As far as misunderstandings go, I Belong to the Baddest Girl at School starts off with a doozy: Toramaru, the head delinquent at her high school, has a raging crush on Unoki, who is possibly the lowest man in the hierarchy. She thinks she’s asked him out and that they’re now dating, but Unoki firmly believes that Toramaru simply conscripted him to be the undermost of her underlings and that he now works for her. Neither of them really move beyond this misconception of their relationship over the course of the volume, and it really does fulfill the old dad joke about “assume” meaning “to make an ass of you and me.” Because like with any romantic peril in a rom-com, a simple discussion would probably clear things up. Probably.
There’s emphasis on that because Toramaru is so spectacularly bad at expressing what she means using her words. Or her body language. Or anything else, really – we don’t know why, but she’s got a bad case of resting thug vocabulary, so everything she says is easily misconstrued as some sort of evil threat or bullying tactic, and her facial expressions and body language definitely go along with her words rather than her intention. The best example in this volume is probably when Unoki tells her that he can’t leave right after school because he has a class rep duty to take care of. When Toramaru tags along, she discovers that the job is taking care of the class rabbits, and she’s utterly enraptured by not only the fuzzy bunnies, but also how adorable Unoki is playing with them. She even gives in and agrees to hold one, expressing her delight by saying that the rabbit is so cute that she could just eat it all up. Except…she doesn’t say the “cute” part, so what actually comes out of her mouth is “I could eat it all up.” Unoki immediately panics and thinks that she believes that these are meat rabbits, not pets, and Toramaru, by now mired in her own poor phrasing, asks if there are any others she can eat. Sure she means “pet,” and she doesn’t even seem aware of what she’s said, but it’s enough to terrify both the rabbit and Unoki, who is even more convinced that Toramaru is, in fact, the baddest girl in school.
Part of why this works is because creator Ui Kashima doesn’t bother with backstory. Given the appearance of Toramaru’s older brother on the final page of the volume, that does seem likely to change, and by the time we reach the end, we’re definitely more curious about how she turned out that way than not. But that’s because Kashima builds Toramaru’s character and ineptitude at interpersonal relationships so well over the rest of the volume. Had the story opened with filling us in on how Toramaru rose to be the boss of the entire school while Unoki sank to the depths of the social structure, it would have been just like any number of other similar series. As such, it’s the not knowing how the characters got here that makes this work, because it allows us to get to know them as people before throwing the reasons why they are the way they are in our faces. We do get the moment when Toramaru (thinks she) asks Unoki out, but beyond that everything takes place in the present, and it’s only by reading the entire volume that we can start to understand that there were things in their pasts that made them into the people they presently are.
It also helps that Kashima is good at playing with some of the more expected genre tropes. We’re already seeing a bit of a reverse where the genders are concerned; not only does Toramaru have a more “masculine” name, but she’s also a high school girl who is the unchallenged leader of the school’s (many) thugs, a position we don’t typically see girls fill. Her top two underlings are also girls, and we only see boy delinquents as background characters. Unoki, meanwhile, has more traditionally feminine skills, but he didn’t gain them because he likes doing them; unlike the protagonists of Aya Oda‘s Otomen or Junko Ike‘s Mizutama Honey Boy (available in French as My Fair Honey Boy), he’s learned how to do things like cook and sew as a matter of his own self-preservation. He had to learn to cook because otherwise bullies wouldn’t let him into the cafeteria to eat, and he had to learn to sew because his clothes got ripped by bullies so often. In another story, Unoki would be a really sad case, a perpetual victim unable to see his way out of his situation – he even remarks at one point that he barely recognizes his face in the mirror because it’s not covered in bruises, cuts, and swelling. That does make Toramaru’s excitement at Unoki’s homemade bento a bit of black comedy, but that dark humor saves the character from being totally depressing.
The two do begin to edge closer to what Toramaru thinks their relationship is over the course of the volume. The last chapter, which involves Unoki insisting on sharing his umbrella with Toramaru so that she doesn’t get wet (she doesn’t use umbrellas because they’re inefficient weapons and prevent her from carrying a better one), is downright sweet in places, and based on Toramaru’s reactions, Unoki is starting to get a clue about her feelings. That’s a good sign, and at seven volumes, this doesn’t have an unsurmountable number of books to keep the conceit up for, although I’m not entirely sure it has enough material based on this first book for six more. But the art is cute if a bit busy, and the jokes land more oft than not. It’s a fun little manga, and since it largely avoids any mean humor, it’s a nice piece of goofiness to pick when you’re in the mood for a couple that can’t figure out if they’re coming or going.