Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hatsu*Haru volume 9 loses its way a bit (Manga Review)

A highschool boy lifts up his highschool girlfriend and they make eyes at each other
Hatsu*Haru vol. 9 - 6/10

I have really liked Hatsu*Haru (Yen Press) so far, but volume 9 fumbles a bit. It's really a mixed bag with some wonderful and amazing moments and some real head-scratching non-realistic random plot junk plus some new stuff with a side character that suggests that the series will go for a while just because it can, rather than having a tight narrative.

Summary: Riko is the petite but strong girl who has always protected other girls in the school. Kai was the playboy who grew up with Riko and has fallen deeply in love with her, wanting something so much more than he ever had with his casual flings. By this point in the series they have gotten together.

Sadly, like many a series before it, it just doesn't know what to do with them once they are together. Unlike seminal series such as Kimi Ni Todoke that uses the relationship to springboard truly deep character growth and emotional exploration, Hatsu*Haru can't quite leave the broad comedy behind to find any solid emotional truth.

The volume starts with exploring Toramaru, one of Kai's friends, who has been mostly a random side character. We find out about the girl he grew up with and her feelings for him as well as her complex personality. It would be a sweet one-shot on its own, but 9 volumes in, do we need another side plot? Unlike some series whose side characters are intimately woven throughout, Toramaru hasn't been anything other than a random side character, and this felt like unneeded (but sweetly done) filler.

We also get a lot more time with Shimura and Taka as Shimura tries to figure out how she feels about Taka. But Shimura also cooks up a plan to generate more news for the school paper and does a hottest guy contest. Kai decides to enter in order to win the prize tickets to take Riko on a trip. He's desperate to move their relationship forward and for some reason feels that a trip with her is the only way to do it (you know, rather than talking about it, or flirting, or making any sort of move at all).

The whole contest feels ill-conceived and just random plot. Further, we don't see Riko or Kai engaging in any actual communication about their relationship. This is becoming a series where the only reason anything happens is that no one talks about their feelings. It should be that complicated. Riko and Kai like each other and are dating. Teens biologically know what to do, there is no good reason their relationship hasn't moved forward.

Then, in a somewhat odd move, the style reverts back to the more extreme physical comedy of the first volume. In that volume, Riko was the sworn protector of the girls in the school and quite capable of beating up anyone. We haven't seen that much of it since, as the last few volumes really focused more on her relationship with Kai. But all of a sudden, that physicality and broad comedy makes its way back. I just get the feeling that instead of wrapping up the series, it's being kept going just because. It feels aimless.

My only other concern, and it's been an ongoing concern with the whole series, is that Kai is the narrative focus. For a shoujo series to not give us Riko's insight and inner thoughts is disappointing. She's the best character in the series but she's still somewhat of an object for Kai rather than the lead in her own right. It's a bit strange to me that the male character is really our lead and our vantage point for their relationship.

All that being said, it isn't as though this volume was devoid of anything good. There are some very sweet moments with a variety of characters, including one amazing hug between Riko and Kai. The surprise winner of the hottest guy contest is a classic shoujo comedy twist, and well worth it as the punch-line. And even though the physical comedy with Riko is back, it is nice to see her still as a strong and capable young lady.

So it's not that it was bad, I still enjoyed it, but it started veering away from what had made the series strong early on. It started resorting to more broad comedy and random plot. It also introduced more stuff with the side characters which just seems like filler (even if it was sweet). So it has a "spinning its wheels" feel to it. Not bad, enjoyable, but not a great volume in an otherwise strong series. I'm giving it a 6/10 only because it doesn't rise up to the promise of earlier volumes.


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