Friday, April 24, 2020

Bloom into You volume 7 hurtles towards the finish line (Manga Review)

Bloom into You vol. 7 - 8/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

We waited a long time between volumes 6 and 7 of Bloom into You (Seven Seas). I waited even longer because of the (rightful) decision by Amazon to delay non-essential shipments during the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time my copy had arrived, I had rewatched the anime, but still felt I needed to reread volume 6. And to be honest, I think that extra time processing both helped me to enjoy volume 7 more than I would have otherwise.

It's still an imperfect series in a lot of ways, but it is also a crucial series in the way Yuu and Maki provide media representation of aromantic/asexual people. Despite a lot of concern and criticism with Yuu finally confessing to Touko at the end of volume 6 and the "inevitability" of their relationship by the time the series ends in volume 8, I still think Yuu provides that representation, which I'll discuss later in this review.

Volume 7 summary: Touko has turned down Yuu at the end of volume 6 and Yuu is acting distant towards her now, "heartbroken" or something. Touko joins a local theater troupe to try and find something that is truly "her" and not just an attempt at recreating her dead sister. She says: "Someplace I could be myself that isn't by Yuu's side" either. It's a critical developmental step for Touko. There's also the school trip for the 2nd years (Touko and Sayaka) where Sayaka finally confesses to Touko. And that chapter is awesome, but so much that would be spoilery, so I'll try and tread lightly.

The early chapters focus on Yuu and her emotional fall-out from being turned down by Touko, something she never saw coming. Yuu questions what she even meant by saying "love" to Touko. And here's where we start to unravel the criticism levied against volume 6. Up through volume 5, Yuu really had been presented to the audience as aromantic/asexual, and her friendship with Maki who is also aromantic/asexual provided nice moments of pseudo exposition on it for the audience. (BTW, I use both aromantic and asexual because they are not interchangeable but the characters don't use either term to identify themselves, so I shouldn't really be assuming anything).

But with Yuu confessing to Touko in volume 6, there was a lot of hands thrown up, essentially saying: "Well there you go, she wasn't aromantic/asexual, she just hadn't finished developing her sexual awakening" or "it just took the right person" or "I knew it was too good to be true that we'd get aromantic/asexual representation." And I don't mean to completely dismiss those complaints. But I would like to present another way of looking at Yuu that might reconcile both the representation and her confession and feelings for Touko.

Let's start it with a question. Is there a misconception that you must be "totally" asexual or aromantic to identify that way? From what I understand, it is entirely possible for someone who is aromantic and/or asexual to also love someone, whether that is because romantic and sexual feelings exist on a spectrum, or just because asexual and aromantic people can love, just in their own ways.

Maki criticizes Yuu for running away from her feelings. When Yuu protests that criticism and says she's the same as Maki, he says they aren't playing for the same team. He's drawing a firm line between his complete lack of ability to feel or want another person and Yuu's experience. But I really think there's a continuum, a spectrum of sexual and romantic feelings, and so his comments feel dismissive. It's good to have a character like Maki for representation, someone who is so completely asexual/aromantic that there is no mistaking it. But I'm not sure the message, that "it's all or nothing," really applies to all aromantic/asexual people. Just like with gender, where there is fluidity between and outside of the Male/Female binary, I think there can be fluidity between and around asexual and sexual and aromantic and romantic feelings. It's not a "one or the other" way of experiencing the world.

Ultimately I think it is unfair to completely write Yuu off as an asexual/aromantic character. Certainly she is different by degree than Maki, but I don't feel that her depiction completely betrays her status as a potential representation of asexuality/aromanticism either. I reject a binary being imposed on asexual/aromantic people and I think Yuu, whether intentionally by the author or not, establishes that possibility in a very realistic way.

The other major aspect of this volume that I want to highlight is some very strong writing, both characters and dialogue. I think it may be one of the strongest volumes for that, probably the least cliche'd and more genuine.

One of my favorite scenes was early on when Touko tries to strike up a conversation with Yuu, but Yuu wants nothing to do with her. Typically, someone who likes someone else would relish chances to keep moving things forward even after being turned down. But Yuu is so out of her element, having new feelings, trying to express them, only to be turned down, that she can't even see past her own nose. It's so painful she can't even stand to be around Touko. She's actually pretty petulant. And that does sound a lot like my own 16 year old's stubborn-ness, so it is in keeping with Yuu's character to date as well. It's just nice consistent writing.

I also love the scene at the end of the first chapter in this volume, where Yuu throws herself down on her bed, head buried in her arms, and says: "I just don't know and I guess I probably never will. What does it matter now?" Nice melodramatic teenage angst, like: the very first person I said "I love you" to didn't love me back so now there is no chance of me ever having love in my life, you know, EVER, even over the next 60+ years. LOL, it's exactly what a teenager would think in that moment. So it's funny, having lived through those feelings, and it is also totally precious writing that captures that age.

