Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends Omnibus

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Originally published digitally as three separate (and very reasonably priced, as of this writing) volumes, Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends' print release is an omnibus collection of all three earlier-released books. While there's not really anything new here for those who've already read the digital version, those who aren't e-book readers can now pick up a previously unavailable series in one handy book, so this release is something of a win-win situation. It also certainly helps that it's a pretty good book.

In large part this is because of how self-aware the storyline is. I don't mean that in a breaking-the-fourth-wall sense, but rather that our protagonist, Kaoru, is fully cognizant of the ins and outs of harem manga – and he doesn't like any of them. But here he is, thrust unwillingly into one, and now he's stuck making the best of his situation, which in his case translates to “not dying.” That, as it turns out, may be more difficult than he had initially thought.

The plot of the series is that Kaoru is a happy high schooler without "a life". He doesn't have a girlfriend (although he'd probably like one someday), he enjoys reading shoujo romance manga, playing video games, and really is pretty pleased with things in general. That all changes the day a girl named Airi shows up – Airi's a grim reaper, and her assignment on Earth is to kill a no-lifer – specifically, Kaoru. She does, however, agree to give him a second chance: if he can prove that he has aspirations to be someone with a (social) life, she'll call off the deal. To make this work, he needs to find a girlfriend and maintain the relationship for three months; if he can pull it off, she lets him live (and, not incidentally, she gets to spend three months on Earth reveling in her own otaku tendencies). Panicking, Kaoru desperately sends love letters to the only four girls at school whose names he knows, hoping that one of them will show up and agree to go out with him. Unfortunately for him, all four do, and he suddenly finds himself having gone from shoujo-loving nerd to four-timing asshole harem protagonist.

This is where the humor of the series really shines. As an otaku, Kaoru is very well aware of the tropes of the harem genre; he doesn't like them, but he does know them. So he's horrified to find himself suddenly cast in the role of bland harem lead and forced into the sorts of situations he doesn't even like reading about. His inner monologue is filled with his references to the ludicrous situation he's found himself in even as he tries his hardest to steer things into a more shoujo romance direction, spouting lines from those tropes instead of the ones belonging to the trope he's living. It also doesn't help that he's landed himself four girlfriends who each slot nicely into the various stereotypes of harem stories: there's the tsundere, the yandere, the secret pervert, and the sadist – with Airi's masquerade as his little sister rounding things out. Really, all he's missing is the oversexed school nurse. To say that Kaoru is vaguely horrified at this lineup may be understating things a bit.

In many ways, Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends is a romantic comedy about a bland harem lead desperately struggling to be a shoujo romance hero. If you think about it, that's a great setup for a self-aware comedy, and for the most part this series really does a good job with it. Kaoru's disconnect between the reality he wants and the one he's stuck with works well, and the addition of a second grim reaper in volume two, with her own set of conditions, also functions to enhance the mess his life has become. The setup also lends itself to a lot of what are essentially anime and manga in-jokes. These run the gamut between the obvious homages (we see a poster for “Boobs on Titan,” which is pretty much what it sounds like), misunderstandings, and use of the basic tropes of the genre(s): movie dates, the school festival, that one classmate who is also an idol singer, etc. Kaoru and Airi also make direct commentary on the situations as well, such as his decision to bring things to a head at the school festival because that always happens in shoujo romances or Airi waking up “big brother” by inappropriately sitting on him in bed.

What's more impressive, though, is the fact that the story not only manages to come full circle while acknowledging one of the most basic rom-com manga tropes (Kaoru early on says to Airi, “You're not going to show up as a transfer student, right?”), but that it pulls off a genuine, sweet, happy ending. Even more remarkable is that it's one that blends the harem romance with the classic shoujo romance, and when you think back on the series as a whole, this is clearly something that's been in the works since volume one. Even with the humor and self-aware commentary, Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends is slowly merging the two genres it's playing with, and that makes for a story that has good re-read value as you figure out what to look for in the way author Shin Suyama plays with the tropes and the plot. While I might hesitate to call it a smart comedy, it's a well-put together one, and in this case that's almost better.

The art is definitely not up to the standards of the writing, although it does work with the story being told. CHuN isn't great at drawing female bodies (especially the upper half), but their work is good enough to adequately convey all of the points and gags. Airi in full otaku mode is perhaps the biggest strength, although there's a real argument to be made for the sight gags and anime references in the backgrounds.

If you like your romantic comedies heavier on the com than the rom but still with a happy ending, Grim Reaper and Four Girlfriends is worth checking out. It's silly, self-aware fun that isn't too heavy-handed, and if some of the girls' breasts look like they'd pop if you pricked them with a pin, the story is what makes the book, and in this case, that's what really matters.

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