When you wanna be his girl, but you look like his homeboy
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, it’s time to review a particularly good and particularly weird love story. I can’t think of a more deserving candidate on both counts than the manga Never Give Up by Hiromu Mutou, published in English by TokyoPop. Never Give Up tells the story of a boyish girl in love with a girlish boy, who unwillingly adopts an alter-ego of a manly man to protect her girlish boy from girly girls and manly men who love men. If that made your head spin, let me start at the beginning…
Kiri Minase is the daughter of a modeling agent and a male model, and she inherited their good genes – but unfortunately for her, she almost exclusively got her dad’s masculine good looks. Standing nearly 6 feet tall, curveless but athletic, with short hair that refuses to grow out, a piercing but kind gaze, and flawless, sculpted facial features, Kiri is the kind of girl who makes other girls feel sexually confused, and she’s none too happy about it. Making matters worse, Tohya Enishi, the boy she’s loved since childhood, is quite handsome but very petite and delicate. Kiri promised as a child that she wouldn’t consider herself worthy of him until she became more beautiful and princess-like than her prince, a declaration she has come to heartily regret in the present. Below, she vents to the sympathetic ear (ahem) of her best friend, Natsu.
The awkward close friendship between Kiri and Tohya reaches a crisis point when Kiri’s mother (Satsuki Minase) recruits Tohya as a male model for her agency. Kiri has long been insecure about her connection with Tohya, and this news freaks her out as she imagines her beautiful beau thrown into a sexual feeding frenzy of experienced women and gay men. She demands that her mother hire her as a model as well so she can watch over him, which earns her a blow to the head and a “That’s rich!” from her not-exactly-gentle mom. However, when Satsuki’s other male model unexpectedly cancels, her mother offers her the chance to “go undercover” and take his place as a male model.
Kiri reluctantly accepts and does the gig under the alter ego “Tatsuki,” but what was supposed to be a small, one-time fib becomes a life-consuming act when Tohya and Kiri hit the big-time together as the hottest new thing in male modeling. Kiri’s mercenary mom refuses to let her quit, and Kiri herself is reluctant to retire “Tatsuki” because it lets her spend time with Tohya and watch out for him. Still, every success as Tatsuki is carrying her farther and farther from her goal of becoming the kind of woman she yearns to be. Further complicating matters, the aloof Tohya is incredibly hard to read, and suitors of both sexes start coming after Kiri and Tohya on the job in ways that constantly threaten to blow her cover or break her heart. Can Kiri and Tohya make it to “happy ever after” as princess and prince – and if it ever happens, will each of them be wearing the right clothes?
Never Give Up was a wonderful surprise to me. I approached the series skeptically as likely shojo manga fluff, but I was quickly drawn in by its quirky premise, fantastic humor, and great cast of characters. Kiri, in particular, is such a loveable heroine, and a rather unique one at that. Most “girls who look like boys” in anime and manga are petite gals with short hair who pass as small guys thanks to the right clothes (ex. Haruhi Fujioka in Ouran Host Club or Naoto Shirogane in Persona 4), but all it takes is an easy wardrobe change for them to undergo a feminine transformation at the finale. No such luck for Kiri! She truly has to find and seize an idea of beauty a little outside the mainstream if she wants to reach a happy ending. She’s also a very insecure and volatile teenage girl who tends to react faster than she thinks, which sometimes plays out in hilarious ways – her best friend has to hold her down from “Goodbye cruel world”-ing her way out an open window twice in just the first volume!
The rest of the cast is just as good in their way. Tohya is a real cold fish most of the time, but it quickly becomes clear that Kiri’s feelings are not one-sided, and he’s fighting his own insecurities about the way he looks in comparison to her. Kiri’s mom is delightfully blunt without being cruel, and her dad (when he finally gets introduced) is a freak in all the right ways. Kiri’s no-nonsense best friend, Natsu, provides grounding throughout this wild tale, and the cast of personalities we meet in the modeling world are vibrant and unpredictable.
The art style in this manga is fairly simple most of the time, but in a way that feels uncluttered and clean – I liked it very much. I also felt like the pacing was generally good, and TokyoPop did a great job with the localization. You’ll see a few eyebrow-raisers like “Don’t be hatin’!”, but for the most part the translation sounds very natural without dating itself. (NOTE: The pictures shown on this page are taken from a scanslation for clarity’s sake. TokyoPop’s licensed translation is far, far superior.)
There are really only two things about this manga that hurt its quality as a recommendation. The first is the manga’s fault, which is that while Kiri’s insecurities can be compelling in short doses, they can become a bit annoying if you’re marathoning the series. At some points, you kind of want to shake her and tell her to stop boo-hooing and assuming the worst. The second thing isn’t the manga’s fault, but it is a bummer: Never Give Up was never completed in English. Its American publisher, TokyoPop, collapsed right about the time that Volume 8 came out, and to date no other company has licensed it. Between so many new series coming out each year and many better-known series from that time meeting the same fate, I’m not holding my breath for Never Give Up to be rescued, the title notwithstanding.
That’s a shame, because this series really is both sweet and unique. It explores concepts of gender and beauty in a refreshing way by recognizing that sometimes men and women don’t fit into society’s ideas of what they should look like, and no amount of “makeover” will fix that. It explores how that “failure” messes with their heads, but it also shows a way out through unconditional love and slowly-accumulated self-respect. And, in the case of Kiri’s misadventures, it keeps the reader cracking up the entire time. Highly recommended.
NOTE ON AVAILABILITY:
Never Give Up is out of print, but since it’s neither rare nor widely known, supply and demand are on your side. You can probably pick it up very cheap. I’d recommend checking Hastings, eBay, Robert’s Anime Corner Store, or RightStuf’s clearance bin as good places to purchase this title.