Orange (Takano Ichigo) is not an easy read. It deals with depression, suicide and loss, and while Takano handles each of these with the utmost care and respect, it would be remiss of me not to mention them upfront. Despite the quality of the writing, the heaviness of the themes will no doubt make many readers uneasy. However, if you are able to face it, I cannot stress enough how important it is to read this manga.
At the beginning of her second year in high school, Takamiya Naho receives a letter. In it, she finds a list of instructions, along with a request regarding the new student, Naruse Kakeru: look after him. As the events listed in the letter begin to come true, and after neglecting to follow the first instruction, Naho determines to help her new friend, but at first has no idea how difficult it may be.
Takano Ichigo has an almost uncanny ability for capturing human emotions. Her characters’ facial expressions are simply wonderful; their joy, their anguish, everything is brilliantly realised. This is no mean feat, and as such whenever a character smiles – especially Kakeru, whom we know needs these cheerful moments more than anyone – their joy radiates from the page. The artwork is not perfect (certain scenes are rendered in less detail; characters sometimes appear off-model) but when Takano sets out to tug on our heartstrings with a single look, she succeeds every time.
Naho is a rather typical shōjo protagonist. She is cheerful, if a little shy, and a great friend. She even brings in lunch every day for Kakeru. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of these traits, and in fact, I felt that the manga would not have worked so well had she been anything but typical. She feels familiar and easy to like, and therefore we have no trouble supporting her in her somewhat supernatural task. Her relationships with her friends, the way she struggles with her confidence, and her unfailing determination combine to help her develop into a memorable, lovable character.
Kakeru, too, feels familiar. He is a transfer student, like so many other enigmatic manga characters. He is handsome and kind, and immediately attracts the attention of Naho and her friends. Of course, it becomes abundantly clear that much of his laid-back charisma is a façade. He wants to have friends, and he develops feelings for Naho (who is blissfully oblivious), but his home life is difficult. At first, we know very little about him, other than what is written in Naho’s letter, but in one chapter Takano reveals all that Kakeru has hidden from his friends. Like so much of Orange, this section was difficult to read, but very important.
Together, Naho and her friends make up a sextet, and the next member is Suwa. Tall and funny, and a great football player, he also has feelings for Naho, but wants more than anything to see Kakeru as her boyfriend. Then we have Hagita, a bespectacled bookworm with an odd sense of humour; Takako, a tough girl who protects her friends no matter what; and Azusa, who exudes joyful mischief. While their roles appear minor, their importance gradually reveals itself, and in the end, I could not imagine any other characters rounding out the group.
High school settings are endlessly popular in manga, and what makes Orange stand out (beyond the premise) is its inclusion of the future timeline. Here, Kakeru is nowhere to be found, and Naho and Suwa are married with a young child. The remaining five have decided to meet in order to honour and remember their lost friend, and these scenes are tough. We meet adult Naho and Suwa very early on, before we really get to know them or Kakeru, yet it is easy to see how broken these people are, and how important he was to all of them. It is no wonder, then, that Naho is willing to try anything – even sending a letter into the past – to help him.
Unfortunately, there are certain elements that hold Orange back. While the story does not fully immerse itself in its science-fiction premise, it does make an attempt to explain how it was possible for Naho to send her past self a letter. This aspect feels poorly explored and somewhat arbitrary. In fact, I wonder if the story would have benefitted from no explanation at all, leaving it up to the reader’s interpretation. That way, Takano could have emphasised magical realism in lieu of science-fiction, and the story would not have suffered. On top of this, that main series’ ending is less than stellar; it feels far too abrupt, and almost too simple, especially considering the thoughtful story that precedes it.
Seven Seas has also released Takano’s sequel, a single volume entitled Future. Picking up where the main series left off, the book explores the aftermath of the cast’s actions, while also following them in a different timeline. The decision to include two possible outcomes bolsters the series’ exploration of alternate universes, and thus raises the question: Are both resolutions real, or only one? After the somewhat disappointing ending of the main manga, Future brings the series to a powerful, moving conclusion.
Orange is a beautiful manga. Despite some narrative missteps, it tackles a challenging topic with great respect and understanding. It reminds us how necessary it is to explore the hidden struggles many people face, and although it is difficult to read at times, I recommend Orange wholeheartedly.