Why Kare Kano Remains One of the Best Shoujo Romances

 

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Kare Kano has always had a special place in my heart, starting from my early high school more than a decade ago now. It was one of the first romance mangas I picked up and still remains steadily sitting on my bookshelf to this day. I’ve been feeling a lot of nostalgia lately for manga and anime of the 90’s and early 2000’s, and decided to revisit this classic recently. I spent the better part of two or so days binging through the whole 21 volumes, and am pleased to say my nostalgia did do it justice, which I can’t say for many other mangas from that time period. I won’t say the story is perfect, but there are reasons why it has remained in my top five romance mangas of all time for so long.

Kare Kano, or His and Her Circumstances, follows the story of Yukino and Arima who are both the tops of their class at high school, admired by students and teachers alike for their intelligence and attitude. However, for both of them, this perfect student persona is just that, a mask that they wear to gain respect and admiration from their peers. Yukino thrives on the attention her classmates give her, while Arima must play the good boy role for the well-being of his adopted family. When Yukino sees her position in school threatened by Arima’s rise to class president, a vicious feud erupts that leaves their true faces exposed.

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It’s the Kare Kano manga I really want to talk about today, but I highly recommend checking out the anime if only for the great animation and cinematography that they use to bring this story to life. It of course falls into the same trap that many adaptations do: ending too soon and thus not getting the chance to get to the heart of the main conflict. Produced by Studio Gainax, the anime combines the feel of the manga with pretty good animation through paneling that shows off the art style of Masami Tsuda. The paneling could also be construed as a way to get around a low budget by using already existing content, but I think it gives the show a great mixed-media vibe that I haven’t quite seen anyone emulate so far, except maybe Doukyuusei with its use of paneling. However, the director, Hideaki Anno, also wanted toplay up the comedy and romance of the series, choosing this particular format to do it.

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The manga also has its strengths when it comes to visuals. Tsuda is quite good at displaying meaningful moments without the use of excessive dialogue. Moments, for example, where we may only see Asaba and Arima sitting on the roof together, supporting each other with their backs, can speak volumes. Or the panels where we see Arima’s subtle change of expressions signaling his battle with his inner demons. As the manga progresses more and more into Arima’s story, we also see a clear darkening of not only mood but color tone. However, what I love noticing the most in any comic is the clear improvement in art, and I see this happening in Kare Kano as the chapters progress. I wouldn’t say Tsuda’s art is bad in the beginning of the manga, but only that it lacked polish, which we can see develop later on.

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But I digress, the manga is also where the real meat of the story resides. It’s where we see Tsuda really pull out all the stops for the characters, giving each their own voice and story that makes each detour away from the main characters interesting. There have been far too many times when I’ve been reading a manga with a large cast and haven’t quite been able to keep track of all of the side characters. What I think Tsuda excels at is fleshing out the side characters and making them people that we come to care about. They become more than background characters, but people with their own troubles, romances, and dreams for the future. In the same vein, under Tsuda’s writing the characters of Arima and Yukino became one of the most realist couples in an anime romance that I have seen. At least for the majority of the manga. Kare Kano has its own problems, but I don’t think the latter part of the manga’s dive into melodrama really takes away from the characterization that Tsuda built up in the beginning of the series. But more on that later.

 

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One of the reasons this manga is and has stayed so appealing to many romance fans stems from the nature of Arima and Yukino’s relationship and the stories that surround them. For many shoujo romances we are often stuck with stories that play up the drama of a new relationship, adding in roadblocks and love triangles to make it harder for them to come together. The whole series seems to then become a lead-up to the moment they finally get together and admit their feelings. Kare Kano, however, has Arima and Yukino start their relationship within the first two or so volumes, leaving the rest of the story to develop around their current relationship. This is partly due to Tsuda’s history of writing short stories before this, but her decision to continue their relationship into the 21 volume manga that it is know is what really cemented it as a classic. The simple fact that we’re not watching two characters try to finally become a couple, but instead two people trying to both strengthen their relationship and grow as people is integral to why this story stands apart from many other shoujo romances. And it’s that last part that’s really important. The fact that they both have needs and wants outside of their relationship to one another makes their characters so memorable. Yukino is driven by praise, obsessed with money, but has a clear view of the future she wants for herself. Arima may be held back a lot by his past, but we see him strive for victory in kendo matches and work hard in school to make his family proud of him. I think it’s important when looking at a romance story like this to take a step back and ask yourself: “Who would these characters be if they suddenly broke up or never got together in the first place?” If you can’t answer that, then the author hasn’t done a good job of making believable characters and the story itself will become forgettable.

