Monkey High!, Vol. 1 is a Shojo Beat Manga (Japanese comic book) written for a teenage female audience between the ages of 16 and 18. This is the first in a series about high school students. It's written in the traditional Japanese manga style, which reads from right to left (often referred to by non-fans of the genre as "backwards"). If you've never read a manga before, the style can confuse and disorient you, but it's worth acclimating to. Since I've been a fan from a young age, this was a fairly quick and easy read.
The story is divided into the following chapters:
1st Monkey: Miss Contrary vs. Runt Monkey
2nd Monkey: Climbing Mountains Is Easier than Professing Your Love
3rd Monkey: Xmas Is More Romantic than a First Kiss?!
The setting is a traditional Japanese high school with the main character Haruna Aizawa having recently transferred schools because of a political scandal involving her father. The story focuses on the budding relationship between Haruna and Masaru Yamashita (nicknamed Macharu, which means "monkey" in Japanese). The story is complicated because Haruna is a beautiful girl while Macharu is a cute but rather silly "monkey looking" boy (he has big monkey ears). Hence, Haruna has other boys interested in dating her including Atsu, the most popular boy in their school, and Nakazawa (a third year student from K Academy who happens to be Haruna's ex-boyfriend).
Haruna's character undergoes a transformation throughout the manga. At first, she considers herself "above" the students at her new school. She acts like a girl who is used to being popular. Because of all the attentions Atsu gives her, the girls at her new high school immediately ostracize her. It is through her friendship with Macharu that she is able to let her guard down and make friends. He teaches her about fun and laughter, attributes that have recently been missing from her life because of her problems at home.
Many of the issues that Haruna deals with are those that female teens face everyday when navigating the social drama at their own high schools. Haruna is a good role model for female readers because she teaches teens to be true to yourself first and let love gradually happen rather than forcing or rushing it.
As you read, there is one question that continuously nags at the forefront of your mind: Which boy will Haruna choose to date and what problems will the couple have to face?
Despite the seemingly inconsequential subject matter, there are deeper points highlighted in the introduction to the series. In the postscript the author explains how she created the main characters to be "opposites," two people who usually wouldn't date. Macharu is also a nontraditional Shojo Manga Hero because he is so comical, the same height as Haruna, and often acts "girly." Even his facial features are drawn to resemble Haruna's own wide-eyed, innocent stare. He isn't the "white knight" who's meant to whisk Haruna away from her everyday problems. He's a relatively typical boy trying to lose the identity of being the class clown, or in this case the class monkey. The two characters grow from each other as much as they give to each other.
The author also explains that many of the events in the book such as the Snow White play, the field trip, and even the Christmas chapter were inspired by her own life, whether it was from a time of her past when she was in high school or a current event.
The most fascinating part is that Haruna constantly makes comparisons that all high school students act like wild monkeys, always gossiping about her and Macharu or getting into their business. This is an interesting social commentary about high school hierarchies. At one point Macharu questions Haruna's opinions and they have an extensive conversation about her belief system:
"I'm just saying that everyone at school acts like a pack of wild monkeys."
"But...Then...Where does that leave you? Looking on from the top? Or are you just an outside observer? Where do you think you are?"
"How am I supposed to know! Who cares!" (31-32).
Of course a major factor to enjoying this book are the illustrations. I love anime and manga artwork. The way the characters' faces are depicted draws me into the drama and romance of the story. Shouko Akira is no exception and masterfully creates complex characters like Haruna and Macharu. The attention to details is vividly expressed in every stroke of the pencil.
Overall, the book has a similar feel as Peach Girl, Volume 1, another well-known manga, but Monkey High!, Vol. 1 is more playful. I loved it and recommend it to readers of all ages. For older members, it will have you recalling your formative high school years when you were just figuring out who you wanted to be. For high school students, it will give them a story they can relate to and have a bit of fun with. After all, high school shouldn't always be about the drama.