After all the drama I've had to read this month, it's nice to come back to a simple shoujo story. The sort of story that's just about a girl and a boy and a chronic lack of communication.
KIMI NI TODOKE ("Reaching You"), by Karuho Shiina. First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2009.
Sawako Kuronuma is a sweet and painfully shy young woman, but to her classmates she comes off as creepy. It's bad enough that her awkwardness and long black hair have earned her the nickname "Sadako," after the character from The Ring. The only person who is willing to give Sawako a chance is Kazehiya, a class representative and all-around nice guy. Sawako is utterly smitten with him, even if she's completely oblivious to the nature of her feelings. With his encouragement, she starts reaching out to her classmates and making some friends, even as their own burgeoning friendship is slowly but surely turning into a burgeoning romance.
I've covered lots of schoolroom shoujo romances on this site and most of them could only aspire to mere mediocrity. By all accounts, Kimi ni Todoke should be just another of them but instead it's one of my personal favorites. How is that possible? The key lies with its handling of Sadako and its complete sincerity.
It would be easy to write off Sawako as yet another oblivious ingenue, the kind of girl who falls in love without even understand what on earth love is. I've even seen some speculate that Sawako is meant to portray someone on the autism spectrum, although that is understandably very much up for debate. Still, Shiina takes care to make the story just as much about Sawako learning to make friends as it about her learning to love. The most prominent storyline thus far isn't her relationship with Kazehiya, but about her getting to know the tomboyish Yoshida and stylish Yona. While these two do come to love Sawako and defend her from others, they're not just there to be Sawako's cheerleaders. They get to be characters in their own right with their own personalities and issues to work through. I'm always a fan of shoujo series that savor the joys of friendship as much (if not more) than young love, so that went a long way with me.
That's not to say that there isn't any romance to be found here. After all, it's Kazehiya's gentle encouragement and emotional openness that inspires Sawako in the first place. That being said, I'm not quite as in love with him as Sawako is. I do like the fact that he isn't some moody jackass or a playboy meant to be reformed through a maiden's love because those archetypes are beyond overdone. It's nice to find a series where the girl falls in love with a genuinely nice, responsible, well-adjusted person. Still, he's almost TOO good and perfect, like the platonic ideal of teenaged popularity. It's hard to believe that he wouldn't have even the slightest bit of insecurity or drama to work through himself or that there wouldn't be at least one kid who didn't like him. This leaves him feeling a little dull. It also doesn't help that he's just as shy and naive about love as Sawako, which means anyone who reads this series better prepare to spend volumes at a time waiting for these two to realize the obvious. It's almost just as unbelievable that it took 15 years for someone to simply talk to Sawako and realize that she's always been a sweetheart.
Yet I'm perfectly willing to overlook those points because Shiina writes it all with a quiet sense of sincerity. She doesn't aim for high melodrama but instead lets the quiet moments of bonding wash over the reader like a warm bath. Everything in this story radiates warmth and gentility and it would take a far harder person than I to resist those good feelings. It's not everyday that you find a shoujo series that genuinely makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, after all.
Shiina's art is just as gentle and dewy-eyed as her story. Her characters are fairly simply looking, as they are mostly defined by their big, clear, expressive eyes. She clearly has fun drawing Sawako, be it her unintentionally scary moments (complete with dark, ominous lighting and low angles) as well as the moments where she bursts into a genuine and beautiful smile. If that wasn't cute enough, she adds a puppy midway through for Sawako and Kazehiya to bond over. It's practically a marshmallow in dog form, and while it may be a rather blatant play for the heartstrings it's also too cute to resist.
Sawako and Kazehiya may be too good and sweet to be true, but Kimi ni Todoke is not. It's steeped in good feelings from cover to cover and its sincerity goes a long way towards smoothing out whatever issues I might have with it.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 27 volumes available. 26 volumes have been published and all are currently in print. This series is also available digitally through Viz.