(WARNING: This review/analysis contains spoilers. You have been warned)
Koharu no Hibi
Created by: OOSHIRO Youkou
Boredom can sometimes sprout into a pleasant serendipity. I discovered this little gem over the weekend when my life raised objections to my desires to see, well, any movie I wanted, really. Errands, car troubles, family visits, and general burnout put a beating on me for just about three weeks straight. So in response, I hit the Internet, not searching for anything in particular - perhaps just my next review - when somehow, someway, I landed before this: Koharu no Hibi, what promised to be a highly unconventional romance.
Torii Akira (your typical Ordinary High School Student protagonist) was heading home on the subway when he suddenly catches a young underclassman as she tripped. He helped her with her books - to her profuse gratitude - and promptly went home, thinking nothing more of it. The next day, said underclassman - a small, impossibly adorable girl named Mutsuki Koharu - was waiting for him by the school gate. She continues to lavish praise and attention on him, to which he’s initially quite pleased...until he catches her after school having an intimate, spit-swapping make-out session - with his flute. While he’s understandably freaked out, his abnormal admirer seems fully unperturbed; in fact, she uses this awkward moment as an opportunity to confess her feelings...all while Akira’s backed against the class wall with the look of a bleeding seal facing down a Great White. Unfortunately, what should be an easy “No Deal!” for any normal guy gets complicated by Akira’s confusion/curiosity, and the meddling of Natsuki, a childhood friend who is hell bent on hooking the two of them up. And so begins Akira’s long and troubling courtship with a most unusual - and enthusiastic - devotee.
This manga is quite the strange egg, I must admit; much like its leading lady, you’re never quite sure how you’re supposed to feel, and often find yourself surprised even when you know, deep down, you shouldn’t be. While in the end there’s nothing exceptionally groundbreaking going on here, you get the feeling very early on that you’re reading something quite unlike both your typical rom-com manga, and your typical “crazy-stalker-girl-with-obsessive-crush” manga. (Don’t believe that’s an expansive genre? Scour the backwaters of the anime/manga torrent - trust me, it’ll leave you enlightened and terrified.) The first half is mainly devoted to building on this odd couple’s “relationship,” which relies heavily on the likability of its two leads and the masochistic push and pull that binds them. Akira is fairly typical as your romantic “hero” in this setting - not much in the way of back story, and his personality pretty much surmounts to “spastic reaction” to Koharu’s craziness. Still, he’s likable enough, and has a bit more fire than you’d expect; I got a sick little thrill seeing him doll out the physical punishment to other characters, rather than the other way around as is the usual case. But honestly, we’re not here for him; his purpose is to serve as audience proxy for the antics of the titular character, who is the real star of the show. Koharu blends sweetness and an unshakable devotion to Akira, with a bizarre and downright creepy thought process that’s eerily close to how stalkers actually think. She seems so oblivious to how her actions come across to others that it makes you wonder if there’s a real-life psychological condition underlying her obsessive behavior, which ranges from the mildly strange to beyond creepy. This whole setup works because, unlike most protagonists in similar manga, Akira is aware of how totally not alright any of this is. Whenever Koharu does something over the top - like making a bento lunch and informing him that she stuffed it full of her “love,” or trying to glue their hands together so as to make a special moment during a date last forever - Akira freaks out as any normal person would, and his fear is played completely straight. Yet he, like us, keeps getting back up for another round - drawn in, perhaps, by curiosity, but more so (I suspect) by a sense of social duty; you get the feeling he’s doing society at large a favor by being the lightning rod for this wacko’s affections. It’s all so hilariously creepy that you immediately feel bad the moment you catch yourself laughing out loud - which, for me at least, was more often than I’d care to admit.
Of course, the story does have its weaknesses; the rest of the cast, for instance, had little more than wire-frame personalities at best. And while the second half of the series starts off with a bang by introducing Mika, another childhood friend of Akira’s/rival for his affection who eventually kicks Koharu’s previously mild displays of insanity into truly troubling depths, this particular storyline ends up going nowhere special. While Mika herself is a fun, pleasant little addition, almost immediately deconstructing Koharu’s inane thinking behind her “love” at first sight, and steering the story towards what appeared to be a tense and nail-biting climax, the arc in which she appeared came to an astoundingly lame conclusion, one that smacked of an oddly enforced status quo. It’s almost as if the mangaka ran out of steam or ideas towards the end, and while the last 5 or so chapters were no less enjoyable than, say, the ones in the first half, after the tense high point just a few chapters earlier, the manga ended in a tragically anticlimactic fashion. Rating: 8/10
While Koharu no Hibi’s story is fresh and interesting, its artwork is really nothing to write home about. Much of the generic manga flare and techniques are on full display here, which to its credit grants it no disservice, but the only thing of note really is Koharu herself, whose huge, round eyes blotted with crystalline detail raise her a notch above the "generic cuteness" scale. It’s a wonder what OOSHIRO Youkou accomplished with just her eyes alone; while her expressions generally don’t vary much over the course of the manga, watching her eyes lose their prismatic sheen and either dull out of unhappiness, or sharpen to monochromic intensity in the presence of Mika, opened a clear window to her disturbed psyche, and can be quite unsettling at the right moments. Unfortunately, the remaining cast (skeletal as it is) share Koharu’s muted emotions, but possessed no vehicle to express them with; Akira, Natsuki, and even Mika are all generic and plain-looking, like they were pulled from a big list of manga visual archetypes with little or no embellishment, and in all honesty, Koharu sticks out like a sore, psychotic thumb whenever she's with them as a result. Rather, OOSHIRO Youkou’s strength is in his reactions and emotion shots. As mentioned above, most of this manga’s unsettling humor draws from Akira’s responses to Koharu’s craziness, and if the fear wasn’t written so vividly on his face whenever she had him cornered, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Mika really takes the cake and runs with it, though; she’s the only one besides Akira who sees Koharu for the disturbing nutcase she is, and the culmination of their conflict - which to me is the climax of the story, rest of the manga be damned - leaves Mika believably horrified when Koharu...well, you just have to read it to really understand. Still, much like the story itself, the artwork slides into decay for the last few chapters, which is a sure sign yet again that the creator really let things go towards the end. Rating: 6/10
Despite some last minute laziness, this short little series was fun, funny, and leaves you with quite a bit food for thought, if you’re willing to “go there” with its uncommon interpretation of a wacky yandere plot. Total: 14/20 = C+