CONTENT WARNING for discussions of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, as well as romanticized pedophilia. SPOILERS for the entire Kare Kano manga series.
I was in middle school when I first got ahold of Volume 1 of Masumi Tsuda’s Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou, often shortened to Kare Kano and released in English as His and Her Circumstances (or Kare Kano: His and Her Circumstances for the manga). The award-winning series details the lives of two outwardly “perfect” honor students, Yukino Miyazawa and Soichiro Arima, as they accidentally uncover one another’s imperfections, fall in love, and agree to be true to themselves.
What starts off as a light, funny, and typical “girl-meets-boy” shoujo series quickly evolves into a dark, emotionally gut-wrenching tale that delves into discussions and depictions of child abuse, suicide, sexual assault, self-harm, mental illness, bullying, and other themes that I could very much—albeit uncomfortably—relate to.
As the story progresses, we learn that supposed “nice guy” Soichiro, prior to his adoption at age three or four, had endured a horrific and violently abusive childhood at the hands of his then-23-year-old mother, Ryoko, who herself came from a childhood of shattered innocence. From the age of thirteen onwards, Ryoko was continuously raped by her mother’s second husband. The abuse and blame from her mother shattered Ryoko’s mind and eventually led her to nearly kill her stepfather.
Masumi Tsuda depicts Ryoko’s abuse of her son Soichiro in ways that are more than enough to trigger you if you’re a survivor of abuse: from brutally beating him, stabbing him with a pair of scissors, continuously verbally abusing him, starving him, and finally abandoning him with the intention of leaving him to die on the floor of their apartment in the dead of winter.
And yet, in spite of everything that transpires in Kare Kano, I’m always left with a sense of fulfillment, hope, and melancholy in the message Masumi Tsuda conveys over the course of the twenty-one volume series: “You too can find happiness.”
That isn’t to say this series doesn’t have its problems, however. Quite the contrary.
For one, I have extremely mixed feelings about Soichiro’s eventual salvation coming at the expense of his beloved Yukino’s emotional, mental, and even physical health.
As Soichiro himself is the product of rape and an unwanted pregnancy, nothing disturbed me more than Soichiro forcing himself on Yukino in their high school’s library and then leaving her there after she passes out from the experience. When Yukino awakens, she’s alone in a dark library at some unknown hour of the night with Soichiro’s school jacket placed over her.
Later that evening, while Soichiro is busy shoving a box-cutter clean through the center of his hand as self-punishment for his act, Yukino (having made her way home), awakens from a dream where she realizes she’s pregnant from the earlier assault (but doesn’t tell Soichiro for another two or three months).
The following day, Yukino confronts Soichiro about what transpired between them and tries to convince him that what he did wasn’t rape because she never told him “no,” just “wait.” Then, when she realizes what he’s done to his bleeding hand, she goes so far as to cut her own hand as proof she’ll do anything to stop his downward spiral.
As a love-deprived teenager, I used to admire Yukino’s strength more than anything. I used to believe that her love for Soichiro was so intense and beautiful, and that I could only hope to love someone so deeply—as well as be loved so intensely.
As a survivor of domestic abuse, I now realize Yukino was the living depiction of the toxic “Ride Or Die” mentality that so many women are taught and praised for. The more a woman is willing to suffer for her man, the “stronger” she supposedly is.
And speaking of toxic mentalities perpetuated in Kare Kano (and other shoujo series), let’s have a chat about Yukino’s worst foe-turned-best-friend, the beautiful Isawa Maho. I love Maho’s maturity and growth from a self-serving “bitch” with a crush on her rival/idol (i.e., Yukino) to her becoming Yukino’s first and closest true girl friend. She even serves as a good chunk of the series’ comedic relief. What (or rather, whom) I take issue with is Maho’s boyfriend: a twenty-seven-year-old dentist named Takeshi she meets (and is clearly sleeping with) when she is fourteen.
If there’s one thing shoujo manga loves to encourage in its female and femme-identifying readers, it’s relationships with older men (but that’s an entirely different topic for another day). Add to this the fact that my own mother is 10 years older than my father (and that couldn’t have gone worse), and it’s no surprise that as a child, I swallowed without question the notion that older men were far superior to younger men or men my own age.
