Sunday, 19 March 2017

All Sweetness and Light: A Review of 'Hana and Hina After School' Vol. 1 (2015 manga)

Calling Hana and Hina After School ‘sweet’ seems like damning with faint praise. It’s like I’m saying, ‘This piece of fluff has nothing to say.’ And indeed, this series does have little to say (at least in this volume). But while this series has no grand moral messages, nor very deep characters, nor even grand conflict, the series is a sweet story of budding love.  

Quite against school rules, Hana has a part-time job. She works in a toy store, but she keeps a low profile. If her school finds out, they’ll expel her. One day, one of her regular customers, the dashing Hina, asks if the store still has a vacancy open. It turns out, despite her cool demeanour, Hina goes gaga over everything cute: plush-toys, dolls, Hana – Not that she’d ever reveal that last one. But until both Hana and Hina figure out their feelings, their biggest worry is that their school will discover their jobs, and expel them. 

Much of Morinaga’s work feels like a director getting back together with her regular actors. Outside of the relatively weighty Girl Friends and Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink, Morinaga’s work settles on a comfortable repetition. Long-time readers will recognise the main characters of Hana and Hina, or their character models at least They are Morinaga’s standard short-haired, reserved tiny girl, and her long-haired, cool tall girl. Long-time readers will also remember the tone of her work. Hana and Hina is – and I mean this with no negativity – fluffy.

Sweetness pervades the book. Our heroines work at a store which sells cute things, and Hina adores all things cute. The series’ tone fits the setting – you won’t find a workplace or school drama here. You won’t find much conflict at all. The threat of expulsion I mentioned up the top is ever-present, but never feels urgent. Hana will say they need to keep a low profile, but the reader never senses discovery looms around the corner. Episodic conflicts in the series (e.g. Hina wanting a photograph of Hana, or Hana wondering why Hina seems surly) do not so much resolve, as vanish. As the chapter reaches its end, it will turn out the conflict owed to a misunderstanding, or that the stakes were not as big as we thought. Now, this lack of conflict may seem boring, and, coupled with sweetness, the story may seem cloying. But Hana and Hina is neither boring nor cloying. The low-conflict sweetness suits this escapist love-story, one where all is right with the world.

The series foreshadows real conflict, but in a cliff-hanger for the next volume. In an impacting sequence, Hina realises her feelings may be more than friendly. She asks her friends whether its normal to take pictures with your cute friends. They say that’s normal. She asks if wanting to kiss your friend is normal. Well, kissing a girl’s cheek is normal, they suppose. What if ‘you can’t get them out of your head’ and ‘want to be together forever’? The girls think Hina’s talking about another girl saying this to her. They respond: ‘If she really meant it, that’d be freaky, right?’ Within the last pages, Hina’s conflict materialises. Hina wants to be with Hana, but she fears revealing her love lest she pushes Hana away. A rather conventional conflict. Worse, it is based on a lack of communication, rather than any actual mismatch between our two lovers. This might have become conflict for conflict’s sake. But Morinaga frames this not merely as misunderstanding, but self-doubt, self-disgust, shame, rooted in casual homophobia. The conflict for conflict’s sake breeds a legitimate character conflict within Hina.

While I consider myself a fan of Morinaga, I’ve never felt crazy about her art. Her illustrations are not bad, but they do not exceed mere competency. It is fine that she repeats character models across series. I am not so thrilled by her repeating facial expressions within a series. One imagines an illustrative reference book, with such entries as ‘happy’, ‘embarrassed happy’, ‘surprised’. Add to that many of the characters having roughly the same face shape, and all their expressions become cookie-cutter.

Her page layouts also underwhelm. Their stylistic excesses are just prosaic. Most of the panels bleed off the page. Many panels abandon rectangularity for diagonal borders. Rarely is there any dramatic or thematic motivation for this. These excesses add a superficial dynamism to the page, a dynamism not based on the content of the page. Worse, when bleeding and/or slanting panels could enhance a plot point, they cannot. These techniques are used so often they become a dull baseline.

But as I said, Morinaga’s artwork is competent. It does not detract from Hana and Hina, it just does not enhance the series. Her style gets across the sweetness of the story. If you’re looking for a light love story, with few bumps in its progress, give Hana and Hina a try.      

[Translation taken from Seven Seas' edition:]


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