These first ten volumes of Cheeky Angel have been sitting around my house gathering dust for several years. There’s nothing like agreeing to a manga trade, however, to inspire one to finally read something before it’s gone. I’m glad I did because I ended up enjoying them a good bit.
When rambunctious nine-year-old Megumi Amatsuka and his female pal Miki defend a mysterious wizard from some other kids, Megumi receives a magic book as a reward. From the book emerges a genie and Megumi promptly wishes to be the manliest of men. Instead, the genie turns him into the womanliest of women and tries to extort ten years of Megumi’s life to undo the change. An irate Megumi hurls the book into the river and has been a girl ever since. All records and memories of Megumi ever having been a boy were altered; only Miki remembers the way things used to be.
The story picks up again six years later when Megumi and Miki, steered by the counsel of a psychic, enroll at the neighborhood high school that will theoretically lead them to the book so that the transformation can be undone. Megumi (played in my brain by Summer Glau) has grown outwardly very feminine, but still possesses some masculine attitudes, namely a certain degree of rash fearlessness. Throughout the first few volumes, her looks attract a motley crew of admirers: Genzo the former thug, Ichiro the average guy, Hitomoji the wannabe samurai, and Yasuda the geeky pervert. Although the guys really would prefer for Meg to remain a girl, they nonetheless lend their assistance to her efforts to become a guy again.
I haven’t read many series that were originally published in Shonen Sunday, but Cheeky Angel does share common attributes with two that I have read—Case Closed and Inuyasha. In all three series, there is a larger plot that is touched on from time to time, but most of the story is made up of the episodic adventures (with a dash of comedy) of a likable ensemble of characters. In these ten volumes, Megumi encounters the genie twice more (on the first occasion it places a curse on her and on the second it informs her that the magic will eventually wear off of its own accord), and it’s definitely interesting each time, but more time is spent on foiling the murderous plans of some yakuza, preventing Miki from going through with an arranged marriage, et cetera. Just as no one believes anything fruitful will come of Inuyasha’s encounters with Naraku until the very end, there’s no real chance Megumi will suddenly become a boy again in the middle of this 20-volume series.
Sometimes I’m not a fan of episodic storylines, but Cheeky Angel pulls it off because Nishimori-sensei never loses sight of the most important aspect of the story: Megumi’s struggle to choose between accepting her current femininity and finding a way to return to what she once was. Even during the whole yakuza encounter, this dilemma is at the forefront of Meg’s mind and keeps the series focused even while silliness occasionally ensues. Because of her beauty, guys are continually showing their worst sides around her—coming off as horndogs, chiefly—which makes her question whether she really wants to be one, but then at other times her friends will come through for her in a big way and earn her admiration, reinforcing her “it’s cool to be a guy” belief while simultaneously inspiring some confusing semi-romantic feelings.
While Megumi’s internal indecision is probably the most compelling aspect of the series, her relationships with the other characters are also rewarding. Miki is a very interesting character in her own right, the voice of reason who wants Megumi to stay a girl, but yet questions her own reasons for doing so. Although Miki claims she never thought of the male Megumi in a romantic light, there are hints from time to time that the two of them might’ve had something if Megumi had stayed a guy. Megumi’s effect on her male friends is also nice to see: Genzo makes obvious progress in thinking things through more clearly and restraining his impulses to glomp Meg, and Ichiro surprises himself by displaying courage in some dangerous situations. I also like how their perception of Meg changes from lust object to valued and respected friend, with the possible exception of terminally pervy Yasuda.
On the negative side, the biggest problem Cheeky Angel has is its repetitiveness. I cannot begin to tell you how many times Megumi encounters a couple of lecherous thugs while out in public and kicks them into submission: it happens many, many, many times. And while I completely get that her feelings for Genzo, the forerunner for her affections, would vacillate, depending on how accepting she’s feeling of her feminine side, the cycle of progress followed by backsliding (usually prompted by him doing something moronic) does get a little frustrating. In addition, some of the episodic plots are pretty lame and Meg’s family—a dad who wants to see his own daughter naked and a mother who encourages Meg to let him indulge his curiosity—is profoundly creepy. Thank goodness they appear so rarely.
Artistically, Nishimori is to be commended on a few points. Yes, at first, his characters do occasionally appear to be vaguely cross-eyed, but he also employs a variety of character designs (except for the thugs) that all look Asian. Also of note: there is no fanservice at all in this series! For a manga about a hot chick who might possibly have feelings for her pretty friend, one might reasonably expect there to be something, but there never is. Megumi and Miki generally wear their school uniforms, but on casual outings are dressed either conservatively or in baggy clothing. VIZ’s production doesn’t earn as much praise, however, as there are several terms that could’ve used liner notes and a smattering of occasions where dialogue appears in the incorrect bubble.
Ultimately, Cheeky Angel is a shounen ensemble comedy with a good deal to offer. I read these ten volumes pretty much back-to-back and I could’ve gone on reading more if I’d actually owned them.