I just finished reading the manga series Suzuka. I was initially sceptical about it, and the terms that Onemanga described it in really didn't help. They said something to this effect:
Yamato is ready for a fresh start. So when his aunt invites him to stay rent-free in her big-city boarding house in hustling, bustling Tokyo, Yamato jumps at the chance. There's just one teensy-weensy catch: It's an all-girl housing complex and spa!
I was not convinced by this at all. If I was lucky, I thought, it would be a Love Hina clone. If I was unlucky, it would be a Hanaukyo Maid Team clone. The latter I don't want because they suck, the former I don't want because I've already read Love Hina and, while it isn't the greatest harem comedy around (that honour goes in my opinion to Akamatsu's other opus, Negima), it is about as good as the genre is ever going to get without going into other genres like shonen fighting.
So it was with trepidation that I approached the series. Fortunately, I was pleasently surprised. The manga is not a typical harem manga at all. There are a couple of characters who do play up the stereotype, but it's in a light-hearted way, and they are developed characters, not placeholders.
The main romance is handled well for the most part, although a little clumsily at times. There's just a little too much of the main character screwing up and having to work out why and how he should apologise. That gets tedious after the fifth or sixth time. However, the mature plot and well developed characters more than makes up for that fact. Yamato Akitsuki stands out in particular. Usually I hate the main characters in romance, and Akitsuki joins Keitaro Urashima and Kasuga Kyouske in the critically small list of 'romantic comedy protagonists that don't piss me off.'
The main female lead, the titular Suzuka, is an equally interesting character, albeit marred by a tendancy for the author to keep trying to make her motivations and thoughts a mystery to the reader even after we have figured them out, which leads to her being annoying at times.
Now one of my opinions, of which I have many, is that the quality of a romantic comedy can be assessed by how it handles secondary romances. That is, other people who fancy either the male or female protagonist. There are basically two ways I can see of doing this right. Love Hina did this well by largely ignoring all of them as potential candidates except for Mutsumi. Kimagure Orange Road, on the other hand, does it well by giving these other candidates personality and depth and giving the protagonists real reasons to think about choosing them. This is the more mature route, but it is very difficult to pull off. Most harem comedies try this route, and end up failing miserably, leaving them with a cast of bland, generic secondary females who exist for no other reason than to hamper the main relationship and provide fanservice.
Suzuka takes the Kimagure route, and does it well. Part of this is that there are only three other potentials in the whole series, one of whom does not appear very long. They all have their own personalities, none of them are annoying, and there would have been valid ways to characterise Yamato going with any of them. To top it off, they all have their own story arcs, which means that they are never there solely to try to get the guy. This is the way to do multiple potential romances, if you're going to do them at all.
That being said, the series is not without its problems. The ending feels rushed, and happens very quickly. I won't spoil the ending, but I will say this: while there is no doubt that it's a very happy ending, it might annoy people. It is certainly a fairly mature ending, and it is reasonable to imagine that real life might go a little bit like that, but there is a bittersweet tinge to it.
The art is good, but not spectacular by any means. The character designs are also nice, and all characters have a certain feel to them. The obligatory fanservice is not as intrusive as it can be in some mangas, and it takes a back seat to the story, which is the driving force of this series.
All in all I can heartily recommend this series to anyone who likes shonen romance. If you liked Kimagure, or Maison Ikkoku, then go ahead and read it. If you're into anything more violent, or with lots of fanservice, then give this one a miss.