Koukou Debut: Pitch Yourself Into Romance

I really didn’t plan to write about Koukou Debut. But I got to see the Live Action version, and man if that wasn’t a big letdown. So, I wanted to spread some Koukou Debut love, and immerse again back in the 2006 days, when I was waiting each release for some Haruna craziness.

One of the big problems with the romance as a genre is that you quickly feel that when you’ve seen/read a work, you’ve seen/read them all. It’s particularly the case with mangas (though dramas and movies play with the same tropes). Soon, it becomes very upsetting to be given for the umpteenth time dim-witted, meek and fragile heroines who happen to fall for the smug, handsome and (more often than not) disdainful prince. When we’re supposed to root for them, you realize that the culture gap may be bigger than expected.

So, when once in a while, original stories emerge, you already have your gift ready for the manga Gods. And Koukou Debut (高校デビュー) or High School Debut, penned by Kawahara Kazune, sure deserves its share of rice and sake.

The synopsis may sound very shoujo-ish (read: shallow): a softball tomboy is determined to find love in high school. Being a complete love neophyte won’t help her, but Fate does it so that she meets the high school hot property, and she asks for his help. He will, under one condition: never fall in love with me!

I confess that I would have never read this manga if I had read the synopsis first. And that would have been too bad for me. Fortunately, I (almost) never read summaries and so I was able to discover this gem.

It sure uses a lot of cliches, but reverses them in a satisfying way. Our heroine, Nagashima Haruna, may be seen as the common tomboy but that really isn’t accurate at all. Former softball star back when she was in middle school, she swore to start anew once she’ll be in high school and find love. She isn’t disavowing who she was (unlike so many other shoujo heroines) but made her decision in middle school, spurred by all the shoujo mangas she read.

Therefore, I made a decision. I’d given my all to my club activity in middle school, so in high school, I want to give my all to find true love!

This is 100% Haruna philosophy. Throughout the series, Haruna is pretty much the epitome of「一生懸命」- Isshoukenmei (give one’s all), and it can be gut-busting as well as praiseworthy. Wanna catch a boyfriend? Let’s follow every shoujo mangas and female magazines advice, and compile them in a notebook. What’s hilarious is the meta of it all, Haruna being a shoujo heroine who wants to follow the shoujo patterns but realize that it doesn’t work in “real” life. Yeah, we know girl, we tried too.

She is very dense and simple-minded, however she’s not the helpless and shy shoujo girl, far from it. When time calls for action, she’s at the front. Physically stronger than boys, she follows her instincts and wears her heart on her sleeve.

So, when she accidentally meets Komiyama Yoh, she instinctively knows he’d be the perfect coach for her. Highly perceptive and aware of what men want in a girl, he’s like a living magazine. There’s just a tiny hitch: he hates girls. But count on Haruna’s determination to make him revise his opinion. And she needs all of her will to chase the high school hottie who makes any girl fall for him without even trying. That’s not saying that he’s without flaws, because one thing is sure: this guy is not your perfect Prince cardboard cutout. Having trouble communication with others, seemingly distant and hiding his shyness under a cold demeanor, he is surprisingly enough the best match for Haruna.

Both didn’t fall in love at first sight and boy, how that in itself was refreshing. Being Haruna coach in love, Yoh even helped her when she fell for one of his best friends, and was here to comfort her when it didn’t work out. Love takes time and it’s little by little, with each knowing the other more, that their friendship evolves and blossoms into love.

On the outside, they’re totally different and many (Yoh fans, for instance) wonder how they even became a couple: he’s serious, no-nonsense and aloof, she’s energetic (some would say hyper), romantic and scatterbrained. But Yoh has found in Haruna someone who encourages him to change, while Haruna has found someone who loves and understands her as she is. Each personality takes the best from the other, and they build a healthy and equal relationship, which is particularly pleasant to see. Yoh doesn’t mind his girlfriend being stronger than him and is at several occasions influenced and touched by Haruna’s eagerness and genuine feelings. In return, Haruna discovers that being a girlfriend isn’t as simple as what shoujos taught her, and that tact and self-control are sometimes appreciated.

They’re both very innocent and are learning together what it means to be a couple, and the result is refreshingly endearing. Around them revolves a gallery of engaging friends, who aren’t just sidekicks or foil for our heroes but fleshed-out characters, bringing support and philosophy to our couple. Many have their own storylines, relevant and important in the story. They’re also fodder for some comic relief, though our couple fares pretty well by themselves in this department.

Now, what’s the problem with the Live version? (Warning, spoilers ahead)

Well, everything. Ok, maybe I’m being a bit too harsh towards what is just a feel-good movie, but I felt like the movie version betrayed the very identity of Koukou Debut. Where the manga cleverly played with the shoujo tropes, the movie adaptation failed miserably. Instead, it became an other run-of-the-mill romance story, without nothing new to say in comparison to the thousand other productions of the same genre.

I was excited about this movie as soon as I heard about it, months ago already. When the trailers were out, I was over the moon with joy at what looked like a very cute and funny adaptation. Maybe because of that, my view was clouded, and I didn’t noticed some details which already gave away the turn chosen. One word: Flashy.

