by Ken Akamatsu; translated by Satsuki Yamashita
published by Kodansha Comics; $19.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Like Johanna, I discovered Love Hina early in my anime/manga fandom. I had only been a fan a couple of years when the anime was released, and it was love at first sight. I remember getting the manga as each volume came out and loving Akamatsu’s art and storytelling.
Kodansha’s re-release of the series is like having a mirror that lets me look at my past self. I’m given an opportunity to examine my tastes as an early fan. Truth be told, I was hoping to discover I had great taste from the beginning. Or, at least, come up with a justification of my earlier choices.
When I first encountered Love Hina, I hadn’t sampled that widely the anime and manga available. I had stuck mostly to the sci-fi genre and some widely praised series like Ranma 1/2. So I didn’t know much about harem comedies or the hyperactive humor used by Akamatsu.
I remember being captivated by it all. I had never experienced a cartoon or comic like Love Hina. I was caught up in that honeymoon phase of a new hobby when everything you experience is wonderful. I was still learning about Japanese culture; Love Hina was my first introduction to hot springs, university enterance exams, and New Year temple visits. It was all new and I wanted more.
Ten years later, how does Love Hina hold up for me? Not as well as I had hoped.
On page 142 of the omnibus, Akamatsu tells us it took 20 submissions and two editorial meetings to finally get Love Hina accepted. That’s not really hard to believe. The setup for the series feels like it was composed by a committee seeking to engineer a hit manga by including all the female stereotypes fanboys love. You have everything from the older, slightly sluttly woman (Kitsune) to the shy, unsure, younger sister (Shinobu). The main love interest is the secretly sexy librarian type. Take off those Coke-bottle glasses and frumpy clothes, and you’ve unwrapped a Playboy playmate.
Our protagonist is the everyman loser that fanboys can both easily identify with and feel superior to. Keitaro isn’t a very good student. He’s not athletic. He’s average-looking and has never had a girlfriend. He has lots of self-doubts. However, he is also romantic, a hard worker, sincere, and has a good heart.
Now take our cast and figure out a setting that allows for maximum fanservice and comedic high jinks. How about an all-girls dorm that was formerly a hot springs inn? It’s the perfect setup for lots of chances for nudity and misunderstandings. At this point in my fandom, it’s a little hard not to be cynical about the whole premise of Love Hina. It feels designed to exploit male fans.
I find that I don’t have much patience any more for the storytelling in Love Hina. Keitaro’s constant tripping and exposing one of the girls gets old before the end of the first volume. Naru’s screaming “pervert” and hitting Keitaro into the sky gets old even quicker. If I wasn’t reviewing this omnibus, I would have quit before getting to the halfway point. I’m shocked I was previously able to read 14 volumes of this.
I can also see the appeal this story had, and to some extent still has, for me. Akamatsu is able to breathe life into these stereotypes. Keitaro’s sincerity and naiveté come across as believable, which is hard to do. Naru isn’t just the cute smart girl. She also has her own fears and doubts. Even Shinobu takes on more depth as we get to know her. Akamatsu’s skill crafting likable characters that transcend their stereotypes is the real secret to his success.
The best story arc in the omnibus is when Naru and Keitaro run away after both fail the entrance exam to Tokyo University. The fanservice and slapstick are toned down, giving the characters a chance to come alive. There is also room for their relationship to develop. It was a refreshing and much welcomed change of pace.
Another reason I loved Love Hina was the artwork. Even now, there is no denying that Akamatsu is a skilled artist. He has no weakness. Everything in the book is done well from character designs to page layouts to beautiful backgrounds. He adeptly handles comedy, drama, and quiet emotional moments. The book is still gorgeous and feels fresh.
At its core, Love Hina has an appealing story of a burgeoning romance. Unfortunately, that’s only 10% of the book. You have to wade through a lot of muck for so little gold. I’ve since discovered many manga that tell the same basic story much better. I won’t be re-reading the series. As I said before, I don’t have the patience. I’m hoping this is a sign of my maturity as a manga reader. (The publisher provided a review copy.)