By Yutaka Tachibana. Released in Japan by Hakusensha, serialized in the magazine Melody. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
As many may have noticed, I've had a lot of reviews lately where I've had to apologize for the fact that the work I'm reviewing is, at its core, shoujo by numbers. I point out the various fun, interesting things about it, but note that people who want the shoujo equivalent of Ikki are not going to find it here - it doesn't wander outside the box.
Gatcha Gacha may reside within the box - there are many shoujo tropes here - but it's not afraid to go way outside what's considered acceptable in a shoujo magazine. Tachibana-san herself notes in a sidebar in this final volume that she had a discussion with her editor regarding Motoko, and put her foot down, insisting that Motoko be as crude and violent as she is. She's absolutely correct, as it's one of the things that makes this series such a refreshing change from more generic shoujo manga - the characters are all horribly imperfect people, and therefore seem alive.
As I noted on Twitter, it's rare I can write about a cute shoujo manga "and then we cut to the heroine tied up on a table being menaced by a gay gang leader and a man in a gimp mask". Gatcha Gacha, in its eight volumes, has dealt with abuse (physical and mental), rape, prostitution, homosexuality both male and female, underage sex, attempted murder, suicide, and adultery. This may have the Hana to Yume imprint on it in Japan, but it's the sort of series that could only have run in Melody, Hakusensha's gateway magazine between older teens and adult women.
The final volume is not perfect. The plotting tends to read as "we need a final crisis, please invent one", and tries to fool us into thinking we're meeting a new antagonist before dragging out the old favorite. Also, as I've noted throughout, the author uses negative stereotypes of gay men, here talking about taking young men and "fixing them", i.e. turning them gay (it's implied through rape and beatings). This just doesn't work well, especially as it's presented half-comedically (we just can't take the villain seriously) and half-dramatically.
That said, there's lots this volume does right. Hirao has been a very weak character through much of this series, so it's great to see, now that he's resolved his feelings and confessed to Yuri, that he's trying to do his best to keep himself in her thoughts. He's not content to simply wait while Yuri pines away for Yabe, and for once when misunderstandings happen he immediately takes all steps to correct them. One of the best gags in the volume is a metatextual one involving him spotting the 'angry' mark on Yuri's head. Hirao is a nice guy. He's caring, thinks well of others, he's responsible... he's most people's perfect boyfriend.
It's a shame Yuri is not most people. She's warring with her feelings throughout this volume, and she certainly does have some for Hirao. She notes at one point that if she saw Hirao going out with another girl, she'd deck him... but she's still not sure if that's love. Hirao is nothing like anyone she's ever fallen for. Notably, after a couple of dreams where she imagines herself being rescued by an unseen prince (who is clearly Motoko, only Yuri doesn't get this), she decides that Hirao is... her princess. And that she needs to protect him. This is what leads, at the climax, to a pleasant role-reversal, where Yuri arranges Hirao's escape from their captors, so that he can get away, while she takes his place. Because "she's used to abuse".
There's a point towards the end of the manga where Yuri is thinking this, and we get a brief flashback showing what her life was like before she met Motoko. It reminds you how stunning it is that she's still a loving, warm-hearted person. We see her boyfriends begging her for money, selling her to guys making porn, or just plain hitting her. And now she's trying to use that as her own strength in order to save Hirao. That's a huge journey for a girl who was 'the slutty one' at the start of this series.
Of course, there comes a time when strength can only take you so far, and you need to rely on others. Yuri has a discussion with Hirao earlier in the manga about what it's like to be too kind to someone, which leads to a discussion of Motoko, who is well aware of the innate problems that entails, and firmly believes that too much sympathy is a bad thing. As Yuri talks about this, we see Hirao noticing her expression and tone of voice. He's questioned it earlier, but I think this is the point where he realizes that Yabe, and Yuri's past crush on him, is NOT his biggest rival for her heart.
Speaking of cliches, I was amused to see one of the biggest in manga right at the end. Our heroine is in trouble, being taunted by the heroes. Where's your savior now? We've seen earlier that Motoko and Yabe are being ambushed by over 100 guys miles away, armed with bats and knives. All a diversion so that our villain can get his revenge. There is no possible way that Motoko could ever escape that ambush and arrive here in time. Go ahead and call for her, it won't do any good.
And so Yuri, who has been saying "Kagurazaka-san" for 7 volumes now, gives in as she's about to be tortured and cries out. "MOTOKOOOOO!!!" And boom, there she is. No matter where the heroine has been taken, if you call their name, the hero will come. It's good, as Motoko doesn't get as much to do here as previous volumes. Her main arc was resolved in Volume 7, and she has made peace with both her grandfather and sister. She's also the most emotionally mature of the cast, and the most intelligent, immediately able to put two and two together when she realizes who Hirao's "cute girl" really is. And so she's free to do what she's done best the entire series: Kick people in the head, then beat them when they are down. Even among badass shoujo women, Motoko is just badass. She's a callback to the old days of shoujo, characters like Saki Asamiya from Sukeban Deka or Tsukasa Kozuki from Tokyo Crazy Paradise.
That only leaves the final scene. Motoko's cut her hair, having had it caught in a nailbat during the brawl. But as she notes, the reasons she kept it long are now resolved - Kanako is with Yabe, and though she's still yelling at him all the time, it's clear she's meant to be more of a 'tsundere' type rather than the jealously insane evil she was in Volume 3. This allows Yabe to give in to anything she asks, which he clearly loves (though as with most ukes, it's clear he holds the actual power in their relationship). So now she's back to looking like a hot guy - something Yuri clearly notes, saying Motoko makes her heart skip a beat.
Gatcha Gacha has played around with this since the start of the series. Motoko likes looking at the bodies of young girls, and has never shown any interest in men. Despite this, she's constantly denied that she's a lesbian. Much of this may have stemmed from Kanako's obsession with her, and her association of that with the feelings. But now that this has been resolved, I have to wonder if Motoko will come to another realization. We've seen her ambiguous feelings about Yuri being in relationships with either Yabe and Hirao before, and when Sekine asked her what she thought of them, Motoko was only able to say "Dunno." Here, when she hears Yuri talking about making her heart skip a beat, she turns, smiles,and says "You bet I do" in just the right way to fluster Yuri.
This is not accidental at all. While this is happening, Sekine point blank tells Hirao he has to win Yuri - and keep her won - or else he will lose her to Motoko. And then the narration notes "Maybe it's already too late...?" Tachibana has amused herself by noting how all the girls in this series kick everyone's ass, and the guys are all weak. So really, it makes perfect sense that the volume end with the implication of Yuri and Motoko as a couple. They have the closest bond, and Yuri doesn't have to worry about her feelings being love or not. After all, she subconsciously already knows Motoko is her prince.
Despite its faults, in the end this is still one of my favorite shoujo series. Not best, necessarily, but one that simply hits all the right buttons for me and knows exactly how to keep them hit. What's more, the author writes strong female characters of several different types, always welcome in a genre that sometimes features young teens who end up being whipped back and forth by the manipulation of hot guys. They're all horrible role models, but they're definitely people I would love to go out drinking with. It may have taken 2 1/2 years, but Tokyopop has finally finished this, and I thank them for it. I'd love to see more from this author - perhaps the 4-volume Kana, Kamo that was plugged by Tachibana at the end?