Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Ao Haru Ride
Futaba has finally managed to chip away at Kou's walls, and the two of them may be at last picking up where they left off when Kou had to move away in middle school – in fact, he's just asked her to go to the festival just the two of them! But nothing is ever that easy, and no sooner do things start to go right then they start stuttering again. The threat this time? Rivals in love – for both of them. Is there really no hope for this second chance at first love?
Volume five of Io Sakisaka's second English-language release (Viz previously released Strobe Edge) picks up more or less where the 2014 anime adaptation cut off. Given that the anime went down the route of “read the manga, kids!” and just stopped rather than fabricating an ending, that makes this book one that some fans have been looking forward to for five years.
It also marks a shift in Ao Haru Ride's narrative. Where previous books were more about Futaba trying desperately to get back to the Kou she knew years before while still respecting (or at least trying to accept) the person he's become, this book finds things heading down a more familiar shoujo romance path. While that may feel disappointing, don't get too worried – it's really only the more standard romance story for the readers, because we are the only ones who are getting both sides of the narrative. We've known from the start that Futaba still harbors feelings for Kou, but he hasn't been entirely sure, and that pattern continues on now. Futaba's still very much in love with Kou, but for the first time we get confirmation of his feelings for her, which frankly feels like something we've been waiting many more volumes than four for. While this in part may be due to the anime, which preceded the manga by a good number of years in English, it's also a testament to Sakisaka's writing. Many, if not all, romances rely to a degree on the will-they-won't-they trope, but there usually aren't quite as many doubts as Sakisaka created in this series, with Kou up until now keeping his heart tucked well away. While that makes perfect sense in terms of his character and what he's been through (as we learned in volume four), it's also created doubt in the minds of the readers as to whether or not he has romantic feelings for Futaba. He's grown so guarded in his time away from her that what we would normally read as signs take on a different meaning, and even when we do find out the truth, it is barely spoken aloud by him; rather he makes confirming statements and gestures to Kominato, who serves as the reader's stand-in by finally flat-out asking the question.
More importantly in terms of character development, Kou's confirmation to Kominato also marks one of the first times he's opened up to the other boy. Despite his reticence, he has at least occasionally allowed Futaba in, but no one else. When Kominato forces the issue of what's bothering Kou, Kou's acquiescence to him shows that he's finally really settling into his new life. He's willing to trust and to try to move on from the tragedy in his past, and that means that he's going to try to be more himself than he's been up to this point.
So of course this is when those pesky rival characters rear their heads. The first is Toma, the boy Futaba fell on and accidentally groped in book four. He's been revising his opinion of her, and in this volume he becomes a full-fledged contender for her affection. What's interesting about him is that he knows that she likes Kou and doesn't want to push Kou out of her heart – instead he continually uses the phrase “squeeze in” to refer to how he hopes to slowly but surely win her love. While this doesn't make him any less of a rival, it does make him a more subtle one, which may turn out to be much more insidious than anyone realizes. Kou does seem to harbor suspicions about Toma, but since Toma hasn't done anything overt to try and get Futaba, there's not much Kou can do.
Futaba's rival, on the other hand, may be the bigger threat, at least in the eyes of other characters. (Kou has already stated to Kominato that he really sees her as just a friend and totally separate from how he feels about Futaba.) It's plain to Futaba (and to readers) even from just the brief glimpse of this as-yet-unnamed character that she's got her eye on Kou in a way that Yuri, the other girl in Futaba's friend group who liked him, never did – as if she has a right to him. Kominato, showing more situational awareness than the average shoujo romance character, has been trying to warn Kou that he really ought to say something to Futaba before this friend shows up, but some genre conventions are simply too entrenched to be ignored. Perhaps more to the point in terms of Sakisaka's presentation of those conventions and overall skill as a storyteller is the way that readers rooting for Kou and Futaba to end up together can despise this new female character the minute she walks on to the page.
Sakisaka's art continues to make excellent use of body language that makes up for any other artistic issues that she has, giving us a clear idea of what's going through everyone's heads just from the way they hold themselves around each other. This is perhaps part of what makes this such an angsty-good series – the words may be slow in being spoken, but tension can build just from how Kou holds his head or Futaba sits. The story may be taking a slightly more conventional storytelling route as of this volume, but Ao Haru Ride remains a romance it's easy to get caught up in – especially if you've been waiting since the anime to find out what happens next.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Strong body language in the art, Kou finally admits his feelings, Toma's an interesting rival character, friendships remain strong
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