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Aoi Hana Manga vs. Anime (as of Book 5)

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.

Aoi Hana Post-viewing Notes

Well, finished all 11 episodes of the anime, and on one hand, it didn’t go where I was expecting at all. Turns out most of the meaty melodrama (which, by the standards set in this series, is still extremely low-key—your average shoujo character sleeps more drama than this) comes relatively early in the series. In total, it ends up being more about slice-of-life time spent with friends, one-sided love (none of the main characters who like someone have the feelings returned), and first loves found and lost, in an extremely low-angst, low-key way. The mood strikes a nice balance of pleasant everyday, quiet melancholy, and just a twinge of dramatic overtone. Didn’t really end on a downer, though certainly low key by any standards and in total nothing much actually happens after the first half-dozen episodes—just keeps threatening to.

On the other hand, it left me feeling entirely frustrated and unsatisfied—it seems to end just when it’s starting to get somewhere. That sort of thing annoys the heck out of me. There’s also the fact that I’m more a fan of romance than unilateral pining, though I can appreciate plenty of one in build up to the other.

(As a side-note, I’ve always remembered and taken to heart a phrase in a magazine review of I believe Remains of the Day that I read long ago: British tragi-romance/drama is about the slow, repressed burn, but Americans like something popping loose at the end. I indeed do—I can handle repressed/low-key drama, but I want to see something pop loose at the end. This is, to note, where Emma went entirely right with the genre.)

And, as a quick discussion with Google reveals, there’s a reason I felt that way:  The 11 episodes of the anime directly follow the first 18 chapters of the manga it’s based on, which currently has 12 chapters after that point and isn’t finished yet. Given that the characters and style caught my interest, I would very much like to see another season (which, presumably, the’ll be enough material for once another half-dozen chapters are added), and I’m going to have to read the manga. Synopses make it sound like it’s going at least somewhat more where I was expecting—the complete lack of romance between Fumi and Akira was a bit surprising given all the hints and the minor revelation (to the character—as a viewer I’d picked up on it even ignoring the tells in the opening) of Fumi’s feelings for Akira as a little kid, and it sounds like that becomes a bit more central later.

Of course, it could still stick to the one-sided love thing even then, and it looks like the business with the two older girls wrapped up, but it leaves me with some hope of seeing something proverbially pop loose at the end.

On an unrelated note, there’s a lot of very pretty (if oh-so-loosely drawn) Kamakura flavor in the series, particularly a late-episode visit to nearby Enoshima. Wikipedia makes it sound like the author got inspiration from a tourist trip to the area, and given my own experience doing exactly the same thing, it certainly sounds right—many of the locales are drawn straight from real life, most notably everything on Enoshima, the view from Kamakura’s famed train line with its old-fashioned cars, and the general feel of the town. No sign of Sasukeinari-jinja yet (featured prominently in the opening episode of Escaflowne, which was also set in Kamakura), but there’s time.  The character animation is also consistently appealing, with many touches of realism that had me smiling, though it seemed to ease up a bit in the late episodes.

Other strengths overall are Akira’s awkward cheerfulness, “Pon-chan and the gang”, three fun-yet-believable, energetic classmates of Fumi’s who are in the drama club and as a result are frequently goofing off dramatically, going so far as to briefly re-enact a dramatic scene from someone else’s past. That turned what could have been florid melodrama into something far more human, and they give a nice breath of normalcy to every scene they show up in. There are also the relatively large number of male and straight female characters for such a series (another thing Wikipedia tells me the author went out of her way to add), giving the whole thing more of a sense of being set in the real world.

In all I can only call the anime, in its single-season current state, impressive in its realism and memorably distinctive in spite of being incredibly low-key, but unsatisfying and somewhat of a disappointment given the strong start. Hopefully a sequel some day will change that.

And, it would seem, my search goes on.

Aoi Hana Midpoint Thoughts

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.)