It actually doesn’t take a lot to make me laugh. Give me a comic with a funny premise, and chances are I’ll be doubled over in my seat. A manga with a funny premise is only half the story, though — you have to actually follow through on the setup.
The genius of The Wallflower, judging from the last three of its fourteen or so volumes, is that it starts with a good premise and follows through on it mercilessly. The setup is just the beginning; the payoffs are riotous.
So what’s the setup? Four deathly-handsome teenage boys are living the good life in a luxury mansion while sponging off their benefactor, a woman with more money than most of us could ever count in a lifetime. There’s Yukinojo, the cheerful one; Ranmaru, the ladies’ man; Kyohei, the bruiser (yes, even with that skinny bishonen frame of his); and Takenaga, the self-proclaimed defender of feminine virtue.
Into this pit of self-indulgent preening is thrown a hand grenade of negativity — Sunako, the landlady’s niece. This girl is everything these boys are not and could never want to be. She holes herself up in her room and mainlines horror movies; she decorates her room with skeletons and grotesque-looking anatomical models; she dresses in the dowdiest, most self-deprecating fashions possible — and if she even so much as makes eye contact with one of those four “creatures of light,” as she calls them, her nose explodes in a gusher of blood. She’s definitely not one of the Shiny Happy People.
As you can guess, this is not the kind of girl any of them would ever want to date socially, let alone co-habitate with. But they’re stuck with her, like it or not, because their landlady has an ultimatum: Make Sunako into a refined young lady — the kind suitable for marriage, or at least interesting conversation — and they can live their rent-free. If they fail, they’ll be in hock for the rest of their natural lives. The boys are only too happy to try and make her into a real woman … and Sunako is determined to resist such a re-education campaign at all costs. A funny situation, to be sure, but the real humor is all in how it’s played out. And in that respect, The Wallflower delivers consistently. Every episode at least put a smile on my face, and more than a couple of them had me falling out of my chair (which admittedly isn’t hard because it’s not that big a chair — but never mind).
Consider the opening chapter for this volume, where Yukinojo is plunged into a pit of despair when his girlfriend goes abroad and he fears of losing her to an American boyfriend. Part of the gag is that Sunako is only too happy to have a fellow partner in darkness; she coos gleefully on seeing Yuki wallowing in his misery. The other boys, of course, are having none of this, and they craft a plan to meld Yuki into a lean, mean, English-speaking, ladies-first lovin’ machine. It works — in fact, it works a little too well, and backfires in a way that’s dropped on us in the very last page of the chapter.
The next installment’s a great example of the “one darn thing just leads to another” plotting style that The Wallflower uses often and to solid comic effect. Sunako wakes up one morning and crawls out of her lair to discover the whole rest of the house — and the boys, to boot! — made over, Halloween-style. It’s wonderful! But wait, what if it’s all a ruse? Ah, who cares if it’s a ruse? And so she joyfully dons a long black dress and veil and runs outside to do the shopping, only to be ostracized there as well — and have people draw all the wrong conclusions about the “blood” (crushed tomatoes) leaking from the bottom of her shopping bag — and ends up “kidnapping” a kid who just wants to show her his secret fort — and — and — and so on.
In a somewhat different vein is a chapter that follows the five of them through a day at school, with humor that’s more sporadic and far more serious overtones than what you get from most of the series. It’s actually a look at Yuki’s relationship with one of his friends, and how that contrasts with Sunako and her (small but devoted) circle of acquaintances as well. The upshot: if friendship feels like work, you probably need to find better friends.
The last chapter’s more of an extended execution of one long gag — Sunako and Kyohei get trapped underneath the house — but with jokes pulled from both of their characters. Example: At one point Sunako faces the possibility that they might die. Pause. She grins. “Now maybe I’ll get a chance to see a real corpse! I just have to last one minute longer than him!” Kyohei’s comeback: “Ain’t no way I’m dying; I just started reading theAshita no Joe manga!” (If you read that and laughed, you’re probably the target audience for this whether or not you know it.)
Art: Tomoko Hayakawa takes a clever approach to the art in this series by using two deliberately clashing styles, often in the same panel. The boys are usually depicted in all-out bishonen mode — but Sunako’s usually depicted as this featureless, doughy blob. Then every so often, for the sake of contrast, she’ll be depicted as she really is (she’s actually somewhat reminiscent of Chiaki Kuriyama), especially when she’s having a bit of a revelation or some other drama. Backgrounds and environments are usually not very detailed, but in a series like this that’s never the most important thing: the art’s designed to get laughs, and it does. [Side note: The design decisions Hayakawa used for the series were reproduced almost note-for-note in the TV show adapted from the manga — a visual trope I thought at first was the brainchild of the show’s creators themselves!]
The best adjective I have for a series like The Wallflower, aside from “hilarious”, is “subversive.” The whole thing’s a sly, tongue-in-cheek ribbing of its own source material and tropes, and it all works. Like the show that it inspired, it’s worth looking into even if you don’t think it’s your kind of thing. You may be pleasantly surprised.