Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Nameless Asterism volume 5 takes the cheap way out (Manga Review)

three middle school girls and two boys sit on a couch
Nameless Asterism vol. 5 - 7/10 (*see full scoring rubric below).

Nameless Asterism has been both a good and problematic series in turns, and with volume 5 it comes to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. There was a lot to like in this volume, but the final resolution to the central love triangle was disappointing. It's going to be hard to talk about this volume without spoilers, so you've been warned. This is a SPOILER HEAVY review of volume 5.

Series summary: Washio likes Kotooka, Kotooka likes Tsukasa, and Tsukasa likes Washio. That's been the dynamic from day one in this series. It follows these middle school girls as they develop their own romantic and (perhaps) sexual awakenings. Each is at a pretty different point of development as well as self-acceptance. But not only are they a love triangle, they are the closest of friends. There's also Asakura who likes Tsukasa and is friends with her brother, Subaru who dresses up like Tsukasa at times. Volume 5 is the final volume in the series and has to bring it all to a close. Sadly, it just can't quite pull it off, it's a slightly flippant ending especially given the angst of this volume.

Here's the biggest spoiler (SPOILER): on the very first introductory page, before the first chapter of the volume even begins, it gives us a flash-forward (maybe to young adulthood) and it is clear that none of the three are a couple. They are all still friends, but they are with other people. So before we've even read this volume, we already know the ending. No one gets together, but they all stay friends.

With the ending being revealed before we even begin reading the volume, it becomes the journey that is most important. I'm not disappointed that no one became a couple. Love triangles are almost impossible to resolve when it is this "rotational" type as opposed to two people loving a third person. Here there can be no "winners" because there is no reciprocity. So I'm okay that in the end no one paired up. The whole volume was emotionally packed and dense, and so my sense is that it almost ran out of pages at the end rather than exploring the true problems balancing romantic attraction and friendship. After all the intense build up in this volume, the final mechanism of their resolution was a let down. It didn't really resolve anything, they just more or less agreed to stay friends and pretend that no one likes anyone else. Ughhh.

And that didn't feel sincere on two levels. First, now everyone knows that Washio likes Kootoka, so how are they going to go about like normal knowing that? I think back to my own experience, I asked a girl out, she turned me down, but we did end up in a band together and becoming friends that lasted longer than the band. But my feelings didn't really go away, and ultimately I got jealous when she was dating some scumbag and pushed her away rather than supporting her. So I'm not sure it's possible to be friends with someone you are romantically serious about. Therefore, I don't know how these three will be friends with each other when they each want something but there is no reciprocity. the jealousy would likely tear them apart.

Second, while Kootoka knows that Tsukasa likes Washio, Washio doesn't know about Tsukasa's feelings, and frankly the final volume really drops Tsukasa's feelings from the story almost entirely focusing almost exclusively on the Washio/Kootoka conflict. Tsukasa was actually the primary voice early on, but her attraction to Washio gets short shrift in the conclusion.

Similarly, Washio knows that Kootoka likes Tsukasa, but Tsukasa doesn't know it. So while Washio's feelings are out in the air, all the other feelings and complications are still unspoken. The dynamics just feel so unstable. I just can't imagine that they're all going to just hang out like its nothing. Especially in middle school. I mean, have you talked to a middle school girl recently? I just lived through it with my teen daughter (who is now blissfully in high school). I really don't think they can be friends knowing the other girl likes the other girl, and on and on.

I want to contrast the ending of Nameless Asterism (big fight with a simple "let's be friends forever" resolution) with the ending of Sweet Blue Flowers. SPOILERS AHEAD for Sweet Blue Flowers. In that story, Fumi has loved Akira for a long time. After confessing, Akira tries it out but isn't comfortable being with Fumi in that way. Ultimately, they split and at graduation they separate and go their own ways. It's a melancholy, but emotionally real, ending. But it isn't really the end, we flash forward and they reunite (in a really beautiful set of scenes) that shows how people change and evolve over time. So there, we have the instability caused by one person being in love with someone who doesn't love them back the same way leading to a true split. But we also get a future resolution that shows change and growth.

But in Nameless Asterism, that imbalance doesn't actually have any consequence. They just get back together as a friendship trio and the flash-forward shows them still friends and dating others. There is no consequence for that emotional imbalance. There is no real character growth or change. It doesn't feel realistic. I'm totally okay with there being no couple formed from the trio, but I just can't see their friendship succeeding. I think it would have been much more realistic if they went their separate ways, started dating other people, and then rekindled their friendship as the romantic feelings had faded or been replaced by ones for people outside the trio.

