Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am Here!

Title: I Am Here! (Koko ni Iru Yo!)
Author: Ema Toyama
Volumes: 5 (completed)
Volumes (English): 5 (completed)

Invisible to her classmates, Hikage Sumino is an eighth grader with no self-esteem. Her only friends are the visitors to her Internet blog. One day, the most popular boy in the grade suddenly talks to her. Encouraged by this twist of fate, Hikage determines to transform her life and declare to the world, I Am Here!

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Skip to the end for a spoiler free review.

This is a cute manga series and a quick, easy read. It's essentially a less complex Kimi ni Todoke geared towards middleschoolers rather than highschoolers. It centers around a shy introvert named Hikage whose social anxiety makes it difficult for her to make friends. She's practically invisible to her classmates and teacher, who in one scene marks her as absent even though she is sitting in the front of the class. She's utterly forgettable.

Her only friends in the beginning of the series are the virtual ones she's made through her blog, MegaPIG and Black Rabbit. Safe behind a computer screen she is able to voice her concerns, hopes, fears, and dreams. These friends continually encourage her to put herself out there and to make friends in her class. They're her rock when things get difficult and, in a plot twist you'll see coming a mile a way, one of them turns out to be one of the new friends she eventually makes in the "real" world. (The only surprising thing is that the two main "love" interests don't both turn out to be her online friends.)

One day, one of the most popular guys in her class, Hinata, starts a conversation with her. This sets off a series of events where she starts to come out of her shell and make friends with her fellow classmates, including another incredibly popular boy, Teru. Throughout the series we watch Hikage learn to love herself and trust others. Even though this is a much overdone plot, it still manages to be fresh with sincere and relatable characters.

Hinata is a serious, studious boy who genuinely cares about people and exudes calm. Of course he's good looking, it is a shojo after all, but that's not what really draws people to him. He's kind and just an overall good person. He becomes Hikage's first friend outside of her blog and is constantly encouraging her.

Teru is Hinata's best friend and in some ways his complete opposite. He's brash, mischievous, and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He too becomes friends with Hikage and in some ways he's her biggest critic, but in his own candid way he also encourages her to make friends and speak out for herself. Like Hinata, he's there for her when she needs a friend.

Both of the guys formed romantic feelings towards Hikage long before she ever had a conversation with them in real life (again it's a shojo - suspend your disbelief). So there's a sort of tried and true love triangle. One of them, and I'll not tell you which one, turns out to be Black Rabbit which causes some conflicting emotions in Hikage.

Of course there is a villain in the form of a girl, Aya, who is jealous of the attention Hikage receives from Hinata. I liked how the author dealt with the rivalry between Aya and Hikage. Aya does some terrible things, hacks Hikage's blog and hurts her sunflower, but there is a sense of forgiveness and redemption. That Aya will change and become a better person -- the idea that who you are in middle school is not who you will ultimately remain. That you'll make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a person. I liked that. Who wants to be defined by their actions in middle school for the rest of their lives?

I really liked MegaPIG, or Aoi as he's known in real life. His advice on the blog was perfect and pretty much the advice I would give. There's a bonus story about him as he tries wooing a girl in his class that is utterly adorable. Also, one of my favorite drawings is one where MegaPIG, Teru, Hinata, and Hikage are all in the same area walking together (see above). I like it because while Teru, Hinata and Hikage know each other (and Black Rabbit at this point), MegaPIG doesn't know any of them outside of the blog and is oblivious that this group is even in his vicinity. It implies a sort of fate between the characters and that they are friends whether they've met in real life or not. That each friendship is just as valuable in it's own way.

Probably my least favorite character in the series is Arisa. She's the first girl friend that Hikage makes. There's nothing bad about her, it's just that the character development falls a bit flat. She's utterly forgettable, which is kind of funny considering that's what Hikage is trying to avoid for herself.

I liked the way in which the author explored first love. It's sweet and gentle and there's forgiveness and caring. However, the ending is a bit ambiguous. While Hinata and Hikage are dating, you get the idea that Teru isn't giving up. That he's biding his time as middle school romance won't last overly long and he still has a chance later down the road. I liked that it wasn't a happily-ever-after-one-true-soulmate kind of thing. I mean they're in middle school. It's unlikely the relationship will last more than a month, but I still felt satisfaction that Hinata and Hikage were dating. Regardless of who she ultimately ends up with twenty years from now, it's pretty clear that all three of them are friends for life. That's pretty powerful. I believe in friendship probably more than any other "ship" out there, so this message resonated with me.

Final Thoughts

This series makes me happy! There is an innocence throughout the series that is refreshing, but doesn't make it any less compelling. If anything, it'll make you think back in fondness of your first love or crush. While the plot lacks originality and complexity the genuineness of the characters and situations more than make up for this. I think fans of Kimi ni Todoke, Ouran Highschool Host Club, Skip Beat!, and Dengeki Daisy will appreciate this series.

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