Fumi and Akira were best friends when they were little, with Akira always looking after the crybaby Fumi, but that all ended when Fumi's family moved away. Several years later, Fumi's family returned, and she and Akira happened to bump into each other on their way to school. They became friends again, quickly slipping back into old patterns. Shortly after, Fumi began dating a cool, attractive upperclassman who, coincidentally enough, had ties to Akira's current school, the prestigious Fujigaya Girls' Academy.
It proves difficult to write about something which has been a part of a life; each moment became a memory, every volume, a mark of another year having passed.
Perhaps I'm the worst person to talk about Aoi Hana. Having begun publishing in 2004, it was a manga with which I've grown up. It covers in its almost decade-long lifespan three solid years of the lives of two teenagers, Manjoume Fumi and Okudaira Akira. Or perhaps we can say it shows even more, decades of their lives, ranging from early childhood to early adulthood.
It is this time difference that makes this series hard for me to talk about. I began reading as a teenager myself, feeling the very same as Fumi, the main voice of the series. As she experienced her first loves, first heartbreak and other emotions, I grew kinship with her. But as years wore on, I eventually, inevitably found adulthood, while the characters (formerly voices of my own youth) became people I could observe through my own life experiences. Their mistakes, misgivings and apprehensions which were things once eliciting acute vicarious sympathy and empathy, then brought out of me, "There, there. It will be all right." It became almost painfully nostalgic. Warm, familiar, past.
As Shimura began to detail a year of fiction across years of reality, the experience of Aoi Hana changed. The manga itself changed. Rarely does the narrative and the point-of-view of an artist mature. Art evolves, of course. But the voice of the characters, the way their stories are told hardly changes. Yet with Shimura, it's almost as though you can see over time how her own artistry developed. Sometimes the blackest of panels had more to say with a single, stark white line of text than a full-blown page, busy with drawings and images. Aoi Hana's character designs sometimes suffered from inconsistent, seemingly lazy production, but its overall beauty compensates for any drops in quality. And any time the art layered the complexity of the story... you'll forgive and forget. Genius might be the only appropriate word for whenever Shimura does right by her trade.
Aoi Hana begins as a simple, soft manga about high school life with two best friends. By the end of the series, it's a cryptic, heavy, often-confusing observation of human relationships. This is not a bad thing. As the chapters became shorter, the dialogue became poetry. The art itself turned into a kind of prose propelling everything forward, rich in its unspoken role in storytelling. Shimura's handling of the series in its later stages would undoubtedly frustrate readers. But these pages are meant to be poured over again and again. Panels are designed to consider all the content and infrastructure. Words are meant to be deciphered. Her dialogue becomes as impenetrable and difficult to comprehend as the hardest human emotion, as the most unknown and mysterious feeling.
The beginning seems weak, as does the ending. Where is the start of this? Where is the closure? This was something I'd pondered for many years. Just where would Shimura go with this? There is a formula. Every year, new characters, new school play, new relationships. Life at that age plays out like an equation, anyway. What difference is there? Personal experiences may be the thing. This is what Aoi Hana is all about.
We follow Fumi, named the crybaby of the story and her energetic,"spunky" best friend Akira as they meet years after being separated. What plays out is a friendship that picks up where it left off. And then... something more. The beauty of Aoi Hana resides in the respect it pays to the complexity of our relationships with one another. Love is not taken for granted... even when it's taken for granted. It is a powerful beast of a thing, making everything as beautiful as a fabled blue flower or as ugly as ourselves at our most disappointing. The strength of Aoi Hana is its cast of wonderful characters.
Fumi and Akira could be studied from start to finish. Akira especially ends up being one of the most complex characters in the series even though she seems to be the most straightforward. The later volumes slowly gives us more of her side of things. Very soon, what began as a story from mostly Fumi's perspective, closes with Akira's. This is really about these two girls, women, children -- every part of them. We're given glimpses, at times, as to what they think or feel though you may find yourself reaching out, clawing for more when we're left as mystified by events or actions just as they are. Fumi's development perhaps seems the most obvious and rewarding. She grows from an insecure 16 year old to a mature woman in her twenties, who, sweetly, can be undone with innocent words of a 6 year old. Akira is our champion, the direct voice of simple justice, though this makes her the most naive person in the entire series at the start. Adolescence leaves her as her change into a woman is less pronounced and noticeable but present all the same.
The manga does not shy away from recognising that love and sex are part of adolescence and adulthood. The response to each marks a different stage for the characters, main and supporting. For Fumi, it's about finding balance. Akira's own sexual development as a girl growing into woman is done powerfully, with simple images or pieces of text.
Both these girls do well as they grow up. It may take you several readings to notice just when Fumi stops crying over nothing or when Akira lets go of her childish things, but when it happens, there is nothing more rewarding or amazing. These are two magnificent leads, characters you want to hang out with or crush into tight, tight hugs.