So while I really liked all five volumes and how the three girls are presented, the finally resolution didn't feel emotionally honest. It just seemed too easy to have them fight, make up, and go back to being friends despite all the complex unrequited romantic feelings between them. That being said, there were a lot of other good things in this volume, including some clarification of the previously problematic aspects of how Subaru's cross dressing has been depicted in the series.

For the first few volumes especially, I really felt as though Subaru's cross dressing was a random manga trope that didn't have any narrative value or place in this series. However, volume 5 changes that quite a bit by adding more clarity to Subaru's psyche and his cross-dressing. It still isn't perfectly clear whether he is cross-dressing only or whether he actually is on the gender variant spectrum, whether that is trans or non-binary, or something else entirely. But there's a pivotal flash-back for Subaru where he finally realizes he's been "labeled" a boy by others. His devastation at this labeling is readily apparent, and this opens up some more honesty for the reader about why he is open to cross-dressing. There is definitely something that Subaru is processing about how he understands himself to be. It's a journey for him that he is likely just beginning at his young age.

There's another scene where Asakura is talking about Subaru to whom he thinks is Tsukasa (but is really Subaru dressed as Tsukasa, so he's really talking to Subaru about Subaru). Asakura wonders if Subaru is aromantic. Subaru (dressed and presenting as Tsukasa) says that the idea of naming or labeling or grouping people with terms doesn't make sense to him. For four and a half volumes, not a single real LGBTQ+ term had been used (as is not uncommon in yuri), so it was a bit startling to see the term aromantic used here. But it was also a pretty decent discussion and not entirely inappropriate. It did feel a bit forced, but I suppose Asakura was wrestling with how Subaru sees himself. This was likely part of Asakura trying to unwrap his own conflicted feelings towards Subaru. So maybe not the most elegant writing, but the underlying thoughts make sense for the characters. It adds a new dimension to understanding Subaru and also was some actual LGBTQ+ dialogue in a yuri manga.

There are other scenes too which hint that Subaru isn't really processing romantic/sexual love. Is it because of his young age so he's just not there developmentally or is he actually aromantic/asexual? It's not clearly defined, but a great deal of this volume is spent on it, and that's some definite representation. It really reminded me of scenes of Yuu from Bloom Into You.

I also want to highlight the conversations with Washio and Asakura where Washio comes out to him. It definitely had the feel of a middle-school coming out. Asakura isn't totally competent with how he handles it (or how he processes how it makes him question his own orientation). He of course is also beginning to struggle with his own potential attraction to Subaru. And that's another interesting possibility, is Asakura bi, or is he just so attracted to Subaru that it transcends his straightness? Sadly, we won't get more of that pair in this series now that it's over, but they would make for a great side-series continuation.

Speaking of LGBTQ+ terms, at least in the translation (I have no idea what term is used in the original), they actually use the word "gay." This is extraordinary and nearly unheard of in school-girl yuri. It's in a flash-back where Kootoka is thinking about how she began to understand herself when a celebrity came out as gay. It too was startling to see in print in this type of manga and a great sign for the genre. I truly hope that yuri begins to take a more honest and socially situated look at being queer. Not that I don't love my Marimite-style yuri, but more yuri needs to actually let its characters be queer, be clearly identified as queer even if they are closeted, and actually situate them in a real world with what it means to be queer in contemporary society (and the accompanying challenges). So I see the use of the terms "aromantic" and "gay" in this middle-school girl yuri as a very promising development.

Moving off of the LGBTQ+ stuff for a moment, there's a really well written scene between Kootoka and Tsukasa where Kootoka has completely pushed her friends away. Kootoka is wallowing in self-pity, playing the victim, and Tsukasa calls her out on it. When Kootoka pushes back that no one else is suffering like she is, Tsukasa absolutely sets her straight that it's not a competition for who is the most tragic and no one gets to belittle other people's suffering just because it is different than one's own. It's just a very wise and well written scene. Probably a little too mature for a middle-schooler, but whatever.

