Shed that Skin, Ryugasaki-san! is one of the first titles from the new manga publisher Kaiten Books, and it certainly is an interesting choice for an early license. It's a character-driven high school romance that tries to be sweet with a kinky twist, from an author without any other works released in English. It's a simple premise, obviously conceived to have crossover appeal between mainstream audiences and people who may share Yugami's kink.
This first volume lays all its cards on the table pretty much right away, as it begins with a few color pages of Ryugasaki, clad only in a bra and panties, shedding her skin in a shed at school while Yugami peeks in. He apologizes mentally for peeping in on a private moment, steals the skin she left in the trash, and takes it home to piece back together.
She catches him in the act by scaling his walls, calls him a pervert, and then offers herself to him. He declines, but asks that she let him watch her molt. She agrees, but only if he takes her on a date.
Most romantic comedies are either fairly vanilla, or have sadomasochistic undertones, so a series like this about such a specific kink are interesting cases. Many of them, including Ryugasaki-san and Sweat and Soap, another recent series, focus on a character with an unusual characteristic that most find off-putting, and another person who finds that exact characteristic attractive. At its best, it can be about two people, each unusual in their own way, finding someone who meets their needs. At worst, it can be a bland story that uses kink in place of good writing or an interesting plot. Shed that Skin, Ryugasaki-san! unfortunately falls into the latter category.
The biggest issue is that for the first few chapters, neither Yugami nor Ryugasaki have much in the way of personality. Ryugasaki is a low-key tsundere, calling Yugami a “pervert” but demanding he take her on a date, while revealing in her internal monologue that she's in love with him. She offers him sex but also runs away in embarrassment when he asks about where on her body a piece of skin came from, not realizing it's part of her vulva.
Yugami, meanwhile, is intrusively obsessed with her body but shows little interest in the person it belongs to. He builds a Pygmalion-style statue out of her shed skin, but when she offers the “real thing”, he declines and says he's really only interested in her molt. When she lays an egg, he steals it from her so that he can add it to his statue of her, even though she makes it quite clear that she wants to keep it so she can bury it in hopes of having healthy children. Basically, instead of a boy in love, he's more of a chaser than anything else. Even though he apologizes, it's an egregious violation of her boundaries and her personhood, treating her more like a fetish object than a being with thoughts and feelings and bodily autonomy. All of this together makes him difficult to root for as a romantic lead.
About halfway through the volume, it turns out the reason Ryugasaki likes Yugami is she saw him being nice to a snake once. It seems like a thin reason to not only develop a crush, considering that there's a lot of people who like reptiles, but to hold onto it despite the fetishistic, dehumanizing way he treats her. She is simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to this fetishization, so that Yugami never really has to reconcile with his treatment of her.
Manga artist Kazutomo Ichitomo seems to share a similar fixation with Ryugasaki's female, teenaged reptilian body. Some of the most detailed panels in the entire volume are close zooms on her underwear-clad butt, her breasts, and all over her body. As her skin cracks and flakes, we see things from Yugami's point of view as she thrusts the sole of her foot toward him, and his fingers enter the frame as he pulls off her stuck-on skin.
All this is made more frustrating by just how much potential Shed that Skin, Ryugasaki-san! shows, especially in the latter third of this installment. Without spoiling the ending, suffice to say that it's comparable to the end of the first story arc/season of Fruits Basket. If it had been properly seeded, rather than Ryugasaki thinking about how much she likes Yugami while he treats her like an object, it would have been quite sweet. But by the time this happened, I had already come to deeply dislike Yugami, so it had lost me. As nice as the conclusion may have been, it just wasn't worth slogging through.
The art itself probably won't do much to attract readers. The characters, despite being high school age, are rather childlike in appearance. Most panels are drawn in close shots, presumably at least partially so Ichitomo doesn't have to draw backgrounds. This might seem unfair, but anything but the simplest backgrounds are obviously photographs run through filters to manga-fy them. Unfortunately, Ichitomo isn't particularly good at drawing faces either, and mouths especially are frequently misshapen. No, the thing that Ichitomo is best at is bodies. The few action shots actually have a decent amount of motion, and nothing can match the loving detail he puts into rendering the curves of Ryugasaki's genitals from behind.
The last few chapters showed real signs of improvement, both in terms of character writing and art. Shed that Skin, Ryugasaki-san! was a bold choice for a fledgling company's second release, and considering the specificity of the subject matter and lack of other appeals, quite possibly a risky one. For all it had a weak start, the last few chapters show real potential for improvement, and I wish Kaiten the best of luck on releasing the next volume.