Cruel but beautiful.
Evergreen, story by Yuyuko Takemiya. Art by Akira Kasukabe. Translated by Adrienne Beck. Seven Seas Entertainment, 2012-2015. 4 Volumes. Rated Teen.
I grabbed up the first volume of Evergreen to assuage my disappointment when I was browsing the manga section at the local Barnes & Noble and couldn’t find the volume of Shugo Chara! I was missing. I’m glad I did.
I was unsurprised, after finishing that first volume and hunting up where I could get the rest, to learn that the authoress, Yuyuko Takemiya, is also the creator of Toradora!, which is the Casablanca of Japanese high school rom-coms. Like that famous film starring Bogey, Takemiya-sensei’s work is good not because it avoids clichés, but because it uses all of them, and it makes them feel shiny and new.
Take a look at the wraparound cover art from the first volume pictured above. The girl featured prominently on the left is Niki Awaya (or Awaya Niki, since the translator can’t decide whether to write the names in English or Japanese order). Notice how she’s wearing the classic sailor fuku that almost no real schools use anymore. Notice how her full and undoubtedly heaving bosom lifts her blouse in such a way as to expose an inch or two of midriff. Notice how she’s looking right at you with the classic moe stare. Notice how her impossibly huge head of hair includes two odd clumps that look a lot like floppy dog ears.
Also notice how she’s apparently jumping fully clothed into a swimming pool. I have no idea why she’s doing that, though it will undoubtedly cause her aforementioned blouse to turn translucent and cling scintillatingly to her skin, thereby outlining every ridge and curve of her body while emphasizing her slender waist, her flat stomach, and the volcanic swelling of her firm, round, and high … personality …
I forgot where I was going with this. Anyway, the cover art screams, “I’m a comic for lonely guys with a thing for schoolgirls,” and I suspect that might be enough to drive away some readers who would probably enjoy the story, which is unfortunate, though I’m going to defend the cover art later in this review.
Contrary to what the cover art might suggest, this is not a manga dedicated to cheesecake, or “fanservice” as the otaku like to call it. It’s actually not even a boy-meets-girl story or wish-fulfillment fantasy, though it presents itself as such for most of its run. It is actually a meditation on the dire effects of resentment, on how unforgiveness poisons the soul.
Our protagonist is young Hotaka Yoshimatsu. He’s the captain of the manga club at his high school, and he practically is the club, since most of the other members contribute nothing, except for the cute and bespectacled On-chan, his second-in-command. When he isn’t reviewing manga or writing articles on the history of the medium, Hotaka stares out the window like a creeper and watches the swimming club. In particular, he watches Niki, the club’s champion, over whom he rhapsodizes in ways forgivable only for a teenager experiencing his first crush.
Hotaka (remember what I said earlier about Takemiya and her employment of clichés) was born with an illness, common to male protagonists in rom-coms, called Nonspecific Heart Condition, or NHC. Medical experts say NHC is closely related to Victorian Novel Disease. Its symptoms include thinness, paleness, and fragile beauty. Although vigorous exercise is proscribed for sufferers of this illness because it can lead to melodramatic fainting, NHC is sometimes treatable with a surgical procedure known simply as The Operation. The Operation is life-threatening, but the survival rate is one hundred percent. Unfortunately, NHC is incurable, but laboratory tests indicate that the love of a good woman can ease the pain.
Hotaka already underwent The Operation when he was a small child, but it left him with a large surgical scar on his chest. Although the school usually indulges Hotaka’s desire to keep this covered up, the swimming coach insists that he has to swim 25 meters if he is to pass his physical education class. It’s while he’s fumbling through this attempt to swim that Niki the swimming goddess, who up to this point he’s only watched from afar, falls—or leaps, rather—into his life.
For most of its run, Evergreen resembles a male-oriented romantic comedy about a skinny geek who manages to land the hottest babe on campus. Although Niki is a little too perfect and Hotaka a little too emo, they’re pretty damn cute together. While they maneuver around each other, each trying to guess the true feelings of the other, two second-tier characters, the adorkably bespectacled On and the ladies’ man Soga, act as unwitting catalysts and obstacles in Niki and Hotaka’s budding relationship.
A lesser mangaka would treat the whole story, with hot girls and swimsuits, as an opportunity for T & A, but the illustrator Akira Kasukabe, a relative newcomer, approaches everything with a delicate touch and an artist’s eye. That’s not to say that Evergreen contains no cheesecake, but it’s the good kind of cheesecake, the kind that leaves the reader with the impression that the artist is admiring the characters rather than demeaning them. No bodyparts get isolated and shoved in the audience’s face. Takemiya’s deft writing helps as well; she likes her clichés, as I said, but she doesn’t rely on lowbrow humor. There are no scenes here of the guy accidentally using the girls’ locker room, or falling on the girl and accidentally grabbing her breast in the process. Aside from his habit of watching Niki out the window (which Takemiya downplays to keep it from being too creepy), Hotaka is reasonably gentlemanly, and Niki, though she certainly cavorts around in her swimsuit and her size-too-small uniform, is not too show-offy.
