Love Ken

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Ken Akamatsu is one of my guilty pleasures in the world of manga. Anytime I buy one of his books, I have to resist the urge to peak around to make sure no one is looking, as he’s one of those creators girls are not “supposed” to like. One of the premier creators of “harem” manga, both in Japan and imported to the US, Ken Akamatsu is a creator destined to have more male fans than female.

“Harem” manga, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to the genre of manga that finds one man (usually unlucky with women) suddenly living with houseful of women (hence the designation “harem”), all of whom tend to posses varying degrees of hotness. He will have at least one of the women fall in love with him, often more depending on the number of females. A reference to this is made of Akamatsu’s most popular work, “Love Hina” as the female characters progress from the “Hinata House Girls,” to “Hinata House Hotties,” until they are finally the “Hinata House Harem.”

Ken Akamatsu utilizes this concept to the most extreme degree that he can. His heroes are nice, quiet boys who, under the pressure of constant exposure to multiple half-dressed women, tend to be saddled with the label of “pervert.” In fact, in almost every chapter, you can rest assured that at least one female will lose some or all of her clothes and that it will usually be caused by the hero’s klutziness. Akamatsu also crams as much humor, both witty and sexual and lowbrow as he can, into every chapter; most of the humor arising from one male constantly alone in the company of half-and-un-dressed females.

He also creates stories that build and develop and characters who learn, grow and change over time. Unlike so many characters of both American and Japanese comics who exist in a constant state and remain in, or return to, that state regardless of how much time passes or what happens to them, Akamatsu’s characters are constantly growing and changing. Time in Akamatsu’s work passes fairly relative to time in the real world and as such his characters are forced to age and to develop as time passes around them. Saati of “A.I. Love You” progresses from a rather ditzy girl who exists only to please Hitoshi, into a competent, strong willed young woman more than capable of forcing Hitoshi to meet her halfway, while Motoko and Naru of “Love Hina” are both forced to confront their own reservations and remove the blinders they’ve placed over their own eyes. Motoko does this by facing the realities of her relationship with her sister and realizing that she doesn’t always have to be the strongest and Naru by realizing that not only can she not choose who she loves but that she can make mistakes and learn to change her opinion about a person. The males are a touch less defined… they start out klutzy nerds with minimal social skills and slowly progress into competent, confident young men easily capable of gaining both friends and a girlfriend, something that you never would have believed was possible when you first met them. While the journeys into manhood Keitaro of “Love Hina” and Hitoshi of “A.I. Love You” take are almost identical in many ways, it’s nonetheless fascinating and enjoyable to watch them get there and it’s doubtful that you’ll be prepared for the moment when you realize just how much that little boy you met a few volumes back has grown up.

And then, of course, there is his ability to tell a story.  Forget his ability to tell a joke or his tendency to draw naked (if cartoony) women, Akamatsu is a flat out gifted storyteller. “Love Hina” has won awards both in the US and in Japan, not for it’s comedy or the nudity but for its story. This is, flat out, one of the best extended storylines I’ve encountered, regardless of the medium. Throughout the fourteen volumes that comprise “Love Hina,” virtually every chapter is designed to take the characters—and the reader—one step closer to the conclusion of the story, be it one character’s story or the overall story. It is clear from the beginning that Akamatsu not only knows where his story is going and how it will end but also knows the steps he’s going to take to get there.

While most manga creators only make it to the US once they have a good handful of titles under their belts, Akamatsu’s work came to the US with his second and most popular series, “Love Hina,” with his other works quickly following. Here’s a quick rundown of his works:

A.I. Love You: Akamatsu’s first work, this has a relatively straightforward initial premise that eventually and comically, spins out of control. Hitoshi Kobe, a junior high student with a gift for creating A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) programs creates a program, Number 20, who is an attractive girl his own age, and tells her that if she were real, he’d ask her to be his girlfriend. Insert a freak electrical storm that results in Number 20, soon renamed Saati, becoming real. What follows for a few volumes is a sweet romantic comedy that gets a touch sidetracked as Akamatsu tests the waters and learns his strengths. While not quite as endearing as the first few books, “A.I. Love You” remains a solid, fun read and it’s interesting to watch Akamatsu’s style develop throughout the book.

Love Hina: I’ve mentioned this one more than any of the others and with good reason. “Love Hina,” like it’s predecessor, has a fairly straightforward premise: an aspiring college student, Keitaro Urashima, goes to stay at his grandmother’s hotel in Tokyo while studying for his exams and learns that his grandmother, in addition to turning the hotel into a girls dorm, has left it in Keitaro’s name. Naru, a temperamental but kindhearted resident, is also trying to get into Tokyo University and becomes Keitaro’s reluctant tutor. What follows is a sometimes touching; sometimes painful and always comical story about falling in love and growing up. While the cast is a bit crowded (six top tier characters, five second tier characters—all of whom could easily be called top tier characters at various times—and numerous supporting characters) all the characters and their individual journeys are clearly defined and all are given closure to their individual stories.

Negima: Akamatsu’s latest and current work, this is still being published in Japan, with US editions approximately a year behind the original Japanese release. In many ways, I look at this book as Akamatsu’s version as a children’s book, as his main character is a ten year old who is the teacher of a group of junior high students. Negi Springfield, a ten year old wizard, is sent to Japan for his final test before he can be a full wizard. His test? To teach at a Japanese all-girls middle school. In this book, Akamatsu forgets all semblance of restraint and simply cuts loose with everything he can think of. Like “Love Hina,” the cast is large but unfortunately, the cast isn’t as well defined as that of “Love Hina” and I often find myself forgetting who characters are, even those I’m particularly fond of. While not as charming as the earlier volumes of “A.I. Love You” or as well crafted as “Love Hina,” “Negima” is nonetheless an enjoyable blast to read and definitely enjoyable enough to see where Akamatsu is going with it.

“Love Hina” was published by Tokyopop and all fourteen volumes have been released in English, while “A.I. Love You” is currently published bi-monthly by Tokyopop.  “Negima is published by Del Rey and is quarterly.

- Megan B. Moore

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