As I watched the scenes unfold one after another, my glee sank in the depths of my tolerance. Deeper and deeper.

Said scenes looked like a patchwork of what I guess are the average Koukou Debut fan’s favorite scenes. But it resulted in a ensemble without logic, denying the pace slowly built up in the manga version. The “checklist” feeling was too obvious, and I couldn’t get past it.

I genuinely think that even if I hadn’t read the manga, I would still have felt this way. Exhibit A: Movie Haruna is randomly coerced by Movie Yoh into dating Fumiya (Yoh’s best friend) and when she catches him after the date in Asumi (Yoh’s sister)’s arms, she has a broken heart. Huh, isn’t it a tad too soon? Where’s the “oh, I think I’ve fallen in love” step?

Thing is, you have this kind of moments a LOT. To quote Yoh himself: “If you mix coke and oolong tea and orange juice together, it’s nasty!” Movie Koukou Debut wanted it all, and it tastes bad.

Thanks to its careful storytelling, the manga version feels real and relatable. I believe in their romance, and one of its strengths was that it’s grounded in reality. Here, not so much. Movie Koukou Debut clearly sets itself in An Other Planet, which is not located in this galaxy. The city and school name? Koishitai (Fall in love)! In this world, you have classes in rooms stemming straight from a drunk designer’s mind (pink flamingos? really?), Blue and Pink colors rule this planet and the iconic Hachiko statue has been photoshopped in real life.

We are constantly hammered with the fluffy and the kawaii but the problem is that it feels forced . Did they have a quota to respect?

Unfortunately, it makes it all the more superficial and I often felt really embarassed for some of the actors. Like…did they really NEED to resort to the hackneyed bald teacher with a wig trick? Or to waste precious minutes to show a conversation between two drag queens (and a foreigner)? Instead of making me laugh, which I suppose/hope was the intention, it made me way too conscious of the ridicule of it all, and prevented me from getting emotionally involved.

Yeah, sorry Mizobata. Some would argue that I just don’t get the Japanese humor, and it’s partly true, but I’d say that I thoroughly enjoyed the original medium of this story and it made me laugh, cry, and root for the characters much, much more.

And now, the biggest issue: the ending. What I like with Koukou Debut is how it’s not your regular shoujo story with the guy and the girl eventually getting together and living happily ever after. Despite that, the movie chose to chew and jumble various plot scenes from Vol.1 to Vol.6, without respecting the fact that Haruna and Yoh got together around Vol.3. And when you know that the series ended at Vol.13, you can imagine how much time the author spent detailing their growth as a couple. So, such a cliché and Cinderella-esque ending can’t help but makes you feel bummed out. Haruna’s confession is lame and totally ill-timed (she more or less drives Yoh into a corner): two minutes after saying that she’ll let him decide, she runs back because she doesn’t want to lose him. What. The. Heck? Hello Trust and Confidence, fancy NOT seeing you here.

Also: No character development is a real shame. *sob*

Acting wise, I must say that I didn’t know any of the actors prior to this movie, so no bias here. Both Mizobata Junpei and Ono Ito are easy on the eyes, but still very green. Mizobata more than Ono, a shame for an actor who debuted years before her (apparently, it’s her acting debut. Pun intended). I can feel that Ono tried her best to be Haruna, and I have more to complain about the script than about her acting. Mizobata, on the contrary, seems to be too self-conscious of the way he acts. Which is too bad, since he physically makes a pretty fine Yoh. Nothing much to say about the rest of the cast, aside from the fact that they all pour out the Kawai full-force.

Moral of the story is don’t adapt mangas that being simple can do wonders. I wanted to love you, I swear I did, but like so many others (Love★Com anyone?) you didn’t lived up to my expectations. Fear not, there are surely lots of friends out there who’ll give you the love I have to keep to myself. Sayonara, Movie.

7 thoughts on “Koukou Debut: Pitch Yourself Into Romance

  1. thanks for giving an early warning not to watch the live action before reading the manga ;D I’ve been contemplating on buying this one (blame the synopsis that is so misleading) but one I got enough money, I’d buy this!

    I’m not sure whether it’s the movie length’s fault or not, but live-action movies often destroy the essence of the original mangas (based on other people’s reviews and my opinion). that’s why I prefer to watch live-action dramas (hana yori dango, nodame, hana kimi) rather than watching movies, although they are some that feels…weird *cough* ouran high school *cough*

    speaking of movies, have you watched paradise kiss? there are mixed reactions from people, and that sends me into an internal conflict whether to watch it or not :*

    • Thanks for your message ^^
      I just thought that it was a shame that such a lovely shoujo manga received such a treatment.
      I think we can partly blame it on the movie format, but really there’s much more to say about the writing and the direction.
      They sucked the very essence out of the manga, leaving it without its most important strength: heart.

