Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Review: Aoi Hana/Sweet Blue Flowers (Reverse Thieves Secret Santa Anime)

I participated in Reverse Thieves's Secret Santa event, where various bloggers suggest anime for each other to review. One of my suggestions was Aoi Hana, known as Sweet Blue Flowers in English, and perhaps best known for being a full-on yuri show. Whether or not the suggestion was based on my previous posts on the possible value of yuri shows for Christians, I figured I would take up that show both in the interest of looking at more yuri shows, and also because at only 11 episodes, I could finish it pretty quickly.

As it turned out, I rather enjoyed the show on its own merits. Even beyond the yuri elements, the show works well as a slice-of-life with moderate drama.

I'll avoid any major spoilers in this review, but do be warned that there will be some minor spoilers as well as some spoilers in the form of "this is what the show does not do". The full review follows after the jump.

The four main girls. From right to left: Akira, Kyouko, Yasuko, and Fumi.

The Aoi Hana anime is based on the manga of the same name by Shimura Takako, who also wrote Wandering Son. The anime debuted in July 2009, and RightStuf's Lucky Penny label released the show on DVD in 2013 under the name Sweet Blue Flowers. The show centers around Fumi Manjome and the various trials she encounters, from reuniting with her old childhood friend Akira Okudaira, and meeting and falling in love with her senpai, Yasuko Sugimoto, who seems to return her feelings. Also involved with all of this is Kyouko Ikumi, a classmate of Akira's, who also has feelings for Yasuko, except they go unrequited. Various supporting characters such as a number of Fumi's classmates, Akira's older brother, Yasuko's family, and Kyouko's fiancĂ© (albeit in name only), round out the cast.

While Sweet Blue Flowers is definitely billed as a yuri show, I would say it is more accurately a slice-of-life show with mild drama. The drama that is there is very low-key, based not on emotional outbursts or emotionally crippling revelations but on the small but significant changes in life and the subtle emotional reactions of the characters to them. As a slice-of-life fan, I definitely enjoyed the way the show worked its story into the slice-of-life framework, so on that front the show is a great success for me.

So then, how does the yuri play into it? First of all, everything is kept to crushes, dating, and one kiss, so it's far from being a fanservicey show. However, the girls' non-normative sexuality is only a minimal source of drama, limited to one early moment when Fumi comes out to Akira in fear of her reaction (Akira, for her part, doesn't care too much about girls liking girls), and when Yasuko comes out to her family, they're... not completely supportive, but that's a more complicated situation. That said, the girls' sexuality does end up affecting the show significantly, albeit in less obvious ways, by changing some of the dynamics among the group of girls from what they might normally be. For those who are looking for ways that yuri relationships can reveal things about gender and relationships, this show can be quite an interesting study (certainly more so than Sakura Trick).

Of particular note is Akira's role in the show. Despite what the opening might hint at, the relationship between Akira and Fumi, at least within the confines of the anime, stay squarely within the boundaries of platonic friendship. This has two interesting effects. First, we can look at just how different Fumi is with Akira compared to when she is with Yasuko. Without spoiling too much, let's just say you might start wondering if Fumi might be better off dating Akira (if hypothetically Akira were to swing the same way), considering how much happier she is with her than with Yasuko. Again, it's one of those things that makes you think about the nature of relationships, both in and of themselves and in how gender affects them. There's also how Akira deals with the tangled mess of relationships her girl friends are in, which makes for further interesting considerations over how gender and sexuality can affect friendships.

I must say that Akira is definitely my favorite character in the show. She's not perfect by any means; she can be quite meddlesome and has a tendency to run her mouth a bit too much. However, her heart for her friends and her care for them despite their sexuality is very admirable, and is something Christians can think about regarding how to show love toward friends that are homosexual. Kyouko is another interesting character for the way she deals with the various hardships in her life (she's also voiced by Yui Horie, which is always a huge plus in my book). Fumi works fine as the "main character", while Yasuko is an interesting character who appears as the "has it all together" type at first, only for it to eventually be quite clear that she's quite flawed and selfish.

The watercolor art style is a nice added touch to the show, and works well with its slice-of-life atmosphere.

All in all, Sweet Blue Flowers was a wonderful show. The characters are great, the show had a nice slice-of-life feel while still having a story there, and the yuri aspects never got obnoxious, but rather added to the show in subtle but noticeable ways. About the only problem I had was that the anime was an incomplete story, ending at a reasonable part but leaving pretty much everyone's romantic situation perpetually unresolved. The slice-of-life aspect is also likely to turn away some people, too. Still, this was a show I enjoyed a lot and I'm glad it got recommended to me.

Raw score: B+
Personal score: 9.1/10.0

Edit: Sweet Blue Flowers is streaming for free on YouTube.

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