Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Aoharu x Machinegun
Hotaru Tachibana has a strong sense of justice, one that she employs daily as the student council president at her high school. One day one of her friends tells her that she was bilked out of her money by a wily host, so Hotaru takes it upon herself to find the man and challenge him. As it turns out, her friend was fudging the details, but the man, Masamune Matsuoka, is not only Hotaru's next-door neighbor but also a survival games enthusiast! He recruits Hotaru to make up the third member of his team in the games, alongside his hentai mangaka childhood friend, and suddenly Hotaru finds herself in a whole new world of weapons and fighting. There's just one problem – both of the men on her team think she's a boy. And as events unfold, it's getting harder and harder to tell them the truth…
Aoharu x Machine Gun is that rare story that doesn't conform to one specific subgenre. Ostensibly this is a shounen action tale, but with its female protagonist (mistaken for a male, a la Ouran High School Host Club), surprising lack of violence for a series about survival games, and near total lack of romance, it really only fits the definition by a hair. It is still more likely to appeal to the shounen demographic than any other, but mangaka Naoe takes enough chances that there's a little something for everyone in these first two volumes.
The story's lead is Hotaru Tachibana, a high school girl who prefers to wear the boys' uniform and is consistently mistaken for a boy. While this bothers her, it isn't really a major issue in her life – if people want to think she's something she's not, that's on them. This changes when she visits a host club to try and get money her friend claims a host stole from her and she ends up playing a survival game with realistic toy BB guns to get the cash. Not only does it turn out that her friend, foolishly not expecting this reaction from Hotaru, wasn't telling the exact truth, but also that the host, Masamune Matsuoka, is a semi-professional survival game player. He and his childhood friend Yukki are part of a team known as Toy Gun Gun, and in order to compete in a major upcoming event, they need a third man. Masamune wants Hotaru to be that man, and he isn't using the word in the gender neutral sense.
For most of the first volume, Masamune's “no females on the team” rule feels very arbitrary. Is it because Yukki is a hentai mangaka? Does he not think girls can shoot? He never says, and it isn't until the much more cohesive volume two that Yukki reveals that their third member actually used to be a woman. A violent incident with another team prompted her to leave (and traumatized Masamune), and he decided that it was better to just avoid that possibility in the future altogether. This of course leaves Hotaru, who had been trying to find the right time to tell her teammates that they got her gender wrong, in a bind – she's come to love playing, but now telling Masamune could spell the end.
The reveal about the former teammate is really where the story starts to be more than scattered. Previous to that point it wasn't clear why Hotaru's gender even needed to be an issue – sure, it made for sporadic humor as hentai-obsessed Yukki tried to give her copies of his manga or buy her adult games for them to have manly bonding time over, but that humor was hardly the focus of the books. When Yukki explains Masamune's issue, however, other aspects of the story fall into place. Most notably is that it makes you go back and really think about how the survival games have been depicted in the series. Yes, the guns are hyper-realistic, but the actual games themselves have largely been non-violent. When a player is hit with a BB, he just throws up his hands and says, “Hit!”; there are no overblown dramatics, visible bruises, or blood. Most of the time the hit player doesn't even fall down, he just walks back to the seating area. Naoe makes it abundantly clear that this is a game and meant to be fun, that people wear protective gear so as not to get hurt, and that making up your goofy team name is part of the entertainment. The art never makes it look like a real battle either – there's an emphasis on the gaming equipment, like flags, rather than on lurking in bushes and sniping angles. Hotaru does get very caught up in it, but we also know that her obsession with “justice” predisposes her to enjoy this sort of activity; the story could just as easily have been about pro-wrestling and had her character fit in the same way.
That's what makes volume two so much stronger than volume one. Since there's been such an emphasis on the unreality of the games as pertains to actual warfare, the fact that some players get so carried away as to physically attack a woman and make her truly fear for her safety rings a warning bell. Masamune, who is the most easy-going of the three main characters and clearly has a lot of love for women, having so extreme a reaction as to refuse to play on the same team as a female really speaks to how traumatic and against the spirit of the games this other team's actions were. We do meet them at the end of volume two, and most of the other players seem very wary of them in general. It appears as if volume three will be setting up to really look at the lines that get crossed by people who take the games too seriously, and frankly that's a more interesting direction than volume one initially established.
Of course, part of the issue may be that volume one opens with what the author tells us was originally a stand-alone two-shot. There are a few small inconsistencies between those chapters and the rest of volume one, but mostly there's just a lack of smooth story flow that isn't fixed until volume two. It's too bad, because once things get going, this is fairly enjoyable. There are only minor artistic discrepancies between those chapters and the rest of the series, mostly in terms of Hotaru's hair, but artistic consistency is not one of Naoe's strong suits in general. Bodies also suffer from appearing very top heavy, with itty-bitty hips and scrawny legs trying to support much wider shoulders and chests. (Women with noticeable breasts do not suffer as much, which is interesting to note.) Not being remotely an expert in weaponry, I can only say that the guns look very realistic in direct contrast to other aspects of the art.
Aoharu x Machine Gun definitely needs both of these volumes to get off the ground. The story doesn't feel like it knows where it's going or why until midway through book two, but then it does start to become interesting. It has enough elements of enough genres to be worth checking out even if survival games aren't your thing, but readers also need to have the patience to get through the first book to where things really kick off.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B-
+ Emphasis on survival games as a fun hobby, some of the Yukki humor really lands, story is interesting when it gets moving
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