The first thing one notices when looking at the cover of a volume of Saotome-senshu, Hitakakusu (Saotome Covers Up) is the main heroine and her abs. Who is this muscular girl? How did she get that impressive six-pack? What’s her deal? The answer: she’s the heroine of a beautiful manga that’s a little romance, a little sports, and a whole lot of stupid in the best possible way. More than that, its central boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is portrayed so wonderfully and positively that I would present it as a shining example of a love that feels healthy and genuine.
Saotome Yae is her high school boxing club’s ace, blessed with strength, agility, and a preternaturally good knack for fighting. But the first chapter opens up with a low point, as the boy she likes, Tsukishima Satoru, rejects her confession. The reason: he’s also in the boxing club, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize her next crucial match. However, the romantic feelings are clearly mutual, and by the end of the chapter, Tsukishima has become Saotome’s coach—a setup that not only hides their going out against school rules, but also allows Tsukishima’s endless passion for boxing to benefit Saotome as well.
Saotome and Tsukishima are the definition of adorkable. They will try to hold hands, but their unfamiliarity with doing boyfriend-girlfriend things makes it look closer to a test of strength. At another point, Tsukishima declares that they’ll succeed through the power of love, only to realize that he’s talking to Saotome’s little brother, who proceeds to forever call him “Power-of-Love Man.” This is one of those series where everyone is kind of an idiot on some level, and it results in a wonderfully silly and sweet series that isn’t afraid to go for a heartfelt scene one moment and immediately transition to a gut-busting gag the next. The humor is somehow both subdued and absurd, and I can’t really think of many similar works. It somewhat approaches the stylings of Shibata Yokusaru’s 81 Diver, but isn’t quite as extreme and over-the-top.
Virtually every character, from the main couple to the wide array of side characters, are hilarious and memorable—even Saotome’s random clubmates. Above is a scene where one of their clubmates tries to get some alone time with Wakano, a college-aged boxer and childhood friend of Tsukishima’s, by incapacitating his own friend with a punch to the stomach. …Except, they’re all boxers and can take a hit, so his friend just gets up anyway. This whole thing ends with Wakano showing how to really deliver a body blow, leaving the clubmate doubled over but also a little happy.
Of the supporting cast, my favorites are Satsukawa Mizuki, a rival of Saotome’s who transitioned from karate to boxing with the most terrible sense of direction, and Konno Mito, the boxing manager who basically teases anyone and everyone. In those rare instances where the two are together, it’s even better.
But what I think really anchors this series and will make it endure is the depiction of Saotome and Tsukishima’s excellent relationship. On the surface, the two look like a somewhat mismatched couple that seems to thrive on reversing gender roles. Saotome is big and tough, and knows how to achieve victory after victory. Tsukishima is small and weaker, and has yet to win a single match in his boxing career. However, you can see that the two think the world of each other, and both inspire each other to greater heights. Saotome does not see Tsukishima as a “loser” who’s capable of less, but rather as a guy full of love for boxing, and who is making progress on his own terms through his own power. Tsukishima, for his part, is 100% supportive—not jealous—of Saotome’s greater success. He’s a challenge to toxic masculinity and the fear of emasculation: he’s shorter and less skilled in his own chosen sport than his own girlfriend, but absolutely no one thinks less of him, especially himself.
One unfortunate thing about Saotome-senshu, Hitakakusu is its timing. Saotome’s boxing path is about aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the series even ends with a flashforward to them. Before, it would have been possible to imagine the characters actually being there for the real deal, but COVID-19 has turned the 2020 Olympics into the 2021 Olympics, forever dating the series as a pre-coronavirus title. However, while that dates the manga, this doesn’t really detract from its overall excellence, and I hope as many people as possible end up reading it.