Friday, June 22, 2018

Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana) Vol. 4 - Review and exploring Akira's asexuality

Finally, it arrived. Volume 4 of Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana). Not only is it one of my all-time favorite anime but it is also one of my all-time favorite mangas and so to finally have the story complete made my week. Let's start with a review of the volume before moving on to explore Akira's character a bit. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

It is printed as a 2-in-1 omnibus which makes it a bit larger than the standard US tankobon format. The printing is lovely, the pages feel nice, the blacks are incredibly black and the screentones retain all their small detail and beautiful gradation in grays. The story, naturally, is wonderful, although I'll dig into that a bit more in a second.

However, I'm still not in love with the translation or art localization. The translator continues to not use honorifics, which in and of itself isn't the end of the world. However, Akira goes to a Catholic all-girls high-school so when the younger students call her an "onee-sama" in the original Japanese I want it to be translated as "onee-sama" and not "lady" dammit! Needless to say I'm the biggest fan ever (self-proclaimed) of Marimite and no one does "onee-sama" better than it does, but that only makes me hungry for more. So come on, don't take it away from me here. "Lady" is not only a mis-translation, but it doesn't make sense in English at all. For terms that have no real English equivalent I just prefer to keep them in their native language. He honors this in volume 3 when he leaves the play "Rokumeikan" in Japanese rather than translating it as "Deer-Cry Hall" but chooses to get rid of my beloved "onee-sama" - unforgivable! :)

The localization problems don't end there however. The translator has some strange choices of translation such as when one character says: "I'm abjectly sorry." Well, I'm abjectly sorry to say that no teenager on this or any other continent would ever say "abjectly." I don't speak a lick of Japanese, but I'm sure a better translation, to capture the intent, would have been something like "I'm really sorry" or "I'm so sorry." But seriously, "abjectly?" you've got to be kidding.

Sadly, despite the art being amazing, that isn't left alone in localization either. On the beach after graduation, the writing in the sand is redrawn in English in the most god-awful font that totally sticks out and doesn't look anything like something drawn in sand. It's clear that instead of hiring an artist, they just had some intern white out the Japanese characters in the sand and type the English translation over it in a fuzzy font to emulate the look of something drawn in sand. Well, it didn't work, not at all. Yuck.

But really, those are minor issues in an otherwise brilliant volume. So let's look at the actual plot of the volume. First things first, I LOVE Sweet Blue Flowers and Takako Shimura's work. That being said, I've always felt like the dialogue and pacing can get jerky or scattered at times, such that it can be somewhat hard to follow or feel confusing and this is particularly the case in this volume where so much time is condensed into a short story space. I would have loved to spend more time on Fumi and Akira's relationship, but alas, it wasn't to be. I also think back to the anime where the writers did an amazing job capturing the story but also smoothing out some of the jerkiness of the original source material. I'd love for an anime adaptation of the rest of the manga.

Sugimoto and Kawasaki -
just look at that body language!
So let's talk story a bit, this volume brings things to a satisfying conclusion that also feels perhaps a bit more realistic than it could have been in less skilled hands. There is nice foreshadowing from volume 2 onwards of how the primary crisis of this volume will unfold, but then time passes and characters grow and this volume ends the story on a satisfying note that resolves the conflict in a way that makes me smile.

I'm so impressed with the writing of Fumi's character. Fumi is written displaying strong sexual and sexual-identity agency which contrasts so sharply to the other more timid parts of her personality. I love that about her! She's complex, like an actual person! Her character feels so real because of that and I love that she's not wishy-washy with her sexuality. She acts like most teenagers would, with lust and dirty thoughts! There are so many wonderful moments of that in this volume.

In addition to Fumi and Akira's story, we get an itty bitty peak into Sugimoto's growth. I particularly like when Kyoko calls Sugimoto out for her ass-holery and weaponizing other people's affections as a defense mechanism. Kyoko herself grows a lot in this, but what is sad is that we get hints at what could be an entire manga series about Kyoko that makes me love her character more but I don't think we'll ever see her as the star of her own series. We also get a beautiful panel hinting that maybe there really is something more between Sugimoto and her roommate Kawasaki. I do truly ship them.

So to bring the review portion of this post to a close, I'd give the volume itself an 8/10 "highly recommended" and the 4 volume complete series a 9/10 "Essential." The only thing keeping the series from being a 10/10 "Classic" is the pacing and the flow which just are a bit scattershot. So hard not to find it a perfect series, because it's so close.

Moving beyond the review, as I reread the earlier volumes and then this one (all of them in rapid-fire over 2 days this week) I had a thought about Akira's sexuality. I really wonder if she is asexual or non-sexual. How amazing would it be for a Yuri manga to feature an asexual character?! I think the lens of asexuality brings clarity to Akira's character. It isn't that she's debating whether she likes boys or girls, whether she likes Fumi or someone else, but she's debating with herself why she can "like" someone but that "like" doesn't trigger the lust that her peers seem to experience. Let's look at a few panels from the last three volumes to make this case:

She's 17 and seems to be saying that she's just never been aroused passionately by anyone.

She seems to have romantic feelings but not sexual feelings.
She knows that Fumi has had sex and is interested in that type of intimacy, so while she knows she "likes" Fumi, she is struggling with why that doesn't translate to the same sexual desires Fumi feels.
For me, this is what convinced me, she's recognizing that there is a physiological disconnect between her brain and her body's reactions.
So I'm purely hypothesizing with this, but for me, seeing Akira as asexual makes the story make so much more sense and also helps it transcend the "I guess I'm a lesbian because I love you so much" thing that seems to be a bit too pervasive in high-school yuri. Just like how Fumi's sexual agency is so realistic compared to most high-school yuri, Akira's asexuality feels more real to me as well. I don't know if this was Takako Shimura's intent, but I have to believe given the sensitivity of all her works, that this was intentional. Either way, kudos for presenting two very different characters and they way they work through their sexual development rather than making this what could have been a typical (but still enjoyable) two friends fall in love story.


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