To end the month, I wanted to look at something just as notorious as our first selection. Luckily, the answer was at hand. Few names strike as much fear into the hearts of shonen readers as Kouji Seo, and if I wanted to understand why I would need to start at the very beginning.
SUZUKA, by Kouji Seo. First published in 2004 and first published in North America in 2006.
Yamato hopes that by moving from the Hiroshima countryside to Tokyo for high school, he might just be able to change his life for the better. That's why he was willing to agree to live with his aunt and work in her apartment complex/bathhouse to earn his keep. It's there that he meets Suzuka, a star high-jumper who quickly takes a hot-and-cold approach to Yamato. Yamato's smitten with Suzuka's innate coolness, but will the other residents leave him alone long enough to let him say how he feels?
Suzuka and its sequel works have a reputation for being some of the worst and most manipulative shonen romances to ever see print. Looking over its first volume, I don't see something that's as dire as its reputation might suggest. What I do see is one of the most aimless, derivative manga I've read in a good long while.
It cannot be overstated how much Suzuka desperately wants to be Love Hina. Suzuka isn't just borrowing the basic concept of that manga, it's straight-up ripping off specific details and character types. Why else would you think that Yamato convienently ends up in a combination girls' dormitory and bathhouse? The only thing that's missing is a promise made to a cute girl whom Yamato can't quite remember. When it's not aping Love Hina, Suzuka is also borrowing gags from Maison Ikkoku like the hole in the protagonist's wall and the residents actively interfering in Yamato's life for their own amusement. A more skillful mangaka might be able to properly synthesize these ideas into something less derivative, but Seo simply isn't at that level and it's a constant distraction.
Yamato might just be the most anonymous lead I've ever seen in a manga. He's not a dweeb nor a pervert, but instead just filling space while having ludicrous acts of fanservice committed upon him. I get that characters like Yamato are meant to be stand-ins for their teen male audience, but he's so devoid of personality that he might as well be a blank outline on the page. Even his life goals are vague! He's not looking to get into a particular school or find a particular girl, but simply find something resembling a direction in his life. If that isn't the perfect metaphor for what a no-name numbnuts he is, I can't think of what else could be.
As for the titular Suzuka, she starts out with some promise. Her first major scene with Yamato is all about her struggling with the immense pressure she feels as a star athlete. There's some real poignancy to this moment, which makes it all the more depressing that it's dropped almost instantly so that Suzuka can turn into another boring tsundere. The personality is so sudden and so false that you can almost hear Seo's editors screaming "Make her more like Naru, damn it!"
The rest of the cast isn't handled any better. What I can't determine is precisely what is worse: Yamato's sleezy best friend or the drunken duo of Yuuka and Megumi. The former is a mooch and a douchebag who exists only to scheme on every girl in the series and give terrible advice. The latter are a tag team of obnoxiousness, as Yuuka hits on Yamato non-stop while extorting him for cash and Megumi clumsily falls upon in various states of undress in increasingly ridiculous ways. In comparison, Yamato's kindly aunt, sisterly pre-teen cousin, and hopelessly shy childhood friend are positively pleasant (if not any more original than anything else here).
There are brief moments where Suzuka captures the sort of wistful romance that good shonen romance should deliver. It's just that these moments are few and far between, while everything else is filled with nonsense and annoyance. I can't speak for how the rest of this series may have turned out, but I'm not surprised it didn't turn out well seeing how weak and unfocused its beginning is.
Seo's art isn't half-bad, which only makes the story's failings all the worse. The character designs are pretty reasonable for what is meant to be a fanservice-fest. Even the biggest breasts on display are pretty modest in size, and for once they actually have nipples! Their bodies move fluidly, even if Megumi's many "accidents" tend to defy the laws of physics. Nowhere is this fluidity more apparent when Suzuka practices her high-jumping. Seo manages to capture not only her athleticism, but even a certain degree of grace. Looking at her in those moments, you can see why Yamato would be so impressed. It's a shame his faces are a disappointment. They're expressive, sure, but they also tend to all look the same.
Seo is a decent draftsman. He (and/or his assistants) put real effort into the backgrounds, the fashion, and even occasionally into the panels themselves. If he didn't feel the urge to insert so much fanservice and worked a little more on the faces, the artwork might be able to overcome his failings as a writer.
Suzuka tries too hard to chase trends and pander to its audience instead of letting what few charms it possesses shine. With a beginning this flawed, it's no wonder it's remembered as such a failure.
This series was published by Del-Ray. This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available. 15 volumes were released and are currently out of print. This series is available digitally via Kodansha Comics.