High schooler Kai Ichinose fancies himself a ladies’ man. He usually has two or three girls chasing him at any given time, he and his friends are constantly going on group dates, and he gets confessed to nearly every day. But when one of these confessions ends with the girl crying, his childhood nemesis Riko Takanashi re-enters his life. Riko is short in stature, short-tempered, and fiercely defensive of her friends. And since Kai made her friend cry, she doesn’t hesitate to beat him up, as she has since elementary school.
Riko’s anger still hasn’t abated by the next day, when it’s time to pick class representatives. Out of spite, she volunteers for the job just so she can press-gang Kai into helping her, giving him less time to run around with his girlfriends. While helping, Kai learns a few things about Riko. First, that she and popular young teacher Suwa are neighbors and have known each other for years. And second, that Riko is hopelessly in love with Suwa. To his surprise and chagrin, Kai finds he’s jealous of Suwa. What’s with these feelings? Riko’s not his type at all. Kai tries his hardest to simply put them out of his mind, but events conspire to make that impossible.
Shojo romance manga with a male lead is not as rare as it once seemed to be, but it is unusual enough to pique my interest. What is truly rare is a romance manga where the lead is so immediately unlikable. Kai is a capital D Douchebag. He’s a pompous, self-absorbed pickup artist. He talks down to the girls he claims to like, assumes he’s the center of their world, and toys with their feelings. Nearly every move he makes is self-serving. In a word, he’s obnoxious.
It may seem weird to heap praise on a character that’s insufferable, but it’s the first time I’ve read anything like it and it’s refreshing as hell. The character writing, in general, is quite good. Kai’s friend group stands out by actually having individual names and personalities. Their interactions with Kai are pretty funny and they make sure to knock him down a peg once in a while.
Riko does most of the legwork as far as Kai getting what he deserves, though. Hatsu*Haru is one of the rare manga where the main dude getting punched out by the main girl isn’t unfunny slapstick. Kai really needed to get punched.
And I enjoyed seeing him all listless and robbed of his confidence as he struggles to process his newfound feelings. All this goes a long way toward making Kai tolerable and interesting, despite his suspect motivations and eye roll-inducing smarminess.
There are a few visual hiccups here and there. For the most part, Fujisawa’s art is fine, sticking to the soft-edged, cute girls and pretty boys look stereotypical of shojo manga, with the expected sparkle and bubble screentone flourishes. But occasionally anatomical issues, like impossibly long necks and characters contorted into strange poses, show up. Certainly, not the kind of thing that ruins the manga, but they were noticeable enough to be distracting.
There are a few odd localization choices too. The translators, Alethea, and Athena Nibley, chose to render “tsundere” as “a softie pretending to be strong,” and in the translator’s notes at the end of the volume they mention this and explain the tsundere trope. They also chose to leave honorifics untranslated. Personally, I prefer it when honorifics are removed, but that’s not a deal breaker. Nor is leaving them in all that unusual, especially if they’re important to the story, which they are here. Kai first learns that Suwa knows Riko when Suwa calls her “Riko-chan” and she calls him “onii-chan”.
What did strike me as odd was that there were translator’s notes that explained what each honorific meant, but not what the “onii” part of onii-chan meant? Taken all together, it seems like a weird combination of wanting to make the series accessible to newcomers unfamiliar with Japanese terms and wanting to keep the series as Japanese as possible for the die-hards. Again, absolutely not a deal breaker, but it jumps out in an adaptation that otherwise is a funny, breezy read.
Minor issues aside, Hatsu*Haru is a fun first volume with quality character writing, a refreshingly irritating lead, and a lot of promise. By the end of the book, Kai’s selfishness has merged with his new determination to get Riko to fall for him, managing to walk a fine line between unlikable and engaging. I’m interested to see where the next volume takes it.