When I think way back into the early days of my anime and manga fandom, I can remember a time when I couldn’t walk into a WHSmiths and easily find a manga section to pick from. I had to take trips to the centre of London and find an obscure comic shop just off China town in order to get my manga fix. Of course, back then not a lot of manga had been licensed and on top of the usual problem of never finding the first volume of a series, I had to settle with what little I could get my hands on, this included golden oldies such as Sailor Moon, Please Teacher, Demon Diary and our topic for today – Love Hina. However as time flew by, I grew up, and more titles became commercially available; as a result my tastes changed and the genres I grew to enjoy the most became apparent. I no longer bought manga regardless for the sake of owning it, I only grabbed the series that appealed to me, so a lot of my older titles were doomed to be sold later at my local boot fair – this included the first three volumes of Love Hina. I didn’t feel compelled to continue the series back then and never really felt the need to check out the anime either, so to my surprise here I am reviewing the re-release omnibus edition of the classic harem, continuing right where I left off with volumes 4 – 6.
For those who need a refresher; Love Hina is a romantic comedy by Ken Akamatsu that tells the story of Keitaro Urashima (world’s best punching bag) who has made it his life’s goal to get into Tokyo University after making a promise to his childhood sweetheart – whose name he cannot remember. Regardless of the fact he’s failed the entrance exam twice, he tries again for the third time when he suddenly becomes the manager of the family-owned girl’s only dorm Hinata House. Being the only male in a female home there are obviously some conflictions, misunderstandings of him bumping into the girls undressing, and so on. Volume 2 of the omnibus picks up from Keitaro’s third failure to pass the exam and his trip back from Kyoto with the girls to clear his head. Re-thinking his life and reluctant to try for the fourth time to go for Tokyo U, he decides to spend his summer taking up a part time job of being an assistant to a professor at the university and unknowingly babysit his daughter Sarah. Naru, who also failed the exam, takes offence to Keitaro’s decision and calls him ‘weak’, can love be blooming? And will Keitaro ever find out if Naru is the girl he made the promise to?
The first two volumes in the omnibus cover the long period of summer, and it reflects on the output of the story. It’s long, dragged out and often contempt with filler in order to pad out the lack of relationship progression or any character development. Sure Keitaro gets a job by the end of volume 4 after numerous attempts and the girls all go to the beach to run a cafe and earn extra cash. But let’s be fair here; that’s all filler. The main drive of this manga is Keitaro and Naru’s relationship and their dreams to get into Tokyo University; they eventually decide to both study together again but that’s not until late into volume 5 and it doesn’t hide the dry spell we hit where we’re simply waiting for the all important exams to see if they’ll get into university together, or better yet just admit their true feelings for another. But with eight more volumes to go after this book, neither conclusion is near in sight. Only the last volume in the book offers any plot development when Mutsumi becomes part of the cast and the love triangle between her, Keitaro and Naru, resulting in the question of which girl is the one that Keitaro made the childhood promise to. The third volume is the strongest of the three, because outside of the Keitaro/Naru pairing, what else is there to drive the series? We get several chapters that focus on each of the other females within the Hinata House, usually with them overcoming something such as Motoko’s lack of femininity, Shinobu trying to deal with her own crush on Keitaro and showing a new side to Su-chan when the moon is full. Sadly I couldn’t find myself invested in these characters; on the service they may offer something for different tastes to the Love Hina palate such as the strong silent-type samurai warrior and the cute 14 year old but they all play the same tune of stripping naked for the fanservice, sending our hero into space with violence, and their input into the overall story being completely minimal. Even Keitaro has little going for him; he’s strung together simply by his regular bad luck, mistakes taken to the extremes and generically ‘nice’ personality, plus it’s hard to really cheer on a character or get excited for his actions when you know how every one of those actions will result in; a fist in his face.
Admittedly I’m more of a dry/sarcastic humour type of person but I can appreciate slapstick or fan service humour if it’s done correctly with the right timing and a sense of surprise. I’m sure Love Hina had this at some point but I don’t know for sure because it’s always constant, in-your-face and predictable. Each panel is always cluttered with sound effects, dialogue, smaller text for thoughts and quirks, all the characters are consistently drawn in the over-exaggerated style and the joke is forever the same. Keitaro falls over into a girl’s breasts; he gets punched or kicked into the air. Keitaro tries to be genuine with his feelings; his voice is drowned out by a loud sound and misheard just before being punched again. Keitaro walks in on a girl being vulnerable; he gets kicked again. Noticing a pattern? This is on top of the girls all yelling obnoxiously when faced with something they’re uncomfortable with, the turtle doing odd antics and Su-chan wanting to eat anything she can get her hands on. I actually preferred the manga when it had its very brief quiet moments, panels where we see how Keitaro and Naru’s friendship is actually growing. But those aren’t the selling points of the manga; it’s the comedy and fan service. Comedy that is too continuous to really value it, and when it’s too repetitive to the point where you know the punch line, it stops being funny. Running gags can be amusing, but Love Hina is simply back-to-back of them to the point of tediousness. Fan service is done at least once a chapter and often revealing the girls fully naked (nipples and extra details need not apply) so good for the right crowd but never overdone to the point where those not so inclined will be put off by it.
The omnibus editions come with a new translation that includes the prefexies of ‘–san’ and ‘-senpai’ for example, plus an extensive look at various key Japanese words at the back of the book. I can’t comment on whether the new translation is better or not but I will say that the several minor spelling errors within the book are noticeable; one instance where the ‘I’ in ‘if’ got left out so I thought the character stopped short of blurting the ‘F’ word. It improves as the book goes on however. Bonus content includes early sketches of the series and character bios.
I can understand why Love Hina considered a beloved classic; the humour presented in it and the tropes used freely here were not as common back then as it is now, plus with its clean art and simple story it’s generally an easy-to-read manga. But I sadly can’t glaze over the flawed content with nostalgia when I grudgingly wasn’t invested in it back then. The story felt too padded out to get truly into it, the characters are nothing extraordinary, and its comedy is far too cluttered, predictable and redundant for me to find it enjoyable.
If you already own the original Tokyopop copies; the new translation with minor spelling errors aren’t going to make you want to part with your cash – but if your original copies are on the way out or you simply don’t own it but still enjoy its content, you might as well buy it.