School clubs as a venue for friendship and romance are just as common in shojo manga as they are in shonen, but this one brings at least one welcome twist to the formula.
IMADOKI! NOWADAYS (Imadoki!), by Yuu Watase. First published in 2000 and first published in North America in 2004.
Tanpopo Yamazaki came all the way from Hokkaido to attend the prestigious Meio Academy in Tokyo. On her first day there, she encounters a young boy tending to a flower as if it were a friend. She couldn't have possibly expected that same boy to be Koki Kugyo, the heir to the school itself. Neither did she expect the entire student body to turn on her for daring to talk to Kuyo while not being rich. Tanpopo won't let that get her down, though. She's determined to get to know the real Kuyo, even if she's got to strongarm him into the newly created gardening committee!
Imadoki! Nowadays is your classic shojo schoolroom melodrama. All the elements are there: a spunky heroine, a reluctant, hot-and-cold love interest, a student body who hates the heroine for existing, a two-faced mean girl, and a contrived situation to bring the first two together. This should be boring and obnoxious, and yet it is not. Why? Because our heroine doesn't give a shit!
I'm only half-joking about that. Tanpopo is so positive and self-assured that all the bullying rolls off her like water on a duck's back. She's so laser-focused on making friends with Kiko (and later on with Tsukiko, the aforementioned mean girl) that when they get mad at her she applauds them for showing her the 'real' them versus their more neutral public faces. There's an obvious parallel to this with her introducing real, living flowers to the campus grounds instead of the fake flowers that had been there previously, flowers that become just another target for her bullies. Her refusal to acknowledge the bullying just makes it clear how fake the drama around her is in the first place, an fig leaf for teenage insecurity and snobbery.
Alas, I know it can't last. I've read enough shojo manga to know that Tanpopo will likely turn out to have some dark tragedy in her backstory, something that she has either overcome or represses to sustain her sunny outlook. I also hope that there's more development to the relationship between her and Kiko, as so far it mostly involves her barging into his space and doing her best to refute his idea of friendship being a clinical, quid-pro-quo concept. If Watase can manage that without losing Tanpopo's ability to shrug off her troubles and shake up the squares, she might just have something here.
Imadoki! Nowadays comes from an interesting, transitional point in Watase's career as an artist. Just by looking at the cover, you can tell that she's starting to bring some dimension to her character art. They aren't as flatly drawn as those in Fushigi Yugi or Ceres: Celestial Legend. There's also more attention to detail, which can be seen everywhere from hair texture to the fussy school uniforms. She also puts a lot of energy into Tanpopo's expressions, which not only sells the reader on her positive outlook but helps the comedy to boot. Even the paneling gets more chaotic and energetic whenever she's around.
There's really only two complaints I have: she still hadn't figured out to draw a love interest who wasn't just another Tamahome clone and that she doesn't get to do much with the backgrounds because it's all set at a dull, oppressive public school. It would be a few years yet before Watase figured out the former, and I can only hope that things get prettier for Tanpopo et al. as the series goes on.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available. All 5 were released and are currently in print and available digitally.