Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
First and foremost, a very large percentage of the readership is going to run screaming in the opposite direction with this next word: yaoi. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, I’m talking about the brand of anime and manga that deals with the romantic and sexual relationships between homosexual men. It’s a weird little subgenre of the anime/manga industry that has a large number of both supporters and detractors. Sekaiichi Hatsukoi (which translates to “World’s Greatest First Love”) is a yaoi anime based on a yaoi manga by Shungiku Nakamura. You’ve probably decided by now whether or not you’re willing to give the show a chance – but whether you watch Sekaiichi Hatsukoi or not, I want you to give me the opportunity to explain what the show does right and why I wish more mainstream anime would take a page out of Hatsukoi’s book.
Sekaiichi Hatsukoi is the story of Ritsu Onodera, a young man whose success as a literary editor is often chalked up to his rich father’s influence rather than Onodera’s own skill. Wanting to escape from the accusations of nepotism, Onodera quits his job at his father’s company and applies for a position at rival Marukawa Publishing’s literary department, only to be hired into the shoujo (girl’s) manga department instead. As if having to learn the ropes of a completely new genre weren’t disheartening enough, Onodera also quickly discovers that his new boss, Masamune Takano, is actually an old flame from high school who broke Onodera’s heart and left him completely jaded about love. Onodera’s pride won’t let him quit outright, but Takano’s unresolved feelings from the past force the two into a strange game of romantic cat-and-mouse.
Aside from this main plot, there are a number of subsidiary romances taking place as well: shoujo manga artist Chiaki Yoshino is caught between the affections of his editor and his best friend; Shouta Kisa, a fellow manga editor, has the unfortunate habit of falling only for a man’s looks rather than his personality, but may have found true love at last in an optimistic bookstore employee; and senior managing director of Marukawa Publishing, Ryuichiro Isaka, reminisces on how he came to fall in love with his childhood friend and invaluable personal assistant.
Look, this isn’t a revolutionary plot, especially not for the yaoi genre: boy meets boy, something gets in the way of love, couple breaks up, boy reunites with boy, the couple struggles to work things out. It’s one of those shows where you know the outcome the minute you start: everyone is going to wind up happily together with their one true love, no matter how many obstacles get in the way. But the point isn’t the destination – it’s the journey. The couples face the same pitfalls as couples have been facing since the dawn of time: misunderstandings, bad timing, the return of ex-lovers, love triangles. But Shungiku Nakamura is unparalleled at making all of these little bumps in the road seem like the end of the world. You feel every pang alongside the characters.
Halfway through the series, when things are at their most convoluted, I found myself actively wishing that the main characters would not get together – that Onodera would find the spine to walk away from the whole thorny mess. When a romance series is able to make you want something like that, then it’s doing a good job of toying with your expectations. It just goes to show that the power of this show isn’t it action scenes or fantastic animation; it’s in simple, sometimes painful human emotion. It’s in the characters, and how wonderfully human they feel.
The cast, from main players Onodera and Takano to side characters like Isaka, feel very much like real people with real flaws. These aren’t your typical shonen heroes, whose only flaw is that they’re too perfect. It’s very easy to see aspects of yourself in each and every character, whether those aspects are positive or otherwise. This emphasis on characterization is what I wish anime did better more often: I want fewer supermen and superwomen saving the world in skimpy outfits. I want real people struggling with real problems. Onodera isn’t concerned with stopping an alien invasion or preventing the city from being destroyed – he just wants to find a place where he can get recognition for his talents, and he just wants to figure out this thing called “love.”
Shungiku Nakamura is a queen of characterization – there is no single character you do not eventually find yourself rooting for. Even the man set up as the series’ main antagonist shows a painful vulnerability as the show progresses. Characters struggle with low self-esteem, with the dissolution of their dreams, with family obligations. The side romances are definitely less fleshed out than that between Onodera and Takano, but they serve to illustrate the pitfalls into which people let themselves fall in pursuit of love, the struggles that they put in their own way by overthinking their happiness.
The final episode of the show is, I would argue, a very nearly perfect expression of the struggle with love: a brief but powerful summation about how love comes on us unexpectedly, and how it can grow from even meager beginnings. How it manifests itself in different ways for different people. How it ultimately conquers all.
My favorite episode, however, would probably be episode eighteen, subtitled “Love is Without Reason.” I didn’t particularly fall in love with it because of the romance, though. I identified with the episode’s main character to an almost painful degree: the desire to be a famous writer, but sometimes lacking the discipline for it; the need to decide between what you’re good at and what you like; the discovery of someone with more talent. I’m sure others will sit through the episode and be bored with it, but it definitely spoke to me.
The animation of the show serves this type of storytelling perfectly. It’s a bit of a talking-heads experience, where most of the scenes consist of characters standing around pontificating and proclaiming their feelings. But the show animates those talking heads very well, with attention paid to small gestures like head tilts and eyebrow twitches. The expressions in this show are a joy to watch – every character’s face is animated perfectly for each individual scene, whether dramatic or comedic.
Character designs are simple. Anime’s usual schoolgirl skirts and midriff-bearing armor are traded in for casual work attire. Gravity defying hair is swapped with styles that look like they might be possible in real life. In the manga, this simplicity actually became a bit of a problem, with characters blending into one another a bit too much to be easily recognizable. The anime solves this problem simply by having access to color – it’s amazing how far a striking eye color can go to make a character design stand out.
The Japanese voice acting is very well done. Every line is delivered with the appropriate amount of inflection. Just listening to the voice actors without watching the animation (or the subtitles) would still give you a very good idea of what every character is feeling at any given moment.
I think it’s important to note there’s no actual sex in Sekaiichi Hatsukoi – plenty of kissing, a suggestive moan here and there, some shirtless cuddling in bed, but all sexual intercourse is kept firmly off screen. The show is about relationships, not titillation.
I can’t rightfully recommend marathoning this show – it’s a bit too dense and repetitive for a single sitting. I broke the show up into two halves and even then I found myself a little burnt out. Small bursts work best for a show of this nature.
On a side note, the show also serves as a very interesting (if overly dramatized) look at the shoujo manga industry, and all of the stress and deadlines that come part and parcel with it. A lot of the show’s humor is tied in with how editors deal with unruly manga artists. If you can’t get over the sexuality of the characters, then I guess a show like Bakuman will give you a similar education.
Ultimately, Sekaiichi Hatsukoi is a story about people and, in my opinion, the sexual orientation of the characters is of secondary importance to the tales of love found, fought for, and sometimes lost. My question to you is this: would you be willing to give a good show the chance it deserves, even if you don’t necessarily agree with the subject matter?