The supporting cast is vast and without keeping up, can be overwhelming. Some of the major players are the Sugimoto sisters, women ranging in ages, attitudes, tastes and philosophies. There is also the trio from Matsuoka, Fumi's friends Mogi, Yassan and Pon-chan, fantastic comic relief at times and also truly good schoolmates and companions. Later on we get Haruka, a feisty underclassman whose sister, Orie, is in a relationship with another woman, Hinako, a teacher at her and Akira's school. Sounds like a lot to remember, doesn't it? Throw in Ueda, who is the greatest side character in the entire series, funny, quiet and supremely mature, you have a cast consisting of lovely and lovingly-rendered characters. Some have argued that these side characters are useless and distracting, but they are far from that. Each one of them does something for the series, even in unnoticeable ways.
Hinako and Orie for instance offer hope. They are in a relationship that has lasted beyond high school sighs and touches and has become a fulfilling, long-lasting life for two people. This is something Fumi needs to see, as a girl whose heart was made to love somebody. This is something that Haruka has to experience, as life doesn't turn out the way it normally does. Sometimes you find out from yellowing letters in a shoebox that your sister is gay. What can you do other than, years later, accept that there might be an offbeat wedding some day? Even Fumi's cousin, Chizu, is written so well that a seemingly monstrous act of betrayal ends up being heart-breaking commentary about living to fulfil other people's expectations.
But having said all this about the supporting cast, there is one person that needs special attention as she exists between the roles of protagonist and supporting character. This is Kyouko, a girl whose private desperation to be something better than herself exists in fascinating contrast of her refined public demeanour. She's a classic beauty and has the admiration of everyone around her for being more mature and worldly. Kyouko's past and personal life beg to differ. She tries to find answers without ever daring to face the questions, but her brilliance is her own self-reflection. She's a smart girl -- she knows she can assess her personality and pinpoint the flaws. She just chooses sometimes to ignore them or to give in to them. To read of characters who innately know they are capable of being better than their worst, who are able to know themselves, is an utmost pleasure.
And that's what Shimura gives us. Terribly, brilliantly complicated characters. Words and pictures to mull over. With tea, no tea, sometimes with a hand in your hair, sometimes with pages being flipped backwards instead of forwards, during chilly nights or warm ones, like the ones the girls undoubtedly sleep through in Kamakura.
Kamakura is alive in this manga. The series opens and closes with this town, and as it provides a physical setting, it gives the entire series more context than just a landscape could offer. A beautiful seaside town, nothing out of the ordinary or terrible. The drama is as noisy as the place itself -- not at all. It is all life and beauty every day even in the midst of confusion, anger and pain.
And isn't that right?
It was with a heavy heart I said goodbye to these characters and this story. The ending itself might seem to be a let-down because... where is it? A lot of people are going to be left surely disappointed, with no answers to their questions: What becomes of Fumi and Akira? Everyone else's story gets wrapped up. What could Shimura be thinking, ending with the beginning?
"Someone is in love with me...
...said, 'I love you' to me, even...
...and it's a girl"
*does contain spoilers*
Aoi Hana is a romantic yuri high school drama by Takako Shimura telling the story of Okudaira Akira and Manjoume Fumi - two childhood friends separated from each others ten years before, who now reunite by going to high school in the same town. Sounds like an average high school romance story? Don't be fooled. Although it may seem like a light-hearted romantic comedy with some drama at first, Aoi Hana evolves into a beautifully written growth story before one realizes.
Aoi Hana is a very strong manga in many points of view. I could talk about all these strongpoints for hours, but there is one aspect which can't be emphasized enough and which I will try to set my focus on - characters. Shimura masters character design on every level. The characters are likable, interesting and they feel real. While many of the side-characters are important and realistic, and each of them seems to be giving some sort of a lesson or life-advice to the main characters, I'll be focusing on Akira and Fumi for the sake of trying to keep this semi-short.
Like said, Akira and Fumi, like most of the characters in this manga, are very realistic. They don't really possess any clear attributes that would make them fill a certain role in the story, but they rather act differently towards different people and in different situations, just like real people do. It's easy to make a mistake and get a certain picture of these two by the first few chapters. Akira, for example, seems light-hearted, easy-going and childish person at first, but when she's with Fumi she acts quite the opposite: she's very protective towards her, mostly due to the nature of their childhood friendship. Fumi, however, sees this in a very different way. She has always been shy and unsocial, and this is how Akira still sees her after ten years have passed. But although Fumi seems all the same from the outside, she has really grown from the inside, being much more mature than Akira realizes. Fumi has experienced the hardships and joys of her first love, discovering her sexual identity and feelings, taking her first wavering steps towards adulthood.
