In Praise of ... Love Hina

My introduction to manga and anime

I’m not quite sure where I saw the videos of Love Hina first, probably in an idle few moments browsing youtube after work before nipping out for the bus. But very soon I’d watched the whole of the anime series, and gone browsing round to find out more. The first thing I found out was that though people liked the series, the English dubs of Love Hina sucked, according to most. This didn’t bother me, because I tend to like original language voice actors, plus subtitles. Fansubbed videos made life a bit more interesting because of the variable quality. But one thing everyone did agree on was that the manga was way better, which meant I had to read it. And so I did, firstly by reading the fansubbed ones, but then by buying all 14 volumes in paperback (still got ‘em). And they’re right. The anime is fun, but the manga blows it away.

So, what’s it about? The story centres around (Urashima) Keitaro, a so-called ronin(1), who has tried repeatedly to get a place at Tokyo University (aka Todai), one of Japan’s top universities. The competition is fierce; he has already failed twice when the story starts, but still he tries. Why does he keep torturing himself this way you might well ask? To fulfill a dimly remembered childhood promise to a girl whose name he can’t even remember.

His parents despair of this, and finally punt him out to live with his grandmother, who owns a hotel called the Hinata Inn. But Granny has other plans, declaring that she’s off travelling, and installs Keitaro as the building’s caretaker. What she doesn’t tell him is that there are residents. All of them are girls, or young women.

There’s (Narusegawa) Naru, another ronin, who in practice tests has scored the highest in the entire country; (Aoyama) Motoko a somewhat ascetic apsiring martial artist; Kaolla Su, an exchange student with a penchant for random violence and tech; Kitsune (2), Naru’s louche old school friend, and finally (Maehara) Shinobu, who is the youngest, and is possibly there following her parents’ separation (the anime makes this more explicit).

When they first meet Keitaro, all are against a man moving in to the all-girl house, though he lets them believe he has already passed the entrance exams. But his Aunt Haruka (3) does vouch for him, and so he moves in.

That’s where the fun starts.

Keitaro is clearly attracted to Naru, and in spite of everything finds herself developing an attachment to him too, though not initially romantic. Initially it’s something of a love/hate thing, with Keitaro frequently being on the end of roundhouse kicks and haymaker punches.

They both fail the exams, but in the process they meet Mutsumi, who can best be deascribed a bit of a space cadet, and who appears to be in very delicate health. She too turns out to be a ronin, though it not it seems because she isn’t incredibly good at the exams, but because she keeps forgetting to put her name on the paper (for reasons that seem to become more apparent later).

Keitaro becomes increasingly convinced that one of the two is the girl he made his promise to all those years ago, and following a visit to Mutsumi’s parents in Okinawa they all discover that they spent time together at Hinata as very young children. Even though Mutsumi adores Keitaro, she believes that it’s he and Naru who made that promise, and that they are destined to be together, though neither of them are at all convinced by any of this, at different times, for a number of different reasons.

Keitaro also meets Seta, an archeology professor at Todai, discovers his passion and calling, and begins working for him as an assistant. But in these stories it’s never simple. Seta also turns out to be Haruka’s old boyfriend, and an after-school tutor that both Naru and Kitsune had a huge crush on when they were younger.

Eventually Naru, Keitaro and Mutsumi all pass the entrance exams, but at matriculation Keitaro breaks his leg and is laid up. As a result he defers his entry proper and goes away to the US on a placement. It’s at this point that Naru finally works out some of her feelings for him, though she doesn’t really want to admit them, not even to herself.

When Keitaro comes home he and Naru begin a relationship, but it doesn’t all run smoothly at first, especially when Keitaro’s adoptive, and very jealous, sister, Kanako, tries to kill off their nascent romance. But eventually Grandma returns home to set things straight, and reveal the full story. And yes, there is a happy ending.

So, as I said, I started reading the fansubs, and then decided that I was going to do the right thing and buy the legit volumes.

I’m not entirely sure what it was about the story that caught me. Maybe it was poor ineffectual Keitaro: well-intentioned, but gauche and accident-prone. But from what I’d read about the story’s gestation, Ken Akamtsu’s work was more than just a mere assemblage of standard tropes, like tsundere girls and the so-called ‘harem’ set up. In fact, Love Hina was one of the first manga to use the harem idea, or at the least make it popular.

Of course, all of this is filtered through a peculiarly Japanese lens. Akamatsu talks about some elements of the story being about his own memories of starting University, and that time in his life, so there’s more than a little of himself in Keitaro it seems. And yes, at times, its sexism and elements of so-called fan-service titilation can be a bit uncomfortable for western eyes. That said, he does actually seem to genuinely like all of his principal female characters, and he does give them some emotional complexity, and narrative arcs to come through. Motoko, for example, is struggling with her future direction following her older sister’s marriage. Apart from Kitsune (4), who’s usually used as a means of inspiring mischief, each has a family background and a story that perhaps makes them think of the Hinata as refuge or escape from the cares of life outside. Indeed, by the end of the story we see that being at Hinata has been a transformative and affirming experience for each of them

It also manages to weave in elements of the slightly mystical, and mythological, including a section where they spend the summer at the seaside and end up staging a re-enactment of the story Saiyūki, the Japanese language title of the Chinese classic Journey to the West (5). Even the name Urashima (Keitaro’s family name) crops up in a number of Japanese stories, so the allusions are many and varied.

But the point is, it’s a lot of fun. Amongst the serious parts, there are lots of laughs. Some are sophisticated, punning, visually interesting. And some are with lashings of dumb slapstick and cartoon violence.

I got a bit of a taste for it, which led me to Akamatsu’s follow-up series, Negima!, which had as its main protagonist a boy wizard teaching in a Japanese school. Given that this arrived as the world was falling in love with Harry Potter, there’s quite a lot of playful crossover.

And crossover was certainly the word in Ah! My Goddess, which manages to mash up Japanese and Norse mythologies by telling how the hapless Morisato Keichi manages to summon the goddess Belldandy, and ends up sharing a house with her, and her two sisters (6). As you might imagine, life becomes … interesting for him.

It also led me to the rather sweet and wonderful Chobits, by the female manga collective, CLAMP, which is a story set in the near future, and talks about the relationship between people and technology, and what that means for the relationships between people too.

So Love Hina has a lot to answer for. It set me off down a rabbit hole of sorts, though I’m fairly selective about which burrows I follow.

(1) An university entrance exam candidate, or failure.
(2) Kitsune means “fox”. Her actual name is Konno Mitsune
(3) Haruka is actually Keitaro’s cousin, and doesn’t take kindly to being called “auntie”
(4) Even Kitsune herself admits that maybe that’s why she’s here at one point.
(5) Saiyūki was dramatised in Japan in the late 1970s, but in the UK we know it better as Monkey.
(6) The three goddesses in the series are Belldandy, Urd, and and Skuld. They are based on the Norse deities, Verdandi, Urd and Skuld, the norns who govern the present, the past, and the future

A northern man

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