Summer Pilots: Aoi Hana (and a rant about gender roles in anime romance)

7 07 2009

Hi guys, it’s Menma.  I didn’t die, probably.  At Tekky’s urging, I chose a summer series to cover, and that’ll be Aoi Hana (“Blue Flowers”).  As far as I can tell, it’s a shoujo-ai slice of life drama, about two childhood friends who are reunited in high school and find themselves drawn to each other romantically.  From what I can see it’ll be a slow, bittersweet journey, set against that kind of watercolor background that makes you weirdly nostalgic for places you’ve never been (or maybe you have, but I haven’t).

In terms of sight and sound, Aoi Hana is very pretty.  A lot of the time the art, especially the background, looks like rough sketches, but in a good way.  The scenery, all watery greens and beiges and blues, and the soft piano music in the background, make you feel like you’re in one of those serene cities from a Ghibli movie.  Think Mimi wo Sumaseba or Majo no Takkyuubin.  Yes, it’s that nostalgic Ghibli feeling.  The character designs even feel Ghibli-like.  I’m sure that as soon as I publish this someone will say “Hey Menma how did you not know that Aoi Hana was made by Ghibli” or something and then I’ll feel silly.  But anyway, if you like Ghibli, you’ll like the feel of this series.

aoihana1collage

As for the story: let me start off by saying that I love shoujo-ai.  (Warning: essay ahead.  Skip to the bolded text if you want episode-related content.)  I love romance, but in anime it’s usually pretty formulaic.  Most of it, being heterosexual, is plagued by male-female tropes, with the woman as passive and needing parenting in one way or another.  Often the relationships are uneven in terms of power – the “I’ll protect you forever!” thing is very common.  When you see it all the time, it gets boring, no matter how much you like the characters.  I think it does a disservice to the characters and the story, but I also feel that there’s no helping it – that’s where many of the world’s societies are right now in terms of understanding male-female relations, so that’s going to be reflected in our stories.  So it goes.  Also, the romance in most (non-romance) anime isn’t a main focus, so thoughtful development of the characters’ relationships often gets left by the wayside and we get a generic “I love you I hate you I love you I hate you it turns out we need each other” sort of thing stuck in there because the series needs a romantic subplot.  I don’t really have a problem with that.

But this is why I like shoujo-ai and shounen-ai – it mixes it up a bit.  The rules are more flexible.  What happens in a relationship when gender distinctions are removed, when the patterns of “male” and “female” behavior don’t apply as readily? Of course there are going to be power dynamics in any relationship, but in series like Maria-sama ga Miteru, for example, dominant and passive traits are shared between both partners.  Moments of weakness, of needing others’ help, are more evenly divided – giving the impression that both of the characters are real people, more so than in most mainstream heterosexual romances.

That’s not to say that the same cliches don’t show up, but I like seeing what happens in a relationship when you take out the “I’m the woman, you’re the man” roles and let the characters just be who they are and see what develops naturally out of that.  It’s not a whole new world, but it’s one that can take more different shapes, and I like that.  That being said, there are also the stories that take two people of the same sex and make one very obviously the man and one very obviously the woman (think Nanami and Shinichirou in Sukisho).  That disappoints me, because to my mind it misses the whole point of having a story about PEOPLE in a relationship instead of ROLES.  But then, a lot of these are just for the yaoi/yuri lovers – people who like the typical power roles, but want to see men kissing men, or women kissing women, because it’s hot.

Anyway, that’s my thing about shoujo/shounen-ai – part of it, anyhow – and that’s why I chose Aoi Hana.  On to some actual stuff about the first episode

The story is about Manjoume Fumi and Okudaira Akira, both first-year high school students.  They were friends in grade school, but Fumi moved away, and they lost touch despite promising to write each other.  Now Fumi is back in their hometown of Kamakura, where Akira has just started at an elite girls’ mission school.  Akira is cheerful and spunky with a tendency to look after others, while Fumi is reserved, distant, and passive.  They’re a very mismatched pair – the short, cute Akira and the tall, elegant Fumi – and this episode is about how they relate to others on a day-to-day basis.

I dunno, I'd want him to drive me to school.

I dunno, I'd want him to drive me to school.

Akira wakes up and rushes out the door late; her doting, slightly creepy older brother offers her a ride to school and compliments her sailor uniform, but Akira, annoyed, tells him to stuff it and jumps out at the train station instead, because it would be too embarrassing to be seen being dropped off by her brother at school.  She bumps into Fumi at the station, but they don’t recognize each other, although Akira notices Fumi’s beauty.  On the train, Fumi is molested by a man in a suit, but can’t speak up; Akira stomps on the guy’s foot and drives him off.

At school, Akira quickly makes a friend; in contrast, Fumi is invited to join the drama club and flatly refuses, saying she doesn’t want to be a member of any clubs.   Fumi reflects on her difficulty with saying no, to the man on the train earlier and to her classmates now; she seems to prefer to be alone.  But she’s not happy.  We don’t get much of a clue as to why, except that she’s infatuated with her beautiful older cousin Chizu, who doesn’t quite reciprocate.

Chizu is a little bit of a tease.

Chizu is a little bit of a tease.

Anyway, Fumi and Akira’s mothers get together, which brings the girls together, too, and they each realize, finally, who the girl from the train station was.  They look at photo albums together, and flashbacks abound; Akira, totally uninhibited, remarks on Fumi’s height (tall) and the size of her breasts (small).  Fumi just can’t escape sexual harassment, I guess.

Back at home, Fumi and Chizu talk a little about Fumi and Akira’s childhood friendship; they’re interrupted when Fumi’s mother calls them down to cut a “congratulations on your wedding” cake for Chizu.  Fumi goes into shock; Chizu’s sorry, but knows Fumi needs to let go.  The next day, waiting at the train station, Fumi tells herself that she knew she and Chizu could never work, but her tears fall anyway…and then there’s Akira, with a handkerchief, just like when they were kids.  It’s about the reestablishment of a relationship, different from before but still the same.

On a personal-reaction sort of note, there was something that struck me as not right about Fumi, and it made me feel kind of weird about the whole episode.  There’s a kind of desperate unhappiness about her sometimes, not a usual teenage sort of emo.  I wanted to say, “Nooo, Akira!  There there be monsters!”  But from what I’ve seen, Akira takes care of people, and she certainly always took care of Fumi as a kid – there’s no stopping it.  Also, the whole frigging series is going to be about Akira NOT staying away from the crazy, presumably.

It’s probably just my own strange first impression, anyway.  Fumi is probably not actually crazy.  Also, Akira sounds like a cat.

-Menma

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4 responses

7 07 2009
hashi

Thanks for this. Both the essay and the review were enjoyable. I like the Aoi Hana manga, and this first episode seemed to me to do a good job of bringing it to life. As for romantic stereotypes, I like most of them anyway, but it is good to get something new — or at least a new mix of roles. Good points about the role-freedom shoujo-ai provides. I find Fumi a really attractive character, in part because she is so awkward and uncertain. Maybe a bit crazy, but isn’t everyone?

8 07 2009
Patches

This looks delicious. With everything I see, I get more excited for the Summer Season. Looking forward to your opinions on it! ^^;

26 09 2009
Anime

Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you!
Thank you for your info.And this is **anime** site/blog.
It pretty much covers ###anime## related stuff.

30 09 2009
Moonbat

Gender roles are even worse in American media. In JP anime, gender roles and power structures are bent and reversed all the time, and there is a lot of emphasis and strong female role models. That does not exist in American culture.

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