Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Sweet Blue Flowers [2-in-1 Edition]
Akira Okudaira is beginning her first year at the prestigious Fujigaya Girls Academy when she reunites with her childhood friend, Fumi Manjoume. Fumi is attending another girls' school, Matsuoka Girls' High, but they live close-by and walk to school together. While Akira rekindles their friendship, Fumi is dealing with conflicting emotions of her own. She was in love with her cousin Chizu, but she chose to break off their tentative relationship and get married, breaking Fumi's heart. Rushing in to pick up the pieces is Yasuko, the resident popular girl and captain of the basketball team. Fumi and Yasuko quickly start going out, but Yasuko may be hiding a secret love of her own…
On the surface, Sweet Blue Flowers has all the setup for a classic yuri premise: an all-girls' school full of students blushing at each other, kissing in hallways and against library stacks. The outside world of compulsory heterosexuality still looms, ready to swallow them up when they graduate, but for now they can have this space to share each other's company. There are lots of easily flustered feminine girls and a short-haired Takarazuka type who is probably a sports star that all the other girls dream about dating. If you're a girl who likes other girls, it sounds every bit as heavenly as it is unrealistic. If you've read enough yuri, it also feels very predictable. So it's notable that for all those trappings, Sweet Blue Flowers nudges its way out of that standard yuri mold from early on in the story.
Sweet Blue Flowers is written by Takako Shimura, probably best known as the creator of Wandering Son. Shimura really gets the struggles of LGBT youth, and while that may be more obvious in something like Wandering Son—unusual in its devoted portrayal of transgender children in manga—it can definitely be found in Sweet Blue Flowers too. Her characters have real-world emotions and struggles beyond the clichés they seem to follow at first. Watching them cry into their pillows or gaze longingly into the middle-distance reminds readers of their own first crushes. There's a familiarity here that should be relatable regardless of your sexual orientation—but especially if you're a lesbian or bisexual woman yourself.
What struck me about Sweet Blue Flowers from the get-go is that it doesn't sugarcoat the reality of the outside world. In school-themed yuri manga, the outside world is usually there in the abstract if at all, maybe as a subplot, like in Strawberry Panic!. The threat of these girls losing their loves to boys is clear in Sweet Blue Flowers from page one, as that's exactly what happens to Fumi. The series is also aware of the existence of homosexual identities, with characters considering labels like "lesbian" and "bisexual" to describe themselves. There's an understanding that while some of these girls might one day "move on" to boys, some of them cannot and don't want to, and their struggles will play out differently. Also, the story is still fairly optimistic so far. Unlike some manga that only know how to tell happy gay love stories in worlds that don't acknowledge homophobia at all, Sweet Blue Flowers is clearly set in our world yet shows there is room for its lesbian and bisexual characters in it.
As anyone who has read her other works knows, Takako Shimura's art is gorgeous. It's all soft rounded edges, with attractive characters, making it easy to see why all the girls love Yasuko. If you enjoyed the art of Wandering Son, Sweet Blue Flowers is more of the same, but adjusted to fit an older group of characters. That being said, I wish Akira looked less childlike, especially since it's already clear that she'll have a romance of her own soon. My favorite illustrations were the soft watercolors on the cover and the full-color pages dividing the volumes. Shimura has a real gift for drawing her worlds as both comfortable and soothing.
Sweet Blue Flowers tries more than most yuri manga to invest in its romantic "false leads". Fumi and Yasuko's relationship happens suddenly, but there is real attraction between them. Despite that, it's still obvious who the endgame couple will be. Yasuko has her own male love interest who's too old for her (and marrying another girl), but she still recognizes that she can't carry on with Fumi until she processes those feelings. I appreciate that Sweet Blue Flowers does not skimp on its supporting cast, giving them arcs of their own. It tries to fill up its slow burn with compelling material. Still, it drags in places and leaves the reader frustrated that the obvious conclusion isn't anywhere close to happening. Hopefully, this improves in the manga's later volumes.
This two-volumes-in-one release definitely improves the story's pacing, as the first volume is almost all setup and padding for time. The second makes up for that with a theater-club subplot that pushes the characters to sort through their own relationships. Overall, this release is an excellent way to dive into a yuri manga that's a cut above the rest. Sweet Blue Flowers still has plenty of its genre's trappings, but also enough bite for those seeking something more realistic. I am eager to see where the story takes Fumi, Akira, and their friends in future volumes. I hope Takako Shimura will continue to surprise audiences with LGBT stories that transcend easy tropes.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Beautiful art, eschews yuri clichés for a heartfelt depiction of teenage lesbian romance
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