It's for this reason that I find it something to note when I actually experience a work that cuts across this trend and finishes strong. In many instances, even anime and manga which didn't make me go 'WTF?', the ending was never as strong as the buildup. Chika Umino manages to avoid this fate with her manga Honey and Clover for which I'm extremely grateful. I would say that the last two volumes were by far the best of the lot, managing to more than make up for a meandering middle that felt like it would go on forever. Before I get into the nitty gritty though, we should pull back a bit and I'll introduce the series.
Honey and Clover is a shoujo/josei manga which features an ensemble cast of college students at an art school in Tokyo. The plot basically removes around a series of love triangles, though really it's more like rectangles by the end of it. I guess I should be happy it didn't end up being a dodecahedron given that we are talking what is essentially a romance manga meant for women. Here's a quick breakdown of the characters:
- Hagumi Hanamoto: Hagumi, or Hagu-chan, is an incoming freshman at the college. She's related distantly to Shuji Hanamoto, who is her guardian and watches over her. She basically grew up in the sticks, with no friends and only her grandmother (who was slowly going blind) for company. She would sit in the house and draw/paint by herself, endless scenes looking out the exact same window. Shuji decides to take her away from that and enrolls her in the art college where he teaches, hoping to nurture her enormous talent. In addition to her talent, she's also incredibly frail, suffering stress-induced fevers and illnesses at the drop of a hat. She's also tiny and emotionally immature, though considering her circumstances, that's sort of to be expected.
- Yūta Takemoto: Takemoto is the nominal protagonist of the story in that we get his point of view most often. He's a 2nd year student at the college with Hagu arrives and falls in love with her almost instantly. Miyama, who was there at their first meeting, comments that it's the first time he'd ever seen love at first sight. In general, Takemoto is a good guy, though average in a lot of ways when it comes to talent and spends much of the manga searching for himself and his place in the world.
- Shinobu Morita: Morita is the genius whackjob of the group. He's completely eccentric, money obsessed, and just generally impulsive. He also has an incredible amount of artistic talent, making it look so easy as to stun onlookers, but he doesn't devote himself to his art, instead taking mysterious jobs where he can make and hoard money for some unknown purpose. At the start of the series, he's in his 6th year at the college, failing to graduate year after year because he's either missing one freshman lecture from way back when, or not turning in a graduate thesis despite being 90% done. He also falls in love with Hagu, though it's hard to tell that's what it is at first because the way he expresses his love is to harass her by trying to dress her up in munchkin oufits (taking pictures for his website) and scaring her half to death.
- Shūji Hanamoto: Hanamoto sensei is a professor at the art school and Hagu's guardian. He serves as an advisor of sorts to all the kids. He was good friends with Rika and Haruda, who formed their own little love triangle back in the day. After Haruda died, he tried to comfort Rika but eventually had to leave her to try to get some distance.
- Takumi Mayama: Mayama is probably the most mature of all the college students. When the story begins, he's in his last year and about to graduate. He's been working for Rika Harada at her firm and falls in love with her though she constantly pushes him away. He's a bit stalkerish, but in a good way since everything he does he does with what he thinks is in Rika's best interests. He's completely head over heels. He knows that Ayu loves him in return and while she's a dear friend, he just won't ever feel that way about her.
- Ayumi Yamada: Ayu is probably my favorite character in this. A lot of people don't seem to like her because they say that all she does is cry, which is fair since she does spend a fair amount of time weeping. She's a potter and in the same year as Mayama at the college. She loves him with a pure, desperate, and ultimately doomed love that he will never reciprocate. She can't help loving him and spends most of the series wrestling with those doomed feelings.
- Rika Harada: Rika is the wounded bird of the series. She was classmates with Hanamoto sensei and Harada back in the day. Together, they were the best of friends and eventually she married Harada and formed a design firm with him. One snowy night, she was driving them home and a car accident left him dead and her horribly scarred and wounded. She's been guilt-ridden ever since about it. Hanamoto tried to comfort her for a while and they lived together, but he could bear it in the end and left to put some distance between them. She's working at the firm to finish all the work that Harada left behind when he died with the idea that once she's finished it, she'll kill herself and join him. Mayama was sent to her by Hanamoto as an aide and ends up falling for her. She knows his feelings and tries to keep him at arms length, but he's a pretty determined guy.
