I know I wanted our intersex hero Haru to get out of high school and into the real world, but I was wrong. Maybe I would have been right if Haru’s life after high school was treated with the same balance of relentless optimism and genuine emotion, but that is not what happened. I’m not sure why Rokuhana went off the rails with this series, but I do know where she did: at the beginning of Volume 14.
Haru graduates from high school at the end of Volume 13, after enduring all manner of bullying and torment, which he manages to get through only thanks to the great friends he has also managed to make. (Of these, Maki is particularly adorable, referring to herself as “Maki” in that weirdly juvenile way some Japanese high school girls do.) And of course, the love of his life, Ibuki. Ibuki is the one that finally makes Haru feel comfortable with his body and being touched, and the tenderness and affection that they show each other made even my cynical heart a little softer. A few of their more physical moments do have a look of coercion about them, which does make my now-softer heart flinch, even though from the context, things seem pretty consensual. The terrified stiffness of Haru is most likely due to all his fears about his own body and rejection. Which I’m sure any teenage anybody, boy or girl, can relate to only too well.
So if it had all ended there, with Haru heading out into the world, full of dreams and confidence and love, I would have rolled my eyes outwardly, but inwardly, I would melt and then daydream about where Haru’s life would take him next, always ending up with Haru and Ibuki living happily ever after. But it didn’t end there. It ended at Volume 17, so the reader gets four full books of everything that did not work in the first thirteen books without any of what actually made the series charming and moving. Foolishly unrealistic view of the world? Yes! Endless moralistic speechifying? Yup! Random strangers pouring their hearts out to Haru for no apparent reason? Okay!
Add in an ever-changing cast of characters, and a conclusion that you’ve seen coming since Volume 9, and you have the most disappointing ending of a series that I’ve ever read. Seriously. Volume 14 starts four years after graduation, and Haru is now best friends with his neighbour, an intersex guy named Makuson. All those people you spent thirteen books getting invested in? They’re gone. They only turn up in these sort of guest star appearances towards the end of the series, like a very special episode of a long-running sitcom about to go off the air, when they give Haru the summary of what they’ve been doing since high school.
Which, okay, people change. The people you were besties with in high school are not necessarily going to make it into your adult circle of friends. That’s fine. What’s not fine is the way Rokuhana cuts them loose and then brings them back in when she’s clearly running out of ideas to keep this tired horse walking.
And then? Makuson disappears, even though some really interesting plot points have been set up with him, and is replaced by a strong focus on Haru’s job as the manager of a patisserie, interspersed with emotional and random encounters with Ibuki (whose current lover Nene wandered into Haru’s life in the most implausible way, but they become best friends anyway, and that’s how Ibuki shows up again. Really? Really?). And just when you think, okay, so maybe now the story is about Ibuki and Haru again, Ibuki disappears until the end of Volume 17. And yes, they get together again. I know, it’s a big surprise that I am totally ruining here.
Things get increasingly implausible, stemming in part from Rokuhana trying to keep the story going long after it was clearly over, and from her seeming desire to give Haru the perfect ending. And of course, the perfect ending is paired off with a kid. Of course. Even though this series has largely been about accepting all types of people and lifestyles. But wait! Haru is intersex and unable to have children. That’s okay, he’ll just find an abandoned intersex baby in front of his shop, take it in and raise it to be openly intersex just like him. No, really. That happens.
Then there are the interminable upbeat orations: Character framed from a lower angle, determined look on face, words to the effect of “everyone is different, but we can all live happily together if we just work hard” pouring out of mouth. Over. And. Over. You see some of this in the earlier books, but it is well balanced with some real hardships, emotional breakdowns and sincere discussions that aren’t just a long way of saying “chin up!”. Towards the end, these speeches start taking on a “supercrip” tone that is unwelcome in a book that started off giving a balanced portrayal of people routinely excluded from mainstream conversation. I think every character in the last four books gets his or her chance to give the ganbaru (all-encompassing Japanese word meaning something along the lines of doing one’s best, fighting hard, not giving up) speech. And given the rapid-fire introduction of characters in these last four books, that adds up to a lot of ganbaru speeches. I eventually just started skimming as soon as I saw the first low-angle framing of a character.
I could continue ranting, but no one wants that, least of all my fond memories of the first part of the series. Just stop reading at Volume 13. Trust me.