Aishiteruze Baby vol. 1

Aishiteruze Baby vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Yoko Maki
Format: Paperback
Price: $8.99

In the world of shoujo manga, dramatic tension is usually created by one of two methods. The preferred method is to create believable, sympathetic characters, credible dialogue, and a reflection of emotional truth. The other method is to spend the entire length of the story pushing the audience’s buttons. Aishiteruze Baby pushes the audience’s buttons so forcefully and so aggressively that reading it is less like being entertained than being bullied. It tries to wrench sympathy, pity, and other such sentiments out of the audience through brute force, but its chosen method is far more successful at evoking indignance, resentment, and even disgust.

Kippei is a 17-year-old playboy who doesn’t have a lot of concern for girls’ feelings, a fact the manga periodically brings up to ensure that you don’t forget it. One day, he comes home to find himself appointed the surrogate parent of Yuzuyu, his four-year-old cousin who was abandoned by her mother. If the back of the first volume’s cover is to be believed, Kippei will eventually realize that all girls were once like Yuzuyu, and become more caringly dispositioned towards them. As idealistic (and possibly naïve) as the premise is, it has the potential for yielding a sweet, tender, thoughtful story about personal priorities and the way we see ourselves and other people.

And that’s exactly what Aishiteruze Baby might be, if it had any sense of restraint. But as written, it makes comics like GALS! and MeruPuri look subtle. Instead of creating the cast of complex, nuanced characters that would best suit this type of story, it populates its world with two-dimensional archetypes who seldom step outside their appointed sphere of behavior. Kippei’s supposed to be caring and sensitive to Yuzuyu’s needs, but the story goes out of its way to remind us that he doesn’t care about the needs of girls his own age, and he’s not written well enough that this incongruity is believable. Furthermore, the story takes its characters’ behavior to such extremes that they become unlikeable, when they aren’t being downright hateful. The most glaring example is Kippei’s hellhound of a sister, who is bar none the meanest, most self-centered manga character I’ve seen in many moons. She’s so hateful that, despite her infrequent appearances, her presence really cements the story’s vicious undercurrents into place. The only character that seems to escape unscathed is Yuzuyu, who is a believable (if a little too oh-so-precious) little girl. But her character has a major problem of its own, much to the detriment of the story.

You see, Aishiteruze Baby doesn’t see Yuzuyu as a human being or even a major character in her own right, but as a pint-sized canister of Drama Fuel. Unsatisfied with the thoughtful, quiet human drama its subject matter lends itself to, this story simply can’t resist dabbling in the sort of cheap, manipulative, twist-the-knife drama that can only come from tormenting a four-year-old. Virtually every other scene Yuzuyu is in involves her getting an emotional gut-shot, such as having her classmates saying their parents don’t want them playing with a kid without a mommy. The story is desperate to make the child rouse our pity, not our joy. This becomes even more evident in the latter half of the volume, when Yuzuyu finds herself being harassed and emotionally abused by a girl who’s obsessed with Kippei (and who is, unsurprisingly, the only girl in the volume who isn’t skinny and attractive).

That this plot arc begins and ends before the first volume is over is already stretching things to the breaking point, but what makes this incident so offensive is its completely limp-wristed attempt at a resolution. Even though he’s dealing with a person who’s off-kilter to the point of being romantically envious of a four-year-old, he manages to resolve the situation by calmly telling her he “can’t reciprocate her feelings” and asking her not to harm the child who’s “precious” to him. This would be a weak resolution to any story, but really, this girl’s actions don’t constitute a misunderstanding or a minor faux pas; they are full-on child abuse, and it’s disgusting to see the subject being treated with such a sense of “oh well” flippancy. But then, I doubt you could expect much more from a story that willfully mines the subject for cheap drama.

That’s not to say Aishiteruze Baby is all darkness and gloom, but it takes a similarly hammer-handed approach to its sense of humor. The humor is as forceful as it is forced, and a lot of it is inappropriately mean-spirited. In one example, when Kippei hugs Yuzuyu to reassure her, his sister cracks him over the head and insinuates that he’s a pedophile, of all things. Jokes like this don’t spring naturally from the situation; they come from writers who are trying way, way too hard to make a funny.

Despite a front cover that might lead one to believe that the ultimate in warm, joyful, cavity-inducing sweetness lies within, Aishiteruze Baby harbors one of the most relentlessly dark, pessimistic worldviews of any shoujo manga I’ve ever read. It sees the child as perpetual victim, utterly helpless, such that the world will devour them if left unprotected even for a moment. While it’s certainly true that the world is not a safe place and children need protection, this story has a severely impaired sense of appropriateness and proportion, which makes the story feel cheap and kind of ridiculous. Don’t misunderstand; there are several moments of genuinely sweet, warm moments in this volume, and it’s during these moments that this story is at its best. But these moments are too often overshadowed by the massive cloud of darkness floating overhead. Aishiteruze Baby is certainly capable of a few gentle tugs on the heartstrings. Too bad it spends too much time trying to pull them out by the roots.

Added:  Tuesday, July 25, 2006

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