Suzuka Vol. 1 (Del Rey)

Kouji Seo's new manga may seem like a by-the-numbers harem comedy, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Del Rey; 202 pgs B&W; $13.95

(W/A: Kouji Seo)

 

 

This is the story of an ordinary young man, not the best student, and certainly not much of a hit with the ladies. Preparing for the next stage in his academic life, the lad moves in with his aunt, doing household chores to pay for his room at an otherwise all-female boarding house that he used to visit from time to time as a small child. Naturally, his new home is packed to the gills with beautiful, buxom young women, and happens to have its own communal baths where all kinds of accidents, misunderstandings, and incidental nudity can occur. All the women in his newfound harem lavish attention on the lucky young man, but he can't take his eyes off of the first girl he met, a hot and cold running chick whose room he can access through a hole in the wall between them. If only he could tell her how he feels, perhaps he could break through that hardened shell and find true love?

 

Does all that sound hauntingly familiar? It should. While the above paragraph is a suitably in-depth plot summary of the first volume of Kouji Seo's Suzuka, it would also apply, word-for-word, to Love Hina, Ken Akamatsu's fan favorite romantic comedy, which was a smash-hit in both manga and anime form on both sides of the Pacific several years before Suzuka was first published. Stylistically, the two series are quite different, but the surface similarities down to some of the minutest details are so unavoidable that they bear mentioning.

 

The young lady that takes centerstage in Seo's variation on the harem comedy is Suzuka Asahina, a track star whose skill at the high jump caused talent scouts to pluck her from her home in the Japanese countryside and plop her somewhat reluctantly into a Tokyo high school that will test her true skills. Our hero, Yamato, stumbles upon Suzuka practicing, and is instantly smitten. "She looked so cool," he tells us in his opening narration, "and I don't think I'd ever seen such a cute girl." Naturally, the pair's story doesn't end there, as it turns out that Suzuka is a resident at the all-girls apartment building that Yamato's aunt runs, and the two become neighbors. Due to a misunderstanding involving Yamato, two of Suzuka's neighbors, and very little clothing, Suzuka takes a massive dislike to her new suitor. Yamato meanwhile is, as Aerosmith once sang, "a high school loser, never made it with the ladies," and struggles to figure out what he has to do get this gorgeous babe to give him another chance.

 

On the surface, Suzuka features all the standard harem comedy characters. The wishy-washy, inexperienced male lead? Check. The girl of his dreams, a lady who doth protest too much, methinks? Check. The sexually confident older girl who takes advantage of the hero's naivete? Check. The shy yet secretly boy-crazy hot girl in glasses? Check. The cute younger girl with a platonic crush on the hero? Check (and this time out, it's his cousin…no comment). The boy's perverted best friend? Check. The comic relief animal character to randomly-and-unfunnily shoehorn into the occasional scene? Check.

 

What's amazing is that despite the been-there-done-that-edness of the set-up and characters, Suzuka is an effective and highly enjoyable little romantic comedy, mainly because it plays it straight, more or less, with a premise that is usually played strictly for laughs. The situations couldn't be more contrived, but the way the characters react to them couldn't be more honest. Yamato, in particular, is highly relatable, reacting realistically the way most 15-year-old boys would react in similar situations, with equal parts anxiousness and anticipation. He is often as standoffish to Suzuka as she is to him, but then again, who didn't throw a few spitballs at a girl in their younger days to get her attention?

 

The book, another in Del Rey's new mature readers line (see also: Basilisk), is printed in a slightly larger size edition and carries an 18+ age limitation. Unlike Basilisk, the higher age range isn't really deserved: no violence here and no sex either. There's plenty of nudity, of course, but the only thing that sets it apart from other similar series that would get an "older teen" rating is the level of anatomical detail, all above the waist. Speaking of detail, Seo's art is a real treat, his lines slick and highly polished, and the characters are all uniquely identifiable both in appearance and mannerisms. As one of the series' best selling points, it's great to see the art in the larger format, but one slight problem is that the art runs all the way to the edges of the pages. In the action-heavy Basilisk, this wasn't a problem, but in this much more dialogue-oriented series, the speech balloons are frequently so close to the spine that the book has to be practically snapped in half to read some text. A minor annoyance, but hopefully one that will be corrected in future versions.

 

Kouji Seo's first manga to reach American shores is derivative on the surface, but its straightforward nature makes it highly enjoyable nonetheless. The series takes an endearing and honest look at teenage romance, and because of the emotional resonance the story bears up to repeated readings. Del Rey also includes a few preview pages of the next volume showing our favorite pair having a heart-to-heart in the pouring rain (where else?), a sign that the dramatic tension, the series' biggest selling point, will be even more revved-up in the near future.

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