Despite the anime being a huge letdown at the end (or rather because it was), I read through the Aoi Hana/Sweet Blue Flowers manga version to see where it might be going.
The 11 episode anime (weird number—I can’t think of anything else that’s below the standard 12-13-episode-long season range) follows the first 18 chapters (three books) very closely. Through about 17 it’s practically line-for-line the same (the anime actually adds a little more to some conversations, and in fact one of my favorite little bits was barely noticeable in the manga). The final episode of the anime somewhat rearranges the sort-of-montage wrapping up the remainder of the school year in the last couple of chapters, but even that is pretty close.
There are only two plot changes. The smaller is that one chapter of the vacation interlude (ch. 15) was removed entirely (or rather mentioned but not shown). This segment mainly served to introduce Kyoko’s apparently severe family problems. I can see why it was skipped; though it sets up the beginning of a very slow build into her backstory/problems, it would have made it even more obvious that the story wasn’t finished yet, while the end of the anime as-is could theoretically stand on its own as an end, albeit one that leaves things frustratingly unconcluded. The omitted section could also easily be moved to later if a second season is produced (even put in the right spot chronologically via flashback—the series does that occasionally with other things within its own main timeline).
The other change is more major, but I assume was done for the same reason—to set the anime up such that it could theoretically stand on its own if a second season is never produced, and set the final couple episodes up as more of a finale. In the manga, Fumi realizes (and mentions) that Akira was her first love much earlier, rather than at the very end. The manga also only does a bit with Fumi’s sort-of-jealousy about Akira going shopping with Kou, using it to introduce the idea that Akira wasn’t just her first love, but someone she still feels for (it doesn’t even bother to show the follow through of it indeed being nothing—Fumi’s assumption of such is enough). The anime, in contrast, plays the event through to a happy conclusion, and uses that as the prod that reminds Fumi that Akira was her first love.
That does provide a vague sort-of-conclusion, instead of the very definitely not-yet-finished sense of unease that following the manga more closely would have ended on. Not much of an improvement, but a little. It’s certainly not enough to satisfy me, though, and I’m rather glad the sense things were just getting going was right. For that matter, the message, if left there, would be “adolescence is sometimes fun, but nobody you love will love you back (and the resulting depression will creep into every area of your life).” Not exactly… romantic. Something you might write a story about (it may well still be where the whole thing is going—not sure yet), but not romantic, nor something I particularly enjoy stories about.
(Non-sequitur side note: Emma, now that’s real romance, in a deep, involved, substantive way even with all the avoidance, hurt feelings, and drama.)
Where was I… As for the manga, books 4 and 5 initially appear to slip a little at first when it leaves the whole Sugimoto thing on asomewhat unsatisfying note and adds several new characters (particularly a very energetic new first-year student starting at Fujigatani, Ohno Haruka). It initially jumps around enough to make me feel like I was losing a bit of a grasp on who all was who (several of them look similar enough that, combined with slightly loose page layouts and unfocused word bubbles, I occasionally lost track—probably wouldn’t be a problem in anime due to somewhat more solid art and voices making it easy to tell who’s talking).
However, once Fumi confesses that she’s still got feelings for Akira things rapidly get interesting again, enough that I was willing to forget my dissatisfactions with the vague end to the whole Sugimoto arc. Even more so when, as hinted early on in a flashback of her relationship with Chizu, she tells Akira that she is most definitely not talking about idealized hand-holding puppy love. As with coming right out with the L word I was pleased to see the comic go there in no uncertain terms. (In a way escalation of things makes sense, given that the characters are moving quickly toward adulthood, though of course Fumi’s physical relationship was when she was significantly younger, not to mention with someone significantly older and a relative on top of it, adding an additional layer of impropriety.) The drama looks to be getting meatier, the stakes upped, and generally speaking it seems to be going somewhere interesting.
Which does leave me wondering why it took so long to get there; I feel like it was a little too leisurely through the first year of school, when there was time and room for either more to happen or it could have been shortened to something a little more punchy. The anime, likewise, could have easily been much shorter without losing anything, though to get to a stopping point at the end of the first season I can see why you’d want to drag your feet through year one, as it’d be almost impossible to find a satisfying might-be-the-end spot anywhere past there.
(Come to think of it, maybe that’s where the weird 11 episode length came from; there flat out wasn’t enough material to pad it for another episode.)
My main complaint, though, is that the increasing number of girl-interested characters is pushing it back in the opposite direction from the relative realism of the first three books, over toward Maria Watches Over Us territory. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but after establishing a comparatively realistic setting and some straight characters it just seems to be overloading the sapphic end of the spectrum—if everybody is a lesbian it sort of deflates the social awkwardness of it and impact of coming-out and such. This perhaps annoys me in particular because I don’t like soap operas.
To define, I mean I prefer stories focused on a small group of characters in more depth, so the more people that get added on as potential romantic interests the closer you get to the character overload and tangled mess of plot that ends up (in my mind) sinking so many long-running comics and TV series. Books 1-3 of Aoi Hana didn’t feel that way, 4-5 seem to be threatening, though not yet nearly enough to stop me from wondering what’s going to happen next (and in general it’s doing a good job of keeping me guessing as to how things are going to play out).
Part of what gives me that feeling are some brief “bonus” chapters showing fragments of story from the pasts of other, peripheral characters (for example, Sugimoto’s sisters). There’s nothing wrong with these, but frankly they add nothing to the main story and break up the flow by distracting you with unrelated things and a bunch more characters to keep track of. I’m all for substantive backstory, and I’m in no position to complain if the author feels like drawing up some of the events of the past with the other characters she’s created, but from a narrative standpoint they feel pointless. (They’re also a little bit disorganized in terms of narrative flow, feeling like truncated excerpts more than side-stories.) I suppose I should probably just skip them, since they’re not at all important (at least thus far) to the main story.
To toss in some more technical notes, the artwork features sparse, airy linework, but unlike a lot of shoujo manga it has detailed, concrete backgrounds in most scenes (the process of collecting photos of Kamakura and its environs are discussed in some author notes at the end of each book). There’s an acceptable sense of realism to the character positioning, and I can see how that could have translated into the wonderful character animation of the anime. Speaking of which, the character designs (and background art style) are as faithful to the comic as everything else in the anime.
Bottom line, I’m looking forward to book 6, and if the series sticks to three books each for years two and three of high school and stops there, rather than trying to spiral into something epic and out-of-control in college and beyond, it may well add up to a satisfying whole. Here’s hoping that, at minimum, they animate another three books’ worth into a second season, as it’d be wonderful to see the new material onscreen, particularly if the character animation, mood, and treatment is kept to the same level.