Hitohira is the story of a painfully shy high school freshman, Mugi Asai, who becomes invariably tongue-tied when faced with speaking in front of other people, though she otherwise possesses an unusually powerful voice. Having let out her true voice in her excitement over being accepted to the Kumataka Art Academy, Mugi is discovered and pursued by the director of the school’s theater club, who later coerces her to join. Mugi soon learns that the club she has joined is not, in fact, the school’s official theater club, but rather the tiny “Theater Research Group” which is struggling for survival. Though she quickly realizes her mistake in joining a club dedicated to public performance, without Mugi, the club does not have enough members to continue, so she ultimately gives in to peer pressure and remains in the club.
Though much of the first volume is spent introducing the characters and their relationships with each other, it is clear where the story is headed. Mugi’s involvement in the theater club will help her overcome her fears and become the confident young woman she has the potential to be. Nono, the club’s director, tells Mugi very earnestly that she believes that one day Mugi will look back and be glad that she joined the theater club. Mugi certainly has not reached that point by the end of the first volume, but she does enjoy the other members of the club (especially Nono), and it’s obvious that she’s taken a first step toward defeating her social anxiety. The other major plot point we’re introduced to in this volume is Nono’s struggle with vocal chord paralysis, which threatens her future as an actress. It is Nono’s decision to keep acting in the face of her ailment that was responsible for the split between the members of the Theater Research Group and the school’s official theater club, which is headed up by Nono’s former best friend, Mirei.
Despite the characters’ proclaimed devotion to theater, Hitohira does not delve into the subject with much passion, or even much apparent knowledge. One of the things that drives Mugi forward is her desire to understand why Nono and the others love theater as they do. She ponders often over the “magic” of theater, wishing that she could experience it herself. It will be interesting to see whether, over the course of the series, Idumi Kirihara can effectively portray that magic, both to Mugi and the reader, but for now, theater in Hitohira feels more like cold theory. It almost seems, at times, as if Kirihara is avoiding the subject. For instance, much is made of the Theater Research Group’s brutal rehearsal schedule, but though there are a few chapters in which the club members are seen practicing physical exercises or improvisation, very little is shown of the rehearsals for their first play of the year, which makes its performance midway through the volume seem very much out-of-the-blue.
That said, the story’s lack of onstage drama is more than made up for offstage. Relationships are key in this character-driven series, and there are plenty of them to explore. The dynamic within the Theater Research Group is quite interesting. Club members follow Nono’s direction without question, despite her often harsh demands. Their loyalty seems to be due, at least in part, to events surrounding their split from the main theater group, but only a few details of that are revealed in this volume. The most compelling relationships in the story, however, are between Mugi and Nono (who have an obvious rapport, including a bit of a girl crush on Mugi’s part), and Nono and former friend Mirei. Despite their falling-out, Mirei clearly still cares for Nono a great deal, and at one point, after realizing that Nono and Mugi are becoming close, asks Mugi to “please take good care of her.”
The relationships make Hitohira intriguing, but the first volume drags in places and feels fragmented in others, as though bits of chapters were torn out of the book. Mugi’s first appearance onstage comes up with little warning, and then is barely spoken of again afterward. In another chapter, the two rival theater clubs make a bet regarding the mid-term scores of the Theater Research Group members. Just as the scores are posted, one of the members takes off with the score sheet, leading to a half-hearted chase, after which the matter is dropped completely. That chapter is a misstep all around, as the series’ earnest tone doesn’t lend itself well to spirited tales of student hijinks, and Kirihara isn’t particularly strong with humor (further demonstrated by the flat omake pages at the end of the volume).
Aurora Publishing is marketing Hitohira as shojo, despite the fact that it runs in seinen magazine Comic High! in Japan, which is a somewhat confusing move. Though Mugi’s personal journey could certainly be relatable for many shy young girls, the moe fan service is pretty blatant, and definitely geared toward male readers. There’s nothing extremely offensive to girls in Hitohira (though it is a bit distressing that the protagonist’s vision of a “confident” female is a cheerleader) but this classification is definitely misleading. Fan service aside, Kirihara’s art is pleasant (if a bit plain), though some of the girls look so much alike, they can only really be distinguished by the style of their hair.
Hitohira has some nice moments and strong chemistry between characters, but the storytelling is too uneven to be truly compelling. Perhaps a stronger second volume (due out December 29th) will give the series more solid footing.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at PopCultureShock.