A Romantic Comedy from a Different Point of View: A Review of Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka

Protonstorm
Apr 5 · 9 min read

The key to communication, Saku Chitose argues, is a desire for mutual understanding. One must both want to understand and want to be understood for a conversation to progress smoothly. This seems obvious; a conversation by definition is supposed to go both ways. And yet, such sincerity feels increasingly rare in the era of social media takedowns. Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka’s premise is to light novel romantic comedies what mutual understanding is to conversation: a seemingly obvious concept becoming strangely uncommon. The series is mostly told from the perspective of the most popular kid in school, Saku Chitose. One might be inclined to think that Saku’s social standing sets him up for easy mode regarding romance, but his natural gifts come with their own difficulties. Through Saku’s complex relationship with his peers’ expectations and his own personal aspirations, ChiRamune deftly navigates the trials and tribulations of high school with gusto while offering insights into human relationships that ring true for all ages.

The name Saku Chitose is frequently on the lips of the student body at Fuji High School. His athleticism, intelligence, and good looks make him immensely popular with the ladies, something the man himself is well aware of. The wild rumors constantly swirling around him have given him a reputation for promiscuity. Ironically, another unforeseen consequence of Saku’s fame is his teachers’ tendency to put him on the spot, particularly when it comes to his homeroom teacher, Kura-sen. On the first day of his second year, Saku is given a difficult task: convince wayward student Kenta Yamazaki to return to school after several months of absence. What at first seems like an obnoxious chore very quickly turns into a major project when Saku decides to take Kenta under his wing and teach him the ways of the popular kids.

ChiRamune’s early chapters follow through on author Hiromu’s promise to write a straightforward romantic comedy. For better or worse, there are no bizarre school clubs, no supernatural occurrences, and no terrifying secrets that bring the cast together. From the start, Saku is intentionally surrounded by good-looking, socially-adept people because he, too, is good-looking and socially adept. His overall view of the social hierarchy of high school is pragmatic, but overwhelmingly positive. He has mastered the art of balancing complicated relationships and knows how to successfully navigate the quagmire of teenage communication. Ironically, his social skills are actually what makes him the most relatable and empathetic character. His genuine effort to understand those around him and smooth over uncomfortable situations feels very human.

Kenta serves as Saku’s foil. While the latter is popular and social, the former is a reserved otaku whose failed quest for romance left him too despondent to attend school. His experiences with high school differ drastically from Saku’s, and he develops a correspondingly negative outlook. The contrast in the two boys’ perspectives is the crux of the first volume’s story, which follows Kenta’s development from otaku zero to popular kid hero (or at least part of the way there). As Saku teaches Kenta the ways of the popular kids, we too are given access to his communicative strategies and beliefs.

When the two boys first meet, Kenta is incredibly cynical about popular kids. He believes that Saku is just trying to get him back to school to boost his own reputation (correct) and thinks that Saku will just abandon him as soon as he returns (less correct, as it turns out). To Kenta, popular kids are all just shallow, pretty people who don’t bother to understand the suffering of others around them because they don’t have to thanks to their good looks. Saku makes the opposite argument: popular kids are popular because they work hard. They strive to understand everyone around them and utilize this knowledge to successfully navigate social situations. Even their fashion choices are the result of much time spent learning about and studying style. Far from easy mode, being a popular kid can be the most challenging position to maintain of them all. Their classmates’ and teachers’ expectations are high, and jealous students are always looking for a way to knock them down a peg.

This ideological debate is one example of the ways that ChiRamune offers genuinely insightful observations about social connection. Kenta, despite a lack of experience with popular kids, assumes the worst about them to protect his own fragile ego. When Saku shatters this illusion, Kenta decides to do something much harder than jealously despising people unlike himself: he decides to learn more about and perhaps even become friends with them. Although there are light novel series about otaku becoming popular, it is rare for a story to directly challenge the toxic shut-in worldview often reinforced by power fantasies. Kenta’s problem was not that he was an unattractive otaku; his problem was that he refused to consider that others have similarly nuanced views about society that rival his own. His story is a direct challenge to the escapist narrative of social doom that underlies many isekai (“transported to another world”) series.

Kenta’s revelation is not a one-way street, however. Saku, too, struggles with the emotional burden of living up to the expectations of everyone around him. Although he puts on a show in public, internally he is fearful of failure and worries about things beyond his control. He also genuinely cares about his friends, becoming personally invested in Kenta’s journey not just because he wants to brag about another Saku miracle but also because he genuinely likes Kenta and wants him to be successful. As their connection grows more complex, so too does the novel’s exploration of human relationships.

