Mikako Kouda and Tsutomu Yamaguchi have been good friends and next door neighbours for as long as they can remember. Now, both of them are high school students at the Yazawa School of Arts, where Mikako throws herself into her dream of becoming a fashion designer. Tsutomu, meanwhile, seems to be making quite an impression amongst the ladies- will the presence of a new girl in his life finally prompt Mikako to realise that her feelings for him are more than platonic?
Having enjoyed Paradise Kiss far more than I expected to, it seemed only logical to turn to Gokinjo Monogatari, the seven volume prequel about Miwako’s sister and the founding of the Happy Berry clothing label. Admittedly, I had my reservations- the anime hadn’t particularly grabbed me, and the story didn’t seem to have enough substance to last beyond one or two volumes- but nonetheless, there seemed to be little to lose by giving it a try.
Unfortunately, Gokinjo doesn’t make a very good first impression. The early chapters, which cover Tsutomu’s relationship with senior Mariko (aka “Nice Body-ko”) and Mikako’s jealous reaction, are quite slow-paced, and something of a struggle to get through. Fortunately, the pace picks up somewhat as more characters and plot threads are introduced, and by volume three, the story is gripping enough to have you genuinely interested in what happens next. In fact, as the series enters its closing chapters, seven volumes suddenly doesn’t seem like enough.
That being said, even at its best, Gokinjo is far from perfect. The series never seems quite able to hit the right balance with regards to pacing and character development; some elements are highlighted to the point of irritation, others are never given the depth they need. The result is an adequate mix of romance, drama and fashion- enjoyable overall, but not quite plotted well enough to be fully satisfying.
Of course, no Yazawa work would be complete without her trademark brand of comedy, and Gokinjo is no exception. Most of the humour stems from the protagonists ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to directly comment on aspects of the manga, such as who wants to be the lead male character, and who feels left out through lack of dialogue. As a rule, I’m not a fan of this kind of joke since they compromise the ‘reality’ of the setting, but I have to admit that Yazawa’s incisive wit makes them more humorous than out of place.
Visually, the artwork showcases Yazawa’s bold style; characters have large eyes, full lips and detailed hairstyles, whilst backgrounds and shading are either highly detailed or simply nonexistent. It’s something of an acquired taste, but once you get accustomed to the artwork, it becomes quite striking.
A slow burner, Gokinjo makes up for a poor start by becoming more interesting later on, but never really refines the pacing enough to reach its true potential. The solid core story will no doubt hold the attention of romance and fashion fans, but unfortunately, the series is just too rough around the edges to truly stand out.