Kotoko Aihara has loved the brilliant and handsome Naoki Irie from afar ever since she saw him give a speech at their high school entrance ceremony two years ago. Because their school groups students by academic performance, however, the not-so-bright Kotoko has never had the opportunity to actually talk to Naoki. Even though she realizes it’s probably a lost cause, she resolves that she won’t let high school end without letting him know her feelings, and the series opens with her attempt to hand him a love letter, which he coldly refuses.
Kotoko resolves to forget him, but this is made impossible when the Aihara home is destroyed in an earthquake and she and her father must move in with his friend’s family. Of course, this turns out to be the Irie family, and Kotoko is thrust into continued proximity with Naoki while his mother pampers her, his little brother despises her, and all of the parents conspire to unite their families by a marriage between their eldest children. Kotoko and Naoki try to keep their living arrangements a secret from their schoolmates, but the truth eventually comes out, injecting a barrage of rumors and gossip into their academic routine.
While there are some things about Itazura Na Kiss that would be called cliché today—the klutzy underachiever protagonist, the two leads forced to live together—the series gets a pass since it began its serialization in 1991. More than contemporary shoujo, what it really reminds me of is Rumiko Takahashi’s (seinen) romantic comedy Maison Ikkoku, which also takes place over a long period of time as the two leads engage in a courtship dance to the amusement of meddling onlookers. While the antics of these onlookers (especially Kin-chan, a classmate obsessed with the idea of marrying Kotoko) aren’t always funny, they do at least help keep the overall tone light and reinforce the ensemble feel of the story.
Too often in shoujo, when a dense girl manages to win over the male genius of her dreams, it’s because he finds her ineptitude and/or helplessness endearing. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here. (Well, at least not yet.) Instead, Naoki continues to be cool and superior, critical of Kotoko’s failures but occasionally doling out tidbits of encouragement. When he begins to warm towards her, it’s not in a condescending way, but rather with a sense of wonder at the trouble she has introduced into his life, which, in turn, is causing him to experience unfamiliar mental states like anxiety and uncertainty. It’s clear that he has been coasting without ambition, bored without a challenge, and that Kotoko, whatever her flaws, is livening up his world considerably.
Kotoko, meanwhile, also grows from association with Naoki. With his help, for example, she manages to place in the top 100 for midterm exams despite being grouped in the lowest class academically, thus proving that she isn’t hopelessly stupid. Also, after she blithely declares a desire to attend college, it’s Naoki that causes her to question why she’d want to do that, when studying is such torment for her. Perhaps together they’ll be able to point each other in the direction that’s right for them.
Artistically, Itazura Na Kiss shows its vintage, with delicate lines, terrifically poofy hair for some of the fellows, and some comedic character designs for members of the supporting cast like Kin-chan and his lackeys. I’m hard-pressed to explain how exactly it manages to look older than other shoujo on the market; it just does. DMP’s production is excellent, however, and somehow, despite its page count, the book doesn’t feel excessively bulky.
Overall, I am quite charmed by this first taste of a shoujo classic and can’t wait for volume two!
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.