Manga Before Flowers -- Itazura na Kiss & Contemporary Shojo

This week I want to talk one of the biggest surprises of the 2008 Spring anime season -- a little show that could, titled Itazura na Kiss (aka Mischievous Kiss). Based on a 23-volume shojo manga of the same name from the early 90's, the creators of the anime have done a beautiful job updating a very influential shojo work (which began almost two decades ago) to the year 2008. In doing so, they've also revealed not only the influence of Itazura na kiss upon the contemporary shojo field but also the ways in which the original narrative often undermines the very cliches it has inspired in shojo manga since the early 90's.

From my perspective there are two works from the 1990's which -- for better and for worse -- have influenced contemporary romance shojo. Almost every shojo manga I read today includes what we now consider "cliched" elements that can be found in either Boys Over Flowers (1992) or Itazura na Kiss (1990). Today I'm gong to focus on Itazura na Kiss because people who watch the anime today may not entirely understand the degree to which it actually created a lot of shojo tropes we groan and bitch about. In other words, when Kiss did it in the 90's, it was actually kind of new. Importantly, however, Kiss also did a lot of unusual things that haven't been picked up by most shojo manga artists, which means even in 2008 it still remains oddly innovative. It should be noted that the manga remains unfinished due the sudden death of the mangaka, so the animators are also working to give her original story closure with the blessing of her family.

The basic plot: ditzy, but very sweet Kotoko tries to confess to the intellectual superstar of her school, Naoki Irie, after three years of loving him from afar (that is them in the picture above, of course). Irie won't even bother to take her letter since he doesn't like "stupid girls." Big shocker: Irie doesn't actually anyone or anything. More than a cold fish, he's basically a robot. Shocked and heartbroken by his coldness, Kotoko decides to forget him....until by one of those ridiculous shojo coincidences, Kotoko's house collapses in an earthquake and she and her father move in with her father's old friends...the Iries! (here is where we hit cliche-central stat, if we aren't already there). Living in such close proximity with her high school idol means that Kotoko can't give him up....and since Irie isn't as much of a sadist as he appears, it means he isn't the type to torture her simply for being a dumb, silly girl with "feelings" and such. He's more the type to ignore her completely, which isn't as easy a task as he expected....

I don't read American romance novels so I'm not sure if they are usually about "reforming" the man...Itazura na kiss isn't so much about reforming Naoki as much as it is teaching him to be human by contact with the unexpected, aka Kotoko (men or boys learning to be "human" seems to be a very common theme in romance-shojo as far as I can tell). I think Boys over Flowers is very similar, as the heroine there fights against the rich-snob-asshole hero, who also turns out to be less of a sadist than he appears and simply needs some serious lessons in humanity.

Here's why I think Kiss plays with a number of shojo cliches -- while the manga / anime begins with their senior year of high school, the story actually follows them through college....and far beyond. And without being too spoiler-ific (but probably unable to help it), the story doesn't end with "happily ever," i.e. marriage. It explores the middle-ground between our happily-ever-after-shojo-moment (i.e. girl finally gets guy) and what in the world actually happens after...a dynamic which in shojo almost seems like the "new frontier" as far as I'm concerned. Seriously, marriage isn't the answer to all of our romantic problems?! How unusual! (Yes, that is heavy sarcasm there, folks, if you didn't catch it).

The anime itself is quite lively, funny, and often charming without being overly sweet. Kotoko certainly isn't a feminist role-model (the way one might read Makino from Boys Over Flowers as being), but she is one of those forces of nature you sometimes get in shojo manga that really make the story worth while. Irie starts out above such things a petty, human emotions but watching Kotoko unknowingly "destroy" his life, as women are apt to due *snerk*, is suprisingly amusing. Unlike the manga, which is much too long, Kiss very nicely condenses aspects of the original story-line, and moves the story at a brisker, but more interesting pace, without much of anything being lost in the translation.

I will acknowledge, however, that there is one important aspect of characterization that isn't really covered in the anime and that is the fact that Irie eventually decides to reject Kotoko not because he dislikes her but because he doesn't want to fall into the trap of merely living a life his family has laid out for him (his father wants him to take over the family business, his mother wants him to marry Kotoko). In other words, Irie embraces one aspect of humanity that is vital to real happiness and that is our ability to choose for ourselves what we want out of life. This part of Irie's characterization makes his eventual decision to love Kotoko far more significant since he picks her as his partner because of true affection, not because she is the "easy" path to take.

In spite of the condensed nature of the anime, it still remains an engaging narrative and an unconventional romance tale. I encourage fans of shojo manga and / or anime to check the series out as the season is now wrapping up in Japan. While I doubt the show will ever be licensed for the U.S. (the manga is just too old now and the anime probably relies heavily on folks knowing about the original material's appeal) I can say should a U.S. company ever decide to take the show on it would be a charming and much-needed addition to our current depressingly-uniform shojo-catalog.

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