Oendan is the Japanese term for a sports cheering squad present at high schools and universities. In contrast to the pom-pom wielding cheerleaders of the West, oendan is stereotypically depicted as hot-blooded, gakuran-clad, boisterous performers who rile up their home team and taunt their rivals. While the gakurans and loud voices largely cemented oendan as a boys’ activity, female students in recent years have been credited with revitalizing oendan clubs. Strangely, from what I can tell, oendan isn’t overly pervasive as a main focus in Japanese media. Some of this media includes Mitsuru Adachi’s 80’s manga Hiatari Ryoko! and the rhythm game Osu! Tatakae! Oendan! (the original version of Elite Beat Agents) which has some popularity with non-Japanese speakers. The subject of today’s manga review, Again!! focuses on oendan as a major story element.
Again!! was written and illustrated by Mitsurou Kubo and serialized in Weekly Shonen Magazine from 2011 to 2014. The manga was adapted into a television drama that aired in the Summer of 2014. Kubo gained notoriety through her previous manga works with an excessive usage of exclamation marks: 3.3.7 Byooshi!! and Tokkyuu!!. Just kidding, Kubo’s probably best known internationally for co-creating and doing character designs for the ‘cute boys ice skating’ anime Yuri!!! on Ice, alongside director Sayo Yamamoto.
School loner Kinichiro Imamura’s hellish high school career has come to an end. With his time spent as an outcast thanks to his menacing appearance and aloof attitude he has largely accepted his time in the shadows with no friends and no pleasant memories to speak of. After recalling a bizarre performance from the school’s former oendan captain Yoshiko Usami (who disappeared after the oendan disbanded), Imamura decides on a whim to revisit the club’s office. However, Imamura, and local bubbly popular girl Akira Fujieda, fall down the building’s stairs in a freak accident and both wake up three years in the past…on the first day of school. Imamura opts to take the opportunity to revitalize his wasted high school years and join the oendan, but finds that captain Usami is not going to make his life easy. Meanwhile, Fujieda attempts to reconcile her popularity and her relationship with her boyfriend Hiro, only to end up awkwardly alienating herself from her classmates.
Again!! is a high school drama manga with the oendan aspect as a backdrop. As such, the manga is mostly character-focused, to varying degrees of success (mostly bad). Starting off with the best character in the manga, who is protagonist Imamura himself. Over the course of the manga, Imamura goes through significant character development as he changes from an awkward lurker to a proud and dedicated club member. It’s not an easy road, as many students assume the worst of Imamura due to his appearance, and Imamura is frequently placed out of his comfort zone to perform as an oendan member. At times he feels like running away and he frequently butts heads with captain Usami due to her overbearing and abrasive attitude. However, Imamura ultimately learns that he is capable of accomplishing things, as well as caring for and supporting other people. Imamura is a great example of creating a very flawed protagonist who grows naturally over the course of the story.
Unfortunately, it feels like all the good writing energy in this manga went directly to Imamura and the rest of the cast were afterthoughts. Usami gets hit with this element hard. As oendan captain, Usami is notorious in the school for her hyper-dedication to the oendan (even in its currently failing state) and her penchant for being hot-blooded has made her somewhat of an outcast of the school, like Imamura. Initially, Usami doesn’t react positively to Imamura’s eagerness to join the oendan; she believes he’s offering to mock her, and when she finally accepts, she unloads a brutal training regime on him. Ultimately, Usami must learn to not be on guard perpetually and develop some actual charismatic leadership skills if she wants to attract new members to the oendan. What’s pretty glaring in the manga was the way Usami is treated by other characters in the manga. There’s an extra flavor of sexism tossed at Usami on top of the lashings she experiences with Imamura, but it never feels like Kubo is saying anything with it. While teenagers in general are needlessly judgy and a girl trying to restart a primarily male club activity would raise a few eyebrows, it’s bizarre that many of the students immediately assume Usami is hanging on to the oendan to get laid. There’s also some bits of sexual harassment Usami deals with (one part of it is a “joke”, which will be explained later), that seems to be in the story for…some reason? It’s unclear what Kubo was trying to say with some of the writing, but it comes off as borderline-mean spirited to Usami. The depiction of high school students in this manga generally feels shitty, in a way that creates a tonal dissonance between a story that is trying to tell a light-hearted but occasionally serious character-focused drama, and a school environment that is quite nasty by typical high school manga standards for whatever reason.
