We Were There by Yuki Obata
Most of the time I tend to read series as they come out. With We Were There, I bought the first volume, liked it, and meant to get around to reading the other volumes eventually. I was happy to be able to dive in and wallow in drama, reading four volumes of this series in one day. We Were There starts out seeming like a fairly conventional high school romance, as Nanami begins to fall for her new classmate Yano. By the end of the first volume the reader knows there is plenty of pathos ahead, as it is revealed that Yano hasn’t yet recovered from the death of his ex-girlfriend, named Nana. To make the situation more complicated, Yano’s ex was also cheating on him at the time of her death. When Nanami tells Yano that she likes him and asks if he’ll be able to return her feelings, he simply says “I don’t know.”
We Were There Volume 2
Nanami misses Yano during summer break. He’s ditching rehearsals for their class play, so she’s not even running into him at school. She dresses up in a yukata for a summer festival, but just runs into Yano’s best friend Takeuchi. He tells her that the anniversary of Nana’s death has just passed. Nanami realizes that she’s just been trapped in her own mind and not seeing Yano’s point of view. Takeuchi tells her that Yano needs someone like her who is happy and cheerful to be around him, and snaps a picture of Nanami with his cellphone. Nana visits Yano at his house and tells him that she’ll always be there for him.
Nana’s younger sister Yuri Yanamoto is in Yano and Nanami’s class at school. Yano and Yuri occasionally have brief, silent, emotionally charged moments hinting that there’s something between them, even if it is only sharing dealing with the impact of the same person’s death. Yuri is able to comment on Yano’s irresponsible behavior and he doesn’t use his usual comebacks when talking to her. A flashback scene shows Nana when she was alive; capricious, somewhat stupid, and with horrible taste in men. The younger Yano decides to rescue her from her abusive boyfriend.
Nanami and Yano grow closer, and he announces that he likes her. They start going out, but with Yano still haunted by the specter of his dead girlfriend and Nanami seeming to think if she loves Yano enough she’ll save him from himself I have a feeling they have a rough road ahead of them.
We Were There Volume 3
Yano and Nanami start to adjust to their new relationship. They try to figure out what type of Christmas present to buy each other. Nana asks Takeuchi to help her find a present that Yano will like, but their planned shopping trip has the potential to turn disastrous thanks to Yano’s heightened sense of betrayal and jealousy. Yano decides to secretly follow Nanami as she waits for Takeuchi in a shopping district, but he only observes her take a phone call – Takeuchi isn’t meeting her because he thinks Yano will be happiest with a present that Nanami picks out all for herself. Events like this make me think that heartbreak will soon visit Nanami and Yano, because if a simple shopping trip can be the source of so much unspoken tension it doesn’t bode well for them being able to navigate relationship problems in the future. Nanami heads off on her shopping trip and later runs into Takeuchi. He’s come to check up on her after all, but he refuses to go get tea with her. I have a feeling that Takeuchi is holding himself back because he has a better idea of what Yano’s reaction would be if he found out that his best friend and girlfriend were spending time together without him. Yano stares at the scene between the two with a blank look on his face while Nanami thinks that Takeuchi is kind as she watches him walk away.
While Christmas ends up passing without incident, Nanami overhears a conversation between Yano and Yanamoto that makes her even more suspicious that something happened between them. Takeuchi isn’t much help. When Nanami confronts Yano, saying that he made her promise that there’d be no secrets between them, he changes the subject and brushes her off. My sense of impending doom grows even more.
We Were There Volume 4
Nanami and Yano run into difficulties when they try to physically consummate their relationship. Going to each other’s houses after school isn’t going to work out, so they decide to save up their money so they can go somewhere to be alone. Nana comes across a photo in Yamamoto’s book – a group picture that includes Yano. She doesn’t have time to replace the photo in Yamamoto’s book and later Yano finds the photo again in Nanami’s notebook. He returns the photo to Yamamoto and comments to Nanami “Only a lowlife would snoop around, don’t you think?”
Nanami senses the anger underneath Yano’s cheerful facade, and he’s enraged even more when Nanami gives Takeuchi a goofy cellphone strap as a joke birthday present. Nanami confronts him, and he says she can’t understand him because she’s never had someone betray her. They make up, spending time looking up at the night sky. Yano is desperately clinging on to their relationship and Nanami forgives him again and again. Yamamoto confronts Yano about the day Nana died by visiting him at his house when Nanami is there. Nanami is tired of all his secrets when he’s made her promise not to hide anything from him. As Nanami and Yano walk on the beach together, it is clear that he isn’t over Nana, and for all his efforts to throw himself into a relationship with Nanami he isn’t able to truly love her.
One of the things that I like about Nanami is even while she is exhibiting some remarkably co-dependent behavior, when things get really bad she does stand up for herself. She hasn’t really been in a relationship before and her first boyfriend is charming, popular, and comes with an incredible amount of unprocessed pain and trauma. Although she keeps asking herself if love is enough to make them happy, when confronted with Yano’s feelings that remain for Nana she decides she has to end things.
We Were There Volume 5
Breaking up with Yano isn’t so easy after all because everyone at school wants to know what the problem is. Nanami is hounded by questions. Takeuchi cheers her up by taking her to visit some puppies that he’s taken in after they were abandoned. Yano is badgered to going on a group date, but just sits there silently. When someone tries to delete a picture of Nanami from his cellphone, he reacts frantically by trying to get Takeuchi to send him the picture again. Takeuchi and Nanami begin to spend more time together, but Yano tells Nanami that he won’t accept that they’ve broken up. Everyone goes through the motions of preparing for the school festival.
One of the things I like about We Were There is the way the characters seem fully human, with their own quirks and emotional baggage. Too often, manga authors resort to stock character types, but Obata has really done the work in establishing each character’s unique personality. Even when We Were There seems it might be headed towards a stock plot, as Yano’s friend Takeuchi develops a crush on Nana, I was genuinely curious to see what would happen next.
There’s a certain amount of tension that the manga develops due to contrast between the adorable snub-nosed character designs and the anguish that the characters experience. I can’t help but compare We Were There to another another dramatic series, Sand Chronicles. Sand Chronicles seems to have a slightly more balanced story in terms of the range of emotions the reader experiences, with a few more light-hearted moments or pastoral interludes. Even when Yano and Nanami are seemingly happy, there’s still an underlying current of unease just because they are desperately trying to be happy together so much. No relationship can sustain that type of desperate effort. As a result, while I might consider Sand Chronicles to be a two hankie story, We Were There definitely requires four or five hankies. I think I’ll wait a bit more until more volumes are out, and lose myself in We Were There again whenever I feel like I need a healthy dose of drama and teen angst.