by Aya Kanno
published by Viz; $8.99 US
After being disappointed by the sitcom-like mediocrity of the second book in this series, I was pleased to see that this latest installment went back to what I liked in the series opener: shojo school drama lightened with a humorous approach to gender expectations.
There’s more in this volume about Love Chick, the manga Juta creates based on the adventures of his friends Asuka and Ryo. Since Asuka is the otomen of the title, a manly boy who nevertheless likes cute crafts and cooking, he’s been transformed into the female protagonist of the manga-inside-the-manga. And with his combination of sports, girly hobbies, and shyness when it comes to expressing his feelings, he makes a terrific tomboy shojo heroine. Ryo, the “eccentric beauty” who excels at martial arts but can’t clean house, becomes the one Asuka’s in love with … with the same name as in real life!
I love seeing how Juta tries to push the two friends together just because he needs more material for his comic series. I did wonder, though, from time to time, why none of the characters who read the Love Chick manga, recognized themselves in it. Or, at least, realized how big of a coincidence it was that both groups did the same unusual things, like fighting a wild bull.
In the first story, Ryo needs Asuka’s help taking care of nursery children. Working with young, impressionable minds who are already beginning to form ideas of what men and women should and shouldn’t do just puts Asuka’s skills into sharper relief. (Especially since he saves the day in both “manly” (athletic) and “feminine” (cooking, crafts) fashion.) I like the idea that he left them, especially one stubborn little boy who started with the impression that “it’s weird for a guy to take care of kids,” with something to think about.
Of course, all of the stories are careful to establish Asuka’s bravery through exaggerated athletic feats. He saves a kid’s life by jumping through a window or grabs lit dynamite to prevent an amusement park explosion… it’s kind of like the last ten minutes of each chapter suddenly switch from One Tree Hill or 90210 to CSI: Miami. But the characters’ charming, happy, young faces keep things light.
The third chapter is my favorite. A bunch of jealous, interested girls want to know if Juta has one special girlfriend. Asuka vows to find out, but his behavior is such that they come to think he’s the love interest. It’s a goofy, frothy set of misunderstandings and coy nudges in which we learn more about Juta’s very unexpected home life. Also new in this book is Hajime, a sports (kendo) rival to Asuka. Through the wacky coincidences that this series does so well, the two end up playing superheroes at a woman’s festival, and things continue to be both traditional (tight-lipped honorable recognition of a worthy competitor) and ridiculously silly (makeovers! costumes!).
When the creator is on, the right balance of that combination is what makes Otomen such fun.