From the stack: Kimi ni Todoke vol. 5

My recent brush with Bakuman (Viz) helped me realize something (probably after everyone else already got there) about Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (also Viz). Shiina is deconstructing shôjo manga as surely as Ohba and Obata are dissecting shônen. Of course, Shiina is telling a proper story with engaging characters at the same time, so she wins.

This became blazingly evident in the fifth volume. It begins with our heroine, socially inept Sawako, deep in conversation with Kurumi, who likes the same boy Sawako does and is trying to manipulate Sawako into stepping aside. In spite of her almost complete innocence in matters interpersonal, Sawako is incredibly hard to manipulate, and she’s just so damned nice. Kurumi is infuriated, at least partly because some part of her recognizes that Sawako is possibly more worthy of kindly Kazehaya’s affection than Kurumi is.

This isn’t an uncommon emotional beat for shôjo manga, but it rarely gets the degree of articulation it receives here. Kurumi must not only admit her resentment of Sawako, she must also explain to this foreign exchange student from Mars exactly why she resents her. And while the experience provides some kind of catharsis for the duplicitous Kurumi, it doesn’t entirely soften her feelings for Sawako. It does clarify them, for both Kurumi and Sawako, and they culminate in a glorious moment when Kurumi, pretense abandoned, beams at Sawako and declares them rivals.

It’s not just Kurumi being argumentative. It’s Kurumi being generous, helping Sawako understand. And it’s Kurumi liberating herself from a stifling public persona. Most of all, it’s Shiina celebrating the construct, the pairing of people who want the same limited resource (a title, a prize, a love interest) who both understand the other’s desire and respect their right to want it but realize that their ultimate happiness is mutually exclusive.

This is what I mean by deconstruction. Most mangaka would just go through the beats of this realization without underlining it so baldly, but the baldness is what makes Shiina’s approach soar. It’s like you’re Sawako, discovering all of these new things, except you already knew them, and yet the rediscovery is as thrilling as the first time you grasped them.

There’s lots of other stuff that happens in this volume, and all of it is charming and good, because Shiina wrote and drew it. But the definition of rivalry, old as shôjo and fresh as now, is the kind of emotional peak that represents the best of this excellent series. Bakuman is most intriguing as an instruction manual, and it’s savvy (but joyless) about what works in a certain type of manga. Kimi ni Todoke both defines and celebrates its own category’s building blocks.