An inescapable side effect of reading shojo manga is a glowing, warm feeling, something My Love Story excels at producing. This warm feeling typically stems from a combination of ridiculously cute, endearing moments, with a bit of awkward follies derived from simple misunderstandings. Kawahara and Aruko’s romantic comedy uses these standard devices and adds a few fantastic embellishments, giving it an edge to escape generic conventions.
What sets My Love Story apart from other shojo stories is the lumbering, gorilla-like, judo master, Takeo Goda, who also happens to be a hopeless romantic. Now this kind of guy is a very unusual protagonist for many reasons, beyond his appearance: he’s not a pretty boy; he entirely lacks the casual, “I’m hot and I know it, so of course you’re attracted to me” nonchalance most male shojo characters carry; and he never views love as being an obstacle preventing him from acting cool in public.
Instead we’re given a main character with unwavering self-confidence and moral stability. Takeo reveals an openness with his feelings, both through dialogue and action, showing he wears his heart and moral conscience on his sleeve. He acts when there’s an injustice before him, and is always the one to do the right thing when the right thing must be done. All of this gives Takeo a quality that earns him an “old fashioned” title from multiple characters, but for the reader it makes him an instantly likable, endearing disposition.
Without a foil for his character his love story would be pretty dull, so Takeo’s romantic misadventures take center stage immediately and become a focal point for most chapters. He recounts his love live, telling us of the countless unrequited crushes, and how most of those crushes profess their feelings to his would-be shojo manga main character best friend, Suna. Needless to say Takeo is consistently jealous of Suna’s unconscious ability to woo women, and laments about this superpower frequently.
Rather than make Suna a headstrong playboy, Kawahara and Aruko apply his nonchalance and cool attitude towards relationships in general. He never abuses the power bestowed upon him, and honestly feels burdened by having women (of all ages) swoon over him.
Beneath the surface Suna’s insouciance is grounded by a general kinship to Takeo, which, through various ridiculous acts of chivalry, exposes an inner softie under a hard shell. Suna plays the voice of reason, constantly tying Takeo down to reality with a consistent, inescapable frankness. Although he never says it explicitly, Suna is always in a state of reverence around Takeo, always ready to attribute credit for heroic and chivalrous actions he is mistakenly thanked for.
The relationship between the two male protagonists creates an interesting foundation for the story. Both are opposites of one another, a manzai (a form of stand up comedy involving two comedians: one playing the fool, the other playing the “straight man”) act flawlessly played out under the guise of a romantic comedy. Their attitudes set the tone of each chapter and enable the story to remain fun and light-hearted even when dealing with serious issues.
However a bromance doesn’t exactly constitute a romance story, and this is certainly not yaoi. Thus Yamato, Takeo’s love interest, creates the final part of this equation. Saved from a dreaded chikan (dirtbags who grope girls on crowded trains) by Takeo, Yamato immediately falls in love with our unlikely hero, although it takes a few chapters for this to actually sink in.
Yamato is the perfect match for Takeo. She displays the same kind of hyperbolic enthusiasm as Takeo in every silly situation she’s thrust into; she has an unrelenting devotion to love and loyalty, and is entirely devoted to both; she has a passion for baking as a source of inner strength and creativity. With an eye that can spot true virtue in the world, Yamato correctly asserts that she won’t be able to find someone like Takeo if she can’t be with him. She knows intrinsically Takeo is a good and virtuous man, and on that basis alone she falls for him.
With the what out of the way, the how of My Love Story is equally enchanting and fun. Two pages stand out, summarizing exactly what it is Kawahara and Aruko are doing to set their story apart within the shojo genre.
This uniqueness can be summed up in one word: intensity. Each of the main characters exhibit their own individual brand of intensity: Takeo with fired up exuberance, Suna with complacent indifference, and Yamato with unrelenting affection.
Here we see all three elements in play simultaneously. Right after Takeo and Yamato are able to confess their feelings to one another, this moment in Suna’s room creates a dramatic pause for each character’s innermost personality to come through on the page.
Takeo, finally able to confess a reciprocated love, expresses a combined bliss with his brand of stoic conviction. His overwhelming relief is dissolved in a single panel, and for the first time we’re able to see him in a state of pure happiness. Yamato, having found someone to shower her unending spring of affection upon, is caught up in a state of rapture. Her mode of emotional articulation surpasses her baking projects, and she’s able to release a heretofore unseen exuberance. And lastly, serving as the comic relief, Suna expresses an extreme indifference to the situation unfolding in a weird and awkward place.
Takeo and Yamato’s relationship is similarly permeated by a different kind of intensity. Theirs is an ardor of severe innocence. Both are profoundly inexperienced in the arena of love, yet simultaneously unashamed and unafraid of their sexuality. They each express desires they wish fulfilled, but start at a baseline of something like holding hands.
Dramatic sexual tension then becomes a comedic spectacle, creating an element of suspense alongside a carefully placed punchline. It’s here the overtly silly nature of Yamato and Takeo’s blossoming relationship is endearing, rather than labored or acting as a thin veil covering slow plot progression. The couple must approach their relationship at their own pace. Due to their blatant inexperience the process takes time, as well as the ability to overcome misunderstandings and apprehensions. While making us laugh Yamato and Takeo are also conquering their fears. The intensity of their struggle is so dramatic it consistently shifts genre to make us feel happy instead of bringing us down. If these scenes were altered slightly to dial down the potency of their romantic expressions the tone of the entire comic would move too far away from comedy.
Lastly, and most pronounced, is the intensity of general expression from all characters. The way Aruko presents Takeo in particular is so overblown and well done it always calls for effortless laughs. On this page in particular, Takeo’s fired up state (initiated by wanting to practice kissing with Suna in order to not mess up when he does it with Yamato… I swear this isn’t yaoi) would be more characteristic of a fighting or action manga than a romance title. These situations pop up all over the place and allow Aruko to play with dynamism which adds a layer of intrigue to the art. Sure, Takeo standing in front of an elementary school with a stern look to deter a rumored creep could be a tender moment to show the sense of justice he carries, but the face Aruko gives him is depicted with such intensity it goes beyond looking out for the kids, and the narrative must step in to address it (by getting arrested for being a suspicious character).
Combined, the strong cast and high level of intensity applied to all aspects of My Love Story create one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. The charm of Kawahara’s storytelling and Aruko’s art is infectious from the first chapter, making it hard to not get pulled into the story. Kawahara’s ability to tell a romance story that doesn’t linger on a single point of romantic tension enables thing to move along in an easy, straightforward way. In other words it lacks characters struggling over a single issue for multiple volumes for the specific purpose of filling more pages. Because of everything working for it, I would go so far to call this comic a bridge title for people unfamiliar with shojo comics.
I’ll be the first to admit that (well told) sappy shojo romance titles are extremely fun to read (here’s lookin’ at you High School Debut, and Itazura Na Kiss), specifically because of the way they embody and parody the essence of real life romantic struggles. My Love Story takes that embodiment and presents it in such a way that people who were awkward teenages (see: most people) can appreciate. Takeo may be the embodiment of a good person, but he still sucks at finding a girlfriend. We can laugh at his follies, at his mistakes, and at the situations he’s thrust into because they’re a reflection of experiences common to being an awkward teenager. And when a comic has the ability to mirror humanity in a exaggerated and fun way, that’s a good comic.
My Love Story is available now from Viz Media. And you should totally read it, even if you’re not a shojo fan.