Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Sweet Blue Flowers
Sub.DVD - Complete Series
Fumi and Akira were good friends in grade school. Fumi was timid and small and prone to tears, Akira tall and strong and outgoing. By high school, though, they've switched positions—physically speaking at least. Fumi is a stately beauty, tall and handsome; Akira is a little firecracker, as petite and cute as she is energetic. So it's no wonder that neither recognizes the other when they are reunited on a train platform, years after a tearful grade-school parting. When they belatedly recognize each other they rekindle the old bond, resuming a friendship that will support lesbian Fumi through her troubled relationships with other women.
There was an article about gay and lesbian comics on the National Public Radio website a while back. It mentioned two Japanese artists by name. One was legendary shojo pioneer Moto Hagio. The other was Takako Shimura. There's good reason for that. Shimura writes aching, delicately real stories about alternate sexualities. This short adaptation of her second extended series, focusing on young women at two private girls' schools, captures enough of Shimura's sensitivity, insight and restraint to be a sweet charmer in its own right, though it also stumbles in enough crucial little ways to make reading the original a must.
Flowers' quiet realism sets it clearly apart from most of its yuri-anime peers. It has neither the sci-fi gimmickry of a Kashimashi nor the melodrama of a Kannazuki no Miko nor the indirect homoeroticism of a Maria Watches Over Us nor, for that matter, the earnest educational seriousness of an after-school special (and some early yuri manga). It tells its tale of friendship amidst the complications of same-sex romance with honesty and clarity, with the simplicity and the complexity of real life.
The series focuses mostly on Fumi's friendship with Akira and tempestuous affair with Sugimoto, the mercurial “prince” of her school. Both relationships begin suddenly, but give up their subtleties leisurely. Over the course of her relationship with Sugimoto we learn of Fumi's habit of getting swept away by others, of her insecurity, and eventually of her growing strength. As she and Akira resume their friendship, Akira is shown to be perceptive and caring and a bit meddlesome, as well as energetic and strong of personality. We learn in artfully suggested revelations about the events that shaped Sugimoto, of the feelings that fuel her impetuosity and the secrets that, try as she might to hide them, emerge to corrode her relationship with Fumi.
They're not big or shocking secrets. That's not the show's style. They're small and believable, and no less important in the characters' lives for it. They reach out to connect and affect, creating a credible web of interlocking relationships that reaches out to include such disparate players as Akira's high-born friend Ikumi, their unreliable drama-club advisor Kagami, Sugimoto's three frightening sisters, and Ikumi's secretly devoted fiancé. All are drawn efficiently yet compassionately, even when Ikumi indulges her unhealthy attachments, or Fumi passively takes out her jealousy on Sugimoto, or Sugimoto lashes out at the reflections she sees in others of her own weaknesses.
The series' emotional attack is quiet and incremental, moving rather than devastating. It doesn't present a complete story, with hard-hitting climax and resolution, but rather a meaningful fragment of Fumi and Akira's friendship. That doesn't make the fragment it presents any less satisfying—or touching for that matter, as one of its central relationships bows and breaks under the pressure of Shimura's piecemeal revelations and the other cements into something strong and warm and lasting.
The problem with Flowers is that it doesn't always seem to understand what its strengths are. Its opening advertises it as a fanciful yuri tale (right down to the sensuously entwined fingers and twirling dance amidst a shower of flowers) when its great appeal is that it's nothing of the sort: no titillation, not even of the chaste variety; no operatic flourishes—just a kind yet sharply honest account of the lives and loves of girls, some of whom love other girls. The sequence also suggests an important romantic relationship where there isn't one (at least within the confines of the TV series). Which is just plain mean.
Elsewhere screenwriter Fumihiko Takayama tries to straighten Shimura's sometimes fragmentary mix of jump cuts and recollections into something more conventionally dramatic: simplifying scenes, culling subplots, and lightly rearranging chronology. Which causes him to trot out some artless devices (delaying an important realization until the end, where it concludes the show with a maudlin flashback) but more importantly runs counter to the real-life thorniness and slice-of-life flow of the story.
Luckily director Kenichi Kasai is past master of both real-life thorniness and slice-of-life flow, so the series' pace and tone—languorous and anti-dramatic, yet purposeful and effectively emotional—are exactly right. His fondness for watercolor backgrounds and preference for understated character animation also serve the series well. Though nowhere near as successful as Ei Aoki (whose adaptation of Shimura's Wandering Son was an artistic marvel), Kasai still captures enough of Shimura's minimalist beauty to produce a truly lovely series.
His musical sense is as sharp as ever too. Takefumi Haketa provides a comely score, an appropriately delicate soundtrack bookended each episode by a pair of sweetly sad pop songs, and Kasai uses it with impeccable sensitivity: heightening feelings without ever intruding on his characters or wearing out any of Haketa's compositions. He even manages to pull off the dreaded insert song, a rare and glorious feat in anime music.
He is less successful, however, with his actors. As with the opening sequence, when instructing his cast he seems confused or perhaps conflicted about what kind of show he's making. In general they turn in performances that are brighter and more anime-ish than they should be. Saying that they're cartoony voices in a naturalistic show would be overstating the effect somewhat, but it's not too far off. It's most noticeable in Fumi and Akira, who are played by Ai Takabe and Yuko Gibu as anime types: Fumi as a soft-voiced timid girl and Akira as an indefatigable genki-girl. Their performances are broad and primary-colored, sometimes painting over their characters' shades and nuances. In keeping Fumi soft and timid, Takabe loses the steel that should crop up when Fumi gets bold and angry, while Gibu's brightness mutes Akira's introspective kindness.
None of which stops Flowers from being a mature, winning alternative to your usual yuri fare. But it does mean that it adds nothing to and perhaps even detracts from Shimura's original. That it can't be the definitive yuri series that—with its synchronicity of source material and director—it perhaps should have been.
Right Stuf opts for the bare-bones release, with three discs in a simple snap case and no dub nor any extras of particular note. It is nice to see the series released at all, but it's still a letdown after the boxed sets Right Stuf put together for, say, Maria Watches Over Us.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ An unusually intelligent and realistic take on the lives of lesbian youths; sweet and sensitive and very pretty.
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