By Kaoru Tada. Released in Japan by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Bessatsu Margaret ("Betsuma"). Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.
Thank you. After begging for three volumes to have Naoki be slightly more open and approachable, we finally get some progress here. Oh, he's still mostly a stone-faced jerk, but the 'soft' moments are starting to happen more and more often, and we can now be sure that his complete lack of open affection for Kotoko is more due to his personality than anything else. The black shoujo coffee still has no sugar, but at least we get a little milk added here.
My favorite of these was in a chapter introducing yet another rival, this one on Naoki's end. Taketo is young, cute, pre-law, and decides that since Naoki and Kotoko still aren't going out, he's going to take Kotoko for himself. He then promptly gets into a fight about this with Kotoko's obsessed stalker friend Kin-chan. Kotoko, who has little experience with guys liking her, much less fighting over her, is mostly ineffectual here, having no interest in Taketo but frustrated by her lack of anything with Naoki. Naoki then shows up, notes they're all being stupid, and then leans in snarkily and notes that it's all useless, as "the one Kotoko's in love with is ME."
This is important, as it's really one of the first times we've seen he actually cares about that. Sure, he's been shown being nice to Kotoko on occasion, and tolerating her far more than is sometimes warranted, but we're at a point now where we have to find out what the lead couple see in each other. One of the main premises of the entire manga is that Kotoko isn't 'good enough' for someone like Naoki, given her poor studies, flakiness, tendency to overcompensate wildly, etc. Here we find Kotoko's simple devotion really does register with him... and he likes it.
The other major Naoki plot we get here is seeing him decide on a career. Because this is old-school shoujo, we don't really see much of what leads Naoki, at the end of this volume, to consider a career in medicine. One can assume it started with Yuuki being hospitalized, and watching all the doctors and nurses there. But seeing his indifference at running his Dad's company, even though he proves to be excellent at it, gives us a better look - Naoki likes to be challenged, and finds anything that doesn't do this boring. Perhaps a career as a doctor will give him what he seeks.
Kotoko remains Kotoko throughout. Now that Naoki is finally developing into a nicer (well, relatively speaking) brand of shoujo hero, I feel the urge to see Kotoko do the same, but know it's going to be a much harder road. It's very difficult for these dippy shoujo heroines to stop being spunky, I am useless at everything but will try harder sorts. Heck, halfway through this volume we see Kotoko got fired from her part-time job as SHE FORGOT TO SHOW UP FOR A WHILE. She's a flake. And now that I'm no longer frustrated by Naoki's grumpy stoicness, I can allow my frustration at Kotoko's incredibly slow rate of character development come to the fore. She needs to mature.
Still, we're now only 1/3 through the series. And the leads are already 20 years old, which puts this a leg up on other shoujo. Hopefully further volumes will not only develop Naoki and Kotoko's relationship, but also Kotoko's own sense of self and independence.