To return to Hiromu’s earlier point, ChiRamune is not a genre-defying phenomenon, even if it does present a thematic challenge to some otaku media. If anything, it is one of the most aggressively standard high school romantic comedies in quite some time. This is reflected in the series’ marketing and basic structure. In addition to Kenta, Saku’s friend group also includes the sporty Kaito and quick-witted Kazuki. However, far more marketing attention is given to their female friends, with all the series’ book covers and most of the insert images in each volume featuring one of the heroines in some way. The overarching sequencing of the story so far makes each volume follow a particular character’s “route,” almost like a visual novel. This is a common trope in light novel series, as many works heavily borrow tropes from visual novels (particularly 90s and 00s dating sims). Hiromu himself entered the light novel fandom through dating sims. It is thus unsurprising to learn that ChiRamune has a male gaze problem: descriptions of female characters linger much longer on their proportions than any of the guys, and the heroines’ looks are commented on frequently by Saku and others.

Despite this substantial caveat, the female characters in ChiRamune are just as well-developed as the guys. Saku cracks jokes about his “harem,” but his friend group is evenly split between boys and girls, all of whom feel like fully-realized people. Part of this is thanks to Hiromu’s talent for writing witty dialogue, an essential for any half-decent romantic comedy. Even more importantly, all the students in Saku’s friend group have their own agency and engage with his plans on their terms. Hiromu has likened his writing process to passive observation, saying that he is merely recording the characters’ stories as they develop without having any direct control. Taken literally, this seems unlikely, but his underlying point about the organic nature of his characters’ actions in the book rings true. The narration may be from Saku’s perspective, but it feels as though an equally compelling book could be written about the same events from any of the other characters involved.

ChiRamune makes more frequent use of complex metaphor than most light novel series, as one might gather from the title itself, which can be literally translated into English as “Chitose Is in a Ramune Bottle.” Ramune, a popular soda in Japan, is sold in distinctive glass bottles. The bottles can be opened by using the removable lid to push the glass marble blocking the opening into the smaller top half of the bottles’ bottom-heavy hourglass-shaped design. The marble prevents the opened soda from spilling by blocking the liquid from dripping out if the bottle is held upside down. Because the marble is perfectly sized to block the hole at the top, it is impossible to remove it without breaking the bottle. Saku Chitose is that glass marble: despite his physical closeness to his peers, he appears out of reach to others. Likewise, although he has many friends, his social position in school makes him feel very isolated. This surface analysis is just the tip of the iceberg, as each character has their own evolving relationship with this titular metaphor.

In this manner, ChiRamune has some of the conceptual and linguistic trappings of prestige literature despite its humble light novel origins. It feels like the best of both worlds: the text rewards thorough reading, but its themes are not difficult to understand, even with a surface-level interpretation.

Hiromu often uses natural scenery to reflect characters’ emotions, which brings up another interesting element of the series: its setting. ChiRamune’s characters all attend a fictional version of Fujishima High School, the most prestigious high school in real-world Fukui Prefecture, located in central Japan. Fukui is, frankly, basically the middle of nowhere by the standards of national-level discourse. The city itself has a population of about 250,000 people, which is small enough to be “the countryside” but large enough to have a proper urban center, too. Although the high school is located in a semi-urban area, a few minutes’ walk finds oneself at the Hino River where the surrounding environs take on a decidedly rural color.

Yua (left) and Yuzuki (right) talk to each other in Fukui dialect sometimes.

Thus, the series grapples indirectly with the urban-rural divide in both its visuals and themes with Hiromu, a Fukui native, taking substantial effort to Fukui-itize the standard high school setting his characters inhabit. There are numerous examples in the novel: the relative local prestige of the high school, the sole large shopping center’s role as a catch-all hang out spot for local youths and adults, and even the characters’ occasional usage of Fukui-dialect Japanese. This last point feels a bit perfunctory, as Saku’s friend group primarily speaks in standard Japanese, but Hiromu makes a point of having some of the characters speak in heavy Fukui dialect once or twice in the first volume. Unfortunately, the dialect is too heavy to be practical for a novel aimed at a national audience. It is different enough that a standard Japanese translation had to be included next to the text in order for non-Fukuian readers to understand. The result is that its occasional inclusion feels a bit shoehorned in, even if it is interesting.

Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka was not the series I was expecting, and I am thankful to Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi! 2021 for drawing my attention to it. The first volume is paradoxically both incredibly familiar and strangely foreign; it has all the trappings of a typical romantic comedy, but it approaches its common story and setting from the opposite direction of many of its contemporaries. Saku Chitose’s social intelligence is a compelling lens through which to examine his high school community, and his relationships with his friends both male and female will resonate with people of all ages. If nothing else, it might offer you a chance to brush up on your knowledge of Fukui!

A special thanks to TheMamaLuigi for his help proofreading this article!

This is the third part of a three-part series about the up-and-coming light novel series Chitose-kun wa Ramune Bin no Naka. Check out my translation of an interview with Hiromu in parts one and two if you want to learn more about the series.

Want to learn more about the light novel industry? Check out my guide to “Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!” right here:

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