I’m a sucker for unconventional romance and forbidden love stories, so same-gender romances usually pique my interest. Being male, given the choice between yaoi and yuri, I’ll take yuri. Unfortunately, while there’s loads of decent yaoi across a wide spectrum of genres, the fact that most quality romance is apparently targeted at women who’d prefer looking at two pretty guys than two pretty girls means it’s surprisingly tough to find a decent yuri series anywhere in the zone between “florid shoujou schoolgirls” and “testosterone-blinded hentai.” Stuff presumably exists, but I’m apparently bad at actually locating it, and usually sorely disappointed by stuff I check out.
Enter Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers). A half-dozen episodes in, and I’m liking it quite a bit. The setup is relatively simple: Fumi, the main character, had a mostly-one-sided relationship with a relative that didn’t end well. She rekindles a friendship with spunky Akira, who provided moral support when they were very little. A second couple, cool Yasuko and emotional Kyouko (both lean toward the bifauxnen mold), broke up, with Yasuko asking Fumi out on the rebound. There’s a relatively easy-to-follow chain of she-likes-her-but-she-still-pines-for-him that sets up the very low key drama.
Things that are the same: There’s a Catholic girls’ school. Of course. Thanks a lot, Maria Is Watching. (Incidentally, I know someone who went to a Christian girls’ school in Japan, and I have it on good authority that they are in fact not hotbeds of lesbian romance). There’s a cool stud/bifauxnen type that everybody is chasing after (she even plays Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, for some Takarazuka flavor). There are long, pregnant pauses, blushing galore, knowing, wordless stares, and it’s all very low-key.
Things that are different: The Christian girls’ school is not laden with random French terms, and in fact ins’t particularly unusual-seeming apart from being upper-class. The protagonist, rather than being cute, clumsy, and clueless, is tall and fragile (literally and emotionally), for at least a little bit of variety. Some people are bi or straight. There are males around. It does not exist in a fantasy world in which there’s a lot of weird intra-school politics, random French terms, and it is completely acceptable to have raging lesbian romance at all-girl Christian schools; they actually use the words “bisexual” and “lesbian,” there are some coming-out scenes, and not everybody is accepting and supportive—comparatively quite realistic in most ways. (Side note: While Japan has always had something of an accepting nature of cross-dressers and same-sex crushes in some contexts, acceptance of homosexuality is not nearly as widespread as anime and manga might leave you thinking.) They even mention Takarazuka specifically in reference to the cross-dressing stage performance. The physical aspect of things is at least somewhat addressed, rather than raging ambiguity or interrupted feints—the first kiss comes explicitly and early. In general, they actually talk about things, friend-to-friend, in specific terms on occasion, rather than being in a fog of ambiguity. The sempai dynamic exists, but not the oneesama one, for once. Also has a sense of humor.
Also, parents—for once everybody lives at home, has normal parents and in some cases annoying siblings, and has to deal with things like their family showing up to the school play and insisting on a tour, having to call home, getting a ride to school, and so on. The parents are also appealingly realistic—Fumi and Akira’s moms are old friends, and we get to see them acting a touch girlish when they get together.
Things I’m loving: The character animation. It’s not obviously high budget, but the attention to detail is commendable—it has an amazing number of little, incredibly natural things that I absolutely love to see. People using hand gestures instead of saying something, body language (not just romantic—in fact, mostly not romantic), the way people hold or close a cell phone (friends actually talk on the phone and occasionally text, but not so much it’s annoying), Fumi’s movements when laying around her room alone, that sort of thing. Some fun stuff with the camerawork also—split-screen shenanigans during a phone conversation, particularly. The realistic setting—it’s set near Kamakura, if I’m remembering correctly, and although the art isn’t great there are very nice bits of pretty suburbia. The level of drama—satisfyingly meaty without being too weepy or full of overwrought angst.
And, Akira. Specifically, she’s an energetic normal girl awkwardly trying to be a supportive buddy in the middle of adolescent angst that’s a little over her head (thus far not at all a romantic interest in any way, though that will presumably change based on the opening). More specifically, there are several scenes when someone she’s hanging out with (as a friend) is suddenly overcome with emotion and breaks down crying—she gets this “Oh crap, what am I supposed to do now?” look that I can totally empathize with, and her reaction is basically “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but please stop crying? Pretty please?” Funny, real, unusual, good stuff. Elsewhere when somebody is unintentionally hitting a nerve with a friend, she clumsily dives in to try and diffuse things. She’s fun to watch and basically gives a nice streak of lively humanity and a bit of humor to an otherwise introspective story and introverted set of characters.
I’m also liking where they’re going with the humanity of the super cool girl, starting from an early stage—she obviously has issues (of the normal teenage sort, not crazy anime stuff), and really isn’t dealing with them particularly well despite outward appearances. Not sure how much of the standard seme/uke dynamic (or tachi/neko, top/bottom, whatever) it will stick to, but so far so good.
So far, definitely keeping my attention, and despite it being characteristically slow for the genre, it’s got enough plot motion and low-key drama to hold it all together. I also have some unrelated thoughts about the way it handles that first kiss I mentioned, which I will save for later.
The series is streaming legally and free in subtitled form at Crunchyroll, or if you’re willing to pay even in 720p. The subtitles are relatively accurate (though no song subtitles) and of decent quality, and it actually looks (and sounds) pretty good in the free SD quality even on my 1080p TV and home theater system. The ads, if you’ve never used Crunchyroll, are repetitive, but mercifully short—one 30-second spot at the beginning, one at the mid-episode ad break (yay for putting it in the right spot!), and one before the credits or at the end.
(Aside: Between Yasako/Yasuko, Fumie/Fumi, Akira, and Kyouko I can’t help but notice the unusually large name overlap with Dennou Coil. They’re all common names, so it’s probably just a coincidence, but amusing nonetheless, particularly given the rather different nature of the stories.)