July 11, 2009
Bitter Virgin is a short, four-volume manga about a girl with a secret and the boy who learns of it.
STORY – …Bitter Virgin isn’t actually about a bitter virgin. Quite the opposite, actually? To be honest, the shock value and tragedy of Aikawa’s secret faded relatively quickly for me (probably because of one too many episodes of Law and Order: SVU). The subject matter also reminded me a lot of those in Mondaiteiki Sakuhinshu (brought overseas as Confidential Confessions). Consequently, the story premise and flow felt rather typical and predictable in that romance drama sort of way. Nevertheless, Bitter Virgin is well told, and there are enough surprising little twists and interesting literary elements to keep a reader engaged and guessing. It has all of the things that keep the romance genre going strong, despite the shared basic plot. What I found most interesting though, was the fact that, as the series progresses, the themes explored gradually shift from one type of tragedy to another, and eventually, it conneced the two as interesting foils. The further into it I got, the less typical things felt.
The emotional aspect and impact of Bitter Virgin is very strong, particularly since Kei Kusunoki admits between chapters that she drew a lot of elements and inspiration from her own life and experiences. The story, while idealistic at times, still comes across as very heartfelt and sincere. Kusunoki also admits that her usual work is of the horror and comedic sort, and that this is her first romance, making it even more impressive.
CHARACTER – Like the story, both protagonists come off as fairly typical in the beginning. Aikawa is a meek and quiet girl, and Suwa is a headstrong and impulsive boy. And yet, I warmed up to both of them very quickly. Both have an endearingly earnest quality to them that makes them likable, and no matter how many times these character archetypes are used, as long as they’re well-written and well-presented like Aikawa and Suwa both are, they will work. Both characters also grow a great deal in the thirty-two short chapters, and they reveal themselves to be truly multi-faceted. For example, Aikawa is noted to be terrified of men, but shows a lot of unexpected courage and resilience when faced with female tormentors. Her feelings for Suwa develop very gradually throughout the series, and Kusunoki is careful to make her thoughts and emotions at least somewhat believable. Similarly, Suwa’s initial interest in Aikawa is fraught with pity rather than any real kind of attraction; the progression is interesting to follow, and the lengths to which he feels he needs to go to remain appropriate to Aikawa are also rather admirable.
The supporting cast is similarly strong, which I didn’t have expected at all. Suwa’s elder sister in particular, in addition to being surprisingly headstrong and impulsive like her brother, becomes a startlingly significant role that contributes a great deal to the themes in the latter half of the story. Her presence contributes a unique perspective and forces those around her to consider many things in a difference light. Yuzu and Kazuki, Suwa’s classmates and respectively, his childhood friend and sudden girlfriend, are more predictable in their personalities, feelings, and eventual maturation, but both provide good support and drama and work well to round out the cast. Honestly, I didn’t find any of the characters particular irritating or unbelievable, which is a huge and thankful plus.
ART – Even though the marketed genre is seinen, the series’ art is pretty standard josei. It’s clean, elegant, and pleasing to the eye, but of a more mature aesthetic than typical shoujo — proportions are more realistic and there are less tonal flourishes like sparkles and bubbles, though they aren’t completely absent. I didn’t think much of it initially, but the style really grew on me as I progressed through the story. Kei Kusunoki is fantastic at depicting the emotions of her characters, which is unsurprising for the genre, but considering that she usually works in other genres, it might be a bit more notable. The art really helps heighten the sense of drama and suspense in many scenes, though the panel layouts are occasionally haphazard and confusing, especially when the gutter space is inconsistent or cramped. Because of the emphasis on emotions, there are a lot of close-ups and headshots, and backgrounds are lacking on many of the pages. Even the backgrounds that are present are contained within tiny panels, and yet, there is never any confusion as to where the characters are located, so I guess it works out well enough in the end.
OVERALL – Bitter Virgin is a good, quick read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a serious and emotional story. The characters are sincere and their relationships are sweet, if a little idealized. The story’s themes become less shocking and more meaningful and powerful as the series progresses. That the author drew a lot of inspiration from her own life experiences also helps tremendously in relaying the strong emotions the characters experience, so the package is very much worth the time. Sadly, Bitter Virgin hasn’t been licensed for release in the US or elsewhere overseas, but honestly, I think it could do pretty well anywhere. It’s a pretty universal story.