Rent-A-Girlfriend Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics)

194 pgs. B&W | $12.99 | W/A: Reiji Miyajima

Comics writer Gail Simone started a conversation on Twitter recently about “how sidelined and scorned the romance genre is” in American comics. While that is most definitely true, it’s not so in Japan, where romance-themed manga rule the charts alongside their traditional action-packed brethren. Japan has a healthy market for romance comics aimed at women and men, and while the ones aimed at men are often on the pervy side (featuring milquetoast heroes surrounded by a harem of eager girls, one for every reader’s preference/fetish), you can still find series where the romance really rings true, though it is surprising that one of the recent series to fit that bill comes with a name and concept like Rent-A-Girlfriend.

Rent-A-Girlfriend explores the very real, very Japanese twist on escort services: companies that, for an hourly fee, will let you rent “the ideal girlfriend” for an evening or an afternoon. As the brief foreword by the series’ unnamed Japanese editor explains, these are entirely platonic one-on-one dates, structured to be as mood-lifting as possible: she will be beautiful, she will be a good conversationalist, she will smile at you, laugh at your jokes, have jokes of her own, hold your hand, take pictures, but everything must be in public places and intimate physical contact is strictly forbidden. If you’re lonely and too awkward or too busy to find love, it could be the ideal solution to get those endorphins pumping. But also paying for that false intimacy might just remind you how lonely you are.

Kazuya Kinoshita is in exactly the kind of predicament that rent-a-girlfriend services were made for, and yet has exactly the kind of personality for the whole thing to fall flat. He’s a first-year college student who is inexperienced at love—he’s had one girlfriend, for one short month, and she just dumped him. He’s lucky enough to have a chunk of spending cash from his parents, so in a moment of weakness, he caves in and signs up for a rent-a-girlfriend service. His “girlfriend,” Chizuru, is a stunner, with idol-worthy good looks and a sunny disposition. Kazuya’s attitude, meanwhile, careens back and forth: one moment, romantic feelings really start to bubble up in the presence of this gorgeous, eager-to-please girl; another, money has to exchange hands and he just wants to curl up and die of embarrassment. At one point on their second date, he falls out of the fantasy and makes a cruel remark; that’s when he meets the real Chizuru: brash, opinionated, and absolutely unwilling to let this jerk look down on her for doing a job that she enjoys and is, let’s face it, really, really good at. The illusion is shattered and the relationship is over…except fate has a funny way of intervening until suddenly the pair find themselves entangled on an ongoing basis. Chizuru, however, endeavors to make sure everything stays strictly business.

It’s a sitcom setup, to be sure, but writer/artist Reiji Miyajima makes it work. In true sitcom style, hilarious hijinks and cringe-inducing misunderstandings abound, but it’s wonderful how consistently Miyajima is able to surprise the reader with twists that feel natural and not gimmicky. (There are so many gags I’d love to discuss in this review, but it’d ruin the fun of reading them going in blind.) The characters are the glue that holds it all together: where the heroes of these types of manga romances are often losers or bland blank slates, Kazuya is a normal college freshman, unlucky at love but not undeserving of it, and prone to putting his foot in his mouth as only someone stumbling into adulthood can. Chizuru is no slouch either, and the dichotomy between the romantic ideal she performs as and the attitude that bubbles just below the surface (until Kazuya makes it boil over) is a key source of laughs. (You can tell she’s very much cut from the same cloth as many tsundere manga love interests—Naru from Love Hina, for example—but with a more realistic bent rather than going the more common over-the-top, abuse-for-comedic-effect route.) Kazuya’s ex Mami is also still in the picture (they still have friends and classmates in common) and while she only starts to enter the picture in this first volume, it’s clear plenty of sparks will fly as she deals with her frustration at how quickly Kazuya has moved on in the most passive-aggressive manner possible.

The main order of the day when it comes to the artwork is being able to draw pretty girls and exaggerated reaction shots, and Miyajima’s artwork excels on both of those fronts. He has a simple, clean line and the characters are drawn fairly realistically with lightly cartooned faces. His character art is similar in many ways to Love Hina and Negima artist Ken Akamatsu, including his skill with exaggerated reaction shots, though this book’s wackiness level isn’t cranked up anywhere near as high as Akamatsu’s work. One particular high point is Miyajima’s sense for fashion, giving his cast extensive wardrobes that communicate character as much as the dialogue does and give the book a thoroughly modern look. Miyajima also thankfully avoids the genre’s pervier tendencies and keeps the artwork fairly restrained; Miyajima does throw in several panels where Kazuya imagines Mami being ravaged by her new boyfriend, but those are okay because they’re actually funny.

Started in 2017, the series is still ongoing in Japan with 15 volumes to date and a well-received anime series airing now in Japan (and available to stream in English on Crunchyroll). Only this first volume is available so far in English, with volume 2 following later this month and volume 3 in October. Going into reading this, I had my doubts that such a premise could substantiate one full volume, let alone a run that lengthy. And yet it’s not wacky situations that sustain a lengthy series, it’s characters you want to spend time with, something Rent-A-Girlfriend has in spades. | Jason Green

Read the entire first chapter of the series here, courtesy of Kodansha Comics.

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