By Ken Akamatsu. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.
Everyone has those titles. You know, the ones you were obsessed with 10-15 years ago. The ones you still enjoy, even though in the back of your mind you know you can never revisit it ever, because if you do you will be mature enough to see all the flaws you missed in the first rush of fandom. The mid-late 90s are a particularly strong time for me in that regard. Ranma, Oh My Goddess, Tenchi Muyo, and (a bit later) Love Hina. Four titles that in your early 20s are AMAZINGLY AWESOME, especially if you then get involved in fanfics, mailing lists, etc. And then you read them and you realize what you glossed over earlier annoys you now, and the plot you enjoyed has now been used by 80 other series to the point that you grow weary of it. Would Love Hina, now being re-released nine years after Tokyopop put it out, suffer the same fate?
There are a few things you will have to come to terms with as a reader if you are going to enjoy Love Hina. It is a harem manga. Worse, it is a harem manga where the outcome is never in doubt – thus if you like a girl who isn’t Naru, you know you’re doomed and spend 13 more volumes getting progressively more annoyed. It is filled with blatant and obvious fanservice, mostly involving girls under the age of 18. This never goes away. It is filled with what has been commonly dubbed ‘comedic sociopathy’ – which is to say characters are angry and hit each other all the time because the author thinks it’s funnier that way. In the 550 pages of this omnibus, I believe Naru punches Keitaro almost 50 times, and I may be underestimating that. And this doesn’t even count Su kicking him, or Motoko trying to slice him in two with her katana. It’s a comedy. Keitaro recovers 2 panels later. Learn to roll with it.
If you can get past all that… this is a fun, heartwarming title. Admittedly, it takes a while to get going. As with Negima, Volume 1 of Love Hina is pretty obviously the nadir. Keitaro was a highly influential harem lead, but for all the *wrong* reasons. Ataru was after the girls himself, Tenchi had actual superpowers to bust out, and Ranma was a martial arts master. Keiichi Morisato comes closest, and is certainly unlucky, but lacks the patheticness Keitaro Urashima has at the start. We see him as a 2nd year ronin, having failed to get into the prestigious Todai university. Again. He also notes that he’s not handsome, and has no real friends, and has never had a girlfriend. What does he have? Well, he has the bad luck to always walk in on women naked, and tends to fall over clutching their breasts. Oh yes, and he’s NICE. Keitaro was first, so I won’t get on his case as much, but he was the prototype for many harem leads who literally have no redeeming qualities except their ability to be extra super nice. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Added to this, we have a cross-section of girls that end up living in the inn his grandmother leaves to him in the introductory chapter. Tsundere Naru, aka the second most polarizing female in all of anime (Akane Tendo being first) tends to lash out with her fists when angry, embarrassed, or scared, which, around Keitaro, is all the time. Luckily, like most tsundere characters, this is only half of her persona, and we do over the course of these three volumes see Naru’s softer, more caring side. She also starts to see that Keitaro means well, and begins to realize that she might even be falling for him. Which… makes her angry, embarrassed, and scared. Cue fists, repeat as needed. If you leave out all the scenes when she’s hitting him, what you’re left with is quite a sweet relationship between two people who are a lot more alike than Naru would like to admit.
As for the others, like most ‘date sim’ or harem mangas they’re designed to provide a selection of different female leads to appeal to the reader. Cute and shy Shinobu, who’s 7 years younger than Keitaro – and can cook to boot! Hyperactive Su, who is foreign but not from India, and runs through each scene she’s in on pure energy. Stoic Motoko, the young kendo swordswoman who worries she may be dealing with those pesky feelings of love. Trickster Mitsune, who enjoys alcohol and teasing Keitaro and Naru, probably not in that order. Motoko and Shinobu will get far more focus in future volumes (indeed, Motoko seems rather out of character here, and won’t come into her own till she gets just as flustered and blush-ridden as Naru currently gets), Su slightly less so. Mitsune gets virtually no page time of her own, it needs to be said, and the anime deepened her friendship with Naru quite a bit.
Then there’s Mutsumi, a.k.a. my favorite character. Again, this is for purely irrational reasons – she only appears sporadically through the series, and is never one of the main cast. Of all the cast, she probably comes closest to winning Keitaro’s heart – except she’s nowhere near it either, and knows it – the man only has eyes for Naru. Mostly I think I like her because of my penchant for, if you’ll pardon the expression, ‘dizzy dames’. Mutsumi is the type who will get a perfect score on a test and forget to write her name; or will end up on a desert island without realizing that if she walks back into it 50 yards she’ll find her house. She is, however, savvy enough to pick up on Keitaro and Naru’s relationship almost immediately – certainly before either of them do. (She also kisses Keitaro, and then to make up for it kisses Naru. When I first read the series, this was VERY IMPORTANT to my young self.) I am always happy when Mutsumi’s around in this series.
I should take some time to talk about the re-release. If you’re a fan of the old manga, and are wondering if the upgrade is worth it – yes, it is. The artwork is much clearer, the translation retains honorifics and last name usage (important in a series like this where so much could depend on Keitaro saying Naru rather than Narusegawa – he doesn’t, in the entire omnibus, call her by her first name). The lettering is professional and looks neat – a far cry from Tokyopop’s… um, enthusiastic lettering job of old. The old ‘bonus pages’ are retained, and we get the usual Kodansha endnotes, detailing things such as Naru namechecking Doraemon.
I will admit that when I heard this series was going to be part of the Manga Movable Feast, I raised an eyebrow. Love Hina is no deep, meaningful masterpiece, and merely flipping through it can tell you that. But if you want a romantic comedy with a hearty emphasis on the comedy, and don’t find it aggravating when slapstick violence happens every two pages, there’s much to enjoy here. The loud rampaging scenes make the occasional quiet, heartfelt ones sweeter, and it’s there, where Naru is quietly cheering Keitaro on to study harder, or confessing her own worries and fears to him, that we start to see what a good couple they will eventually make.
Eventually. Once we have 11 more volumes of slapstick violence.
This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher.