Reviewby Casey Brienza,
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
Fumi Manjome has just begun her first year at Matsuoka Girls High School, and a twist of fate (along with a pervert's groping hand) reunites her with her childhood friend Akira “A-chan” Okudaira, who also a first year high school student at the exclusive Fujigaya Girls Academy. Though they have not seen each other for ten years, they are able to pick their friendship right back up where it left off. But soon enough, Fumi's life gets complicated when she starts dating a tall upperclasswoman named Yasuko Sugimoto. This new romance is decidedly less cushy than a bed of roses for Fumi; she soon learns that Yasuko has plenty of admirers of her own, including a Fujigaya girl named Kyoko. Worse still, it may well be that Yasuko still hasn't gotten over her first love. Well, at least Fumi as the ever-loyal A-chan…right?
The anime and manga that Western fans have become wont to call “yuri” tend to come in two aesthetic varieties: 1) fanboy special and 2) old-school shoujo wannabe. Interestingly, both types tend to be attract more male devotees than female ones, and the former is, for obvious reasons, the easier sell, but the latter at least seems to depict their chosen subject in a way that is fully humane. The most common problem is that the latter tend to be, in a word, boring: They draw a closed, private circle around two ordinary girls, savoring, to the point of nausea, their ordinary, day-to-day interactions. Aoihana is one of the latter—and happily, it narrowly manages to avoid being deadly dull.
The plot moves along at languid, but deliberate, pace. It starts with an little tragedy—Fumi has just found out that her cousin, her first love, has gotten married without telling her. Fortunately, some good thing happen shortly afterward, not the least of which is a reunion with a dear childhood friend. But high school life soon becomes quite complicated when she gets involved with a charismatic upperclasswoman who, as it turns out, nurses secret agonies quite similar to Fumi's. As the series progresses, graceful comparisons are made between Fumi and Sugimoto as young lesbians; there are also allusions to Wuthering Heights, as the students perform the play in a two-episode subplot. Needless to say, you will not be surprised by the end where the story goes, but it will not be where you thought it was going to go when you tuned into the first episode!
Were you to judge this show solely by its opening theme, you would naturally assume that the story's focus is on Fumi and Akira and their relationship with each other. In fact, the most well-developed character to be found in these eleven episodes is actually Yasuko Sugimoto, the tall, ladykiller upperclasswoman who becomes involved in a romantic entanglement with Fumi. Now, your mileage will vary, but I must say that I did not like this “Sugimoto-sempai” in the least. She is selfish and self-absorbed, using other people to sublimate her pain. At one point late in the series, she accuses the teacher who is marrying her elder sister of sounding like a creepy old man—but as far as I am concerned her behavior is almost as creepy. During her “rebound,” she rejects a girl who loves her like she loved her teacher and instead seduces a very vulnerable personality whose first crush has just been, well, crushed under the weight of heteronormative reality. Then, when it becomes clear that Yasuko is doing far more harm than good, instead of sticking around to pick up the pieces, she heads overseas.
Even so, there is remarkable sensitivity when it comes to the characters' sexuality. This is not some utopian alternate-universe Japan that resembles the real one in every respect except that nobody seems to have problems with gay and lesbian relationships. There is one particularly memorable moment when Sugimoto comes out to her three sisters and mother. They are not happy—one of them even makes a hurtful comment—but they do not deny her selfhood in any way. There is also a similar conversation between Fumi and Akira, where Akira has to assure her friend that sexual orientation will not get in the way of their friendship. There is something at once comforting but immediate about this Aoihana. It manages to strike just the right balance, which is remarkably hard for most anime series to do.
In fact, generally speaking, Aoihana is exceptionally well-conceived and produced. It strikes just the right balance…there is never too much and never too little of anything. The anime's color palette is muted, predominantly in grays and pastels, and the backgrounds are handsome and consistent, rendered in watercolor. Even clean character designs, lacking in the usual huge eyes, reinforce the show's calm, modest aura; the show's music is likewise pleasing but unobtrusively ordinary .
The Aoihana anime is, in short, just a single episode in the lives of Fumi and Akira. It's good for the fans and pushes all the right buttons, but it is not a definitive—nor the most nuanced—treatment. For more, you will have to refer to the original manga series of the same name by Takako Shimura, which is still ongoing in Japan. Still, there are worse eleven-episode anime series out there, by far, and as yuri anime it is admittedly hard to find better.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Gorgeous, understated style and a remarkable sensitivity toward the depiction of its lesbian characters, quite unexpected even in a show of this sort.
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