The art continues to surprise me in a good way. It has the cutesy style that I don't love, but it really is of a higher order of technical skill than most of the cutesy art out there. The lines are crisp and precise. The overall level of high quality draftsmanship shows through even in the cuter style. There's a decent amount of detail and a fairly good use of screen tones. Overall, it is highly engaging, energetic, and interesting art. It does add to the series. Also, characters are very clearly defined, which helps me since I struggle with face recognition even in the real world.

Let's add it up as a series. The good: It's yuri, it's generally kind, there's no fan service, volume 5 ups the LGBTQ+ rep, the art is good, the characters are interesting. The bad: the resolution kind of let down the intensity of the final volume. It was a non-resolution resolution. But overall, I both enjoyed the series and volume 5 even though I felt the ending wasn't as strong or emotionally honest as I would have wished. I really would have been okay with a less happy-ending, whether that be a fracturing of the friendship, or two getting together and excluding the third, or whatever. It just felt naively sweet and thus a bit unfulfilling. That being said, I still enjoyed the series. Nameless Asterism volume 5 gets a nice 7/10.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 7 - it is, right up until it isn't.  Stupid ending.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 7 - yes, but there's also so much more that could have been done with them. They all scream for wanting more time. They have unique personalities, unique pasts, and I would have loved more time with them all.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 7 - there was some really nice scenes in this, and even if the writing wasn't super fluid (ie Asakura talking to Tsukasa/Subaru about aromanticism) the underlying thoughts were valuable.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 5 - This volume was great up until the final resolution. If the resolution had been more realistic, this score would have shot up.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 6.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 1 - there are a couple nice moments of clarify, Tsukasa lecturing Kootoka about not comparing suffering and being a tragic heroine was well done.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 2 - I'm going to give this some series points for using the word "gay" in a yuri manga about middle school girls in love! Also, they use the term "aromantic" and there's lots of people thinking about and processing sexual orientation and gender. 
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not really the point of this series
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 0 - sadly, not really, and that's a tragic flaw of the ending. 
  • Quality art (0-5): 1 - I'm going to give it a point because although it isn't my preferred style (too cutesy), it really is very well done for that style and it adds to the read.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

  • 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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  1. Hello.
    Let me point out one factor that you have overlooked.
    In the flash-forward picture, Washio and Kotooka have similar-looking accessories on their wrists, which Tsukasa does not have on hers. This suggests that Washio and Kotooka are now in a certain relationship that is different from the friendship of the three.
    (Currently I have only the Japanese version of this volume; I hope the print resolution of the English version is high enough.)
    If you want more evidence about the relationship, you can check the extra pictures the author gave on her twitter account https://twitter.com/udonkimuchikaki on 2017-12-24, eight months after the publication of the final volume (direct link: https://twitter.com/udonkimuchikaki/status/944881453136875521 ).

    By the way, in the Japanese version of the volume, this picture is printed on a space which a typical reader sees only after reading the whole story, so we understand it as an epilogue. I agree that the placement of this picture in the English version is not so appropriate.

    I wish the comic had continued longer, so that we could read further stories and see the girls and the boys grow/change/evolve, as you expected.

    1. Woah, you just blew my mind. Thank you for this information. I actually had to take a picture of the picture and blow it up to see the detail (it could be because I'm 40 and my eyesight isn't what it used to be). I see that Washio and Kotooka are both wearing beaded bracelets with stars on them. Of course, it was always Tsukasa that wore the stars in her hair. It's an interesting way to talk about Washio and Kotooka being together, but even the sign of their togetherness doesn't leave Tsukasa out. Very cute, and a detail I really did miss when I first saw it (it's so tiny!).

      It really was a shame that that picture is printed in the front of the English volume instead of the back as an epilogue. That really would have helped.

      Then, looking at those pictures on twitter it really does seem abundantly clear that Washio and Kotooka are together. And the stars on their bracelets are much clearer too. And certainly, it appears that Asakura and Subaru are making progress if Asakura is giving him gifts for Christmas (assuming I'm interpreting it correctly that Subaru was dressed as Tsukasa but using the cup later indicates that maybe Asakura knows now?).

      This definitely helps clarify the ending. I'm still not sure I loved the relatively happy-go-lucky nature of the ending. It doesn't seem quite as emotionally fraught as a real love triangle amongst middle school girls would be. But maybe it's also nice to have some happy endings occasionally too. <3

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and contributing this extra info. I really appreciate it and I hope a lot of other readers will appreciate it too.


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