Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte is complicated. Bullying, make-up, and friendship are complicated. I wanted to make a post about how this manga subverts traditional narratives of bullying, but the more I focused on analyzing that single aspect, the more I felt like I was missing the point.
When we’re first introduced to our main character, Kobayakawa, it is through his scorn for the shallow friendships his classmates make, criticizing them for always just trying to fit in with their little cliques. His first encounter with the heroine, Hoshino, reinforces this anti-social stance, as she and her trendy friends make fun of him for not going along with their jokes.
But then he encounters her again while heading home from school, without her friends and without a shred of hesitation about jumping into a river to save a cat. He sees her, literally and metaphorically, without her makeup on, and he admires that heroic side of her to the point that he jumps into that river himself to save the cat (though he ends up being saved himself).
However, the premise of Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte, or Hoshino, Close Your Eyes, is that Kobayakawa has to help Hoshino put her makeup back on.
Of course, Kobayakawa comically fails at putting on makeup for Hoshino because to him, it just means trying to fit in with those shallow friend groups that he despises. Hoshino constantly has to evade being seen by her friends without her makeup on, often after taking off her makeup to help their classmate, Matsukata, from being bullied.
And Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte is indeed about bullying. But it doesn’t really center on the bully and the victim, both of which are such prevalent stereotypes that you could probably point out who’s who in the picture above without any assistance. In fact, if you’re having any trouble at all, it’s probably because of the presence of a third party, Hoshino, delivering a drop kick and turning the whole scene upside-down.
You see, Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte is about Hoshino, and Kobayakawa, and all of the bystanders who get to decide whether they’ll do something to help or avoid getting involved.
(If you want to avoid spoilers, stop here and read up to chapter 11.)
In fact, as much as that would fit the stereotype of a victim, Kobayakawa isn’t anti-social because he was bullied. His trauma comes from having to watch as his only friend was ostracized by his entire class, not because of a bully, but because everyone saw that it was what everyone else was doing. Kobayakawa is anti-social because what he sees in those shallow circles of friends is the same herd mentality that slowly turned the whole class against his friend just for the sake of fitting in. He is anti-social because he despises himself for being unable to break from the pack himself.
However, Kobayakawa’s aversion to getting involved with others also opposes Hoshino’s readiness to help others, so when he sees Hoshino taking off her makeup to help Matsukata, it is that regret and self-disgust underlying his admiration for her that he is unable to reconcile with her desire to fit in with her friends. Each time he tries to put her makeup back on, Kobayakawa is confronted by the question of why, if Hoshino can help others and make friends, does he do neither?
And yet, it is with that same understanding of herd mentality that Hoshino keeps taking off her makeup. It is that same understanding that makes her upset even when the crowd takes her side against the ones bullying Matsukata. Hoshino keeps rushing to help others because she understands how painful it is to be alone on the other side, as she was the one who was once bullied.
Once Kobayakawa realizes that, he rushes in after Hoshino to tell off the entire crowd, possibly the entire school, for just watching and following the mood as Matsukata was being bullied, but he still can’t forgive himself for not doing anything until Hoshino reassures him that the two of them aren’t so different. She can take her makeup off because she has it on to begin with, because her friends give her a safe place to return to when all is said and done, and Kobayakawa, too, has things that he can do.
Hoshino, Me o Tsubutte says a lot about bullying. But its characters aren’t defined by one-dimensional archetypes of the bully or the victim. They’re defined by how they navigate the fickle processes of social inclusion and exclusion that can make a bully into a victim, and a hero into a bully, all at the whim of the complicit, condescending crowd.