Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
GN 1 - The Complete Collection
Mariko Kumakura is a shy, studious girl who isolates herself out of timidity, spending her days with her textbooks. One day after a test, she is approached by the outgoing and cheerful Akiko Ohashi, and Mariko quickly finds herself becoming not just best friends with Akko, but also part of a group for the first time. As she slowly discovers friendship and other, girlier, pursuits, she also finds herself having stronger feelings for Akko. Can friendship persist when there's love involved, even when (or especially if) both of the friends are girls?
Yuri fans have generally had a more difficult time finding print versions of licensed titles in their genre than yaoi fans, but Seven Seas is here to help with Milk Morinaga's Girl Friends, the five volumes compiled into two extra large books comprising 2 ½ of the originals in each. The story follows shy Mariko Kumakura, Mari to her friends, and her outgoing best buddy Akiko “Akko” Ohashi, as the two navigate the waters of high school and hormones. Neither as sensual as the somewhat infamous Hanjuku Joshi nor as pat as Strawberry Panic, Girl Friends combines a coming-of-age narrative with a romance, and if it isn't perfect, it is still awfully good.
The story begins somewhat abruptly – Mari is accosted by Akko after a make up exam, and the next thing she knows, Akko has dragged her off to MacDonald's. One drastic haircut later, Mari and Akko are firm friends, and Mari is introduced to two other girls in her class, Tamamin and Sugi-san. The four become a tight group in a way that is very familiar and believable, even if both of the latter girls are fairly comfortable stereotypes, at least at first. In fact, for the first two chapters this reads more like an all-girl version of any number of shoujo stories about the popular kid taking the shy one under her wing, and a yuri element doesn't enter into the picture until the very end of chapter two. It then remains a subtle note until the end of chapter seven, at which point the series arguably becomes more recognizably yuri.
This, I feel, is in no way a detraction. By putting off any remotely intentional sexual contact for almost eight chapters, Morinaga allows the characters time to form feelings for each other, giving the romance a more believable tone. Mari doesn't just like Akko because she's pretty – she has had time to get to know her and to understand that her feelings are beginning to evolve, and because of this, her sentiments are easier to get behind. The little jealousies that she feels, the horror at learning that Akko is rumored to have hooked up with a guy the previous summer, and her own ambivalence about getting a boyfriend become subtle indicators of what Mari is just beginning to accept. When the perspective shifts to Akko in what, according to the commentary at the end of the book, is the start of the original volume three, we get to begin the journey all over again. This has both its pros and cons, but it is nice to get inside Akko's head and see how she's reacting to what Mari does, especially since we know more about her friend than she does.
Unlike in some other homoerotic series, Girl Friends spends a fair amount of time talking about boys and even includes some male characters who are important to the plot. The fact that it never occurs to any of the girls that some of them might be lesbians, despite what anime and manga would have us believe about girls' schools, is a nice touch, emphasizing Mari's uncertainties. She and Akko both seem to feel a need to conform to what is expected, which adds to the drama of the romance plot. Some readers may feel that Morinaga spends too much time introducing Mari to the stereotypical joys of womanhood – shopping, make-up, and the like – and indeed it doesn't really serve the story except to establish the aforementioned “normalcy” of the girls' world and to give Morinaga a chance to play dress-up with her characters. This balances out, however, with the fact that the girls' high school is utterly devoid of any sort of soeur system or other contrived way of making the girls into couples. Those whose only experience with yuri is stories like Maria Watches Over Us or Strawberry Panic will find a different approach to the genre that if nothing else should prove interesting.
Morinaga's series manages to give us both a sweet yet painful love story while also presenting some of the everyday issues of high school life. Mari copes with not just realizing her feelings for Akko, but also with pressure to drink, worries about being separated from her friends when classes change, and trying to learn who it is that she wants to be. This makes Girl Friends a charming series on at least two levels, and it is easy to forgive the static art and occasional wall-eye. Yuri fans should not hesitate to read this, but neither should readers who simply are looking for a tale that takes a multi-faceted approach to high school love.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B-
+ Story combines coming-of-age with romance, enhancing the latter. Delay on yuri content makes the love story more believable, no contrived yuri “couple making” devices.
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