My first friend… is totally clueless.
Taiyo Takada has just transferred into the fifth grade in his new elementary school. He’s outward-going and friendly – and can’t understand why his classmates keep picking on one girl in his class: Akane Nishimura, calling her ‘The Grim Reaper’ and warning him he’ll be cursed if he speaks to her. Takada is fascinated. He thinks it would be cool to be cursed and the two end up walking home together, hand-in-hand. Nishimura is overwhelmed. She’s become used to being rejected and vilified by the others, so she’s not sure how to react to Takada’s enthusiastic overtures of friendship. His positive attitude to her grim reputation and refusal to play the bullying game (whether it’s at lunch time or cleaning up after school) begins to have an effect. The so-called barriers the other children claim to put up to protect themselves from Nishimura intrigue him. “It’s one of their games,” she tells him resignedly but he mentions that his last school only had thirty children in it and everyone got on, so there was no need for barriers, as they were all pretty much friends. And then he says there’s no need for a barrier between them as they’re friends – and Nishimura can’t help but blush. Slowly, she’s beginning to realize that she really does have a real friend and an ally at last.
Summer break is fast approaching and the class teacher tells the children to make a summer-break plan, filling in what they’re going to do each day. So while the rest of the class talk about going to the pool, summer festivals and fireworks, Nishimura puts in visiting the family grave at Obon and going shopping with her father. When Takada shows her his schedule, every day is filled with activities and he’s the one who persuades her to align her schedule with his. “If I’m with you, Nishimura… I’m sure I’ll have tons of fun wherever we go!” And because she’s beginning to believe him, she’s able to reply, “I want to hang out with you too, Takada!”
As things work out (or don’t), not all their plans align after all, but what with the adoption of an abandoned black kitten (they call him Kuro, of course) and Nishimura’s trip to see her grandma, Takada learns a sad truth that Nishimura hasn’t mentioned until he accompanies her to her family grave. The trailer has spoiled this (if you’ve seen it) but I won’t spoil it here… as it’s very effectively and affectingly told in context by the mangaka. Nothing will quite be the same again for these two after this quiet revelation. Can their friendship recover?
This two-in-one omnibus edition of My Clueless First Friend from Square Enix Manga has been published just a month before the anime TV series is due to start airing. I’m glad that I’ve read this far in the manga first, because (unless the latest trailer is not giving a fair impression of what’s to come) the anime seems to favour a rather over-emphatic shouty style of acting for young Takada and everything is dialled up to 11. Also, Taku Kawamura’s character design errs on the simple side, concentrating on eyes and mouths, which is absolutely fine on the page but not so fine when expanded to fit a screen. But I’ll wait and see… What impresses me about the manga is the low-key but clever way the mangaka introduces Nishimura through Takada’s eyes. We see a young girl who is being ostracized by her classmates – but he sees a fascinating individual with a cool nickname and a cool personality to match. He’s impressed. And smitten. She, unused to anyone showing her any kind of positive attention, doesn’t know how to react. Then, when she slowly begins to trust him and dares to believe that summer break with Takada will be filled with fun activities, it’s really touching.
Kawamura’s distinctive art errs on the cartoonish side when it comes to character designs which – at first glance – maybe gives a misleading impression to the reader. Kawamura doesn’t employ the 4-koma punchline-a-page style either; this is through-composed (to borrow a musical analogy) with an ongoing plotline. That’s not to say there aren’t amusing moments but the underlying theme (a bullied, unhappy child who is putting her best face on so as not to worry her father) is quite dark. Which is why the sometimes oblivious but well-intentioned Takada brings a ray of light into Nishimura’s life. The bullying doesn’t magically go away overnight; it’s an uphill struggle (where were the teachers, for heaven’s sake!) but Takada has a very neat way of turning the bullies’ unkind words around so that the unkindness loses its sting. The only slightly confusing aspect of the art is the use of thick black lines between panels so that everything looks as if it’s a flashback.
The translation for Square Enix Manga is by the excellent Ajani Oloye (Blue Period for Kodansha) and the lettering (which is effectively done) is by Vanessa Satone. Interestingly, Square Enix have chosen to put the manga into the smaller mass market format, rather than their usual trade paperback size, and I think it suits the mangaka’s art really well. There are four attractive colour pages at the front and a two-page preview for Volume 2 at the back but no translation notes. Volume 2 is due out in June 2023 by which time the anime version will be nearly over!
All in all, My Clueless First Friend deals with a difficult subject – bullying – in an ingenious yet sensitive way. Takada and Nishimura are realistically portrayed and it’s difficult not to empathize with them. It’s good to find another of those rare titles that’s judged suitable for all ages, so this would make an excellent addition to a primary (or elementary) school library.
Read a free preview at the publisher’s site here.