High School Debut: Gotta Have 'Em All

>> Sunday, September 4, 2011

High School Debut
, aka Koukou Debut by Kawahara Kazune may be one of the hardest manga ever for me to explain why I like it enough to be a "Gotta Have 'Em All." It has characters that are nothing like characters I generally identify with. It's almost entirely set in school and dealing with school problems and relationships that as a 43-year-old woman, I generally couldn't care less about. I don't care for the artwork. And yet, it's a favorite and I had to have them all and I still love them. Another of Amazon's recommendations, I was, before reading, put off by the very high school setting and the clinched Pygmalion premise. When I opened it, I was put off, rather dramatically, by the artwork.

It's ugly. Oh, I know the critics have praised it for the clean style and layout, dynamic figures and emotional expression (I'll endorse that last one). Since I'm not an art expert, I can't say whether that's true or not. I didn't notice any clever dynamics and I thought it was ugly, even the pictures I liked most, but I will say it worked for this story, very effectively conveyed emotion and, long before I'd reached the end, I'd gotten used to it.

Still ugly though.

Something else it is, though, in spades, is funny. Yes, laugh out loud funny, without the use of slapstick or many of the meaner forms of humor. No gimmicks, just normal people being funny. It also has characters that are not your standard cardboard, have charm and souls, flaws and failings, yet manage to be wonderful people you don't mind spending 13 volumes with (and might be willing to spend more, but alas...).

Anime? No Volumes of manga: 13 Status: Complete

My rating: Gotta have 'em all

Age range:This is one of the cleanest mangas ever. If someone wanted one for their kid just starting out reading manga, I wouldn't hesitate to suggest this one to anyone with a double digit age.

Taboos and "warnings": I honestly can't think of any and, if I had any, Viz media went overboard in cleaning it for US consumption. Only in a couple of places, but one, in particular struck me, when Yoh is sick and the directions for the cooling gel pads clearly say to put them forehead, underarms, etc., groin and Viz Media says "foot" instead of groin. Which diffuses the joke. Not to mention, they left the picture pointing somewhere other than the foot. But I digress. No, wait, one male to male kiss, but there was nothing romantic about it.

Premise: Haruna, having given her all to softball in middle school, has her heart set on having a boyfriend like all the girls in her beloved shoujo manga do in high school. Following the self-help advice she finds in the magazines, she determines to attract a boyfriend. With no luck whatsoever. Overhearing a talk to a stranger [Yoh] (who rescues her shoe) that "he knows what men like," she determines to enlist his aid as a makeover coach. He's reluctant but eventually gets sucked in under the promise that she won't fall in love with him.

What works: The premise. No really, it does. Because, instead of some sweet but uncouth person being polished into a diamond, you see a sweet but natural person trying to force herself into the mold of someone else in order to be appealing and a coach who helps her by undoing that and helping her accept herself as she is, see her own charms, rather than trying to staple someone else's idea of a charming bit to her.

Is it predictable? Duh. Of course she'll fall in love with him and vice versa, but she doesn't do so right away. And there are actually quite a few interesting side trips and development that I, at least, didn't see coming. Yoh, who could be the poster child for good advice for young women, is constantly straddling the line where he wants Haruna to be herself but still grow and not be so naive. He also works to remind her she doesn't have to sell herself short, that "any" boyfriend is not better than no boyfriend at all.

But the premise part of it only carried through the first two volumes. So, what works for the other eleven? Primarily the main characters. Haruna is the kind of character, nominally, I would find irksome. Earnest (uber-earnest in fact), she IS naive and takes the advice of nearly everyone at face value. She's trusting and and simple and has little to no egotism. So, not my type of heroine (generally), but, and Yoh picks up on this, she can't help being herself all the time, either, no matter what advice she gets. And Haruna is a nice person. Sweet, earnest, compassionate, forgiving, thoughtful, protective, hardworking. When she knows what she wants, she'll do everything in her power to make it so. She doesn't give up. She doesn't give in. And, although she thinks from the beginning, she's not good enough for Yoh, she's got enough self-worth to tell him straight out instead of pussy-footing around it eleventy-seven chapters (as has so often been done). There is no meanness, no manipulation, no subterfuge in Haruna. And that's pretty appealing.

Yoh, however, is a whole different ballgame. It's actually hard to get a bead on him at first except he's pretty obviously a nice guy. He's blunt and to the point, obviously intelligent, capable of sarcasm. Although he is ostensibly good looking (something one sometimes has to take on faith given the artwork, though, admittedly sometimes it comes through), he isn't particularly popular because he eschews girls since many have a hard time with his blunt way of speaking. He does share with his sister a dazzling power he uses only when necessary. Haruna takes his blunt criticisms at face value, treating it like pearls of wisdom and largely idolizing Yoh, which would make for an unhealthy relationship except that Yoh is well-aware of his shortcomings, painfully aware of them in fact, and suitably aware of Haruna's strengths, to a degree she even misses. She brings out the best in him, which he knows. And, once he has her in his life, he's well aware how much he needs her. He appreciates her without being blind to her flaws. And that's why it works.

