If you knew the past and could use that knowledge to make a better future, would you be able to do it? That’s the question Naho Takamiya is faced with when she receives a detailed letter from her future self with instructions on how to save a boy she hasn’t even met yet. That boy, Kakeru Naruse, is the boy Naho will fall in love with and the boy who will eventually break her heart when he’s killed in a car accident on his 17th birthday. But the present Naho has been given an opportunity to avoid this future of regrets, guided by the letter in the ways she can save Kakeru.
Although Orange, written by mangaka Takano Ichigo and serialized in Monthly Action, is a shoujo romance series, it’s much more than a simple boy-meets-girl love story. By framing the whole narrative with the impending threat of Kakeru’s death, Ichigo has effectively created a scenario in which “love” not only means a basic romantic attraction, but also a community undertaking to lift up a single person. The entire friend group, not just the protagonist Naho, is involved at different levels—Suwa, who casts aside his own feelings for Naho to support her in her romance with Kakeru; Takako, who stands up boldly for the timid Naho; Hagita, who pretends to be uncaring while perhaps being the most loving of them all. It’s a team effort, and Orange does a wonderful job of portraying a realistic friend group united by a common purpose. The heartwarming moments in Orange aren’t just cute confessions or long gazes between awkward teen lovers. They’re very often quiet moments of simple friendship. And when Kakeru smiles, it’s pretty much impossible not to smile, too.
Kakeru, plagued by doubts and guilt, is in a constant state of fluctuation between happiness and depression, andOrange treats his struggles with admirable sensitivity. In fact, sensitive is a great way to describe Orange as a whole. It neither sensationalizes or trivializes the struggles of any character, but rather empathizes with them where they are.
This isn’t to say that Orange is a perfect manga. It struggles, as so many romances do, with almost unbelievable denseness from both romantic leads and an inability to progress the primary relationship forward. Naho can be frustratingly slow to take action, and there are also some minor pacing problems, but for the most part the story moves along at a good clip and introduces new sources of tension naturally. While the presence of the letter from Naho’s future self may have the potential to be a clumsy plot devise, Ichigo does a fine job of counteracting the letter’s potential to make the narrative feel contrived by using Naho’s doubts and insecurities.
Visually, the artwork is serviceable, but aside from a few scattered panels it’s rather pedestrian. There’s an occasional over-reliance on shoujo sparkles and bubbles in place of backgrounds and the character drawings are rather unmemorable. There aren’t a lot of blockbuster panels, which isn’t to say that there aren’t important moments (there are plenty of them), but you’d expect that a monthly manga would be at least a little bit more interesting to look at.
All in all, Orange is a pretty remarkable manga, one that treats its characters kindly and portrays a realistic, close-knit friend group. It stands out as a romance, but Orange is really less of a romance and more the story of how a group of friends strive to make one boy feel loved and needed. There may be a love interest, but Orange simply isn’t content to tell the same story as has been told over and over again—it’s interested in showing how all sorts of love can change a person’s life for the better, and even save it.