It's time to take some of my older readers down nostalgia lane with one of the many 90s shoujo series Tokyopop picked up in their glory days.
KODOCHA: SANA'S STAGE (Kodomo no Omocha, "Child's Toy"), by Miho Obana. First published in 1994 and first published in North America in 2002.
Sana is a popular child actress with a larger-than-life personality and a pressing need to help the people around her. Her first project is to stop a gang of rowdy boys from tormenting her homeroom teacher and disrupting class. Sana eventually confronts their leader, Akito, and wins. In the process, though, she learns that he's dealing with much heavier matters at home and Sana may be the only one able to help him.
The notion of an energetic young woman seeking to improve the lives of other around her is as old as Emma (the Jane Austen one, not the Kaoru Mori one) and it's certainly nothing new to the world of shoujo. Kodocha can veer pretty wildly between heavy comedy and heavy drama, but Sana helps to give it all some focus.
Any reader would be hard-pressed to not love Sana. She's a manic ball of energy, but she's gifted with just enough bravery and intelligence to keep her from simply being a brat. It's a personality that works well for a protagonist, but it also makes her the perfect comic foil to Akito, who rarely raises his voice or changes his expression. Of course, Akito ends up grounding the story emotionally far more than expected. In true shoujo fashion, his troublemaking is simply a symptom of his dramatic backstory, where he has been more or less ostracized from his family for melodramatic reasons. I can see what Obana was going for here, but his backstory strays just a little too far into ridiculousness to be truly tragic.
When we're not plunging into the stuff of sappy drama, we're watching him and Sana play off one another, and that's by far the most enjoyable and effective part of the story. It's interesting and funny to watch her quest to one-up him become a reluctant friendship, especially as both of their friend groups get roped in. In comparison, the bits about Sana working on her TV show or dealing with her very strange mother stray into wild, wacky comedy. Coming off of Akito's story, this might seem incongruous, but it's Sana that helps to anchor these disparate parts into something whole and enjoyable. Kodocha truly is Sana's stage on which to shine.
Kodocha's art is typical of mid-90s shoujo: bobbleheaded, big eyed kids on scrawny bodies drawn in a delicate yet appealing manner. Befitting the more comedic tone, Obana puts more effort into the sight gags than most shoujo mangaka. She particularly likes to use them for Sana's daydreams where they serve as comedic metaphors for whatever situation she finds herself in. That focus on comedy means that she also largely avoids the flowery flourishes of her contemporaries. When she uses things like screentones, they tend to be odd and blotchy. Of course, with this being a Tokyopop release that could just be an artifact of their bad scans.
There's a particularly weird little side story where Akito is a moth monster that threatens Princess Sana's kingdom. You can probably guess the twist to this one right away. There's also a few 4-koma strips about Sana's mother and the chipmunk that lives in her hair.
Yes, you read that correctly. No, I am not joking.
Sana's charms and the great sight gags help to keep Kodocha from going to far into wackiness or melodrama. It's easy to see why this is still remembered, even if it's mostly for its animated counterpart.
This series was publshed by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 10 volumes available. All 10 were published and are currently out of print.