Also, Touko is changing and the writing highlights this. Touko, sad about Yuu, actually shows that she's sad to others, and admits that she's depressed when they ask. She's dropped the completely put-together facade and people begin to notice. It's a huge change for her, and ultimately it will be for the better (no, I am not speaking from personal experience here!). It's that change in Touko pushes Sayaka to finally confess to her.

Now, I still don't completely buy that Touko "can't reciprocate" Yuu's feelings. I "get" why Touko didn't want Yuu getting attached before the play, the whole: "I'm not really me, but my sister, so don't fall in love with a fake pretend thing." mixed with "I'm sure I'm really unworthy and unlovable." But the play seemed to be an awakening for Touko to step out of her sister's shadow. So why isn't she ready for Yuu's feelings now that she's sure Yuu really knows who she really is and loves her for real reasons? Even Touko realizes she's lonely without Yuu. Dumbass. Also, since we've been talking about quality depictions of teenagers, I know that Touko has sexual desire for Yuu, that's been clear throughout the series. I know she's emotionally close to Yuu. So I'm fairly sure that Touko's emotions would overcome her stupid brain when Yuu confessed. But I guess it would've made a shorter series, so oh well.

On to Touko and Sayaka. This volume definitely has a "wrapping up lose ends" feel to it. I won't spoil the details of the confession, other than to say that Touko knew, for a long time, or at least highly suspected that Sayaka liked her. It brings a new depth and dimension to their friendship.

Without spoilers though for some really wonderful scenes, I do want to highlight some of their dialogue. In one spot, Touko thinks: "How can you stay in love someone who keeps changing?" In a later scene, Sayaka says to Touko: "you know, love doesn't mean 'I never want you to change.' But I don't think it means 'I don't care if you change' either. So I suppose it might mean 'I believe that you'll always be the person I adore.' A declaration of faith perhaps."

I found that thought by Sayaka really poignant. In my own life, I came out to my wife as transgender 2 and a half years ago and that's exactly what we are working through. Just what changes can someone accept, even if they don't want those changes, but still adore the person? It's a tough thing, and we're nowhere near a final resolution in our lives, but I have to have faith. To see that idea written that clearly, through Sayaka's dialogue, is powerful.

That final bit I want to highlight is we get some nice stuff with Hakozaki-sensei and her girlfriend, Miyako. There's an adorable scene where Hakozaki-sensei is yelling at Miyako for hanging out with one of Hakozaki-sensei's students (it was Sayaka). Sayaka just laughs at how cute they are together (in the middle of Hakozaki-sensei berating Miyako) and Hakozaki-sensei gets all flustered. It's just cute and normalizing of adult lesbians. A well done scene.

There is also a flashback that shows how Hakozaki and Miyako got together. In it, Miyako takes a drunk Hakozaki back to her house. Miyako sleeps on the floor instead of in bed with Hakozaki. In the morning, when Hakozaki notices, Miyako says: "I didn't trust myself in the same bed with you. It wouldn't be right to do anything with a drunk girl." Yes! Exactly! You cannot get active consent from a drunk person. I love that this scene was put in there to teach the kiddos how to do it!

In another part of the flashback, Miyako assumes that Hakozaki was only drunk and wasn't really interested in women and avoids her. When confronted, Miyako assumes Hakozaki will just find another boyfriend. At that, Hakozaki lashes out and says; "I'm the one who gets to decide what is best for me!" We knew from previous volumes that Miyako was the first woman Hakozaki was with and that she had dated men before. It highlights some authenticity to their relationship as well as some of the challenges gay and bi people face, worrying that people they meet are only exploring. A lot of transgender people find this experience with people who wanted a one time sexual exploration, but aren't really interested in long-term relationships with a transgender person. It's a real fear and I like how it was explored here. I also love that Hakozaki's somewhat authoritarian personality was consistently portrayed in her younger days too.

Oh gosh, there's so much more in this volume I want to talk about but there would be too many spoilers and I want you to enjoy reading this yourself. To be honest, I was quite surprised by how much I liked this volume, and it totally held up on a second reading as well. Bloom Into You Volume 7 gets a really strong 8/10. I'm looking forward to Volume 8, which I believe is the concluding volume. It's a long wait, but not quite as long as volume 7 took to come out.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 7 - it's all pretty germane, but nothing much happens either.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 8 - yes, and maybe more so after this volume.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 8 - I think some of Touko and Sayaka's interactions and how Yuu is depicted a bit like a sulking, petulant, emotional wreck even within her tightly controlled unemotional self demonstrates some really fine writing of teen characters.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 7 - I think Sayaka and Yuu are both well written here. I'm still a little uncertain that Touko's motivations throughout this entire series are realistic.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 2 - some of the conversations between Sayaka and Touko are really important.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 2 - I'm going to give this some extra loving because of the flashback with Hakozaki-sensei and Miyako that really feels like adult lesbians that exist in the real world and not just fantasy yuri decontextualized from society.
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not really the point of this volume.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 2 - Touko really shows how much she's changed since the play, actually showing vulnerability around her school mates.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - it's nice, but no bonus points, it's nothing that blows me away.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5 (I usually round this one down from any quarter points)

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0



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