As our protagonists draw steadily closer to each other through tensions and misunderstandings, trouble lurks in the background, and the attentive reader will be able to figure out, more-or-less, what that trouble is. Back when only three volumes were out and I was waiting on pins and needles for the fourth, I waffled on how to discuss this in a review; I thought of simply giving a spoiler warning and then plowing ahead with speculations about the big plot twist that was undoubtedly coming, and which I predicted would appear in volume 5 or 6. I was shocked when I read online that the fourth volume would be the last. I also read a negative review of the final volume that indicated that it was too rushed, and its change in mood after the plot twist too jarring. When I looked up the history of the comic, I discovered that it originally appeared in Dengeki Daioh Genesis, but moved later to Monthly Comic Dengeki Daioh, which made me think that financial trouble and executive meddling might have forced it to a rapid conclusion. I had set myself up for disappointment, but was pleased, when I read the fourth volume, to discover that it is not rushed. It is, however, heartbreaking and devastating. It ties up everything in a manner that is decidedly bittersweet (more bitter than sweet), but satisfactory.
While Hotaka is struggling to draw closer to Niki, family problems are swirling around him like a storm threatening to break. We learn early on that his father had died of the same heart condition he currently has. There is a lot of resentment; his mother and maternal grandmother have cut all ties with his father’s side of the family, and his father’s altar sits neglected in a corner of their small apartment. Hotaka attributes all of this to his father’s physical weakness and early death, and also feels that his family’s resentment is partly aimed at him, but a close reading reveals that much more than that is going on between the sparse lines of dialogue. His father didn’t merely die, and he wasn’t merely physically weak; he did something he shouldn’t have.
On top of brewing family troubles, Hotaka has a recurring nightmare: every night for as long as he can remember, he has dreamt of a little girl in a yukata and festival mask who stabs him in the heart. The meaning of this macabre image only becomes clear after the various threads of the story come together in the soul-crushing plot twist.
I had already figured out where the story was headed by the end of the first volume. The question that plagues the reader throughout Hotaka and Niki’s budding relationship is not so much “What’s going to happen?” but “How are they going to deal with it?” As I mentioned, these characters really are likeable and cute together. It’s hard not to root for them, but it is obvious from early on that a wrecking ball is coming their way.
Even though I could predict the twist, I did not foresee what happened after it, nor had I guessed how Takemiya was going to tie up several of the story’s details. Nor had I guessed the true meaning of Hotaka’s dreams. Even for someone who sees what’s coming, there are surprises in store. In her employment of that inevitable twist, Takemiya continues to show that she can do what everyone else does, only better: the twist, though I won’t tell you what it is, revolves around a concept that is both one of the most unpromising and one of the most overplayed in all of manga and anime. An inferior storyteller would have revelled in the salaciousness of it, but Takemiya and Kasukabe keep it classy.
The fourth volume is largely about the characters dealing with the fallout of the crushing revelation and moving through the stages of grief. It also peels back the surficial character of Niki to reveal something darker underneath. I mentioned before that Niki seems a little too perfect, and I poked fun at the way she’s depicted in the artwork, but this actually plays effectively into the big reveal: Niki, as we see her in the initial images, is not the literal character, but is rather Niki as Hotaka sees her, an ideal. The real character appears in the final chapters, and she’s not nearly as sweet as Hotaka has led us to believe.
This, like everything else that eventually happens, had been hinted earlier: Niki falls for Hotaka quickly and easily, but she also falls into mutual antagonism with other characters at the same time. She’s a girl of strong emotions who rapidly develops both love and hate, and that fact of her personality will prove too much for Hotaka. Niki seems like the sweetest girl in the world for several chapters, but underneath, she is burning with lifelong resentment, and it is eating her alive.
Although the ending satisfied me, I think one could make the case that it is too rapid. The protagonists move through the stages of grief very quickly: they pass over denial and head into anger (major anger), skip bargaining, and rush to acceptance in only a few chapters, without a lot of time to work things out.
The ending is without clear resolution, but I believe that is deliberate: Takemiya, as she had done earlier with various hints and allusions, trusts her audience to read between the lines. If you look closely, you can see exactly how the characters have reconciled themselves to all that has happened to them. The story is ultimately about forgiveness; the characters have been deeply wounded, and they must let go of hate if they are to move on.
My only serious complaint is that Takemiya employs a few fantastical elements during the climax. These had been hinted at earlier, but not sufficiently to keep them from being jarring, so the appeal to the supernatural pulled me out of the story at exactly the moment when I most needed to be immersed.
In spite of a few minor missteps, this is a really good comic. Takemiya-sensei has still got the magic. I highly recommend this.