I love a lot of shôjo for its embrace of emotional ambivalence, but even I can admit that a lot of that ambivalence can come in a fairly narrow flavor profile. How many times can I be asked to care which generically attractive, somewhat condescending boy is the right boy for the heroine? Now, some series execute that conundrum beautifully, and I really care, but books that go a different route always catch my eye.
Yuki Obata’s We Were There (Viz) seems to be one of those welcome alternatives to triangular angst. The first volume demonstrates a sharp appreciation for ambivalence of the internal variety.
Like many of the sisterhood, protagonist Nanami is starting high school and hoping to make friends and have fun. She isn’t yet engaged in the boyfriend hunt, which is a nice change of pace. Of course, active engagement isn’t always required for the boyfriend hunt to begin. Nanami finds herself evenly divided between irritation and infatuation when she meets Yano, a cute classmate. Circumstances conspire to bring them closer. Her heart races and she doesn’t know why. And the school festival looks like it’s going to be a disaster! Slide your Scantron sheet into the Shôjomatic 3000X, right? Well, not quite.
Obata uses a couple of approaches that make We Were There distinct. The first is what I can only call a kind of flatness of affect. It’s like she’s minimized the stylistic extremes that have become shôjo stereotypes to get back to the emotions that inspired those stereotypes in the first place. Second is the fact that she does the hard work of translating stereotypes into actual characters. Yano actually is half irritating, half admirable.
The core question of the book is whether Nanami really knows Yano at all. His first love has died, and Obata examines the messy emotional fallout of that scenario with intelligence and restraint. What exactly is lurking under Yano’s shôjo-prince façade, and why is he giving Nanami peeks under the veil? Does he actually like her, or is he trying to appear normal? Is he in touch with his own feelings at all, and how can Nanami sort her own feelings out with so many questions?
That’s a really meaty, emotional foundation for a story. We Were There doesn’t wallow in emotional lows or titter through shrill comedic highs, and I think it’s more interesting for that. I like wallowing, and I like tittering, but introspection can be engrossing too.