I Want to Hold Aono-kun Is Atmospheric Horror Disguised as Shojo Romance

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for I Want to Hold Aono-Kun so Badly I Could Die by Umi Shiina, available in English from Kodansha, as well as discussion of self-harm and suicide.

Horror manga has been very successful at crossing over into other genres -- particularly into shonen -- and horror-romance has always been a popular subgenre in literature and film, so it was only a matter of time until the manga medium produced its own classic to fulfill that niche as well.

The marketing of multi-genre series will often emphasize one over the other in order to draw in a certain type of audience. Unfortunately, this can instead lead to a large chunk of the target audience actually missing out on a work that could interest them. This is the case with I Want to Hold Aono-kun so Badly I Could Die, a horror romance manga by Umi Shiina that began serialization in 2016 in seinen magazine Monthly Afternoon and is distributed in English by Kodansha.

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Kodansha's official synopsis of I Want to Hold Aono-Kun reads:

“Airhead Yuri-chan and her boyfriend Aono-kun had a perfectly normal relationship until one day Aono-kun suddenly ‘passed away’… They will never be bound together, and they cannot even touch. This is their difficult and almost too sincere love story.”

While this description is largely accurate, it makes Aono-Kun sound like a typical romance, but the story is much darker and more complex. Early on, the manga does revolve around Yuri and Aono’s short “lived” romance, and their attempt to maintain this relationship when Aono suddenly dies just two weeks into dating. But the real story is the mystery behind why his spirit returned to Yuri, which involves an ancient folk ritual and human sacrifice.

The story of Aono-kun starts out in a rather illogical fashion: protagonist Yuri Kariya bumps into schoolmate Ryuhei Aono one day and immediately falls in love with him because he’s the first guy who's ever talked to her. Yuri soon confesses to Aono, and he strangely agrees to date her even though he knows nothing about her. Their romance happens so fast and seemingly without any emotional development that it feels disturbing when Aono suddenly dies and Yuri tries to commit suicide in order to be with him. This is when Aono’s spirit suddenly appears to Yuri.

But there is a very sad reason behind Yuri’s yandere obsession with Aono and an equally tragic cause for Aono’s frivolous attitude toward Yuri in the earlier part of their relationship. The revelations of their respective backstories are as emotional as they are horrifying, and the scene where Yuri confronts the cause of her trauma in Vol. 7 is one of the most touching points in the manga so far.

What makes I Want to Hold Aono-kun a successful horror romance is its perfect balance between scary and romantic elements. Creator Umi Shiina has a simplistic art style, but he constructs a very intimate atmosphere throughout the manga that draws readers into the world of Aono-kun without much effort. Even though there is very little gore, the bone-chilling horror comes from the characters' expressions and circumstances, and it is often what’s implied rather than what’s shown that makes the series truly terrifying.

This sense of intimacy also works well for both the horror and romantic scenes, as they can make readers feel simultaneously unsettled and titillated. Since the romantic scenes can often turn horrifying in an instant, readers will quickly get used to the seamless blending of elements that’s unique to I Want to Hold Aono-Kun. Even Shuzo Oshimi, the creator of Flowers of Evil and a master of psychological horror, praised Shiina’s writing as erotic and amazing.

Despite its dark themes, I Want to Hold Aono-Kun is often quite funny too. The humor occurs mostly when Aono and Yuri try to experiment with sex even though they can’t touch each other. They both come up with new ways to touch, such as when Aono’s spirit floats into a pillow or a utility pole so Yuri can hug the inanimate object with his face on it. These lighthearted scenes, combined with Yuri and Aono’s innocent personalities, make the central romance incredibly sweet.

Yuri and Aono's relationship is also one of the more sophisticated depictions of romance. Yuri knows that letting Aono pass on would be beneficial for them both, but she cannot bear to let him go because he was her only emotional support for a long time. Likewise, Aono knows his presence will harm Yuri so he tries to push her away, but he also can’t help but feel jealous when his best friend falls for Yuri. Their struggle does not feel forced because they genuinely love each other, and they always communicate and resolve their issues without being melodramatic.

While I Want to Hold Aono-kun so Badly I Could Die has a relatively rough start, there is an explanation for every strange occurrence in the story. It is a top-notch horror romance that excels at both genres without compromising. Its masterful construction of horror atmospheres will please the most seasoned horror fans, and the equally cute and complex relationship will be enjoyable for fans of romance. The manga has a live-action drama adaptation coming in 2022 as well, so now is the perfect time to pick up I Want to Hold Aono-Kun.

For more information on the warning signs and prevention of suicide, click here. If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you live outside the U.S., click here for a list of international hotlines.

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