The story of Orange’s (orenji) publication is a story of several bumps in the road. One of the more recent works from experienced shoujo mangaka Takano Ichigo, the series was originally serialized in Shueisha’s Bessatsu Margaret magazine before being dropped and then picked up by Futabasha’s Manga Action. Likewise, the English adaptation has seen one release through Crunchyroll’s online manga distribution, but now comes to print through Seven Seas Entertainment as a massive three-volume omnibus. Amber Tamosaitis, whose previous works include Nurse HItomi’s Monster Infirmary (HItomi-sensei no Hokenshitsu), provides her talent with the English translation.
On the first day of Takamiya Naho’s second year of high school, she receives a mysterious letter. Written like a diary, the letter claims that it’s from Naho herself, only from ten years in the future. Incredulous at first, Naho quickly comes to realize the letter might not be a fake after all, especially when it successfully predicts the arrival of a new transfer student at her school: Naruse Kakeru. Kakeru is quickly accepted into Naho’s group of friends, and seems to strangely be the subject of many of the diary entries Naho sent to herself. As Naho starts to believe the contents of the letter more and more, she comes to realize why she would have written letters and diary entries detailing her regrets to her past self.
Ten years in the future, Kakeru is no longer alive. What’s more, when the twenty-six year old Naho and her friends visit Kakeru’s grandmother on his birthday, they find that Kakeru’s death hadn’t been a simple accident as they were all told. In reality, Kakeru was suffering from depression as a result of his mother’s suicide and, when he was only seventeen, chose to take his own life. In the present, at sixteen years old, Naho is now faced with a dire task before her. If she heeds the advice of her future self, can she help Kakeru find the will to live on? What’s more, as the present she lives in begins to diverge from the events written in the letter, she begins to wonder. Is it truly possible to change the future that her twenty-six year old self lives in?
Despite the heavy topics that it grapples with, with Orange, Takano demonstrates a remarkably realistic and emotionally poignant handling of the topic at hand. In Naho’s struggles to cope with the regrets of her future self and take what actions she can to help her friend in need, we see an incredibly real depiction of depression and mental illness. Although Naho finds out very early on that Kakeru’s facing difficulties and of the fate that her future self is trying to prevent, Kakeru isn’t presented as someone who’s constantly moody and gloomy. More to the point, it shows depression in a realistic fashion exactly because it doesn’t make Kakeru’s depression the defining point of his character. He’s able to have friends, to smile and laugh when he’s around them, but it’s when they try to show concern for his well-being, when they try to connect to him and the issues that he’s facing, that his lack of self-confidence and self-doubt show through. Takano’s skill as a storyteller also shows through in her awareness that the solution Naho and her friends are striving towards isn’t something that’s going to be resolved in just one step. With its steady pacing, orange is a manga that captures a very real picture of relationships and how even well-intentioned friends can sometimes fail but still grow close in the end.
Takano’s characters and sense of design are also very well-suited to the story that she’s set out to tell. For a series that hinges so strongly upon the weight of character’s choices and the subtlety of how emotionally vulnerable they allow themselves to be around people they trust, the nuanced details of her character’s expressions are impressive. Each character’s design is also distinct and vibrant in a way that clearly represents their personality. Just looking at Naho’s friend Azu, you can tell that she’s a perky and energetic sort, while Naho’s rival, the selfish and domineering Ueda-senpai, exudes the sort of arrogant attitude you might expect from a character like that.
The faults in Orange come in perhaps most evidently in the balance of the story it’s telling and Takano’s skill in pacing. While it is encouraging to see a story that doesn’t handle a sensitive subject like depression with a simple band aid fix, the emotional beats of Orange sometimes wind up feeling very repetitive as a result. Time and time again, we’re reminded of how it’s Naho’s regrets that are fueling her actions. The constant explicitly stated reminder that Kakeru must be saved also sometimes comes off as somewhat overstated, which can cause the story to drag in places.
While Tamosaitis’s translation does serve the manga well in most places, it also has some strange faults in terms of localization and adaptation. Keeping the characters sounding like they’re actual sixteen year olds is always a challenge, but at times it feels like Tamosaitis pushes it a bit too far. One occasion where the normally cheerful and friendly Suwa tells Kakeru to “haul ass” comes to mind. It’s also somewhat bizarre that the adaptation makes the choice to completely ignore the structure of Japan’s three year high school system and instead refers to everyone in the book as “eleventh graders.” Given that the English adaptation includes Takano’s extensive notes about how she did research on location in Matsumoto, where the story is set; it seems odd that the publisher would make this choice to erase such a minor cultural aspect of the story.
Overall, Orange has a truly unique and interesting story to tell. For those who shy away from the shoujo genre for fear of overwrought romances and manufactured drama, it wouldn’t hurt to give this one a try. Takano’s work on the page is adept and nostalgic all at once, making for a carefully crafted, emotionally resounding story about relationships.