“Ha! As if you could keep from causing trouble!”
“Urk! Y-you’re right… but I can promise you a life full of excitement, though!”
Itazura na Kiss sounds like it would be very much the opposite of my kind of thing. Shoujo romantic comedies tend to bore me unless they have some extra element in the mix (like, say, vampires, or ninjas, or robots, or… well, you get the picture). I get impatient with characters who are too dim to figure out what’s going on when it’s obvious to the reader. What’s more, I have a low tolerance for vicarious embarrassment — when a fictional character is humiliated or embarrassed, I get embarrassed right alongside them, and it often gets so bad that I can’t keep reading or watching because I’m cringing too hard. It seemed from the reviews that the plot of Itazura na Kiss mostly revolved around the main character being hideously humiliated again and again, and that made me think it would be painful to read.
But despite all those reservations, so many people were so enthusiastic about the series that I decided to give it a try, and it turned out that even though the impression I’d got from the reviews was pretty accurate, none of it actually mattered. I don’t know how Kaoru Tada managed to take the ingredients for something I should hate and turn it into a funny, charming, and thoroughly delightful comedy that keeps me wanting more at the end of each chapter; but she did.
Maybe its main character Kotoko Aihara’s indomitable cheerfulness and resilience — the way she keeps bouncing back after every disaster. No matter how many times the cool, superior Naoki Irie brushes her off and treats her unkindly, her affection never wavers, and no matter what absurd setbacks and pitfalls she encounters, she always remains resolute — disregarding the occasional declaration that she is totally over Irie, uh-huh, going to forget all about him. And despite his arrogance and coldness and his love of mocking Kotoko and making her look stupid (not that he needs to try very hard), there’s clearly something that draws him to Kotoko as well; the old cliché of the kindergarten boy who pulls the pigtails of the girl he likes may apply here. The “mischievous kiss” of the title happens in this volume: on the day of their graduation ceremony, Kotoko and Naoki have been engaged in a kind of arms race of embarrassment, culminating in Kotoko revealing Naoki’s shameful secret: when he was a small boy, his mother used to dress him in girls’ clothes (and there are photos to prove it). He drags Kotoko away to confront her in private, and she quite rightly points out that he and his friends made fun of her first; but when she announces that she’s going to forget all about him, he responds by kissing her so as to make it impossible for her to forget. The kiss is an attack in an ongoing war, but his choice of weapons makes his facade of indifference a lot less convincing, so that later, when he’s taunting Kotoko about her “unsexy body”, it comes across more as a form of inverted flirtation than anything else; it’s almost as if he’s trying to convince himself of something he no longer truly believes.
The relationship between Kotoko and Naoki develops amidst the wackiest of wacky hijinks, so that this volume, at least, leans heavily on the “comedy” of “romantic comedy” — between Kotoko’s clumsiness, Kin-chan’s self-deluding attempts to woo her, little Yuuki’s childish animosity to her, and the extremely nice captain of the university tennis club who turns into a demon when there’s a racket in his hand, there’s enough farcical plotting here to keep anyone interested; it’s not subtle, but it is clever, and although you can mostly see the dominoes being set up in advance, they don’t always crash down in exactly the ways you might expect. Tada’s art here is a little austere and cartoony by contemporary standards, which takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s definitely worth it; more, I’d argue that the rubber-faced cartoony figures work better for the wild and silly plot than a prettier style ever could.
In its second volume, Itazura na Kiss remains funny, charming, and unexpectedly sweet despite the main character’s love interest being (let’s be honest here) kind of a dick — perhaps because every so often he shows signs of being more than that, and that leaves me eager to see more.