      I’m generally wary of live-action dramas, though Nodame is an excellent example of a successful adaptation for the little screen.
      The movie adaptation, unfortunately, didn’t fare as well.
      Strangely enough, I’ve found Ouran to be quite respectful of the manga’s wackiness ^^
      But I can really understand why it feels weird 😀

      I didn’t watch ParaKiss yet, and don’t know if I want to. This manga is one of my favorites, and from what I could read, the adaptation was godawful (dixit ockoala, and if you didn’t read her recap, please do! I agree with every statement: http://koalasplayground.com/2011/10/31/a-review-and-recap-of-the-paradise-kiss-movie-with-kitagawa-keiko-and-mukai-osamu/)

      • *gasp* now I’m leaning towards not watching parakiss. maybe later, after taking it from my friend.

        what a waste of osamu-keiko pairing, though they do look so wonderful from those screencaps by ockoala. the movie looks quite flashy *_*

  2. Koukou Debut was one of the first mangas I read and loved (with the exception of one or two volumes).

    I was was never too excited about the movie – somehow, I had the feeling it wouldn’t match up. Part of it is the format: many things would surely have work better in a dorama, with more episodes to show how Haruna and Yoh’s relationship develops, to give us more insight into the other characters, etc. – because that was something you did have in the manga. You got a full sense not just of Haruna and Yoh, but also some of the other characters (although I never liked Yoh’s sister very much – I still don’t get her), a feeling that it wasn’t just a superficial story but that it was more full rounded, that characters were fully rounded.

    Koukou Debut was quirky in many ways, a quirky that works in the realm of mangas, but that elsewhere (at least for non-Japanese people I would argue) doesn’t always translate very well. Translating that ‘manga-quirky’ onto the screen is tricky, but it can be done. I can watch Hana Yori Dango and enjoy it (even if it isn’t my favourite dorama). I can watch Kimi Wa Petto (and that one I rather love, although it isn’t all perfect either). But Koukou Debut – it was too over the top, too excessive, too colourful, losing what made the manga special. I didn’t even get the feeling it was the Haruna of the manga I was seeing. It did try to stay close to the manga and many classic scenes were included, but it still didn’t work. And the acting – excessive overacting that, for me, just kills a movie. Neither of the leads did anything for me.

    So, I join you in your verdict: not a keeper. Not worth watching, unless for the sake of completeness to see how the manga’s been adapted (but that can only induce disappointment).

    By the way, I think your review is really thorough and well written. It was a joy to read (even with the heavy heart of being disappointed about the live-action).

  3. Just out of curiousity, have you read any mangas by Sakisaki Io? I really like her stuff, because her characters and stories also don’t fit the stereotypical manga mould – the basic story line may sometimes seem to, but you never get fragile, shallow shoujo heroines with her.

    • Thank you for your comments! I’m glad I could convey a bit of what I feel for Koukou Debut, and I wasn’t sure if I did it well. Your comment makes me believe that I somewhat succeeded. It’s not easy to put in words a feeling, and it’s even harder when you write it in an other language.

      I agree that such a story would have deserved a drama format, but as you said, its quirkiness is tricky to adapt, though totally possible. Alas, I’m afraid the trend is leaning more on the “over-the-top” and “super-kawaii” than anything.

      Now, Sakisaki-sensei. Wow, we DO really have similar tastes ^^
      I’m a big fan of her work, to the point that I bought original tankōbons to follow Strobe Edge when I couldn’t wait anymore for the subs. LOL
      It helped me a lot with my japanese learning, though I’m still not fluent…
      Be it Mascara Blues, Strobe Edge, or the current series Ao Haru Ride, they all play with the common shoujo cuteness but manage to have a larger vision, and ring a bell about what it means to be a teenage (in love…or not) in our modern world. I’m not a teenager anymore, yet I really love her way of depicting those feelings of love, doubt, confusion…It never feels stupid or childish (unlike so many, many other comics). Plus, her boys are always such cutie-pies, it’s a feast for the eyes ^^

  4. I’m not a great fan of “over the top” and “super kawaii” – I can digest it to some extent, but not to how it was done in Koukou Debut… )-:

    I think you are further along with your Japanese than I am (only started a few weeks ago). (On a total side note, this Japanese lady I met recently and am meeting for coffee tomorrow, promised to share her digital Naussicca manga – in the original language – with me. So excited for this although I really can’t read them at this point. 🙂 )

    I’m not a teenager anymore either, but I can enjoy the high school world of Sakisaka’s mangas. I read them, also thinking if I did know any teens, these would be the mangas I’d recommend to them (Koukou Debut too) because they contain characters that I think can teach teens a thing or two about the complexity of feelings, being true to yourself, being honest/loyal, – e.g. both Nina and Ren from Strobe Edge illustrate this very well. (I should add that I taught teens for a couple of years… now I’m back at uni though.)

    I love love love Sakisaka’s way of drawing, it’s distinct from most other mangas and I think the way she breaks up feelings into several images is just brilliant. One of my favourite pages ever is that one where Andou nearly breaks down (http://i5.mangareader.net/strobe-edge/27/strobe-edge-2080941.jpg) – I actually have it up on my wall.

    Following Ao Haru Ride closely now too!

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