Kare Kano Vol. 16
It's difficult for a long running series in any medium to stay as fresh and as interesting as when it began. In order to keep the readers interested, writers will often raise the stakes over time, leading to the story to become darker the longer it goes on. This can lead to mixed results, depending on how it's handled. Some stories which started off as light fluff become a lot more engrossing after some dramatic weight has been added to it, like the second half of Trigun. Other things become illogical and angsty when too much melodrama is added to the mix (i.e. the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
With Kare Kano now finished in Japan, and volume 16 recently released in North America, I was worried about which way Kare Kano would handle its increasingly dark subject matter. The series crossed over from a romantic comedy to a straight-up drama about the same time it started focusing on the series angst poster boy, Arima Soichiro. Previously, the series was full of puppies, Yukino's cute little sisters and trips to the beach; now it's more likely to have child abuse and Arima mutilating himself with an exacto knife.
To be honest, I like it. Usually I'm weary when lighted-hearted comedies try to be serious, but so far Kare Kano has managed to pull it off. Arima has always been a little messed up, so it's natural for the manga to reflect that as he comes into his own as a main character. The earlier volumes, which focused on Yukino and her friends, seem very happy-go-lucky in comparison to the current storyline, but upon re-reading older volumes, it becomes apparent that even back then Masami Tsuda was building up Arima to the point that he is at now.
Arima was an unwanted child, scorned by his parents and extended family. Aside from his aunt and uncle who took him in, no one in his family ever showed him any kindness. Now his birth mother has shown up, and she is playing mind games with him, trying to force him to love her despite the abuse that she put him through as a child.
One good thing about Arima being brought down as low as he could be is that in this volume he finally starts to turn things around. Arima finds the strength to ask Yukino and his friends for help in evading his manipulative birth mother. It’s nice to see the extended cast play a bigger part in the series again, as Kare Kano is just as much about friendship as it is about romance. It also leads to a funny montage of the group finding different ways to sneak Arima out of school. It's been a while since Kare Kano made me laugh, so this volume with its occasional humor was a welcome change of pace.
The artwork for Kare Kano is easy to spot as shoujo, with lots of wispy hair and clean, blank backgrounds. The white backgrounds are actually used to serve the story rather then just laziness on the manga-ka’s part. The past few volumes have been really dark, in terms of art, with many pages having completely black backgrounds. There are still a few pages like that in this volume, but as Arima starts to open up to his friends and family in order to deal with his problems, the manga begins to lighten up as well.
This volume was a great pay-off for anyone who’s been following the series so far. I’m glad that the series is returning (if only a little) to its romantic comedy roots. Though it doesn't seem like it will ever be a completely happy-go-lucky series again, Kare Kano seems to be shedding the darker material and coming back into the light. I wouldn't mind too much if it kept its recent serious tone, although if Maho gets some convoluted addiction storyline, or if Yukino's little sister becomes a kleptomaniac, or if Tsubasa gets left at the alter and turns into a vengeance demon, I'm out of here.