And so that's it for all the characters and the basic beginning to the story. For most of the manga, you don't get much movement in any of these triangles. Instead, it's more that they're fleshed out over time and you get to see just how entrenched and intractable it all seems. There are times it seems that the entire middle of the series consists of most of the characters getting together for some party, having fun together, and then going off on their own for introspection/weeping. Like with most manga of this type, you sometimes feel that the arc words for the series should be 'If only...'.
While for the most part, there isn't a 'happy ending' per se for most of the characters, it is a very satisfying ending. You finally get to find out why Morita has been hoarding money the entire time and it's pretty poignant. Not to mention hilarious along the way as it features him also winning a 'Moacademy Award' and bashing 'Peter Lucas'. You have to read it to believe it. All of the triangles also resolve in one way or the other, in pretty believable ways. I should mention however that there is another Hikaru Genji Plan which rears its head, though just like with Usagi Drop, it's not set as a choreographed event. Near the end of the story, Hagu is in an accident and has a giant pane of glass fall on her, cutting her hand quite badly, severing nerves and tendons. She may never paint again despite the rehab and the idea terrifies her. By this point, she already knows that both Takemoto and Morita love her, and she has feelings for Morita. She also knows that he could never be there for her 24-7, the sort of flake that he is, and basically sacrifice his life for her so that she might one day recover and paint again. She decides to instead go with Hanamoto sensei who has devoted his life to her and in his comments to others, seems to make clear that he loves her in a romantic way. She doesn't seem to reciprocate in that way, but needs him to be there for her. Even so, this is a bit squick since Hanamoto actually raised her part of the way and has spent the entire series watching out for her like a mother hen. The idea that it might be romantic sort of came out of nowhere and you can't help but wonder if it'll end up just like Usagi Drop.
The other love triangle also resolves itself but a little more ambiguously. Mayama confronts Rika with his feelings and she seems to have at least tacitly accepted him. At least you get the impression she might not kill herself when the last project is finished, which is a step forward. Of course, Ayu was doomed from the start and her love was never going to be reciprocated. Part of the annoying part of this is that she's beautiful, both in canon and from the reader's perspective, with talent and innocence and all these other wonderful qualities which shouldn't leave her as the beggar at the feast. In fact, in the story she has hoards of admirers, including a group of friends she grew up with all of which were sort of competing with one another to marry her. I guess I can understand where some people come from when they say they hate her character the most. After all, she does spend a lot of time weeping and angsting, all the while being blessed with what many others would kill to have. It's one thing to feel sad for someone starving for lack of a crust of bread. It's another to see someone at a banquet but choosing to starve themselves because despite there being food of every imagining, what they really want right then is a crust of bread which isn't present. Usually, I would be leading the hoards of the cynical and jaded, scoffing at any such person's presumption and selfishness and I'm not quite sure why I don't feel that way. Maybe it's because Ayu is just that adorable and her actions and feelings seem to be innocent, rather than because of choice. It's not that she's turning her nose up at a banquet full of food, wishing for the crust of bread. It's that she doesn't even see the banquet as being food at all.
Anyway. One thing I found sort of interesting is I never realized until after the fact just how popular Honey and Clover is/was. I got to it years after it finished publishing after all, wrapping up in 2006, and since then there's been 2 animes, a live action tv drama, and a live action movie based on it. Actually, chances are there have been even more than that since that's just what was released in Japan. People have chewed this series over and over and there's apparently a pocket of those who absolutely loathe the ending that I just finished telling you I love. All aboard the internet rage machine.
To some degree, I can see where they're coming from. The Hanamoto sensei (Genji) ending struck many people as being as EWWW as I found the ending to Usagi Drops. After all, here you have two guys both of whom love Hagu and are willing, each in their own way, to devote themselves to her. Morita even tells her that it doesn't matter if she ever paints again or if either of them make any art and that their love would be enough. And really, if you think about it, it's not like she picked Hanamoto over Takemoto and Morita. She picked her art over love. It's easy enough to say that 'all you need is love', and maybe for most people that would be true but not for Hagu. Her art and ability to create meant everything to her and it was the one thing she was unwilling to lose. So she would give up love for a chance, and only a chance at that, to get back what really mattered the most to her. If you think about it, it's no wonder the rage machine threw a fit. That sort of thinking goes against everything we've ever been taught from the time when we were kids from Disney movies to every romance film you've ever seen. For all that we might not like it, it might very well be more true to life. Love isn't always enough. Love isn't always the answer. Certainly enough of us have managed to put one foot in front of the other, even if sometimes begrudgingly, without any love of our own. What both the anime and the manga seem to be saying is that there's a light out there for all of us and we should march toward it no matter what it may be.