For a manga based on a dating game, Kenka Bancho Otome is far better that it ought to be. It’s a fast-paced, loose-limbed story that’s both cheerfully stupid and mildly subversive, buoyed by its deliciously queer premise: a girl goes undercover in an all-boys’ high school where her androgynous beauty and lethal karate chops inflame her classmates’ hearts.
The plot is set in motion by an accidental encounter between Hinako Nakayama, an orphan, and her long-lost twin Hikaru, whom she rescues from the path of an oncoming car. In the aftermath of the accident, Hikaru cajoles his sister into impersonating him for a day, lending her his school uniform and dropping her at the campus gates. Hinako soon realizes the folly of her brother’s request, however; Shishiku Academy is more like Rock ’n’ Roll High School than prep school, as its entire curriculum—if one could call it that—centers on fighting. Making matters worse is that everyone wants to fight Hinako because they believe she’s the heir apparent to the Onigumo crime family. She isn’t, of course, but Hikaru is, a detail he conveniently omitted when roping her into his charade.
If you’ve read more than one shojo comedy, you know what happens next: Hinako befriends and beguiles the best-looking delinquents at the school, from Totomaru, an earnest cutie who’s prone to nosebleeds and blushing, to Kira, a tousle-haired bishonen with a sensitive side. Author Chie Shimada has the good graces to keep the hot guys and fist-fights coming — the better to distract from the thinness of the plot —and the imagination to add small but delightful quirks to her main characters’ personalities. Her best running gag is Hikaru, who seems more at home impersonating his sister than inhabiting his own skin; though his temper suggests he’d be a ruthless crime boss, his obvious joy in looking pretty and flirting with Miraku, Shinsiku Academy’s resident idol, add a fresh dimension to the identity-swapping formula.
As you might expect, the artwork is more serviceable than memorable. Shimada proves capable of drawing a variety of familiar bishonen types — lanky guys with ponytails, serious guys with glasses — though the pro forma nature of the character designs occasionally makes it difficult to parse the fight scenes. (All those artfully coiffed young men have the same lanky, spike-haired silhouette.) Then, too, there are riotously busy pages where Shimada’s screentone is so thick and smudgy it’s almost palpable; the phrase “applied with a trowel” comes to mind.
Still, the Shishiku gang’s bonhomie is hard to resist, carrying the reader past the story’s creakier moments. So, too, is Hinako’s sincerity; her journey towards self-actualization is both touching and amusing, as she discovers that she might, in fact, be a more natural bancho than her twin. That she wins her fellow delinquents’ admiration with a mean right hook and a roundhouse kick is less important than the fact they appreciate her for her pluck, kindness, and thirst for justice — a nuance that elevates Kenka Bancho Otome from otome rehash to actual story. Recommended.
KENKA BANCHO OTOME: LOVE’S BATTLE ROYALE, VOL. 1 • STORY AND ART BY CHIE SHIMADA • ORIGINAL CONCEPT BY SPIKE CHUNSOFT • VIZ MEDIA • 194 pp. • RATED T, FOR TEENS (13+)