Other shoujo manga go in an opposite, but not necessarily better direction. They try to stand out by courting controversy by exploring social issues or unusual kinks. The problem is that you can actually take this too far and explore a kink that no one wanted.
FIRST LOVE MONSTER (Hatsukoi Monsuta), by Akira Hiyoshimaru. First published in 2013, and first published in North America in 2015.
Kaho Nikaidou is the only child of a wealthy family, and because of that she's always been held at arm's length by others. They were simply too afraid of offending her family to get close to her, and as a result she's grown up into a very lonely, insecure young lady. That's why she's so happy to have the chance to move out on her own and make some friends for the first time. On her first day out, though, Kaho would have been run over by a truck if not for Kanade, a handsome, mysterious, and very odd young man. Kaho falls in love with him at first sight, but that love is put to the test when she discovers the truth: Kanade is a 5th grader. Will Kaho's love conquer all or will their age difference and circumstance doom their romance before it even begins?
For the most part, shoujo tends to steer clear of controversy. Some series may be willing to explore teen social issues or engage in darker or more unusual themes, the genre as a whole generally sticks with what is safe and proven to work. That's what makes First Love Monster so unusual at first glance. The problem is that it dares to explore a romance that's guaranteed to make most people deeply uncomfortable because it involves a romantic relationship with a preteen.
Yeah, this isn't the sort of manga where you can make the excuse of "no, they look 11 but they're really a 1000 year old demon" or some other such thing. No, this story makes no bones about the fact that Kanade is still a child, no matter how tall and bishonen he may be. He still plays pretend, he chases bugs, and he treats Kaho more like a playmate than a romantic partner. It also goes out of its way to try to justify how Kaho could find herself in such a situation. She's shown to be deeply undersocialized, suffering from cripplingly low self-esteem, and naïve to a fault. She was basically all too ready to fall in love with the first guy who gave her the time of day and all too willing to justify it by any means necessary. It doesn't help that the story keeps trying to paint Kanade as a white knight, to the point where it has one of Kaho's housemates randomly attempts to rape her just so Kanade can save her.
What's awkward is that Hiyoshimaru is trying to play their relationship straight and for laughs at the same time. We're meant to laugh at Kaho's childish dates with Kanade or the fact that all of Kanade's friends are also giant bishonen save for their tiny, posh leader. At the same time, we're supposed to be sympathetic to Kaho's feelings. After all, Kaho is surrounded by other couples with similarly large age gaps and I get the feeling that Hiyoshimaru is building up to a moral about how age doesn't matter where true love is involved. Kaho's apartment complex is apparently full of high-school aged kids who are engaged in relationships with older partners, so she's got plenty of role models for people who have made legally questionable relationships work for them. Still, that's not enough to drive the metaphorical elephant in the room from the reader's mind. There is in fact a difference between a relationship between two partners who are old enough to understand relationships and romance, even if their ages would put them on the shady side of statutory rape laws, and one where one partner is too immature to understand what that means, much less consent. That's what makes the difference between a normal shoujo romance and one that's honestly too weird and uncomfortable to enjoy.
I can't quite get behind Hiyoshimaru's art. It's mostly because of her characters. She's very inconsistent with faces, which she tries to obscure with lots of messy hair. The only exception is Kaho, and she looks like every other dopey moe baby out, right down to the knock-kneed stance. There's a liveliness to her panels, at least. It's not that there's a lot of action, but that she uses a lot of dynamic angles and layered panels to keep things moving and to liven up the conversations. Now if she could put that same sort of effort towards drawing noses, she might make something of herself.
First Love Monster certainly stand out amongst this year's shoujo releases, but not because it's good but instead because it's so awkward and weird. There's just no way to make a romance with a preteen palatable, no matter how much the book tries to do so, and I don't see many people reading this one beyond the first few chapters.
This series is published by Yen Press. This series is ongoing in Japan with five volumes available. 2 volumes have been released and all are currently in print.
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