Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow
When Konatsu Amano's father moves overseas for work, she leaves Tokyo to live with her aunt in a small coastal town. There she meets Koyuki Honami, a girl one year older who runs the high school's aquarium club. Both Konatsu and Koyuki are immediately drawn to each other, and Konatsu soon joins the club as its second member. But do she and Koyuki want to be friends, or is there the potential for something more? With Koyuki living inside a shell of others' expectations of her, it may be harder to find out – or to act on it - than either of them might think.
While all stories have layers to one degree or another, Makoto Hagino's quiet yuri tale A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow may be covering up more than we might at first think. This possibility comes from the fact that one of the protagonists, Konatsu, keeps relating her relationship with the other, Koyuki, to Masuji Ibuse's 1919 short story “Salamander.” The base plot of Ibuse's piece is that a salamander, having grown too large to leave its hole, eventually traps a small frog with it to soothe its loneliness. Unfortunately, the frog eventually dies from its entrapment, once again leaving the salamander all alone. While there is undoubtedly symbolism of its own in Ibuse's story, Hagino's fairly consistent referencing of the text maybe should give us some pause, especially since Konatsu casts herself as the frog to Koyuki's salamander, a theme that is once again brought to the fore in volume four.
Fortunately it seems entirely possible that neither Konatsu nor Koyuki is really aware of the darker aspects of Ibuse's work, and more like she's using it as a facile reference to the way she wants to help Koyuki out of what appears to be a sort of socially-inflicted isolation, while Koyuki uses it as a reference point to the idea of two similar yet disparate creatures making a life together against the odds. As the widely acknowledged prettiest girl in school (or at least among the second years), people have very clear ideas of what and who Koyuki is supposed to be, and since she's generally fairly quiet and kind, those images of her have consumed public perception of who she really is. That leaves Koyuki, shy already, feeling isolated under the weight of those expectations, with the aquarium club (for which her father is the advisor) as her only real refuge. She clearly does love the club and is very knowledgeable about local aquiculture, but the first three volumes really do give the impression that it's pretty much all she has. Volume four opens her world up to include Konatsu, and two specific incidents make it very apparent that she's not sure that her attachment to her friend is strictly fine. At the same time, she's not entirely sure how to break out of the shell she's been imprisoned in, and while she knows that she wants Konatsu to be a part of that liberation, she's also uncertain of what role she can play. We see this most clearly in the fourth book, when Konatsu visits her while she's home sick and not only calls her by her given name for the first time, but also specifically references “The Salamander.” Koyuki spends most of the rest of the volume fretting over this and trying to come to terms with the fact that she wants to spend her life with Konatsu even as we are able to see by her behavior that Konatsu has become the one person outside of her family she feels safe and comfortable with.
Konatsu, meanwhile, is herself a fish out of water with the move to her new home with her aunt. She's very much going through the “neither fish nor fowl” stage of adolescence, torn between thinking she's old enough to do things on her own and really, really wanting her dad, so meeting Koyuki gives her something different to focus on. She almost immediately sees the disconnect between Koyuki's actual self and the public idea of her, and that makes her even more interested in the older girl. Why did Koyuki approach Konatsu first when she's so withdrawn and shy? How can Konatsu help her to become more comfortable? Why does she even want to? Turning to Ibuse's tale of the salamander and the frog may simply be the most relevant way to figure these things out that Konatsu can think of – that salamander Koyuki has become so trapped in the cave of people's expectations of her that she needs a frog to help her figure it all out. Even if she's falling for the older girl, it's in a much less codependent way, as the storyline when they're separated by Koyuki's class trip in the fourth book shows – Konatsu can still function while missing her friend, while Koyuki is in a perpetual state of anxiety about their separation.
That Koyuki is attracted to Konatsu romantically from the start isn't really ever in question. When the story is told from her point of view, we can easily see how much Konatsu means to her and how worried she is that she'll do the wrong thing and scare her off. Although she never verbalizes that she wants to be more than friends (even when she's coming to her major realizations in the fourth volume), her fears are too intense for a simple friendship, and her reactions to touching or being touched by Konatsu also indicate that she's falling hard for the other girl. Konatsu's a little more difficult to read on this front, but it's plain that she cares more and more deeply for Koyuki the more time they spend together. Nothing shows this quite as well as the festival arc in volumes two and three, when fears of asking Konatsu to go with her (because it wouldn't be fair to the boys she turned down, another clear indication of romance) plague Koyuki, and Konatsu's reaction to an unexpected parental tagalong is a bit sharper than earlier parts of the story would have led us to expect.
This section of the story also forces the girls to confront their burgeoning feelings, even if they don't have the words to fully explain them yet – Konatsu asks Koyuki what she thinks of her, and the other girl isn't able to answer. That's equally because she can't even vocalize her attraction even to herself yet, but also born of the fear that the wrong answer will somehow cost her the relationship she's coming to depend on. While both girls are champion overthinkers, Koyuki's worries have a darker edge to them, indicative of the social strata of high school as well as her own insecurities about who she is and who she's attracted to. Volume three helps this along to the next level in the inevitable school festival arcs, which force Koyuki to begin confronting her own passivity on the subject of how others treat her, something that carries over into the school trip storyline in volume four. It's contrasted very well with Konatsu listening to a classmate neatly trap Koyuki in the box of her reputation, declaring that she “doesn't want to see” Koyuki as anything but the idealized version the school has created. It takes Konatsu a bit to work up to it, but she does manage to tell her classmate not to do that, something Koyuki isn't yet capable of, as her interactions with the other girls on her trip clearly show.
Even if we don't view their relationship as a budding romance, however, it's really just a joy to watch. They're both feeling their way through things as best they can, and both have moments of total confidence and utter panic that balance each other out and provide just enough tension to really invest us in their relationship. Konatsu's classmate Kaede also provides someone for Koyuki to worry about even though it's very clear that there's nothing remotely romantic in Konatsu and Kaede's friendship, while the existence of boys in both the school and the story's world help to keep things grounded and to make the girls' attraction feel more like part of who they are rather than the author's attempt to throw them together in a fabricated world.
While it isn't entirely accurate, A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow may best be compared to Bloom Into You in its lack of fetishizing its heroines' relationship and slow burn of emotional content. It's a charming story about two girls who don't quite fit learning that you really only need one person who understands you to make things worthwhile and that being together means helping each other to work things out. It's a lovely, peaceful story, and even if it has unexpected layers of meaning down the line with Koyuki's looming graduation before Konatu's, these four volumes are charmers.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Story is grounded in its characters, body language is very expressive.
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