I went to the Crunchyroll Manga panel at Katsucon a few weeks back (and ran out of the room to take a phone call AND ended up sitting next to some other people from "Anitwitter") where Dancia and Evan spent part of the panel talking about some of the manga they personally liked. Orange was brought up and Danica said something to the effect of "the Japanese editors had no idea people were even reading it overseas since they didn't think it would appeal to anyone else". That made me giggle a bit since a few months earlier I had mentioned in passing that I hadn't read it yet and wanted to I immediately had friends offering me guest passes for the express purpose for reading the series. I am sure that that the editors are completely correct that the overseas fanbase is small but at least it's a dedicated one!
Orange by Ichigo Takano
As I said recently on OASG, I tend to find straight up romances boring these days. Kuniko Ikuhara (lately of Yuri Kuma Arashi) says it very well here, that [straight] romances have been done so many times that it's hard to come up with a unique, engaging story and many other people have bemoaned how manga romances (especially in shoujo) see the confession and acceptance as the height of the romance and will continuously build to that point, long after much of the audience has become bored. Even though Orange is definitely a romance I hesitate to call it a romance first, as it's more slice of life first with romance second as Naho realizes her feelings for Kakeru and his feelings for her. But that is not the instigator of this story. In the spring of her sixteenth year she gets a letter that supposedly came from herself in the future, warning her that she will make a new friend and that he will kill himself within a year. Kakeru became a dear friend in her circle and Naho's future self begs her to try and change his death by providing a list of events which she now realizes were small steps towards his suicide.
Naho remains skeptical until the events start becoming true and then tries to follow the letter's advice as best as she can but it's harder than she imagined. Her future self is providing good advice (the manga occasionally flashes forward so there's no doubt in the readers' minds that this letter really has come from Naho, that's not meant to be part of the suspense of this story) but it's hard to suddenly decide to be more involved, more assertive in people's lives and I think the story does a great job portraying the struggle between wanting to do something and still finding it utterly terrifying to do so. And you do see Naho becoming better at it and doing it of her own volition once she's helped change Kakeru enough that the events in the letters aren't necessarily coming true anymore.
Kakeru's character is also very well done. There's a nice balance between the happy boy Naho and her friends see and the deep depression and guilt he feels over not being there when his mother died. Both of these sides are portrayed as being part of his real self, that he truly does have fun with them but that it also contributes to this cycle of self-hatred as he questions having any fun at all now. I am surprised that he doesn't lash out at his friends more for making him open up to them but, considering he hasn't talked to anyone about his mother's death and talking itself can be a huge step in dealing with something like this, it's not out of place enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
Naho and Kakeru also have a great, strong group of friends they hang out with which is another reason the story feels more like a slice of life shoujo than a romance with slice of life moments to it. The other characters might only be minor characters but the way everyone bounces off of each other feels very relaxed and easy going, just like a real group of friends. Some of the minor characters are more fleshed out than others but they still have personalities and one thing that stood out to me was whenever they would be talking and neither Naho nor Kakeru would be on the page. The characters would be talking about one or both of them of course but it didn't feel like they spent all of their time talking about the two of them, just that the story focused on them for this particular moment because they were. Think of it as a variant on the Bechdel test, are these side characters fleshed out enough to talk about/do something that's not related to the main character? In this case not quite but they have their own reasons for being interested in the relationship as well.
The story is fairly short right now and it's moving at a good pace so I'm hopeful that it will get picked up by another licensor in the US for a full release, although I'll admit the chances for that are slim. The art is also rather pretty as well, it's not frilly or super elegant but Takano gives the characters distinct styles and is tasteful in her application of screen tones (I especially love the shading and highlighting on Kakeru's all black ink hair in some of the more emotional shots). I am a little worried about the eventual ending of the manga however, as depression can be a thing that lingers and it would feel hollow to me if the gang managed to get Kakeru past the part where he killed himself before and then say the story is done. There have been one or two moments in recent chapters which make me think Takano is aware of this and plans to address that however, as much as I love the idea of the story having a rough end-date in mind already I think this may be one of the few times when a "and life continues on" ending is the most thematically appropriate one.