The initials in Tachibana Higuchi’s Portrait of M & N (Tokyopop) serve more than one purpose in this teen-rated romantic manga. At the first level, they connect to the names of the series’ fragilely attractive protagonists, 15-year-olds Mitsuru Abe and Natsuhiko Amakusa. At another, they refer to our leads’ primary characteristic: Mitsuru is a masochist, while Natushiko is a narcissist. These two ”lost lambs” come to a new high school with a strong desire to appear normal: not an easy task when they both have a tendency to forget about everybody else around them once they fugue into their particular manias.
Natsuhiko, who wears eyeglasses just to hinder himself from accidentally catching sight of his handsome reflection, for instance, when caught off guard starts openly mooning over his sparkling mirrored self (“You are the only friend,” he tells his image, “the only friend for me.”) Mitsuru, after inadvertently getting elbowed in the face, starts to plead with Natsuhiko to hurt her more: “Your elbow, so sharp,” she tells him in a heart punctuate word balloon, “hit me again, torment me.”
But lest you think that Portrait of M & N is a high school updating of The Story of O, the focus of Higuchi’s romance is not on our two leads’ succumbing to their individual fetishes. Rather it is on their desperate desire to overcome them. Both obsessions, we quickly learn, have developed as a result of the way they were parented as younger children — Natsuhiko, for instance, was so overprotected and isolated from other kids that his only companion became himself – and if these psychological explanations seem more than a little facile, they do work to make the characters more relatable to an adolescent. Take away the diagnosable component, and you’re left with your basic high school dilemma: how do I fit in the ultra-judgmental high school world?
Higuchi, who draws herself with a pig head in the little comic author interludes interspersed through the first volume, renders this in typical shojo manga, with perhaps a few more explanatory notes (“Standard of beauty = himself” she plasters at one point on our hero’s torso) than are necessary. As a plotter, she has a good sense for the tentative romantic build, though: as our twosome’s nascent relationship starts to develop, it’s left up in the air as to whether this’ll become a true teen romance or just a case of dysfunctional bonding. “I shouldn’t depend on his kindness anymore,” the bruised Mitsuru thinks early in the book. “I have to become more independent.” But, of course, we know that this resolution won’t last.
In America — where the big comics-related news has been the recent announcement that a (gasp!) gay character may be introduced to the conservative Archie comics cast — it’s difficult to imagine any mainstream publishers greenlighting a series like this. The trick, in this book, is in the way that Higuchi unapologetically presents her two character’s abnormal behavior without either overexposing or downplaying it. These are teenagers, after all, at an age when anything that might interfere with the way their classmates perceive ‘em is a big deal. When a classmate shows up to blackmail our heroine into becoming his girlfriend, it’s clear that at some point in this six-volume series, their big secret’s gonna be blown. By the end of the first volume, I suspect most shojo readers’ll be eager to see just how that ultimately plays out.