Simon and Schuster
Romance in shoujo manga has, I think it's fair to say, been done to death over the years - Is there really anything new to show or say in this well-worn genre? Karuho Shiina, author of Kimi ni Todoke, thinks so... and you know what, I think she might be right. If nothing else, this particular work has captured the hearts of many not just in its award-winning manga form, but now via the currently running anime adaptation being enjoyed in Japan at present.
Kimi ni Todoke wastes no time in introducing us to its female protagonist - Sawako Kuronuma. While inwardly Sawako is a kind and friendly but naive girl, her outward appearance is... well, frequently a little creepy at first glance in all honesty. This appearance leads to her gaining the nickname Sadako (of The Ring fame), and it's a name that sticks throughout her school life, pushing her into a friendless existence which somehow fails to dampen her generally positive outlook on life.
As her high school career begins, it appears that nothing is likely to change for Sadako - the rumours of her being cursed are the same as ever, and there seems to be little chance of her actually making friends... that is, until she finds herself gaining the attention of Shota Kazehaya. This is a surprising turn of events in itself, for Kazehaya is everything that Sawako isn't; popular, good-looking, and always the centre of attention - "Everyone's Kazehaya" as the understanding around the school is phrased. It seems however that he has a bit of a soft spot when it comes to making sure that everybody is included, but as this yearning for universal inclusion reaches out to Kuronuma, so something altogether deeper begins to form in his heart towards her.
While this basic plot synopsis sounds very much like a typical, run-of-the-mill "opposites attract" story, to dismiss Kimi ni Todoke along those lines would be to belie the depth of emotion and characterisation that it somehow manages to hold. Kazehaya in particular is a fascinating character - Initially he looks to be some kind of "goody two-shoes" female fantasy, but there's always this suggestion of something a little less than perfect beneath that cheerful exterior, while Sawako's naivety somehow makes her easy to like and root for even if she isn't normally the kind of character you might label as "your type". Put together these two characters that you can genuinely appreciate, and you might even find yourself shedding a tear or two during some of the sadder and more emotional moments of the opening two volumes of the manga, amply aided by some occasionally excellent artwork which only adds further the oddly immersive nature of the story.
The other area where Kimi ni Todoke wins out over some other series is in its sense of relative realism - All too often, anime and manga jumps altogether too far in at the deep end when it comes to treating subjects like bullying, filling it with violence and a generally over the top scenarios. Kimi ni Todoke manages to avoid this via a portrayal of Sawako's life that somehow rings far more true when I think back to my own school days - Any taunting and poking of fun at others were more out of finding entertainment than genuine malice, and at the end of the day an entire class can come together as a united group at the drop of a hat when push comes to shove comes to exams. This also ties in nicely to that previous discussion of the main characters - As Sawako only ever really finds herself in emotional rather than physical "danger" (aside from a little pushing and shoving in episode two), Kazehaya isn't portrayed as a typical male "hero" who has to rescue a damsel in distress so much as a more simple enabler who allows her to fulfil her potential in life.
In closing then, while Kimi ni Todoke doesn't exactly rewrite the rulebook on romance in manga, it does manage to move it onto a different plain, with these opening volumes making up an utterly beautiful lesson in loneliness, friendship, human nature, and of course love. We're also left with the promise of even more trials and tribulations to come as characters previously on the sidelines begin to take centre stage - I, for one, can't wait to see where the manga (and the anime adaptation for that matter) is headed.