Story & Art by Aidalro
Translation by Alethea Nibley & Athena Nibley
Lettering by Jesse Moriarty
Hanako-kun is set apart by its neon-pastel gothic aesthetic, wafting in the boundary between cute and creepy. Aialdo’s big-eyed, petite moe-ish characters interact in trippy worlds of horror messily detailed in gothic furniture and symbols strewed about. The environments are overwhelmingly detailed as if to hammer the point of how small our characters are in the big, endless world they inhabit. Aidalro’s characters at their basest forms have soft, bubbly features emphasizing rounder shapes. However, in dramatic situations, these designs are morphed through bolder and harsher lines and more jagged shapes and features, the erratic linework characterizing their dangerously unpredictable natures. The disconnect in the art between the soft appearances of the characters and the harshness of the situations they find themselves in creates an unsettling uncanniness that carries that ominous, mysterious vibes of the story on its shoulders.
Aidalro’s style fittingly matches Hanako-kun’s precarious storytelling, which wavers between being sweet and scary, humorous, and horrifying. At its heart, the series is about the contradictions between our outer and inner selves, and whether our truest self lies in-between the truths and lies we tell ourselves and others. This dichotomy of two selves is reflected in the concept of the boundaries, particularly the domains of the School Mysteries, wherein another world is hidden beneath the exterior of the outer. Even within these worlds, the nature of what appears to be and what really is can be twisted, leaving the characters to stumble in uncertainty until they can figure out what’s real and what isn’t.
This theme is also reflected in the dual personalities of several characters. Many have an outer public facade they play while masking their real personalities and selves underneath, whether it be Teru’s ikemen star student persona lying in contrast to his more harsh and serious attitude as an exorcist, or Tsuchigomori presenting as an affable mentor while actually being an apathetic supernatural putting on a perfunctory guise. Yet, the true nature of these characters are neither of these personas, but a mixture of different feelings they express. Teru’s heartless conviction is tempered by trust in his brother’s judgment, while Tsuchigomori’s feigned compassion for his students is more genuine than he lets on. Hanako himself embodies the story’s unpredictable tone, playing the roles of jester, mentor, and manipulator alike. At one moment he’ll be teasing Nene like a bratty skeez, and the next he’ll be meekly apologizing like a sorrowful child. Hanako rarely lets his chipper facade break, which makes the moments where he exposes his vulnerability or dark sides all the more meaningful.
In turn, Nene and Kou strive to learn more about Hanako, to discover every side of him that makes their friend who he is. The importance of trying to understand other people is another core theme. Teru sees Hanako as a burdensome, murderous supernatural unworthy of redemption, but doesn’t understand his empathy, kindness, and conviction to make amends. In contrast, Nene and Kou see Hanako as someone who’s been a guiding mentor and good friend to them, but they don’t really know much about his dark history and what kind of person he used to be. Both parties in some way project their characterizations of Hanako onto them, in a reductive way that doesn’t reflect the entirety of who he is. The story is hence driven by Nene and Kou’s desire to learn more about Hanako, including his past and every side to him they can uncover. In doing so, they hope to truly know their friend and understand the totality of his being.
Making attempts to understand someone for who they are instead of projecting feelings onto them is also reflected in the contrast between Nene and Yako. Yako attempts to resurrect her beloved Misaki in order to be with him in a similar manner to how Nene wanted to use Hanako’s powers to win her a boyfriend. Neither were considering the feelings of the person they supposedly loved in that case, merely wanting said person to be how they thought of them. Nene sees her past inclinations in Yako and chews her out for only thinking about herself. She demonstrates much growth in these volumes in her consideration for the feelings of those around her and desires to learn and understand more about them, particularly Hanako. Nene grapples at one point whether she can truly do anything for him, over whether helping him is out of her depth. However, she’s reassured that simply doing what she can is meaningful enough. Nene’s growing emotional awareness and consideration for the feelings of others has in turn helped her become more assertive and confident in her own capabilities. It’s a compelling, retable character arc built around a thoughtful theme, serving as the heart of the story and the foundation of it’s greatest strengths.
For a story with such warmth and optimism for people’s ability to empathize, mature, and change, Hanako himself remains curiously, intentionally static. While encouraging others to grow and giving them a hopeful guiding hand, it’s become clear he’s given up on himself. While seeking to atone for his past misdeeds, he’s forsaken his own happiness and dreams. It’s a mystery why he’s stubbornly chosen to stay behind despite being perceptive enough to help others move forward. That disconnect between the kindness Hanako shows others and how unkindly he’s treating himself is heartbreakingly tragic and makes Nene’s desire to help him all the more meaningful and compelling. Hanako may have given up on his future, but his friends refuse to let him dwell in the past forever.
Hanako-kun’s got more mysteries going on than the school’s stated seven, factoring in all the secrets still undiscovered in the setting and characters. Shady antagonists working against the heroes are on the move, and the third book ends with a confrontation with an old enemy from Hanako’s past. It’s interesting how Hanako-kun has managed to take its seemingly rote shonen tropes and spun them into a story full of surprises. The series succeeds by having a tightly realized theme tying together both its aesthetic and narrative inspirations, weaving it into a truly novel and interesting supernatural battle manga with heart and style to spare. It’s no mystery why the series has caught on so strongly and was bound for success; Hanako-kun is really good!