Kare Kano, along with Cardcaptor Sakura, was the first shojo series I managed to read all the way to the end. The latter series continues to be well-loved, and its English language translation is enjoying a second life through Dark Horse. But in skimming the various online tributes to TokyoPop, Kare Kano is, at best, mentioned only in passing. That's kind of sad, because like a lot of shojo manga released during TP's early days, there was nothing similar to it at the time. Manga that dealt with normal high school students confronting normal high school problems were still a rarity. So I've retained a lot of affection for Kare Kano, even as I've come to recognize it as a juvenile work that's no longer meant to speak to me as an older reader.
Like many fans, I was introduced to the series via its hilarious anime adaptation. Produced by Ganiax and mostly directed by Hideaki Anno, it was naturally a big deal to America's emerging anime fandom. The series makes it to around the halfway point of the manga before stopping abruptly. According to its Wikipedia article, Anno and creator Masami Tsuda disagreed over the comic tone of the anime, which led to Anno quitting as director and Tsuda refusing to let the series to go forward. But after reading the entire manga, I'm actually okay with that. The story changes dramatically over the course of 21 volumes before arriving at a fairly unsatisfactory conclusion. And it's the conclusion that I decided to reexamine. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The best parts of the manga are those that deal with the rivalry/romance between star pupils Yukino Miyazawa and Soichiro Arima. In their relationship, Tsuda manages to capture something of the power politics that is the main preoccupation of most teenagers. Yukino is the school's most popular freshman student, who always maintains a cool and level-headed exterior. This hides a desperate need for social approval accompanied by an obsession with keeping up appearances. At school she appears immaculate. At home she's a bit of a slob. Then into her life appears Soichiro, who outdoes her in virtually every academic area. And he's a whiz at kendo to boot. On the surface, they appear cordial to one another. But it isn't long before Yukino is plotting to backstab him at every opportunity. As the story progresses, fierce rivalry is replaced by mutual respect, then romantic love. Tsuda does an exemplary job in fleshing out these two people's respective personalities, as well as the natural evolution of their relationship. There's a good balance of lighthearted personal interactions followed by awkward introspection that feels very believable for adolescents.
The series loses its focus the further away it moves from this premise. It didn't occur to me at the time, but a lot of the narrative structure involves Tsuda making things up as she goes along. She tries to expand the cast beyond the two leads early on, but almost none of them receive the care and attention that Yukino and Soichiro get. Some start out as complications to Yukino and Soichiro getting together, or as failed attempts to build a love triangle. Later on, some get paired off into their own romantic relationships. But these couplings feel extraneous. Then the series takes a weird turn when it dives into Soichiro's sordid past. The slice-of-life setting and humor of the earlier volumes are replaced by soap opera histrionics. Imagine a series that starts out like The Office turning into something more like Dallas. Soichiro's wealthy family, with all its accompanying intrigue, comes to the fore. Soichiro, who starts out as a slightly insecure teenager with a hint of emo in him, transforms into a bona fide tortured soul struggling to conquer his inner and outer demons. It's a tonal shift that upends the balance of the story. After all the shenanigans, the resolution in Vol. 20 feels too pat and involves an annoying retcon which changes the career trajectories of Soichiro and Yukino.
Vol. 21 is basically an extended epilogue. The first part has the circle of friends wrapping up their high school careers. The second part flashes forward sixteen years later to reveal their adult selves. They reunite for at least one day to attend a rock concert performed by one of their own. Rereading this volume reminded me how uninteresting the cast happens to be. During my first reading, I had enough difficulty following the characters. And it only dawned on me later how broadly they're portrayed: There's the artist, the talented writer, the seamstress, the doctor, the jock, the former fat kid, the moe-bait, the budding musician. Other than the two leads, no one made a lasting impression on me. They're serviceable as a supporting cast, but are less successful as an ensemble. They fall flat when compared to some of the manga characters that has come out since then. Their romantic lives aren't as complex as those in superior josei series like Nana or Paradise Kiss. They don't have the nice balance of quirky traits found in more memorable seinen comedies like Azumanga Daioh and K-On! Actually, they're not even as memorable as the cast of Cardcaptor Sakura. But then again, they don't have magical powers working in their favor.
This volume confirms the triumph of reassuring domestic fantasy over the uncertainty of a future full of possibility. Everyone lives happily ever after - No one breaks up since high school. Everyone is still with their first love. Everyone succeeds in their chosen careers. Friendships remain steadfast and unchanging. Even the old band is still together after sixteen years, and performing at the Budokan no less. It's far removed from the high school politics of the early volumes - replaced now by sweet marriage porn. And then there's the the squicky fantasy pairings that are to be expected from shojo love stories. Kare Kano isn't as adventurous as some other manga. For example, all the romances are perfectly heterosexual. But from a Westerner's perspective, vol. 21 contains one disturbing semi-incestuous relationship that takes up a considerable amount of attention. This involves Sakura, the teenage daughter of Yukino and Soichiro, and Hideaki Asaba, Soichiro's best friend from high school and now the couple's part-time nanny. What's particularly troubling is how it's described as "destiny" by the parties involved. Love is a strange thing.
But for many fans, Kare Kano's biggest letdown is the fate of Yukino herself, arguably the most interesting character of the series. Yukino starts out as a somewhat nerdy overachiever. But as she falls in love with Soichi, she gradually sheds her ambition. Yukino's average family background makes her a more relatable individual, while Soichiro's genius and bizarre family history makes his problems far more removed from reality. But her stature in the manga is later reduced to that of Soichiro's companion when the series shifts its attention to him. Sixteen years later, that arrangement hasn't changed. She's married to an outstanding but overworked police detective, she needs help raising her own kids, her friends have landed glamorous jobs, while she's entered into the Arima family's medical tradition. Unfortunately, she's described as being only a doctor of mediocre talent. Apparently it's destiny for people from normal families to be outshone by people who descend from family lineages overflowing with extraordinarily brilliant, but emotionally damaged egos. Hey, at least she's happy...