The premise has potential. Asuka appears to be a perfect manly man. Only a couple people know that he secretly likes girlie things, like sewing and cute dolls. One of those two people is Juta, who is secretly the artist/writer behind a hit shojo manga based on Asuka. The other is Ryo, the girl Asuka is in love with. Ryo likes manly things and her behavior isn't that of a stereotypical girl (she's not good at cooking, she's not interested in romance, etc.).
I like Kanno's art, and I was interested to see what sorts of stories she could squeeze out of the premise. I think my problems with this series lie in a few different areas. One, the romance is lackluster. I don't think Ryo likes Asuka as anything more than a friend, and, as a character, she's kind of boring, so I have problems even rooting for her to get over her obliviousness. Two, the stereotypes are so over-the-top that it gets to be a bit much. Asuka is more girlie than any girl I know, but he's also more manly than any guy I know. I know it's supposed to be funny, but it makes it hard to see him as a person, which in turn makes it hard to be interested in his relationships and the things he does. Three, this series has the feeling of something that could go on forever or end in the next volume. If I'm not engaged in the characters or the plot, I really hate that kind of thing.
The most interesting character in the series is Juta, Asuka's friend. I see Juta as the voice of the reader - at least, he tends to voice what I feel. His frustration with the complete lack of new developments in Ryo and Asuka's relationship is my frustration. Juta is probably the main reason I'm not going to completely abandon this manga. It's not going on my "to buy" list, but I may continue to read it via ILL.
Below are the volumes I read over my vacation, along with short summaries (so read at your own risk, there may be spoilers!):
- Otomen (manga, vol. 2) - This volume has what amounts to 3 stories. In the first, a boy (Yamato) so cute he's mistaken for a girl idolizes Asuka, viewing him as the ideal man. The second story is a Christmas special, in which Asuka and Ryo have a heart-warming Christmas meal during a terrible snowstorm. In the third story, Asuka's mom suddenly comes home. Asuka's father left Asuka's mother after announcing that he wanted to become a woman, so Asuka's mother now freaks out at the slightest sign that her son isn't a stereotypical young man. In order to protect her health and peace of mind, Asuka must act as manly as possible. Unfortunately, this may mean marrying the girl his mother suddenly announces she has picked out for him. The girl happens to be uber-cute and kind of crazy.
- Otomen (manga, vol. 3) - This volume has what amounts to 4 stories. Ryo gets Asuka to help her take care of some kids at a nursery. One kid hates Asuka at first, but eventually comes to see him as another mother (and Ryo as a father). The second story is deja vu - Asuka and Ryo go on another amusement park date. Their date is interrupted by a crazy guy who tries to kill himself. Asuka finally asks Ryo to go out with him and she says "yes" - which means they're now officially a couple, maybe. In the third story, Juta's girlfriends suspect he has one particular person he's most interested in, so they enlist Asuka's help in finding out who that person is. No one knows that the reason Juta's time is so booked is because he has manga deadlines coming up. In the fourth story, Asuka and Hajime Tenomine, Asuka's kendo rival, run into each other at a Lovely Beauty Fest, where they end up revealing their secret skills - Asuka improves the clothes of a woman getting a makeover, and Hajime does the woman's makeup.
- Otomen (manga, vol. 4) - This volume has 3 basic stories. In the first one, Ryo's birthday is coming up, and Asuka bakes a cake with Ryo's dad. This is actually kind of a sweet story, but it's not exactly something new in the shojo world. In the second story, Asuka meets a guy named Kitora, who secretly loves flowers. This story has a "protect the garden" scene that reminded me a lot of Fruits Basket. In the third story, Yamato's uncle's beach business needs help, so he recruits Asuka, Kitora, Juta, and, if I remember right, Ryo. Asuka adds a cute, pretty new dessert to the menu, in order to attract more female customers. Hajime shows up and uses his makeup skills to steal those customers away, so Asuka and the others win the customers back by redecorating the shop and dressing Yamato up as a girl.
- Ranma 1/2 (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Ranma 1/2 (anime TV series) - This comedy stars a guy who becomes a girl when he's splashed with cold water. Like Asuka, Ranma worries about his mother discovering his unmanly secret. This series also includes some romance, and, in my opinion, it's funnier than Otomen.
- Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - Like Otomen, this series stars someone who doesn't quite conform to their stereotypical gender role. However, unlike Asuka, Haruhi doesn't really care about that - it makes no difference to her if someone thinks she's a guy. This series also contains comedy and romance that doesn't really go anywhere (at least in what I've seen of the series). I've written about both the manga and the anime.
- Princess Princess (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda; Princess Princess (anime TV series) - More comedy and over-the-top feminine stereotypes, but this series at least recognizes that it's all over-the-top. The main characters attend an all boys high school that has something called the Princess system, in which the prettiest boys dress and act as girls in order to improve student moral. I've written about the first volume of the manga.
- Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - This series has a bit of cross-dressing and at least one character who's not comfortable with his gender-ambiguous looks, so it might appeal to those who like the gender-related elements of Otomen. It also contains humor and romance, although the manga, at least, is a good deal darker in spots than Otomen.
- Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo; Bleach (anime TV series) - It feels a little odd adding this one to the list, but it might appeal to those who like the more action-oriented parts of Otomen. Also, sometimes Asuka seems like a cross between Ichigo and Uryu - when Asuka acts manly, he looks a lot like a gentle Ichigo, but he has Uryu's sewing skills (although it should be noted that Uryu isn't ashamed of his skills). Other than that, though, this series is really different than Otomen, so keep that in mind. I've written about several volumes of the manga.