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So what do we see in the progression of Yukino’s character that sets her apart from others in the shoujo genre? I think first and foremost, she’s strong-willed yet selfish. Yukino could be classified as a “manic pixie dream girl” to an extent, as she does her best to change Arima’s outlook on life throughout the series, but she gets more growth than most of those types of girls. What drew me to Yukino, though, was her strong sense that she knew exactly what she wanted out of life. There was some back-and-forth throughout the series about career path, but under it all was this striving for a powerful position that would require her to use the intelligence she worked so hard to gain. Whether it was lawyer, doctor, or something in finance, I got the sense that she wasn’t going to stop working until she got there. But she is also selfish, valuing praise, rank, and money over real relationships with people for quite a while until she finally decides to stop acting the perfect student. But this means when she finally sets that part of herself aside, she must relearn how to make friends and nurture relationships. This is where we see the vast majority of her growth. It’s also where Yukino starts off from at the beginning — the star student, admired by all — that sets this manga apart as well. A lot of stories seem to want to focus on the characters in the shadows, the wallflowers who have never been noticed before. Perhaps this is because these stories of finally getting attention from someone resonates with a lot of school-age girls. After going back and reading Kare Kano again though, I found Yukino’s story refreshing in a way. We still get an interpersonal growth narrative, just from a different angle.

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Arima, however, is a little more difficult to talk about as a lot of his characterization comes from outside sources: what and how he reacts to things and the people he seems to relate the most to. It takes a while for his full story to finally come out, but in the end we see someone deeply troubled from a young age who in unsure of his relationships to the people around him. He is someone who shows characteristic signs of PTSD, anxiety, and emotional neglect. And it is ultimately his relationship to Yukino that is keeping him grounded. While we see that he values his relationship with Yukino above everything else, he seems to relate more fully with the characters of Asaba and Shibahime to the point of confiding in Asaba more than he does with Yukino. This comes from these character’s ability to relate to Arima’s status as an orphan. While we don’t get as much backstory on Asaba as I would have liked, we get enough to understand that he is living on his own for a reason. Seemingly abandoned by his father, Asaba can understand the scars that Arima tries to cover up and can recognize when he’s hiding his doubts and jealousy. It’s through the moments of support from Asaba that we get the sense Arima’s troubles are more than he wants others to see. It’s through his relationship with Shibahime and Asaba that we begin to piece together his past and relationship to his real parents.

What becomes the turning point for Arima and our understanding of him, however, is the school play written by Sawada. The play itself was written with the characters of Yukino, Maho, and Shibahime in mind all people who have had issues with their public personas. It becomes something that Sawada capitalizes on — knowing that Yukino will be able to accurately portray the character — but what she doesn’t realize is how much the play resonates with Arima. By looking at the story of the play and Arima’s reactions, we get a better sense of who he is as a person and what his fears or issues are. The play focuses on a famous scientist (Yukino) who strives to better himself but finds his intelligence falling short and becomes taken over by despair. The young android that he created becomes his only solace in his secluded world. In Arima we see a mirror of this, a man troubled by his past and feelings of inadequacy who finds comfort in one important person.

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And while I think the latter part of the manga dives a bit too much into the melodrama, I did still thoroughly enjoy it. As someone who spent a good deal of time studying psychology, seeing Tsuda’s portrayal of mental illness and Arima’s subsequent battle with it didn’t make me disappointed. While her portrayal of Arima’s descent into madness could be seen as a little much, his struggle to overcome it was refreshing. Tsuda put aside the cliche and misleading narrative that loving someone is enough to help them overcome their illness, and instead told the story of Arima — separated from Yukino — confronting his fears, his past, and who he really is as a person. At its core, it’s a story of self-discovery and growth, and we see in the end that, while Arima may never be completely free of the trauma, relying on the people closest to him can help mitigate the worst of it.

Like a lot of the series that captured my attention this much, there is always more that I could talk about, and perhaps someday I will. However, if you’d like to see me talk more about some of my top 5 anime, mangas, and comics, be sure to return on July 9th for week-long special content just in time for the blog’s 1 year anniversary. Don’t miss it! Also head over to my Facebook page in the next day or so to see a teaser of the new banner image for the blog!

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