Playing Off Nostalgia and First Love in Fuku Mizutani’s Love at Fourteen
I don’t know about you, but my middle school years weren’t half as dream-like as Love at Fourteen envisions. Fuka Mizutani takes a simple love story between two middle-schoolers and splits it into interludes, operating under the assumption that the reader will go along with the relationship with very little foundation. Does Mizutani succeed? It depends on one’s definition of success.
Kanata Tanaka and Kazuki Yoshikawa are known for their maturity in a classroom full of overly dramatic, mischievous fourteen-year-olds. Their friends and classmates admire that maturity nearly as much as their teachers and family members do. They are well respected even in other classrooms and hold themselves to high standards of behaviour and academic prowess.
It’s that maturity that makes them hesitate to acknowledge the attraction they feel for one another. Kanata and Kazuki are drawn to each other, but at fourteen, neither of them really understand what they’re feeling, much less whether or not it’s something they should acknowledge at all.
Despite my own reluctance to admit it, I understand their feelings. Reading Love at Fourteen was a little bit like watching myself trip over emotions in elementary and high school, and that nostalgia is one of the manga’s strengths. It feels dependent on that nostalgia, to the point where I’m not sure a reader of the characters’ age would appreciate it as much as older readers might. The story calls for reflection more than action, and there’s a lot of stepping backwards in chapters, returning to scenes that have already happened and conversations already carried out, the way memories flow in real life through our heads.
Mizutani’s art aligns with that simplicity, but at times it is almost too simple—I didn’t notice it as much as I have in other manga. The lines aren’t striking, and they don’t elicit much movement, which might just have been what Mizutani was aiming for with this kind of story. In two-hundred pages, the plot barely inches along through the first volume. Instead, the reader is forced to stop, look at every panel, and absorb the lines Mizutani scatters almost absently throughout the volume. When a character speaks, their words are weighted with everything they don’t say, but it isn’t as compelling as it should be because of the distance between each line. Certainly, the characters don’t need to fill panels with words, but it can also be challenging to hold onto the emotions that Mizutani tries to stir when the reader isn’t given much to go on within each chapter.
There is a smaller subplot between one of Kazuki and Kanata’s classmates and their music teacher that I could see causing drama and scandal in future volumes. But it does come out of nowhere and quickly becomes distracting. I can see where Mizutani may have thought it could serve as a foil to the innocence and hesitation between Kanata and Kazuki, but all it made me feel was revulsion and dread. There are very few ways in which a writer can handle this subject delicately and without inadvertently supporting it, and I am not sure that will be done in this manga.
Much of the story is focused on Kazuki and Kanata’s interactions at school, and that’s understandable. They wouldn’t have much reason to see each other outside of the classroom, but the few instances where they attend non-school events like a festival are irresistibly charming. The much-touted maturity fades into childlike wonder, and the characters feel more honest in their actions and words. The single most memorable moment in the second volume comes after a festival when Kazuki and Kanata both independently admit to themselves that they crave physical contact from the other and that they don’t know how to say it. More than anything else, those few pages gave me a sense of where Mizutani may have been going with this story: a return to the moments where we may not have realized we wanted something and convinced ourselves not to ask because it may have sent us on a different path.
Fuka Mizutani doesn’t promise a spectacle or grand acts of romance in Love at Fourteen. Instead, there are long glances, minimal points of contact, and reflective moments between Kanata Tanaka and Kazuki Yoshikawa, and it’s left at that. As much as I appreciate introspection, two volumes with very few tangible changes don’t appeal to me. I want to know that I’ve committed to a story that will eventually raise its stakes and pay off. It doesn’t have to be full of events that I necessarily enjoy, but it does have to be engaging. Love at Fourteen, while a lovely little piece of nostalgia, doesn’t offer a whole lot more than that.