Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 4

By Takako Shimura. Released in Japan as “Aoi Hana” by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz. Translated by John Werry.

The final volume of Sweet Blue Flowers shows off all the strengths and weaknesses of this particular series. Akira and Fumi make very good leads, and there are some deft story touches in this book, particularly in how their breakup is conveyed wordlessly – we’re not actually seeing it straight on, but obliquely. And yes, there’s a breakup, but don’t panic, yuri fans. Just as the reader was meant to be very wary when Akira suggested dating while she sorts out her feelings, so the reader somehow knows that the breakup isn’t going to be permanent. It is interesting, given how negative and toxic the feeling is in so many other manga out there, that it’s Akira feeling jealousy of Fumi possibly seeing other girls that makes her realize “oh, I *do* love her like that.” She also looks so much better with her hair cut it’s not even funny. Their story was the main reason to read the series, and it’s worth the read.

This does leave the rest of the book and the rest of the cast, and I was sort of up and down about that. I still say that, even if the cast list is somewhat helpful, a lot of Shimura’s characters look and act too similarly, especially the giant pile of younger students. More than that, though, at times when the narrative was focused elsewhere I felt like I was drifting through the book like at a party, catching fragments of conversation about events that should be important but don’t have time to grab me before we’ve moved on. Now, to a degree this can be refreshing. It’s clear that every girl in the cast has things going on besides what we see on the page, and I like characters with full, rich lives. But I sometimes wish the manga had more focus – its desire to flit from cast member to cast member made me feel like I was reading though a gauzy haze.

Overall, though, I’m very pleased we finally got to see this series come out in North America. It’s girls in school falling in love, yes, but the diffuseness I mentioned above also helps to separate it from the series that followed in its wake, many of which we saw here first. I also enjoyed the odd serious moments of melancholy, such as the backstory with Kyoko and her mother, which was sad and depressing without making the reader feel angry. And the teacher was a highlight of the entire series, and we saw that her own attempts to come out more publicly had both its ups and downs – I’m not sure if she’s in trouble at school, like so many plotlines in this series it gets carefully examined and then we move on – but it was great to see her imagining a double bride wedding. I do think this series ended at just the right length – it would have been exhausting to carry on for 3-4 more volumes. In the end, Sweet Blue Flowers had its bittersweet moments, but the end showed that sweetness can win out.

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 3

By Takako Shimura. Released in Japan as “Aoi Hana” by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz. Translated by John Werry.

Everyone wants to read about the awkward pangs of unrequited love. Will they feel the same way? Will they hate me? Will this destroy our friendship? But it has to be said, and Sweet Blue Flowers does a very good job at conveying this, the issues don’t magically go away after you’ve started dating. Admittedly Akira’s acquiescence is somewhat lukewarm, which is no doubt why Fumi is feeling this way. But let’s face it, Fumi is the sort of person to overthink things anyway, and these sorts of worries DO stick around. Communication does not necessarily become easier when you’ve confessed. In many ways it’s harder. And of course if you want to keep dating, you have to keep yourself interesting and fun, because what if your partner gets bored with the real you? Sweet Blue Flowers may not be getting any closer to resolution of its main romance, but it certainly knows how to convey its painful emotions.

Sweet Blue Flowers does feature an awful lot of relationships between girls, but unlike some other series of this ilk, they aren’t every single relationship. There are men in this world. Indeed, sometimes the reader thinks that the man is the better choice – Ko breaks up with Kyoko here, and you can’t blame him, but I honestly do hope that she gets it together and gets back together with him, as he’s a good guy, and her pining away is not getting her anywhere. It’s weird to feel this way in a yuri manga, where the nature of fandom tends to regard any man who might get in the way of a relationship between two women as evil. We also have different types of relationships here – Akira and Fumi start to date, but it’s very vague, and you get the sense they’re doing it so that Akira can figure things out more than anything else. Some of the girls in the school are clearly in an “akogare” situation that they’re going to grow out of, but some are not – one of the minor characters outright says she’s a lesbian, and Akira’s teacher is in a happy relationship with another woman. This isn’t just yuri’s classic “Story A“. (Well, OK, sometimes it is.)

Sweet Blue Flowers, of course, also has the same issues that it’s had before. Shimura’s character designs are too damn similar, and I find myself struggling to tell some of the girls apart, which makes it harder for me to remember the plotlines. Akira and Fumi’s teenage passion and fears are endearing but also exhausting, especially given this is an omnibus of two separate volumes. And I have to confess, I don’t like Yasuko all that much, and was irritated when she showed up again. Her going to England really helped this series find its feet. That said, this is still a very good volume, and since I believe it ends with the fourth book, there’s no reason for you not to get it so that you can wallow in panga of young love once more.

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 2

By Takako Shimura. Released in Japan as “Aoi Hana” by Ohta Shuppan, serialized in the magazine Manga Erotics F. Released in North America by Viz. Translated by John Werry.

Shameful confession to make: while I always enjoy Shimura’s series when I read them, I will note that it’s sometimes hard for it to stay in my memory, particularly when so much other yuri is already coming out. Not helping the matter is the fact that, while I do love her art, I sometimes have trouble telling her characters apart, particularly secondary characters. And thirdly, this particular omnibus seems to have backloaded the more interesting material. (There is a very helpful “Let’s meet the cast” list at the start of the second half/4th volume, which I realize is meant to be something of a parody but which I could honestly have used at the beginning.) Add all these things together and I’m left with a volume that I did not enjoy as much as the first. I suspect Sweet Blue Flowers may be a series that rewards marathoning the entire series in one gulp.

The first half, Volume 3, has the cast invited to Kyoko’s summer home for a vacation, which has horseback riding, and scary stories, and one of the secondary girls falling for Akira’s brother, which I’m honestly happy about because he gets so much abuse from his sister that he could use some nice things happening to him. Akira, meanwhile, is stricken with a cold, as is Fumi. This means that Akira is there to overhear some of Kyoko’s family drama and also with Fumi finally admitting that Akira was her first love, with all the awkwardness that comes with it. And we write Yasuko out of the story, at least for now, as she comes to terms with the fact that her crush is marrying the girl he loves (which isn’t her), and tries to apologize to Fumi for what happened between them (which doesn’t go well), then flies off to England. And so the fourth volume introduces new first-years, new potential relationships, and more and more of Fumi being a bit of a wreck.

This is not an easy yuri series, one that goes down smoothly and leaves a smile on your face. And it’s also not a series that seems to magically have no men in it whatsoever. Men are here, and they get into relationships with some of the cast. Girls have crushes on other girls, and then get over them. But we also have their teacher Yamashina-sensei, who gets a chapter devoted to her which seems to be about the bitter, unrequited love of youth – followed by the bitter, unrequited love of a student with a crush on her – but ends in a sweet way that shows us that it’s not ALL going to be angst and drama. I think Shimura may have realized that she was laying it on a bit thick – in the second half we get Haruka and Ryoko, two students who seem so far to be a bit less burdened with baggage than others. But we still have Fumi, and her attempts to try to be a bit more outgoing – which doesn’t work well – are very true-to-life but also painful.

Sweet Blue Flowers is a good series. That said, it’s exhausting as well, and I suspect that it’s best enjoyed either in one gulp – waiting till the other two omnibuses are out – or in smaller quantities, such as reading only half and then coming back. There is such a thing as too much Fumi. (And too be fair, too much Akira, though that’s slightly less pressure-heated.)