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November 17, 2022
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By Shelley Pallis.

The clickbaity title of Turning the Tables on the Seatmate Killer suggests the reader might be letting themselves in for some sort of mystery or police procedural, but the opening pages soon dispel that notion. The titular “seatmate killer” is not some creep with an ice pick and a Boris Johnson mask, but the vivacious Yui, an attractive schoolgirl with whom any classroom neighbour is doomed to fall head-over-heels in love.

She’s the seatmate “killer” because she slays the heart of anyone sitting next to her, as young Keitaro is repeatedly warned. Yui’s terrifying powers include expressing an interest in others, initiating conversations, and talking to people. My God, how can this woman be allowed outside!? Just when you think that the whole thing is a triumph of the male gaze, blaming women for daring to be something that men are interested in, Yui confesses that she really is a tease, like some teenage Turandot.

This was, unsurprisingly, originally a series of light novels, here adapted into manga form by “Miyako Bachi”. Allusions to a police procedural are not entirely unjustified, because before the first chapter is out, Keitaro and Yui are locked in a battle of wits like a detective and a smug murderer, or in later chapters, like lawyers duelling over an emotional court case. Writer “Aresanzui” piles on memes like he’s ticking off tropes on Twitter, turning Seatmate Killer into a loving assembly of media references, all in the service of a frankly humdrum high-school romance.

Their talk of books, for example, comes loaded with nudges to recognisable hits, including Attack on Titan, the walls of which are alluded to as Keitaro’s crumbling defences. Yui claims to also like I Want to Destroy Your Liver, clearly a reference to I Want to Eat Your Pancreas. Not all of them are liable to be recognisable to the average British reader, and marginal notes are on hand to point out, for example, that when Yui waves a cell-phone decal in Keitaro’s face and says: “Have you ever seen this crest before…?” she is riffing on the long-running, but also long-cancelled Mito Komon.

In chapter two, Yui tells her own story: how her personability and charm was itself a studied act, entered into during her early teens in order to stop feeling so lonely in class. This was all very well at first, but did not predict the hormonal changes sure to rush through her classroom, when “being nice to boys” only encouraged them to fall in love with her.

But now she has a crush on Keitaro, leading the two of them to blunder through a series of common romantic tropes, each of which is disrupted by the sort of common-sense queries that so often elude characters in manga stories. Yui makes him a conspicuously showy packed-lunch, only for Keitaro to offer to pay for her troubles. Yui offers to share an umbrella in the rain, only for Keitaro to find one of his own. Meanwhile, back home, both characters turn out to be orphans with interfering sisters – one older, one younger, each determined to impart the sort of “wisdom” common to their character archetypes.

This is a mildly diverting approach, but before long, I had trouble giving much of a toss about whether these two people got it together or not. There’s a smidgen of Scott Pilgrim, and a lot of His and Her Circumstances in this story, which deliberately plays up the role of the cellphone in modern communications, in such a way that future generations may regard it as a time capsule of 2020s mores. Unfortunately, it is also a time capsule of the overwhelming drama of teenage angst, in which the most ridiculous things take on an entirely unmerited weight.

Your mileage may vary, of course. If you are the target audience for this sort of thing, it is sure to be the best thing since the last thing. Seatmate Killer is relentlessly and unapologetically of its moment, dripping with references to modern pop culture, and passionate beyond all limits about the issues that trouble the average teen.

Turning the Tables on the Seatmate Killer is being released online by Azuki.


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