Remembering the Legacy of Izumi Matsumoto & "Kimagure Orange Road"

Izumi Matsumoto 1958-2020

Disclaimer: I have not read the "Kimagure Orange Road" manga. I have also not finished the 'KOR' anime, although I have seen most of it. 

Izumi Matsumoto died on October 6, 2020 of cerebrospinal fluid hypovolemia. This may not sound like anything special coming as it does in a year filled with death and debilitating medical conditions, and I won’t pretend that Matsumoto was the most important person to die in 2020 or anything, but his death should be noted for fans of comics in particular as he was responsible for one of the seminal works in the medium: "Kimagure Orange Road."

"Kimagure Orange Road" (kimagure means “capricious”; still not sure what “Orange Road” is all about) is the story of Kyousuke Kasuga, a well-meaning if slightly dopey teenage boy who’s just moved to Tokyo with his photographer dad, two peppy little sisters and (in the anime) a fat, grumpy cat. One day, as he’s climbing a tall stairway in a park, a breeze blows a big red straw hat onto his head. Its owner, Madoka Ayukawa, a beautiful, long-haired girl his age, tells him it looks good on him and lets him keep it. After a short, friendly argument about the number of steps on the stairway, they part ways… but Kyousuke is lovestruck. It’s one of manga’s ultimate 'Meet Cute' moments.

Kyousuke goes to his new school, quickly makes friends with two annoying, sniggering pervs, and finds out that, surprise surprise, Madoka’s in his class! But she’s withdrawn, sullen, mysterious. Classmates whisper that she’s a hoodlum with a bad reputation. She beats up a gang of thugs for picking on her friend in the first episode, so clearly there’s some truth to that… but Kyousuke’s just more enamored of her than ever, since she’s standing by her friend and punishing bad guys.

Things get complicated, though, when that friend, Hikaru Hiyama, falls obsessively in love with Kyousuke. She hugs him and squeals whenever she sees him, she calls him “Daaaarling” (with a screechy voice in the anime version), she makes box lunches just for him, she wants to go on dates with him all the time. It might sound like a sweet deal for someone who just moved to town, but the problem is it’s obvious that Kyousuke prefers Madoka. But Madoka is so intimidating, and she makes it clear she’s happy for Hikaru. Meanwhile, Hikaru is very nice and not too bad-looking herself. Plus, Kyousuke is totally spineless and would rather everyone be happy. And so, an awkward situation where everyone is superficially happy but Kyousuke pines away in private ensues.

To anime and manga fans, this might not sound like anything special. Boy-oriented romances are a dime a dozen in those fields, and squishy, indecisive guys getting fawned over by a clutch of improbably attractive high school girls is one of the most cliché scenarios there is. But what really makes "Kimagure Orange Road" important is that it premiered in 1984. This was one of the pioneering works in the romance genre, one that showed that boys can grapple with complex emotions and mixed feelings just as much as girls can. At the time, romance was mostly thought of as girls’ fare (as it still is in the West), with boys’ manga leaning heavily into violent action and adventure, especially with a sci-fi gloss. Matsumoto proved that with clever writing and fleshed-out characters – not to mention an unambiguously male perspective – romance can be as appealing to boys as it is to girls. Other manga of the mid-80s, like "Touch" and "Maison Ikkoku," made similar points, but 'KOR' puts the focus on earnestly depicted teen romance much more than its peers. 

Like "Archie" in America, "Kimagure Orange Road" tended to touch off debates on which of the two main girls is better. With all due respect to Hikaru, who gets some very sympathetic stories, the deck is heavily stacked against her. Legions of manga readers and anime fans across the world sigh wistfully just at the mention of Madoka. She is pretty much every guy’s dream date: cool, calm, very very mature for her age, fiercely loyal, reserved, friendly (to Kyousuke at least), sexy but in an approachable way, rough around the edges but with a strong moral center, a total badass, smart, mysterious in that alluring way, and yes, very beautiful. She likes doing things like exercising in tight ‘80s workout clothes and playing the saxophone at her window at night. What’s not to love? Kyousuke may spend an awful lot of time gazing longingly at her and blushing every time she so much as smiles at him, but most male readers felt more or less the same way. 

All this love for Madoka begs the question: Is she actually a realistic character? For the most part I’d defend her, since she is an emotionally complex person who can be a bit hard to read at times but who acts for the most part like a recognizable teenage girl (albeit a very mature one). She’s a bit of a tease with Kyousuke, but many girls act this way – they respect their male friends but don’t want to go too far with their relationship, in this case out of respect for a female friend. It’s hard to deny that she’s a wish fulfillment character, though. Kyousuke is a pretty ordinary guy, yet we never see her flirting with others (and when she does, it’s always some sort of misunderstanding). She never seems to lose her temper or act in a way that might be off-putting to the manga’s male readers. She seems to be awesome at everything she tries. If Madoka were a real person, it would probably be way harder to conquer her than it is for Kyousuke (it’s pretty obvious as the story goes on that she reciprocates his feelings).

