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.
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?
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.
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.
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.