Stolen Hearts 1 by Miku Sakamoto: B+

stolenhearts1The basic plot of Stolen Hearts is summed up succinctly on its back cover: “a mismatched pair finds romance through a kimono shop.” Though the premise has some things in common with other shojo series—a significant difference in height between the two protagonists (Love*Com), a girl who attempts to familiarize her classmates with the finer qualities of her scary-looking love interest (Beast Master), and said unintentionally scary person experiencing the warmth of camaraderie for the first time (Kimi ni Todoke)—the particular quirks of the characters endow this series with a charm all its own.

When petite Shinobu Okuma (whose surname, we are reminded several times, means “big bear”) accidentally spills milk into a bag owned by her intimidating and brawny classmate Miharu Koguma (his surname means “bear cub”), Koguma tells her she can take responsibility for damaging the valuable kimono within by working off her debt at his grandmother’s kimono shop. Each day after school, they head to the shop and spend their afternoons together, dressed in kimonos and passing out flyers. Over time, Shinobu loses her fear of Koguma and realizes that he’s actually very sweet and kind, and even after he admits to tricking her (the kimono was actually worthless) and she falls victim to a lame kidnapping attempt from some thugs, she tells him in a forthright and angst-free fashion that she loves him, and the two become a couple.

Even though Shinobu doesn’t care that others might see them as an unbalanced couple, she’s still driven to clear up the misunderstanding that keeps her classmates tiptoeing around Koguma. “I want to show them his charms so badly, I can’t stand it,” she thinks at one point, and a perfect opportunity soon presents itself in the form of planning for the fall festival. Shinobu plays both sides here, giving Koguma pointers on how to be less frightening, and refusing to act as a go-between for classmates afraid to talk to him directly. Koguma also turns out to be surprisingly handy and, in the end, his popularity improves by leaps and bounds.

Things like kidnapping plots and school festivals seldom interest me, and I had originally anticipated awarding this volume a slightly lower grade because of it, but the charm of the characters combined with some terrific-looking kimonos (I especially loved the demonstration on donning a yukata!) moved me to be a little more generous. Koguma is bashful and easily flustered, lacking confidence but able to show his gentle charm with a little encouragement from Shinobu. I like him, but I like Shinobu even more; characteristics like determination and resourcefulness aren’t rare in shojo manga, but frequently manifest in an over-the-top fashion. Shinobu possesses these qualities, but in a more low-key way that feels a lot more real.

Miku Sakamoto’s art is attractive and looks much nicer inside than the cover would suggest. The high point, as mentioned, is the plethora of lovely kimonos, but I also find interesting the various ways the mangaka handles depicting Koguma and Okuma in the same panel, given their height difference. Sometimes Koguma kneels to be on eye-level with her, at one point the top of Okuma’s head is all that we see of her, and, in my favorite example, the bottom edge of the panel slopes diagonally across the page to reveal Okuma standing next to Koguma, whose dialogue bubble occupies the space above her head. Instead of resulting in awkwardness, the challenge has evidently encouraged innovation.

My one reservation going forward is whether the charm of the characters and the clothes will cease to be a reason to excuse some uninspired plotting. I’d rather see the leads explore their relationship than cycle through shojo’s greatest hits; if the next volume is all about Christmas and New Year’s, I’m going to be quite disappointed.

Stolen Hearts is published in English by CMX. The series is still ongoing in Japan. where four volumes are available so far.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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