The rest of the cast falls somewhere under the “interesting but goes nowhere” to “just plain bad” writing spectrum. Tatsuhiko Ookuma ‘Chan-Kuma’, is the oendan’s taiko drummer, and he’s largely characterized as a nice guy who’s willing to lend an ear to Imamura, and also descends into cursing in English when frustrated (he’s studied overseas, see?). And…one of the recurring “jokes” with Chan-Kuma is that he sexually harasses Usami. Yeesh. Hiro, Akira’s sort-of boyfriend, is later revealed to also be in on the time travel and tries to rope Imamura in on his attempts to use the situation to make money. He’s one of those characters who’s so unabashedly morally skewed that he becomes fascinating with how far he’s willing to push his antics. Things look like they’re about to reach a head for Hiro at one later point in the manga, when his classmates start rejecting him and Imamura chews him out for being exceptionally shitty and….nothing. Nothing else really happens with Hiro. Something similar also goes down with Akira, who, after failing to win back her popularity and Hiro’s affections, goes into a ‘love monster’ mode for a few later chapters and makes an aggressive attempt to date the male oendan members to fill the loneliness in her heart. At the end of this mini-story, Akira seems to have a self-realization that her life does not, in fact, begin and end with popularity and dating exclusively, but like Hiro, her character arc just ends abruptly.
Some of the plotting structure in Again!! feels extensively messy, to the point where it felt as if Kubo had a persistent editor who wanted something oddly specific in this manga. The first big story arc of the manga focuses on the reestablishment of the oendan through finding enough members to allow the club to exist at a minimum, successfully perform at a school sports event, and ultimately recruit new members. The second arc of the manga, on the other hand is bizarre and out-of-place. The second arc follows the antics of the drama club (also in a state of almost nonexistence) wherein Imamura spends time helping the sole member Taka gain confidence in herself to revitalize the club and put on a successful play. The arc ultimately ends with Imamura helping Taka and co. co-produce a weird arthouse school play that acts as a vehicle for Taka and Imamura angsty teen feelings. The entire shebang would probably work if it didn’t feel like a massive distraction that was ripped from a different manga and pasted in the middle of the story.
Even though Again!! has many issues, one consistently enjoyable aspect was Kubo’s art. Kubo’s character designs in Yuri!!! On Ice has a specific style that is a bit more grounded compared to other bishounen-heavy works, but it’s still stylized enough to look cutesy and soft. Her design work is still apparent in Again!!, with the bonus of Kubo showing off varied designs for female students and enough panty shots to choke a horny hamster. I’m particularly fond of Imamura’s no-eyebrows vs. Usami’s thick-as-hell eyebrow duality. On top of this, Kubo has a very liberal usage of screen tones in her manga, more so than I see from other shonen mangaka, that adds an extra appealing depth to character designs. A lot of the background and setting designs are also remarkably detailed, especially when the manga focuses on the rural areas outside of the school. The art overall adds quite a bit of coziness to the otherwise extremely hectic and messy story.
Pros: Kubo’s art is gorgeous, her character designs are appealing, she makes excellent usage of screen tones, and has detailed backgrounds. Imamura is endearing as a protagonist and has strong character growth over the course of the story. The time travel aspect is surprisingly interesting when explored in depth. Characters are self-aware enough to call each other out for being shitty.
Cons: Character drama is often vapid and undermines the otherwise interesting base concept. Usami’s treatment by other characters borders on being mean-spirited for no reason. Most of the supporting cast lacks charm and any attempt at extended characterization is ended abruptly. Gets distracted by an out-of-place story arc involving the drama club in the middle. Mild usage of sexual harassment that is unfunny at best and uncomfortable at worst. The oendan group feels like a group of misfits forcefully duct taped to each other instead of developing actual kinship.
Again!! is published in the U.S. by Kodansha Comics. I was very disappointed by Again!!, which has all the ingredients for a fun high school sports manga but constantly stumbles in the most annoying ways possible, and Kubo’s beautiful art can only do so much for a manga that is struggling in so many regards. If you are interested in sports manga and/or you are interested in Kubo’s past work because of Yuri!!! On Ice, I would recommend passing on Again!!