Yoh is not just insightful when it comes to Haruna. He understands his sister (and manages to love her anyway without being even a little fooled as to her shortcomings) and his friends. There's a nice supporting cast here, too. Yoh's self-absorbed sister, Haruna's ex-catcher now friend, Yoh's two friends, one as sharp and sarcastic as Yoh himself (but less reserved and more socially adept), one who is as lovably stupid and earnest as Haruna only, get this, more so. We pick up one or two more along the way, but that's the core.

The manga manages not to drag or seem insipid despite an almost complete lack of any significant things happening (no natural disasters or murdered family members), no flashbacks to childhood horror a la Fruits Basket, in fact, very little focus on anyone outside the main group except for short excursions here or there. And no villains. Oh, a few people come and disrupt the happiness here and there, cause trouble, even do unkind things, but one can readily see their motivations (generally more pathetic than evil) and move on. No Haruna, Yoh and company manage to deal with very standard relationship stuff, grow together, learn together and enjoy each others company in a way that makes the shoujo manga standard "year separation" seem ok, that and the fact that they were both partners in deciding they could live with it.

With none of the smooth larger than life characters so frequently found in manga nor ridiculous events happening outside the scope of reality or in fact, any over-the-top scenarios at all, it manages to be consistently entertaining and charming. And I still don't entirely know why.

Favorite character: Yoh. Not because I don't love Haruna - I do and she's well done - but I know what it's like to be the only person who gets it. Yoh has the whole picture. He sees everyone's strengths and weaknesses, can appreciate the former without ignoring the latter. His genuine attachment to Haruna, while not stronger than hers, has the appeal of being without idolization. His very real concern for her happiness, his patience, his realization that, as the real Haruna continues to shine through, others will also appreciate her (gratifying but frightening, too, if you want her to stay with you), is wonderfully human and beautiful. Even his surprise when she does something wonderful for him he didn't expect is charming. He can't help himself.


Haruna: You know what, I think I've fallen in love and...
Yoh: It's Fumi, isn't it?
Haruna: How can you tell?
Yoh: You're such an open book.
Asumi: I kind of knew about it too.
Haruna: Aaagh! Really?!! Th-then do you think Fumi-san knows it too?
Yoh: Nah, no way. He's the most dense person I've ever met in my entire life. Though you're an infinitely close second.

Looking at old essays for insight into what he wants in college: "My dream is to be a triceratops."
Yoh: Well, no way that's going to happen.

Y0h: If you were to fight with Fumi...at that time, I'll...I'll think it's your fault.
Asumi: WHY? He could have cheated on me!
Yoh: He definitely wouldn't do that.
Fumi: I definitely wouldn't do that.
Yoh: It's also your fault if he cheats on you.

Haruna: Ah, a two-person ski-lift. It really feels like we're dating.
Yoh: That's because we are dating.
Haruna: In life, you don't get to fall down so many times in one day. This is pretty fun.
Yoh: Is it?

Haruna: I got hit on!
Strange male: Oh, so you're boyfriend's here. Please excuse me.
Haruna: He was trying to pick me up! Isn't that incredible?
Yoh: It's not incredible! Don't get picked up!
Haruna: This is the first time I've been hit on my entire life!
Yoh: Don't get hit on up here! What are you so happy about?
Haruna: I'm not happy. It's more like...surprised?

What I didn't like:I didn't particularly go for the artwork (in case you missed it). I still haven't figured out the charm so prevalent in manga for having a minimum one year separation that proves the relationship. It's set in Hokkaido, which is why everyone's body looks dumpy and frumpy. I would have liked to see the last couple in the six-some become a couple (why not?).

It's ironic because there are a great many similarities between Kimi No Todoke, which you may have noticed, I just didn't like. Similar pace, premise, even artistic style, but, as I find these characters charming, those I just found irksome.

Really, I have little to complain about. I liked it and I didn't really expect to. I can't even clearly say why. That probably says there's something ineffable here that makes it a charmer. It should be noted that many agree with me. It was amazingly popular in Japan while it was going.


  • Jeff King

    Again, another great post.

  • mark

    Anime are very famous now a days. Creative looks and minds of the makers are the ones I adore the most.

    Atlanta Electricians

  • SilverMuse603

    Another one that I'll add to my reading list. I'm not usually super excited about high school romances either, but every now and then, one shines above the rest for me. I'll give this a go...eventually. Haha, long list is long.

  • SilverMuse603

    Just finished reading HSD. I see what you meant in this review. There was absolutely no reason for my to like this series. Somehow, despite its painfully predictable premise and candy-coated high school setting, I really enjoyed it. I wasn't wild about Haruna at first, but she grew on me. I wouldn't say that she was "favorite heroine" material, but ultimately, I ended up liking her, and for the same reasons you listed above in the review.

    My opinion of the artwork changed from frame to frame. Sometimes I liked it, at others, I thought it was a little strange. I always thought Yoh was cute when he blushed though. :)

    It was very cute and sweet, and I'm glad I read it. I think I'll check out Kawahara's Aozora Yell, too. It's about band geeks! I did band all through middle school, high school, and college, where I majored in it, making me state certified to teach other kids to be band geeks. I'm sort of obligated to read it, right? Haha.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I do have a tendency to check out other work if I like a mangaka, so go for it.

    I'm really with you. I enjoyed it though it wasn't "my bag" as it were. It did have what I think are the two most common elements in the stuff I like (a) humor that isn't particularly mean and is funny over and over and (b) people who are truly decent people.

    Hell, that's enough right there, isn't it?

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