by Yoko Maki; adaptation by Marie Cochrane
published by Viz; $8.99 US
Kippei’s an easygoing guy who just happens to be the crush object of most of the girls in his school. They hit on him constantly, but he likes Kokoro, an attraction fueled and complicated by her refusal to play along or pay much attention to him in return. His life becomes much more complicated when he’s told to take care of his cousin Yuzuyu, an adorable five-year-old whose mother, Kippei’s aunt, has deserted her child after her husband’s death.
I have a soft spot for manga youngsters, anyway — the typical art style seems geared to show them as incredibly cute, what with the big eyes and short height — but Yuzu is particularly heart-breaking. She’s been through some very traumatic experiences, but she’s kept her optimism. She trusts Kippei immediately, even though he’s not yet worthy of it, and that faith allows him to make the mistakes he needs to learn.
In book one, the first lesson is that kids need lunch. Kippei buys rice balls for Yuzu to send her off to kindergarten with something. Based on the other characters’ reactions, this is the equivalent of giving her a couple of dinner rolls, but Yuzu’s just happy to have what she’s given. That reaction taught me a lesson, too — compared to the elaborate bentos of the children with full-time mothers, her lunch is skimpy and lazily prepared, but all she sees is Kippei trying his best to give her what she needs. When I’m tempted to make myself unhappy by thinking about how someone else always has more or better, her reaction is something to remember.
Yuzu’s determined to be happy, even in the face of purposeful attempts to make her otherwise. Some of the girls in Kippei’s class hear rumors about all the attention he’s paying to a new girl, and they’re jealous. One particularly disturbed person is so emotionally frayed that even when she finds out that the other girl is a child, she still tries to harm Yuzu in order to get Kippei back to the way he was before.
It’s a complicated picture of the excesses of teen angst combined with the realization that life doesn’t stand still. Someone you knew previously may have changes happen that take them in a different direction or make them into another person.
Yuzu has to deal with that as well, and although she hides her pain most of the time, when it comes out, it’s shocking. Kids don’t have a lot of filters, so their emotion can be particularly direct, and the portrayal here shows it. To help heal her, Kippei is inspired to try things he hasn’t done before, like making a handmade lunch. When he gets it right, she’s immediately thankful, reinforcing his good intentions.
As book two begins, Kippei’s family has received a letter from Yuzuyu’s absent mother. She’s not returning soon, and so Kippei’s duties must continue. Never having been a previously carefree teen boy myself — even when I was his age, I wasn’t as immature, because I didn’t have the distractions offered to me he does — I can’t say how realistic his portrayal is. But it feels right.
Kippei means well, but he often doesn’t think beyond the next step. Implications and long-term meanings are right out. He’s learning to think of others than himself, something that doesn’t come naturally to any teen.
The two women in his life are teaching him otherwise, though. Kippei’s beginning to depend on Yuzuyu’s presence just as she depends on him. Kokoro, his crush, is a schoolmate who’s going through her own family disruption. Kokoro’s mother died when she was around Yuzuyu’s age, and now her father is remarrying and creating a new family without her.
Patterns keep repeating, with actions of one generation creating similar effects in the younger. Even Yuzuyu is trying to care for someone else when she finds a puppy and wants to help it reunite with its mother. How can you get more adorable than a cute little five-year-old caring for a puppy? Book two also includes an extra story, showing how Kippei reacted to news of his younger brother’s birth when he was Yuzuyu’s age.
Book three brings some depth to the comedy by providing a glimpse of Yuzu’s mother and more explanation for why she’d dump her kid on someone else. Yuzu also makes a new friend her age, a little boy named Shota. Unfortunately, the two stories tie together in a disturbing but necessary way that demonstrates that child care isn’t about playing house, that it’s a stressful responsibility and some people crack under the strain (or shouldn’t have had it in the first place).
I was impressed by how the storyline was handled reasonably without hammering the reader with a message. I also liked the way that Yuzu’s mom looks like she’d be her mother: an older version of her with less enthusiasm, as though life had beaten on her more without someone like Kippei to depend on.
In book four, another relative appears. Miki, a fourteen-year-old cousin with a knife, a bad attitude, and problems at home, shows up claiming that Yuzu should come with her. She’s mixed up about family, acting out with Yuzu as a bargaining chip. The story walks a line between heartwarming and disturbing in its verisimilitude, but it’s something of a distraction from why I read the series: seeing Kippei and Yuzu together.
Book five returns the focus to Kippei’s dealings with Kokoro, temporarily turning the series into a teen romance. She’s being hit on by a forceful guy who doesn’t know how to take “no” for an answer, but she won’t tell anyone about the bruises he gave her. Kippei knows her moodiness means something’s wrong, but he doesn’t know her well enough to know what. Given the early days of their relationship, he doesn’t make her comfortable enough to allow her to tell him.
His childlike, unquestioning acceptance of those he cares for may be enough to help her through her discomfort, though. Kippei hasn’t learned dissembling or misrepresentation, which is one of the things he has in common with Yuzu.
Later in the volume, Yuzu begins having dreams about her missing mother that sadden her. She’s beginning to forget details of their life together, and she’s trying to cling to things she’s outgrowing as a way of trying to keep her memories. Kokoro’s able to assist, given her own family situation.
In book six, both Kippei and Yuzu get new classmates, sisters. The younger kids overhear the older girl express her frustration with being a constant babysitter, due to hard-working parents, at the same time Kippei’s sister sets out to find Yuzu’s missing mother. The combination of two lead the children to leave kindergarten to find the new girl’s mom at work, causing much concern at their disappearance.
Afterwards, Yuzu catches a cold, which requires nursing, and Kippei’s finding out that there aren’t enough hours in the day to spend all the time he wants with both his cousin and his girlfriend. A couple of disturbing revelations leave the reader wondering what will happen next.
Those questions are answered as the series concludes with book seven. Yuzu’s memory of her mother, or the lack thereof, raise cause for concern among her family. They thought she’d be happier if she changed quickly to adjust to her new situation, but has she adapted too well? And will Kippei be able to make the best choices for Yuzu even when they’re not the ones he wants for himself?
In this series, Kippei learns a lot of life lessons: how to take care of a child, how to think about someone other than himself, how to be more observant, and how to truly love a female. He’s going to become a better person through Yuzu’s love and caring, someone who might be worthy of Kokoro.