At first glance, Orange may not seem to be anything more than your typical romance/drama set in your usual shoujo location – a high school. The incorporation of changing fate as its main and defining premise, which in itself is nothing too unique even in the romance department, can lead to premature and ignorant condemnations of Orange as nothing more than a mere “melodramatic shoujo” when it is nothing of the sort. Everyone has something in life they wish they could do differently. For Takamiya Naho it wasn’t one thing, but rather a series of events: poor choices, lack of communication and the inability to understand, that caused the loss of the most important person in her life. Her future self decides to send a letter, ten years into the past when she was in high school—warning herself not to make the same mistakes.
Orange is an unusual shoujo in that it tackles the heavy topic of suicide without glossing it over; it paints the ugly truth by pulling the reader through the dark cloud of depression. It allows us to see how one person, isolated in the confines of their own mind, could fall victim to self-loathing and guilt to the point of being desperate enough to bring it all to an end. Yet it also colors a vibrant picture of how people survive in the wake of loss when someone precious to them makes that heavy a decision—it is filled with grief, blame, and an ache that will never dissipate no matter the passage of time.
The plot is masterful in presenting an intriguing premise that leaves as many questions as it does answers, and the anticipation only builds through the climax of the story. It doesn’t falter on explaining the mechanics of “time-traveling letters” and how this operates with multiple universes and time paradoxes. Although the explanations are rather brief in that respect, Takano doesn’t leave the reader hanging and gives just enough to be informative and conclusive without being excessively boring. She rewards us with a conclusive ending that gives us an additional tidbit of wisdom, saving someone in the throes of depression who is suicidal isn’t just about keeping them from ending it. It’s about healing them, helping them, and simply being there.
In the characters we find the biggest strength of the series, because Takano puts so much effort in making the main cast relatable and multi-faceted. Naho is shy, reserved, but ultimately sweet, driven initially by the letters forewarning her of the regrets day-by-day, however she quickly becomes emotionally attached to Kakeru because of the present. She isn’t simply motivated to eradicate whatever her future self is lamenting, she wants to save her future because she loves the present Kakeru. Yet Naho is deeply flawed as evidenced by how narrow-sighted she is at times, because she focuses more on the letters and saving Kakeru at times rather than how he feels in the present. She grows greatly from the start where her only aim is saving him, to actually trying to understand (read: empathize) and support him.
Kakeru is initially a little distant to us, more of an enigma than someone we can sympathize with. This is actually a positive, because Takano builds our attachment to him through the supporting cast and Naho, which means there is more of an emotional punch when she finally introduces Kakeru’s point of view and illuminates his inner struggle. This ultimately means a bigger payoff at the conclusion of the series, but additionally gives him greater character development from beginning to end. The change in his friends around him, however radical, does not alter the fact that Kakeru is ultimately very depressed. He has every reason to be, and while having friends around him certainly helps, it isn’t a miracle cure. Takano doesn’t make depression simplistic or boil it down – the fact is that just being there won’t magically change a person. It does, however, have an effect and in that way her message is successful.
It would be enough to talk about the main two, but not mentioning the supporting cast would be a disservice. Much of the development between Naho and Kakeru would be impossible without their support, and they are not without their struggles and flaws, trying to save Kakeru while feeling the conflict of changing the future that she is supposed to have. It only serves to make them more human and more endearing, and it makes the reader more invested in their journey as a group.
Takano is known for her clean art and gorgeous character designs, but even more here she paints in the smallest details in each panel. Rather than narrating emotions as some mangaka do, Takano focuses more on displaying them through the characters’ expressions and actual dialogue exchanges. This ultimately means she conveys her message more convincingly and immerses us more than other shoujo authors that preoccupy themselves with trying to submerge us in the main character’s point-of-view. Takano is more interested in her reader being invested in everyone rather than in any one single part of her story.
To anyone who enjoys suspense, romance, and a heartfelt story, this is the first title I would recommend. Takano has out done herself and surpassed her past works to leave us with something that is ultimately memorable—because any manga that a reader can walk away from, feeling as though they have learned something that will stick with them forever, is phenomenal. Any manga that can touch you in a way no other has is a classic. A manga that can do both? Now that’s a masterpiece.