As a preteen (read: child), I couldn’t give Maho enough daps for finding a well-respected man who not only genuinely loved her, understood her, and treated her well, but had a successful career, a beautiful townhouse, and later had no problem flying a sixteen-year-old Maho to New York City to spend Christmas with him. Following graduation, Maho and Takeshi even marry, as evidenced by the final chapter where she’s shown to have taken his last name.
And believe it or not, as far as the Older Man/Younger Girl relationships go, Takeshi isn’t even Kare Kano’s worst offender. No, that honor is specifically reserved for Hideaki Asaba, Yukino and Soichiro’s mutual best friend. He serves as their lifelong emotional rock and support, particularly in Soichiro’s case. Hideaki is the first to truly understand and love Soichiro unconditionally (outside of Soichiro’s parents). There’s even a running gag that if Soichiro had been born a woman, he’d have been the love of Hideaki’s life.
It’s no surprise (given the rest of the characters) that he comes from an incredibly unhappy home and longs deeply for the affection of that one special woman in his life, promising himself he’ll do everything he can to make her happy when he meets her. He views literally all women as beautiful, hides a deep and complex soul behind a playboy persona, and is later revealed to have an incredible talent for art which eventually makes him one of Japan’s most successful painters.
Yet despite being one of the most developed (and most popular) characters in the series, he’s the only one who doesn’t find his true love before graduation–well, sort of. You see, upon Yukino becoming pregnant, the first person she tells (after Soichiro, of course) is Hideaki. When he finds out, he has a sort of epiphany that Yukino’s child will “definitely” be a girl as well as the “love of [his] life” that he’s been waiting for.
And sure enough, in the final chapter, the readers are introduced to Yukino and Arima’s first-born child, 16-year-old Sakura. She looks exactly like Soichiro would have as a girl and is significantly closer to now-32-year-old Hideaki, since he spent more time helping raise her than her own father (who immediately enrolled in the police academy after graduating high school).
What’s more, it’s revealed that Sakura confidently told Hideaki that she’s in love in with him. Hideaki flies into a panic over this, but eventually and semi-reluctantly comes to accept that this girl truly is the love of his life–and reasons that it only makes sense because she’s the daughter of Soichiro and Yukino, both of whom he loves dearly. Sakura even tells him that she’s always loved him, and has probably even loved him long before she was ever born. It’s heavily implied by Yukino that the two will eventually get married.
Now. When I first read Kare Kano many years ago, I thought this was a perfect way to bring closure to the fact that Hideaki, who had done more to support Yukino and Soichiro than anyone in the series, would become an official part of the Arima/Miyazawa families, finally giving him a place in this world amongst a loving family. But as a grown woman who has been preyed upon by older men since before puberty, if there is any one particular aspect of Kare Kano that disturbs the hell outta me in retrospect, it’s this one.
Hideaki and Sakura’s relationship, as well as the other problematic themes and tropes of Kare Kano, has always left me feeling some type of way about the series. On one hand, no matter how rose-colored Masumi Tsuda may have painted the fact that all of the unique and trauma-surviving characters will have a loving, beautiful, and happy future together, there’s still a lot of unboxing of this series that needs to be done. On the other hand, it’s because of the emotional, physical, mental, and everything-in-between traumas that each individual character has overcome that I feel as though the characters truly deserved their happy endings.
As a child, I clung desperately to the idea that love could save, no matter how abusive or unhealthy that love was (particularly as a Black woman, where that type of mindset is forced upon young Black girls and carried with them as they grow up). I could relate to Soichiro’s desperation to be loved unconditionally; in fact, I still do.
What’s worth noting, however, is that particular narrative within Kare Kano never changes: Soichiro feels he must be, act, and think a certain way in order to be loved and keep from making the mistakes his parents made. From the very beginning, those that love him remind him constantly that, regardless of the type of person he becomes, they will never abandon him. And that is what ultimately endears me to the series regardless of how problematic it is.
I’ve had to learn, very much like Soichiro and the other flawed characters of Kare Kano, that though I have made plenty of mistakes, I have people who love me, and the best way to avoid being trapped by the past–and to atone for what I’ve done–is to move forward and become a better person than I was yesterday. That’s why, despite its flaws (and sometimes downright disturbing subplots), I’ll always be grateful to Kare Kano.