The boarding house story is to manga what the boarding school is to western YA fiction: a chance for people to be forced into proximity with each other without parental hand-holding. Unlike a few of the other boarding house stories available in English translation (Shortcake Cake and Love in Focus both come to mind), the house in Living-Room Matsunaga-san is mostly peopled with working adults, with protagonist Miko as the only teen and the next closest in age being Ryo, a college student who’s at least twenty. This may be your first clue that this is for a slightly older audience than the other titles mentioned above, and in fact it’s serialized in Dessert in Japan, a magazine with more of a New Adult intended readership than, say, Hana to Yume. While that doesn’t mean that the manga’s first volume is devoid of the shoujo trappings of other younger demographic romances, it does mean that the story is a little bit less gooey than many other romances, because Miko is very much trying to find her way in a world that’s much more adult than she’s used to.
If the title seems familiar, that’s because this was a digital-first release from Kodansha, with six volumes currently available as e-books. It first came out in English alongside two other high school girl/adult man romances, My Boy in Blue and My Boyfriend in Orange. (Should we be glad this one is color-free? Perhaps, though it does break up a theme.) That it’s the first to make the leap to print should be taken as an endorsement, because Living Room Matsunaga-san has an excellent blend of romance and a more grounded story that the other two lack. In large part this is because of the boarding house setting and the fact that everyone is very much aware that Miko is in fact a high school student and they treat her as such. No one coddles her, but they’re all paying attention, and when she’s down or worrying, inevitably someone steps up to give her a hand or just lend an ear.
That most of this comes from Matsunaga is perhaps evident in the title. What’s unfortunate for Miko is that he’s really not all that good at it. When she first meets him, she’s convinced he’s a crazy molester/stalker because she sees him yelling into his phone on the street and then he starts “following” her back to the boarding house, where she promptly sprays him in the face with an aerosol to fend him off. While he’s not thrilled with this, he also is an adult about it and puts it behind him, stepping up to show her around, teach her how to do laundry, and always being there to see her off in the morning and greet her when she comes home. In fact, the title of the manga comes from the fact that he’s almost always in the group living room while everyone else mostly hangs out in their private rooms; whether this is because he’s better positioned to be there for Miko or it’s just his general habit isn’t clear.
What really makes this book work is the dynamic between Miko and Matsunaga. Even before she realizes that she has a crush on him, they’re a good mix of comfortable and uncomfortable around each other. He’s clearly doing his best to forget that she’s probably closer in age to him than not because she’s in high school, but that results in him doing thoughtless things that make her uncomfortable, like not wearing a shirt. (For a fun bonus, keep an eye on the words on his underwear’s waistband; they change with the situation.) Miko’s not entirely sure what to make of him in general, in part because she has a kid’s idea of what an “adult” is that doesn’t translate into “human being who happens to be older,” which is much more the reality, at least in the boarding house. In some ways, that’s the major lesson that she learns over the course of this volume – that people are just people, and that the grown-ups have just as many worries about whether or not they’re doing things right as she does. That doesn’t make them any more her agemates in her eyes, but it does give her a better perspective on things that helps her to become more comfortable where she is, and that makes her crush on Matsunaga feel a little more grounded than it otherwise might.
What he thinks of her is largely up in the air as of this volume, although we can make inferences based on both his actions and Keiko Iwashita‘s art. Although her artwork is fairly simple, she’s good at body language and facial expressions, and the fact that Matsunaga’s are generally a bit conflicted definitely helps readers to get an idea of what he might be thinking, especially since his default setting appears to be “yell.” There’s also a clear difference in the bodies of characters based on their ages, which is nice – we can tell that Ryo is younger than Matsunaga or that Miko is younger than Asako by the way they carry themselves as well as by their words and actions, which feels important to the story.
If you missed Living-Room Matsunaga-san as a digital release (or just don’t like to read them), it’s worth picking up in hard copy. As a slightly more mature take on the boarding house story it hits all the right notes, giving its characters time to think and react while not dragging the plot down. If you like your romances on the smarter side, this is probably a safe bet.