Part of the appeal of Madoka’s seeming perfection is how it ties in with another of 'Kimagure’s' main points: nostalgia. This series is absolutely wallowing in it. It was originally drawn by a guy in his 20s looking back on his youth, and it shows: its depiction of high school is pretty rose-tinted. But it also happens to be an ‘80s show, and given our ongoing fascination with that decade, the manga and anime have bonus appeal now. Madoka and Hikaru like dressing in cutting-edge ‘80s fashions, dancing at discos, wrestling (a fad in Japan in the ‘80s for women) and watching American teen romances (which seem to be an inspiration here). The innocence of youth is compounded by the innocence of a bygone era when schoolgirl skirts actually covered the whole legs and sex is completely out of the question. Character designs predate anime staples like glossy hair, giant eyes and stylized facial expressions, yet they’re also detailed and complex enough to suggest the evolutions yet to come.

Most of all, the show is suffused with longing for a time forever past that might not have ever actually existed. Like most manga and anime of the genre, it’s mostly good-hearted fun and fluff, but with a serious undertone, even a melancholic one, as if Kyousuke is doomed to forever keep his feelings about Madoka locked up inside. The first opening and ending themes of the anime are a great illustration of this: the OP is a bouncy crooner song - “Take Me to Summer Side” - about the thrills and joys of teen romance, while the ED - “Natsu no Mirage” [Summer Mirage] - is a wistful, yearning song paired with images of Madoka making inscrutable expressions. 

Although 'Kimagure' is one of the more realistic romances out there, it’s still a manga, and that means it’s still driven by the artist’s imperative to hook readers week by week. I haven’t even gone into the supernatural aspect of it: the Kasugas are a family of ESPers, and they move anytime their powers are leaked out to the public to preserve their privacy. Kyousuke has broadly defined psychic powers, and he’s not shy about using them to his advantage, but he still has to keep them a secret from Madoka and Hikaru lest the family move again. This leads to lots of silly antics – teleportation, freezing of time, telekinesis, levitation, etc. Hikaru may be kind of a ding-dong, but it’s implausible that Madoka wouldn’t pick up on certain things about Kyousuke that don’t add up (one example that comes to mind is when he keeps leaving while they study together at the library and coming back soaking wet – because he’s doing a double date with Hikaru at the pool!). Some readers will probably roll their eyes at these antics, and some of them do get overly wacky and far-fetched, but I’d embrace the sitcom aspect of it – as anime get shorter these days, it’s rare to find shows like this where there are plenty of yucks to be had, but the status quo reigns supreme at the end each time.

Being overly glowing about "Kimagure Orange Road" would be dishonest. Many episodes and stories are duds. Kyousuke’s male friends are obnoxious creeps. Kyousuke can be a bit sexist sometimes – in one episode, he even fantasizes about beating Madoka after one particularly infuriating moment! (In real life there’s no way she’d let him.) Yet it is one of the most influential romance manga of all time. It paved the way for a lot of the most familiar rom-com anime tropes seen today, and it generally does them well (plus it gets early-bird bonus points). While Matsumoto’s art can be basic and rough by modern standards, the anime was even ahead of its time in terms of animation and character design. Hikaru may be a forerunner of moe (exaggerated cuteness meant to stimulate male protective instincts) and Madoka is definitely a tsundere (someone, usually a girl, who alternates between being mean and nice to the protagonist), but their portrayals have more depth and nuance than those clichés suggest. 

'Kimagure' is also guilty of one of romance anime’s biggest clichés: stringing the audience along for an inordinate amount of time without the main character just making up his damn mind and asking out the girl he likes. This is a story as infuriating as any of those others, since Matsumoto knows who his audience is rooting for but tortures them endlessly by keeping Madoka just out of Kyousuke’s reach. But there’s a certain beauty in unrequited love and forlorn romance, and Matsumoto milks it for all it’s worth. Who among us hasn’t fallen in love with someone utterly unattainable? Who among us didn’t have a fling in high school that we regret didn’t mature into something more significant? Who among us hasn’t met someone like Madoka, who seems like a perfect girlfriend but who we can’t work up the nerve to confess to? Literature is filled with this poignant failure to connect with true love – just ask Haruki Murakami – and 'KOR' is a shining pillar of it. 

Unfortunately, Matsumoto was not known for much else than KOR. He had an interest in Japanese history and drew a manga about an American translator in Japan in the 1850s. But his spinal condition, which meant constant cerebrospinal fluid leakage, pain, insomnia, numbness and blackouts, kept him from working much more. He visited anime conventions in the US and appreciated the cult fandom that grew around 'KOR' there and in France and Italy, but never managed to produce another hit. He died at age 61. By all accounts, he was a kind, generous and very friendly and humble man. For all the influence he’s had on Japanese pop culture, for all that he’s inspired subsequent creators, and for all the emotional fulfillment and nostalgia that he’s provided for his admirers, I thank Matsumoto for his life’s work. Here’s hoping that he’ll finally meet his Madoka in the afterlife.

Your Comic Book Guy Contributor

Eric Stimson

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