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“Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things.” — Tomoyuki Sugiyama, author of Cool Japan, in an interview with The Associated Press.

I think cuteness gets kind of a bad rap at times. Sure, there’s a lot of vapidity to be found in the aggressively adorable, but sometimes there’s surprising depth to be found in manga that seems designed to make you squeal “Kawaii!”

Viz’s Shojo Beat imprint has some solid examples. Wataru Yoshizumi’s Ultra Maniac is close to the platonic ideal of manga cuteness, at least visually. It’s got fashionable tweens, wacky magic, and even an adorable cat that turns into an adorable kid. But underneath the hearts and flowers lurk some terrific, sympathetic characters and some very appealing messages. It looks glossy and frothy, but it’s all about friendship, loyalty, and openness to individual differences. The cute is just the flavoring that makes the fiber more palatable.

Unfortunately, Ultra Maniac only ran for five volumes. Fortunately, Viz has added Yoko Maki’s Aishiteruze Baby to its roster to fill the stealth depth niche.

It stars Kippei, a high-school boy who can have pretty much any girl he wants. He’s hunky and kind of dumb, but he isn’t cruel to his many admirers. He just sees no reason to commit to any of them. But Kippei’s life changes rather drastically when his grief-stricken aunt abandons her daughter, Yuzuyu. The little girl comes to live with Kippei’s family, and Kippei finds himself with unfamiliar new responsibilities.

This is hardly the first time a playboy has learned to nurture, but Maki handles the story with surprising delicacy and gentle humor. Kippei doesn’t resent his new responsibilities; he buckles down and learns to care for Yuzuyu by learning about her wants and needs. For her part, Yuzuyu adores her new big-brother figure. (Most girls do, except for Kippei’s harridan of an older sister and a classmate, Kokoro, who finds his lothario posture annoying.)

Both Kippei and Yuzuyu blossom in the new relationship. Kippei is able to ease Yuzuyu’s anxieties and provide encouragement. Yuzuyu teaches Kippei to care about another person in a deeper, more selfless way. Even Kokoro notices the changes in Kippei, changes that trigger subtle shifts in a number of relationships among the cast. Interesting emotional developments are put into motion.

And Maki’s art is… well… adorable. The polished shôjo style is consistently appealing, and her renderings of Yuzuyu are almost spooky in their ability to move. Each beaming smile or furrowed brow or frightened sob is effective. It’s cuteness with punch.

There’s something almost subversive about Aishiteruze Baby. Its surface gloss and kawaii glow are just a lure for a story that’s ultimately about looking past appearances. And the driving notion that people will demonstrate depth and compassion when you least expect it is rewardingly rendered.

(This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

Admittedly, not all cute manga have that much on their minds. Take Ryo Saenagi’s Satisfaction Guaranteed (Tokyopop). This tale of cute boys helping the hapless has an undeniable aura of calculation to it.

It’s like Saenagi harvested parts of other successfully kawaii stories and stitched them together – an arm from Gravitation, a leg from Case Closed, etc. Then, Saenagi stood before the dais, ran some electricity through her creation, and cried, “It’s alive! And it’s really, really cute!” Every element seems calculated to generate an “awww,” “oooh,” or “eee!”

Shima is a teen-aged orphan (awww!), short of stature (eeee!), who functions as a sort of Encyclopedia Brown, helping people with their problems via his Anything, Inc. agency. He’s hired by hot teen model Kaori (oooh!), who has developed a sexy, edgy alter-ego named Kyo (eeee!) to deal with the demands of celebrity hotness (awww!). Kaori is being stalked and needs Shima to investigate (oooh!), which ends up requiring a bit of cross-dressing (eeee!). After a desultory resolution to the crisis, Kaori is so taken with Shima that he joins up with the agency (awwweeeeoooh!).

Thus, the platonic crush-mates are positioned to participate in a variety of done-in-one adventures. They help an old woman discover secrets from her past, protect a newly engaged couple from mysterious threats, and save schoolgirls from a hair-cutting mugger. (If I were given to digression, I’d say that last story tried to serve up cute both ways, depending on one’s preference for long or short hair.)

It sounds like I disliked Satisfaction Guaranteed, but I really didn’t. It isn’t especially memorable, and it comes across as awfully contrived, but it’s got a pretty good heart under all of its careful conception. Shima and Kaori are compassionate and kind. They don’t automatically assume malice on the part of their opponents, and they understand that motivations aren’t always entirely bad or good.

There’s also just enough sly self-awareness in the script to leaven the coyness of the premise. (Lines like “A perfect opportunity for violent haircutting” can’t be intended seriously, can they?) The scattering of meta observations help balance some of the goop.

And really, did anyone ever go broke by playing mix and match with popular genres and styles? Tokyopop has a string of successful shonen-ai titles in its catalog, from Gravitation to Fake to Loveless, and the addition of a little mystery and comedy make for a nice change. Not every chapter works, and the suspense usually falls flat, but there are some genuinely moving and funny moments.

And hey, it’s cute. It’s more Diversion Guaranteed, but it’s cute.

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