Friday, December 7, 2018

Ao Haru Ride vol. 2 is everything I want in a manga (Manga Review)

Futaba and Kou
Warning: I'm going to gush about a nearly perfect manga volume for the next several paragraphs. You've been warned! :)

Ao Haru Ride volume 2 by Io Sakisaka (published by VIZ in the US) is a nearly flawless masterpiece of shoujo manga. No, I'm not being hyperbolic. In summary, it has everything I want: a self-directed heroine who is not stupidly head-over-heels in love, complex emotional interactions between people that are messy and believable, characters we actually care about, and gorgeous art. Do I have your attention yet?

Ao Haru Ride is the story of Futaba and Kou, who had their meet-cute in middle school but just as they were about to take a step forward, Kou disappears. We flash forward to high-school where Futaba is struggling to find her young-adult identity. Just as she is beginning to recognize that things aren't going the way she wants, a young man, taller, thinner, older, but reminiscent of Kou shows up as a transfer student. It is him, but it's not. Gone is the shy, calm, kind middle-schooler, and instead we get a pensive young man who seems to try and keep people at a distance, controlling the temperature of the room clinically, but doing it to hide something.

Unlike so many shoujo where the girl can't take her eyes off the bad-boy, we get a much more nuanced take on that tired set of tropes/archetypes. Kou isn't a bad-boy, he's clearly someone who is struggling through some things. Futaba isn't madly in love with the boy she used to know nor the boy in front of her now, she's really just curious what happened to him and why he's changed. In fact, Futaba regularly talks about the things she doesn't like about him now, even getting comfortable enough to call him out on it at times. She's not a perfect young lady either, she's a really complex, messy, snotty, imperfect, but kind and fun and caring, authentic person. What we have is the story of two young adults, trying to figure out who they are, and remembering (or choosing not to remember) a time long ago when their lives were simpler and clearer.

Volume 2 picks up at the start of a new school year where Kou has been moved into the same class as Futaba and her friend Yuri and they are joined by Murao and Kominato, two very different classmates. Futaba, determined to take the reigns on her own life, volunteers to be a class rep, and is soon joined by the other four.

Of course, one of many fascinating and revealing moments, is Kou volunteering to be the male rep. Supposedly he isn't interested in the work or even being friends with Futaba, yet he frequently, in quiet ways, shows that he is aware of her. This volume is full of his struggles to accept that it is okay to have authentic relationships with other people and not always hold them at a distance either through coldness, sarcasm, or putting on a fake happy act.

The majority of this volume focuses on a student council retreat that lets the reader explore the dynamic between the five characters, and provides some opportunities for Futaba and Kou to interact. Again and again, we see Futaba finding ways to explore her curiosity about Kou, and Kou's responses being inconsistent. Sometimes he pushes her away; sometimes he lets his hand linger in hers.

This volume contains my favorite scene from the anime, at night, at an empty table in the retreat hall, Kou and Futaba's heads are down on the table next to each other, feeling a moment, but unsure what it means. It's a delicately rendered and very real scene depicting the complexity of human interactions and emotions.

We get some good insight into Murao and Yuri as well and the sense that these five might be together for a while. We also conclude with yet another glimpse that the old Kou has not been completely lost. He tries so hard to hide his authentic self, but it keeps slipping out.

So the writing is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, the moments are believable and complex but subtle and not overwhelming. What about the art? It's some of the best contemporary shoujo you can find! It's got the fairly realistic (ie, not cutesy or moe) style going for it. The lines are delicate and crisp. There is a huge variety of facial expressions (especially Futaba who shows her feelings so acutely on her face). Characters are distinct from each other. The use of screentones is wonderful, not just for pure shading, but for atmosphere as well (sparkles and overlays). It's everything I want in shoujo art, wonderfully executed, and well printed in the US version.

Basically this is damn near perfect. I'm not giving it a perfect score because it's too early in the series, we haven't had any big penultimate scenes or other things yet, so it's basically a perfect introductory volume. That makes it a strong 9/10; but if it's any indication, the series itself is headed towards "classic" status. Thank you Sakisaka-sensei for an incredible work! Thank you VIZ for licensing it!

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