Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bloom Into You Volume 1 is forgettable, bland, and maybe a bit disingenuous (Manga Review)

Yuu and Nanami from Bloom Into You Volume 1Finally catching up on a yuri manga series that I'd been putting off reading, Bloom Into You by Nakatani Nio and published in the US by Seven Seas. One of the biggest reasons I didn't jump to read it right away was the cover art, I could tell it just wasn't my style. It's more cute than realistic and I tend to like a very "traditional" shoujo aesthetic in manga art. The cover style is indicative of the internal art, which while well-done, just doesn't do it for me. It doesn't distract me though, so it's not a big deal, but it's not a selling point either.

Bloom Into You Volume 1 introduces us to High School freshmen Yuu who half-heartedly volunteers to help the student council where she meets Nanami, a fellow student council member. Nearly right off the bat, Nanami confesses to being in love with Yuu. Yuu has been clear to herself and others that she's just not really thinking about love, it just doesn't seem to be on her radar. The title then suggests that over time she will "bloom" and fall in love with Nanami.

I've got some problems with this setup, and I think I might tread on some controversial ground here, so please presume that I mean the best if I do misspeak. Also, please feel free to help me straighten out my thoughts, but here goes: I'm not sure that in a society like Japan's, that tends to be pretty closed and skeptical of the LGBTQ community, that a high-school girl would confess to someone she's barely just met and who has shown no signs of interest at all. It's also pretty forward of Nanami to kiss Yuu especially given that Yuu has done nothing to indicate reciprocal feelings. If a man did this, we would definitely be off-put, but somehow it doesn't read that way here, why?

Here's where I'm going to get a bit controversial, bear with me. Given the title and the suggestion that Yuu will "bloom" into having feelings for Nanami, we get a familiar trope in the yuri scene that is a little concerning to me. Why does it just so happen that the girl who gets confessed to, who has no interest in love at all, will actually happen to be lesbian or bi by the end of the series (I'm assume that she eventually falls for Nanami)? It seems a bit convenient that Nanami would confess to someone who ultimately turns out to like girls as well.

The flip side: why do I consider that strange at all? If a guy confessed to a girl and she rejected him at first, we wouldn't presume it was because she didn't like guys so why am I presuming that Yuu doesn't like girls just because she doesn't reciprocate to Nanami right off the bat? Does this speak to an underlying subconscious bias I harbor about what is "normal" or the "default" (straight)?  I'm not proud that this subconscious bias might be coming into play, but I also feel protective of the LGBTQ community and don't want real people's true selves to be diminished by wishy-washy narratives.

Here's my concern: Is it okay to assume that Yuu will fall in love with Nanami simply because Nanami pays her a lot of attention? I worry that this might give fuel to those who insist (wrongly) on asserting that sexual orientation is a choice. Where there's no indication that Yuu has ever had an interest in girls or even self-doubts about anything related, the fact that she'll fall in love just because of Nanami's effort feels concerning. However, this is supposition, because I haven't read the next volumes and maybe the author will write a convincing emotionally-true arc for Yuu's coming out.

Yet, I'm still concerned and looking at some other Yuri manga might illuminate those concerns. For example, how is this set-up different than the one in Sweet Blue Flowers? On a couple levels: 1) in SBFs Akira really does struggle with her sexuality and we hear her inner monologue as she asks the questions about just what type of feelings she has for Fumi; 2) Fumi and Akira have a long history together that suggests that at least Fumi's love had time to develop - in Bloom into You, Nanami confesses multiple times and steals that kiss without really knowing much about Yuu at all; 3) SBFs leaves the ending somewhat unresolved, but also gives us a lot to ponder about Akira's sexuality and potential asexuality, and how that might come into play when deciding who to partner with; I don't get the sense that we'll get that level of nuance and complexity in Bloom Into You.

Let's look at how Bloom Into You compares to Kase-san (Kase-san and Morning Glories, etc...). In Kase-san, we have two girls and we learn from each of them that they've been watching the other person. They take time to get to know each other and become friends and they each give the other plenty of signs that there is attraction to warrant the eventual confessions (and the requisite coming-out that this entails, perhaps unfairly so, for those who are part of the LGBTQ community). This too is strikingly different than Bloom Into You which again features a confession to a near stranger, which means letting Yuu know that Nanami is gay which would not be easy to admit in Japan (and most of the US as well) even though Yuu has given no signals that she might even potentially reciprocate. Despite the lack of reciprocation, Nanami continues to force her feelings on Yuu.

So my concern with how this story starts is that one girl randomly confesses to a near perfect stranger who has no discernible interest in girls nor has ever seemed to sense anything "different" about herself and yet we're all but predestined to see them eventually get into a relationship with each other. This can be cute and rewarding at a superficial level and that's okay. But I do worry that it cheapens the experience of people in the LGBTQ community and the much more complex narratives of their real lives.  

Overall it's as if someone took a generic shoujo manga with a boy who falls for a girl and decided it should be two girls. I hope one day that we arrive in a society where we have that level of narrative acceptance where that story doesn't strike me as contrived when it's girl and girl. But given the social stigmas, the complexity of coming out, the complexity of self-realization, the relative imbalance numerically between those who are "straight" and those who are gay/lesbian/bi/pan, and the unrealistic nature in general of someone in high-school confessing to a near stranger, I felt that this set-up rang hollow.

All that aside, the actual story was also pretty non-descript. We don't really get to know much about either character, although we get the sense that Nanami is more complex than her tall, athletic, perfect, dark-haired stock look would attest. We also get a couple of nice lines that show the author has some writing chops. But between the bland artwork, no real character depth, a forgettable supporting cast, and a random confession between near strangers, it isn't a real strong start. Not awful, not disagreeable, and has some charm, but not amazing by any stretch.

So where will Bloom Into You go in successive volumes? Will it pull together a rough and somewhat bland start into a winning and heart-felt narrative? Will we come to know the characters and thus care about what happens? Will Yuu's eventual (probable) falling in love with Nanami make emotional sense with what we know about real human beings, or will it be perfunctory because it's been predetermined by the type of story this is? I'll let you know.

Bloom Into You Volume 1 gets a 6/10, maybe worth checking out if you like yuri, especially of the shoujo variety, but don't expect to be blown away.  It's cute, but not special in any way.


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