Manga-ka: Miku Sakamoto
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: February 2010
Synopsis: “It was a simple accident. Shinobu spilled milk on Miharu’s bag that contained a kimono. All she had to do was apologize to him. But it’s a real challenge because Miharu is known as the tallest and meanest person in the class and everyone is afraid of him! Miharu tells Shinobu that the kimono is very expensive, so she must make it up to him. But how? Shinobu must wear a kimono and help Miharu to hand out advertisement of his grandmother’s antique kimono shop everyday after school. At first, she’s somewhat reluctant, but she begins to enjoy the experience and finds herself coming to like Miharu. Gradually, Shinobu notices how sensitive Miharu actually is, not the mean person that everyone–including herself–thought him to be. Soon, Shinobu realizes that she has fallen in love with Miharu!”
CMX has a nice habit of finding unknown yet excellent shojo manga, and Stolen Hearts adds another gentle, quality series to recommend from their collection. The addition of the educational elements regarding kimonos makes this series standout as more than a simple romance, giving manga fans an inside look at this aspect of Japanese culture. Avoiding the trappings of fandom, it sticks to a pleasant mood and focuses on its core elements – the humour and heart of a growing relationship and the fascinating realm of the art of Kimonos. Adding in a non-traditional couple and a focus on both sides of the romance, Sakamoto gives one us a pleasant reading experience.
Miku Sakamoto’s author commentary makes note that she is a novice to Kimonos, having put one on herself for the first time while beginning the series. This fact makes the amount of information presented in this series surprising, as Sakamoto has clearly put a lot of research into the series. Koguma’s grandmother provides lots of knowledge, instructing the reader and Shiobu in the proper ways to tie the belt of a kimono, and things like the differences between summer and winter kimonos. Details like this add to the book’s charm, and having this element being based out of Koguma’s family life and the duos’ after school jobs provides many natural ways to work it into each chapter.
Mind you, for all the research put into the series, it presents everything fairly effortlessly, informational along with the growing relationship between Koguma and Shinobu. The fact that the duo begin the series in a relationship makes for a refreshing change from most shojo manga where a relationship is usually the end result of dozens of volumes of will-they-won’t-they shenanigans. This creates a charming atmosphere that is friendly for readers, in the relaxed fashion of Aria or the somewhat more dramatic Emma. Drama occurs out of others’ reactions to their relationship and minor misunderstandings. It’s never excessive and overall optimistic, complimented by the cheery artwork.
The art is fairly standard, but Sakamoto spices things up by making the best use out of the Kimono theme as Koguma’s grandmother dresses the cast in an array of fascinating outfits. The obligatory school festival story becomes a chance to expand on the supporting cast and play dress-up with them as well. Backgrounds are the minimal sort usually found in shojo manga, though I appreciated some of the detail work in the used kimono shop, and hope it’s expanded upon in future volumes.
Sakamoto uses a softer line work than more angular shojo manga we’ve seen recently, and uses differentiation of body types as a plot device, with a towering male lead dating a petite female. The non-stereotypical character designs also surface in Koguma’s grandmother. She’s neither a midget-sized crone nor unrealistically youthful, and instead a weathered, spirited older woman who serves the comic aspects of the series well, bossing the cast about with unusually youthful zest.
Koguma’s physical awkwardness is a constant cause of unease among the series cast. His height intimidates them while teenage social anxiety leads him to often seem scary when he’s in fact quite nervous. It was a pleasant shift to have an equal balance in seeing the male-side of the romantic comedy as well as Shinobu‘s, as most manga tend to lean more towards one characters reactions and worries.
The story presents the issues facing those of above and below average heights well, something manga often overlooks with its focus on average-sized protagonists, in the usual tradition of being mostly blank slates for readers to project themselves on. These leads would have been supporting cast members in another series, so having them front and center makes for a refreshing change in a sea of interchangeable leads. Some readers may be greatly amused of how fearful students are of 6 foot tall Koguma, given that height is fairly common in North America.
CMX’s usual lighter but solid paper stock is in use, and allows nice crisp printing. Their current trade dress is very minimal, letting the artwork itself shine, and including a small illustration on the spine that’ll look nice on your shelves when you’ve acquired more.
The charming presentation, choice of Kimonos as a series theme and abnormal but adorable leads make this Stolen Hearts a first volume I’d highly recommend to shojo fans. With the usual reservations of cuteness tolerance levels to general manga readers, this series is fairly saccharine, but balances it out with some style, and a more gentle pace than most shojo manga.