Honey and Clover has turned out to be an odd series to wrap my mind around. I've spent a lot of time with art school students, so I recognize the broad types that Chica Umino is basing her characters on. But they're refracted through a different set of cultural values and popular conventions. Take Shinobu Morita: A perpetual adolescent whose narcissism and rule-breaking behavior is a constant source of irritation to every other character, but whose gregarious personality and oblique ways of demonstrating affection for even his beleaguered instructors differs from the disaffected attitude that is de rigueur to his Western counterparts. Then there's "Hagu" Hanamoto, a recognized prodigy who just happens to be shorter than average, but is the recipient of the sometimes overprotective behavior from the rest of the cast, particularly from her guardian Shūji Hanamoto. Like most relationships characterized as moé, this bond verges on creepy territory, at least to me, even with all the in-story justifications presented so far. And some of that creepy protectiveness is reflected in Takumi Mayama's attraction to the physically frail Rika Harada (While rejecting the far healthier Ayumi "Iron Man" Yamada).
Setting aside these reservations, Umino has fashioned some of the more beautifully layered cast of characters to be found within a coming-of-age manga. They're more interesting than the overly-wrought cast of Kare Kano. They're more subtly shaded than the cast of Flower of Life. They're as quirky in their own way as the members of Genshiken. While the entire series is framed by two love triangles, Umino manages to establish within her small group some very well-rounded individuals whp credibly fumble their way through life the way real-world college students are supposed to.
By volume 6 the sustaining conditions for those two love triangles begin to weaken as the students begin to detach and establish their separate careers outside of the safety of art school. This inevitable development has a significant effect on reader-identification character Yūta Takemoto. As the student who's always felt overshadowed by his more talented peers, Takemoto has lacked a clear sense of purpose. As the end of his collegiate life draws ever closer, and his career prospects remain as dim as ever, he makes an impulsive decision to "find himself". Such a move is fraught with danger of sounding cliched. But it works because Umino has carefully laid the ground for his emotional breakdown in previous chapters. Character development isn't brought about by big dramatic actions, but through tiny increments and small revelations. At the beginning of the volume, a series of parallel conversations suddenly force Mayama and Yamada to consider how they've both subconsciously contributed to the continuance of Ayumi's unrequited love for Mayama. Another series of conversations also compels Morita to reveal that he's a lot more sensitive to Hagu's anguished attempts to live-up to demanding academic and social expectations engendered by her enormous talent.
If all this sounds kind of dour, the comic is, on the contrary, often pretty funny. The serious scenes last no longer than necessary. And Umino treats everything with a light touch. Some of the best conversations in the series tend to involve traditional social occasions, and the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol, which is always entertaining for the reader. But the humor is never cruel. Well, not too much. There's no doubt that even when putting her characters through their paces, she's sympathetic towards them, as her perfectly engaging art elucidates:
See, unemployment is hilarious, especially when it really hurts someone you care about! And where would Honey and Clover be without a truly silly Hagu-Morita art-related showdown?
Good times, good times.