfect transition from last month to this one.
HERE IS GREENWOOD (Koko wa Gurin Uddo), by Yukie Nasu. First published in 1987 and first published in North America in 2004.
Kazuya Hasukawa's life is full of tragedy. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by his beloved older brother. To Kazuya, his brother was the pinnacle of manhood. Thus, he feels doubly betrayed when his brother grows up to become a nurse after marrying Sumire, whom Kazuya had a massive, secret crush on. He's determined to heal his broken and deeply melodramatic heart by moving into the dorms at the Ryokuto Academy. There's only one slight flaw with Kazuya's plan: his dormmates are a bunch of weirdos who keep dragging Kazuya into their plans when they're not teasing him. It doesn't matter whether it's student body president Shinobu, the RA Mitsuru, or Kazuya's roommate Shun (who is actually a girl...sort of. It's complicated), they all seem determined to keep Kazuya busy with something other than brooding.
Here Is Greenwood is the sort of manga that defies simple categorization. It's a school-based sitcom of sorts but unlike modern versions it's less about slice-of-life fluff and more about farcical set-ups. The lead is surrounded not only by loads of handsome older guys but also a very pretty girl yet it never once threatens to become any sort of romance. It focuses a lot on the emotions of its lead like a lot of shoujo, but it's also not afraid to poke fun at his belief that his life is some sort of endless high tragedy. Here Is Greenwood simply is what it is, and while that can make it something of a hard sale, it's no less charming for it.
I imagine that how much any given reader enjoys this series will depend a lot upon how much they can tolerate Kazuya. It's true that he's a 15 year old boy and as such he's naturally prone to blowing everything out of proportion, but he was far too much of a teenaged drama queen for my liking. He just can't get over the fact that his brother isn't the perfect masculine father figure he's worshipped for so long, and he really can't get over his crush on Sumire (which blinds him to the fact that she sees Kazuya as nothing but a little brother). Worst of all, Kazuya's determination to be seen as a proper man is bruised every time someone looks at his short height, pretty face, and feminine name and calls him adorable. Naturally, this means that he's the perfect straightman to all the wackiness going on around him and everyone - even the author - seems to enjoy poking at him and knocking him off his high horse. Every once in a while he's able to stop his own mental pity party long enough to start engaging with his dormmates and the world around him, and it's at those moments that Kazuya finally starts to becoming something other than an object of ridicule for his classmates and the story at large.
The rest of the main cast doesn't get nearly as much focus as Kazuya does, but they do get enough time to stretch beyond simple character types and to start become fully fleshed and endearing characters in their own right. No character better exemplifies that approach than Shun. It would have been so easy for Nasu to just make her a tomboy or the token girl that all the boys would fight over to win. Instead she is treated for all intensive purposes as one of the boys; while she is biologically female and perfectly fine with that, she has been raised as a boy and all her documentation lists her as such and she doesn't see why it's such a big deal. She's also never sexually objectified, as she tends to dress loosely and casually and she tends to be rather slight and lacking in curves in the first place. As such, most everyone presumes that she's just a long-haired and slightly weird guy and only Kazuya knows the full truth. In all fairness, the story's casual attitude towards Shun is par for the course for a manga like this. It features guys working in traditionally female roles. It makes a running gag out of the fact that the guys' names sound feminine while Shun's name is masculine. Here Is Greenwood might be nearly 30 years old, but its casual and subtly subversive approach to gender and gender roles makes it a work that's no less progressive today than it was back then.
The tone of Here Is Greenwood is hard to pin down at times. I'm sure that part of this is simply because a lot of manga struggle to find a consistent tone in their early chapters, but it's sometimes hard to tell at times whether the story is meant to be comedic, dramatic, or something strange in between. The gags found within are fairly mild and a lot of the humor is either based around background running gags or the quiet moments that occur when a character takes a moment to realize just how ridiculous a situation has become. Everything here tends to be pretty low-key: the comedy, the drama, the friendships. Even the passage of time goes by slowly, and it mostly avoids a lot of the standard school events that tend to mark your standard school year. Yet it's that same casual approach that makes Here Is Greenwood charming in its own particular way. It doesn't trade on tropes, but instead takes it time to build up some genuinely enjoyable characters and some good slow-burning humor.
Nasu's art is very much of its time, but it's simple and charming nonetheless. Nasu's style seems like what would happen when you tried to combine some of the visual floridness of 1970s shoujo with the smooth cute designs of Kimagure Orange Road or the many works of Rumiko Takahashi. The character designs do tend to stray towards the androgynous side of things, which actually goes a long way towards selling the reader on Shun's ability to pass as a guy and Kazuya being seen as cute and adorable. Still, everyone is terribly cute and expressive and it's generally aged quite well (even if the same cannot be said for what would have been the fashion of its time).
Here Is Greenwood is a gentle, good-natured comedy that would appeal to a lot of modern-day slice-of-life fans. The characters and story alike straddle that fine line between relatable and ridiculous without ever straying too far in either direction, and the artwork has a clean and ageless cuteness about it that promises to appeal to manga fans of any age.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan, with 9 volumes available. All 9 were released in both physical and ebook format. The physical volumes are out of print, but the digital volumes are available through viz.com.