Kare First Love Volumes 1-3 by Kaho Miyasaka
I was excited to see the first volume of Kare First Love pop up on Viz Digital. I thought this would be a good excuse for me to reread the series. I checked out most of Kare First Love from a library a long time ago, and since then I’ve been slowly acquiring my own copies. Kare First Love was a shoujo manga released before the Shojo Beat imprint came into being. In terms of content, it would skew a bit older than some of the titles in the Shojo Beat line, although Miyasaka doesn’t straddle the josei/shoujo line the way I feel Ai Yazawa sometimes does.
Kare First Love sticks fairly close to standard shoujo plots, but it executes them in an engaging and sometimes slightly more realistic way. Kare First Love also piles on the drama. While there are humorous moments, there’s much more angst as the protagonists navigate their budding relationship. Karin Karino is a shy girl who hides behind her glasses and doesn’t stick up for herself at school. She’s thinking slightly snarky thoughts to herself as she endures her morning bus ride when she’s approached by Kiriya, a handsome student from a nearby boys’ school who is interested in the photography book that she’s reading. A mishap on the bus leaves Karin thinking Kiriya is a pervert, and she slaps him and leaves her book behind. Like many shoujo heroines Karin’s outward actions contract with her inner thoughts, as she meekly gives in when her frenemy Yuka demands her class notes while thinking of what she’d actually like to say in response. All the mean girl shenanigans are deflated a little bit by Nanri, a girl in Karin’s class with a worldly and cynical air about her. Nanri holds herself apart from the rest of the class, but she points out to Karin that she does have the ability to stop being taken advantage of if she would only speak up.
As much as Karin would like to go back to her simple anonymous life Kiriya will not go away. He shows up at her school to return her photography book, and they immediately start bickering. Yuko decides that she’s going to use Kiriya’s odd interest in Karin to pursue him and his group of hot friends. Karin finds herself maneuvered into a series of awkward group dates, and it becomes apparent that instead of being obnoxious, Kiriya is almost saintly for a 16-year-old boy. He goes out of his way to look after Karin, maneuvering her through awkward social situations. Karin can’t believe that Kiriya is actually interested in her, but around him she actually says what’s on her mind without her customary filter of shyness.
As Karin and Kiriya start to spend more time with each other, she learns that he’s estranged from his family and supports himself by working a series of part-time jobs. His main ambition is to be a photographer. There are plenty of misunderstandings and incidents where Karin is swept off her feet while Kiriya says things like “Let me take care of you…or I’ll do something horrible like kiss you again.” Kiriya encourages Karin to rediscover her love for music, which is something that she dropped due to the extreme pressure her parents placed on her studying for school.
One of the things that sets Kare First Love apart from other shoujo manga is the way Miyasaka details the trials and tribulations associated with Karin and Kirya developing the physical aspect of their relationship. The manga goes into more detail than is typical, with Nanri sometimes functioning as a peer counselor for the Japanese equivalent for Planned Parenthood because she keeps handing Karin condoms to ensure that when she does have sex, it will be safe sex. Karin is as scared and timid as you would expect a socially isolated girl to be, and Kiriya is about as patient as one would expect a 16 year old boy to be, which is not very patient. One difficult element of the characterization that Miyasaka manages to pull off is that for several volumes Kiriya is basically pressuring Karin to have sex, but he doesn’t seem like a jerk. He might attempt more physical intimacy in their relationship, but he always backs down when Karin appears uncomfortable.
Teenage romance is always both intense and complicated, and in short order the couple have to deal with Kiriya’s tragic past (the most important accessory of any shoujo hero), Karin’s overbearing parents, Yuka’s bullying, interfering photographers, and Kiriya’s attractive older sister-in-law. In addition to these outside complications, Kiriya and Karin’s relationship turns stormy due to their own lack of communication and misunderstandings with each other. The dynamic of the main relationship in Kare First Love reminded me a bit of Fuyumi Soryo’s Mars, but with much less psychological torture.
Miyasaka’s art is attractive, but most fluid and natural when she’s drawing teenagers. Karin’s father often looks a tad on the robotic side, but that could also be a function of his less than great personality. Karin is believable as a stunning shoujo heroine when she takes off her glasses, and Kiriya’s larger frame and shaggy blond hair contrasts with her more conservative look. Miyasaka does a good job alternating between the outward action and Karin’s thoughts, making all the scenes of breaking up and making up dramatic enough to satisfy any shoujo fan.
I’m very happy that Viz is making their backlist available on digital platforms, and I hope this series finds a new group of fans!