And this is the aspect that makes Aoi Hana such a beautiful and well-written story - character development. It may take several chapters to understand how Akira and Fumi grow as the story goes on. It happens very silently, by having to find answers to their respective personal questions such as the difference between friendship and love, understanding ones sexuality and the very meaning of love itself. These are all problems that everyone has to face in one way or another in their youth, and the way these characters confront them is done in an undescribably beautiful way. Fumi has suffered a heartbreak right before the beginning of the actual story, and this greatly affects her life in high school. She is lucky to accompany with Akira again to get support when she needs it. She is having a very hard time trying to figure all the things - including her true self - out, and she really does get my sympathies. Akira on the other hand hasn't experienced her first love as we call it, and when finding out Fumi's feelings for her she naturally is thrown into a difficult situation which might even lead to the end of their friendship. This marks a turning point in the manga, where we no longer focus on Fumi - the seemingly weaker character out of the two - but Akira, who now finds herself pondering these questions she never had to deal with before. And while we see all this, all the different sides and habits of the characters, all the problems a growing teenager has to fight with, all the heartbreaks, pain and misery, all the realistic joy and bliss, we realize just how close we have grown to these characters, and how we can relate to everything they're going through. This is a very strong feeling, and as you feel these characters mature, you will soon learn that you have grown, too, with these characters in this long-lasting manga.
And the setting this all takes place in; the beautiful scenery and landscapes of Fujigaya drawn in marvelous detail by Takako Shimura. It all feels like a dream you get to see over and over again, making it a familiar, nostalgic place close to your heart, up to the point that it feels like you've lived there for years. Every street and every caféteria, every commuter train, classroom and school library gives off a pleasant or not-so-pleasant memory. There is tragedy in the air, there is great humor and laughter giving a pleasant feel of innocent high school times the girls have with their friends. And when the graduation is closing in, it really feels bad to know you soon have to say goodbye to this magic that feels so familiar to you.
It's undescribable and almost scary how addictive and emotional this manga can be. The sudden realization that you have walked a long journey with these characters, the empathy you feel for them, makes you want to encourage them in all situations. For some reason Aoi Hana had a really personal impact on me. At some point I found myself so emotionally attached to Akira's and Fumi's relationship that worrying about what would eventually happen with the two of them made it hard for me to focus on some basic things of my daily life. I came up with some very sad and depressive scenarios in my mind, and was truly scared and worried for the sake of these two. When reading through the last few chapters at night, I burst into tears several times. This is something extremely unusual for me, but Aoi Hana was able to do it, and nothing has really done it to me the same way since. This was the point where I realized what a masterpiece this manga truly is. This is also the final reason I treasure Aoi Hana more than any other manga I've ever read.
Even if you're not really in for the yuri genre all that much, I still highly recommend this piece if you are in any way interested in a cute and beautiful high-school love story. There are male characters and hetero-romances too, but personally I think their most important role is to create contrast to the fragrant and beautiful relationship Fumi and Akira share. While mainly concentrating on the concept of love and its true meaning, Aoi Hana also scratches the issue of difficulties and hardships between the love of two girls. Who knows, maybe it'll make you value the idea of same-sex relationships a bit more? I dare you to find out.
The Anime adaptation is also worth a watch, and although it only covers roughly one third of the manga, it's very faithful to it and the animation and music are simply amazing. Just don't expect to experience the character development -factor as greatly as you would with the manga. But I'm sure it'll still set your heart aflutter. If not then it's likely you don't own one. ^_*
From Shimura's other works I also have to recommend Hourou Musuko (aka Wandering Son), which focuses more on gender identity and the problems LGBT have to deal with, and has a bit less to do with romance. It also has very good characters and humor, and is also a great growth story such as Aoi Hana. I have only watched the anime adaptation yet, but the manga is a must-read as soon as I find some time, since it's 15 volumes and 123 chapters long.
I would only recommend reading Aoi Hana if you were really desperately starved for some yuri in your life. As I know good yuri works are pretty hard to come by and if you are after some school-girl angsting yuri crush story, then yes. Give Aoi Hana a go. (Though I think Sasameki Koto is a lot better.)
Though Aoi Hana is looooooong. Long in the way that it drifts over to the side characters pretty much constantly and if you don't remember names well then it can be pretty confusing. A few times I was reading thinking 'wait who's this?' 'what's the deal with that?' when really all I would rather the story focus on is the development between Akira and Yumi.
Akira is a great character. I have nothing but love for Akira. Though, Yumi, our lesbian-angsting main character... leaves a lot to be desired. Expecting lots of angsting and Yumi feeling sorry for herself. And crying a lot.
I am probably being a little hard on the series, but I just didn't feel that Aoi Hana deserved the hype that it got. Yumi's relationship with one of the schoolgirls was hard to read ("get me my towel" "yes! of course!") and even with Akira being adorable, it doesn't make up for everything else going on.
Though Akira IS adorable. If I was rating this for Akira, she would get a solid 9~read more