Suzuka Vol. 5-6 (Del Rey)

suzuka-header.jpgAn enjoyable, realistic romantic comedy made with males in mind? What a novel idea!

 

 

202 pgs. ea. B&W; $13.95 ea.

(W / A: Kouji Seo)

Hollywood has churned out so many sappy female-centric romantic comedies over the years that American males have (perhaps rightly) dismissed anything with even a whiff of romance as a "chick flick" that’s unworthy of consumption. Similarly, the manga and anime industries have been subsisting on a steady diet of bland, repetitive harem stories where an unappealing ubernerd is inexplicably dropped into a horde of gorgeous women whose sole purpose is to fawn over him and flash their panties at every opportunity. In that context, Suzuka offers a breath of fresh air to guys on both sides of the Pacific, eschewing both formulae to tell an honest, relatable, and, above all, believable romance starring an identifiable, likeable male lead. What a novel idea!

Yamato's aunt Ayano on the cover of Suzuka vol. 5. Click for a larger image.For those just joining us: Yamato is a well-meaning high school freshman who is utterly clueless about the workings of the female mind. Moving from the sticks to his aunt’s otherwise-all-girls apartment building in Tokyo to attend high school, he falls head over heels for Suzuka, the gorgeous girl next door and star high jumper for the school track team. After she continually rebuffs his advances, Yamato joins the track team to get closer to her, surprising everyone—himself included—with his time in the 100-meter dash. But being fast on the track has only moved Suzuka from utter hatred to mild disdain; though she is occasionally affectionate, Suzuka has major issues thanks to her now-deceased first boyfriend, and when Yamato starts to remind her of her lost first love she finds it easier to reject him than to deal with her feelings. Yamato’s so lost in trying to figure out what’s going on in that pretty little head of hers that he’s oblivious to the yearning looks constantly thrown his way by Honoka, the track team’s super-cute, super-shy manager. Where Suzuka runs hot and cold, Honoka shows him nothing but warmth, but will Yamato ever see the girl that’s right under his nose?

Here’s where we get into spoiler territory for the two latest volumes in the series. Nothing here is any more major than what’s revealed on the book’s back covers, but if you’re still working your way through earlier volumes, skip the next paragraph. You’ve been warned.

With Vol. 4 taking a break from the romance to tackle the track and field side of things, the love story comes roaring back in Vol. 5. Besieged on all fronts with advice to act before it’s too late, Honoka finally starts to break out of her shell and be proactive, first by confronting Suzuka about her true feelings for Yamato, and second by surprising Yamato with a kiss. Blown away by this turn of events and with his Suzuka-related frustrations at their peak, Yamato’s fickle teenage mind has now completely shifted to Honoka, and he asks her to be his girlfriend. Vol. 6 tackles the fallout of this change in the status quo: Suzuka’s drastic change in behavior after finding out the two are a couple implies that her claims of not having feelings for him may have been grossly exaggerated, while Yamato, despite being happy with Honoka, clearly still has Suzuka on the brain. Honoka worries (and rightly so) that she may never be able to get him to get that other girl off his mind.

Pop star Nana joins the cast in Suzuka vol. 6. Click for a larger image.Between reading volume 4 and these two most current volumes, I had a chance to watch the animated adaptation of Suzuka, being released in English by Funimation. The animated version has a somewhat less than sterling reputation, and it’s easy to see why when compared side by side with Kouji Seo’s much more compelling original. Where the animated version moves at a snail’s pace, Seo’s 20-page chapters fly by at a fast clip, each one wrapping up in moments that are alternately poignant or nail-bitingly dramatic. Seo spends ample amounts of page time rattling around inside of Yamato’s head, and it’s time well spent; not only do we get to know the hero on a more personal level, we also get to read his thoughts as he blows little things out of proportion, misses clues, and generally causes himself just as much consternation as Suzuka does. Sure, it’s a bit melodramatic, but then again what is high school if not melodramatic?

Volume 6 in particular takes Yamato to some interesting mental places. Now that he’s got the girl (or, more accurately, "a" girl), we watch as he is smacked in the face with the realization that he doesn’t have the slightest clue of how to be a good boyfriend. Some of the things he does are endearingly clueless, others are damn near appalling, but the poor kid seems to be learning what he’s doing bit by bit along the way. You can’t help but root for the guy.

As part of Del Rey’s "mature readers" line, Suzuka gets printed at a size slightly larger than the manga standard, and Seo’s slick art benefits greatly from the enhancement. He draws with a fine line, using screentone very subtly to imply depth without letting the tones overwhelm the page. His characters are attractively designed, and each maintains a unique look while remaining realistic—no bizarre, physically improbably haircuts here. And fortunately, despite the "mature readers" tag, the blatant fanservice nudity of early volumes has virtually disappeared. Even with the man-pandering removed, this book may be a hard sell for female readers. Since so much of the series revolves around Yamato’s confusion, the thoughts in the heads of the female characters are mostly hidden from the reader, meaning we don’t get to know the girls in nearly as much depth. As a result, a lot of Suzuka’s actions can seem cold-hearted or ridiculously arbitrary, and most of the girls in Suzuka and Yamato’s apartment complex are reduced to little more than window dressing. This fault was on grand display in the animated series, and while Seo has a better handle on it in the manga, it remains an undercurrent throughout the series. While not a book for everyone and most definitely not without its flaws, Suzuka continues to be an affecting and highly enjoyable little high school romance. | Jason Green

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