Love Hina: An Appreciation
Equal parts winsome and fearsome: Love Hina's Naru Narusegawa
Marc Elias · March 5, 2003 | For a North American, casual exposure to Japanese animation can be a confounding experience. Some of its emotional and narrative conventions seem so foreign that we can only liken our reaction to how it must feel to encounter an extraterrestrial culture. But among the giant robots, saucer-eyed pop stars, ravishing overfiends and thin-lipped bounty hunters, both sides of the ocean have managed to find an anime connection we can all relate to—the broad romantic comedy, in the form of Ken Akamatsu's Love Hina.

Akamatsu evolved his wildly popular Love Hina manga from partly autobiographical roots. Like his hero, hapless 19 year-old Keitaro Urashima, it took Akamatsu two years after high school to pass his stringent college entrance exams. Around the basis of this trying time in his life, he has woven an engaging, melodramatic fantasy of love and adventure that has found a fervent audience all over the world.

Keitaro Urashima begins the story on a quest, desperate to fulfill a childhood promise he made to a young girl: that they would one day attend Tokyo University together and live happily ever after. Sadly, even if any girl since then would deign to talk to him, he can't remember his dream girl's name or what she looks like, let alone muster grades worthy of Tokyo U. Setting out to find himself, Keitaro aimlessly blunders into becoming manager of his family's hot springs inn, which has been transformed into a girls' dormitory for a number of nearby schools. Over the course of the series, he shares the building, a wide range of preposterous adventures, and a generous helping of innuendo with a memorable handful of young women.

Mischievous, buxom Kitsune seems to have no other purpose in life than to drink sake and make trouble. Shy, sweet-natured Shinobu carries her heavy crush on Keitaro through the hallways of her junior high school. Laconic Haruka stoically holds things together as lightly as the cigarette permanently attached to her bottom lip. All of these are ideal archetypes for a romantic comedy or a soap opera, but remember: this is Japan. Consequently, Hinata Apartments also houses Kaolla Su, a hyperactive pre-teen genius from a far-off land given to constructing giant mecha-turtles between meals, and serious samurai Motoko, whose mystical prowess with a sword is only matched by her disdain for men in general, and Keitaro in particular.

But the key member of the Hinata household is Naru Narusegawa. Equal parts winsome and fearsome, Naru is the anime dream girl for those of us who, in our lifetimes, have encountered more splendidly beautiful and thoroughly frustrating young girls than we have giant robots or tentacled nightmares. From the moment they accidentally meet in the inn's backyard hot springs, the pattern of Naru and Keitaro's relationship is set: after a promising and romantic start, Keitaro will perpetually annoy or disappoint her, and for his trouble, her redoubtable roundhouse punch will make him the first romantic comedy lead since The Great American Hero who can actually fly. Between savage beatings, however, a powerful spark grows between them. Could Naru be the girl he has pledged the success of his life to? Will his good-natured loyalty gradually earn her love and respect, or will she and the other Hinata girls eventually stand arguing over the early grave to which they have driven him?

Love Hina
Pioneer, 2002
Originally released in 2000
Directed by Hiroyuki Yamaga
24 episodes

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This light-hearted premise is brought to very enjoyable life in the anime, the first series of which is now available in North America from Bandai/Pioneer, along with two seasonal specials that also continue the occasionally meandering story. The anime maintains the strengths of the manga, notably Akamatsu's distinctive design and characters. He renders Keitaro as a rubber-limbed, buttoned-down self-caricature, but lavishes his full creativity on every individual curve and pose of Love Hina's female cast. He shares with his North American romantic comedy-writing counterparts a pervasive love of the idealized young woman: impossibly lovely, endlessly unpredictable, everything but a peer to our well-meaning but socially restrained male hero. But while Keitaro Urashima may be this generation's Lloyd Dobler, Love Hina, by its very medium, is freed from the Hollywood "When Harry Met Sixteen Candles in Seattle" romantic comedy straightjacket. Not limited to being Archie with single entendres, this series is able to effortlessly segue from melodramatic romantic angst to flights of full-on anime fancy, complete with gravity-defying poses and occasional mystical-mechanical interruptions of the hairy high-school hijinks.

The animation is capably rendered, especially when the filmmakers refer to Akamatsu's adorable poses and "takes" from the manga, and extrapolate their timing to great comic effect. Over all, it is the series' good-natured humour that shines through and, to those of a romantic comedy bent, raises it above its contemporaries. While the manga often seems to resort to typically tight-collared Japanese smuttiness when the story slows down, the anime merely applies the fantastic amount of sexual tension thickening the air at Hinata apartments to broad comic effect, and the result is charming. The series' lack of political correctness can be startling, but it is nevertheless a guilty pleasure to anticipate how far into the stratosphere Keitaro will be belted the next time he accidentally sees Naru naked, or pays too much attention to anyone who isn't her.

The show's fresh pacing is also intrinsically tied to the original voice track, and so I recommend watching the series in the original Japanese, with English subtitles. Love Hina is an anime series for those who have a weakness for teenage romantic melodrama, a penchant for broad cartoon humour, or simply for animation fans who love the style of anime but can't help thinking that its Gundam Wing has been forcing it to fly in circles for too long. Of course, being both an anime series and a romantic comedy, it is doubly preposterous, but in the company of the residents of Hinata Apartments, the suspension of disbelief will be quick and painless for the viewer... if not for poor Keitaro.
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