I'm in crazy love with Akitaroh Daichi's TV adaptation, which is the world's most adorable anime. However I'd also heard that the original manga's creator, Natuski Takaya, had problems with it. Reading her work, I decided that both sides are in the right. The manga is darker, more challenging and thematically stronger, but it's also inconsistent and it cheats.
To set the scene, it's the story of Tooru Honda, a good-hearted but nearly retarded girl who's almost freakishly polite and has lost both her parents. She's living in a tent. Naturally when this is discovered by her neighbours, the Soumas, they won't hear of it and insist that she move in with them instead. Tooru is horrified of giving any trouble, but eventually they talk her into it and so make her the surrogate mother and worry-wart to three dysfunctional but beautiful men.
However the Souma family has a magical curse. When hugged by an outsider of the opposite sex, they turn into animals.
This is wacky. It's often also funny, but for a while it felt like a story device to help Takaya pander to her audience. You know harem manga, in which lots of hot women fawn over one bland male? This is the female equivalent. There are a thousand titles like it and they all merge into a single rampant cliche. Firstly, Tooru is the ultimate "safe" heroine. She's cute, tragic and indestructibly perky, but more importantly unthreatening to the target audience because she's (a) a good girl, and (b) feeble-minded. Sometimes I'd actually get irritated at the manga for perpetrating her.
As for the harem angle, Tooru is surrounded by beautiful men whose clothes fall off whenever they transform, but who can't threaten her sexually. Furthermore they all have psychological problems which of course she'll help to heal... and that's without mentioning the homosexual frisson. Almost every man in the cast could be seen as a gender-bender. There are so many different sub-categories that it's as if Natsuki Takaya was ticking off a list. There are flouncing cross-dressers, an older man who talks like a giggly teenage girl and a boy so feminine-looking that he's fancied by other boys.
As for the manga's other women, they'll look like the undead and be deranged, scary and/or stalkers. This is of course the antithesis of our self-effacing heroine. Furthermore they're all hopeless in their relationships, both with men and even their own children, since they're all either dead, mind-wiped or bitch queens.
You can see how this could get eye-rolling. It's entertaining, although often in an "I can't believe I'm reading this" way, but it's basically the Akitaroh Daichi anime, but less good.
However in fairness, from the beginning there are also disturbing undertones. Bad things happen when anyone gets too close to the Soumas. If Akito feels threatened by one of his relatives' relationships, he might stick a spike in their eye and drive their wife mad. Then, maybe around volume six, Takaya starts departing from her formulae.
The angst ramps up. Those psychological quirks turn darker. This series's theme, you see, is that of forgiving the unforgivable. Time after time we meet utter cocks, or worse... and the series doesn't give up on them. You or I would be wanting to push this latest wanker under a bus, but Tooru of course could never do that. Instead she never stops trying to help. Eventually we come to see what underpins this behaviour. This is admirable and for a while it's possible (although sometimes difficult) to go along with, but the series has bigger plans than that. They really are going to forgive the unforgivable. You'd send Akito to prison with a smile on your lips and no regret except that he'd eventually get out again.
I seriously disagreed with some of the choices made in these pages... but then the final volume turned my assumptions around and made me reassess my judgements. Had I been wrong? Even great works of literature (which this isn't) rarely manage to challenge their audience's assumptions like this. It's also worth noting that some of the series's most broken characters are fucked up precisely because they couldn't forgive and let go.
This I admire. However the series is also entertaining on a more straightforward level. There are times when it brought me close to tears, whereas it's also capable of being light and funny. The play-within-a-play of "Cinderella-Like Thing" in volume 15 is brilliant and I'd love to get it performed on stage as a short piece in its own right.
Tooru herself is also a wonder. Goodness is her superpower. There's no room in her head for anything negative. She's incapable of cruelty, because she lacks the mental capacity. Of course she's also gullible, pathetic, easily flustered and makes a dandelion puffball look like concrete, but she's awe-inspiring in her ability to forgive anything and never stop loving or smiling. You couldn't imagine a kinder, better person in the entire world.
Nevertheless, more than anything else I've ever read, this feels made up on the fly. Natsuki Takaya repeatedly throws out or forgets story and character points, e.g.
1. Yuki's fan club.
2. The fact that she'd been teasing us with homosexual hints and so instead pairs everyone off in heterosexual couples, including one between the world's most flaming gay and a practically out-and-proud lesbian.
3. People turning into animals, which largely disappears from the later volumes.
4. That there might be any difficulty in a Souma having sexual relations with an ordinary human. They keep banging on about the "curse", but in practice Takaya is ignoring it completely when it comes to her characters' sexual and romantic entanglements (including marriage).
5. Character traits, e.g. Momiji being half-German.
6. The family's ability to edit people's memories.
...and so on. Nevertheless I think we simply have to accept this. It's an evolving work, covering eight years and nearly 5,000 pages. These things happen. It's just that here the transitions are unusually thudding. Takaya even transforms as an artist, as her characters become less insect-like. If nothing else, it sold more than 18 million copies in Japan alone and became Tokyopop's best selling manga series. It also won the 2001 Kodansha Manga Award for shojo manga and the "Best Manga" award at the 2007 American Anime Awards, while the anime adaptation won an Animage Anime Grand Prix.
Did I like it? Yes. If nothing else it kept me reading, despite the hard work involved in doing so in Japanese. It's very good and it deserves its success, I was ambivalent about it almost to the end, but then its final volume turned me around and raises the whole thing to another level. It caps off the themes and makes it a strong, challenging work.