I recently rediscovered the joys of interlibrary loan, giving me access to a new quantity of manga I wasn’t able to afford otherwise. So, once in a while I’ll be putting out these multi-title posts with short-form reviews of what I’ve been reading.
Girl Friends (The Complete Collection)
When it comes to grades, bookish high school student Mariko Kumakura is at the top of her class. Socially, however, she is shy and lonely, typically eating lunch by herself. Enter the charismatic and beautiful Akko Oohashi, whose goal is to befriend Mariko and burst her out of her introverted shell.
Milk Morinaga is a household name amongst yuri fans, and one need look no further than this superb short manga to discover why. Girl Friends is everything that can be good about high school yuri: its characters are relatable, it tackles the awkwardness of being a teenager and going through puberty, the process of falling in love with your best friend, and the challenges of staying with someone while considering adult concerns like jobs, college, and coming out.
Akko and Mari are well-written, endearing characters who feel like they’re living in a real world. Their relationship struggles hit a number of worn-out tropes including miscommunication, “liking girls is weird,” and a temporary boyfriend. But the writing’s handling of those issues either shows why those tropes became well-worn in the first place or takes them in a surprising new direction.
Akko’s distress at hearing her classmates discuss how “weird” it would be for two girls to like each other is played to highlight Akko’s feelings of fearful, sad isolation rather than for heightened melodrama; and Akko’s reaction to not knowing how two women have sex is to pragmatically google it. Meanwhile, Mari thinks ahead to having to come out to her parents and how she and Akko can communicate while pursuing different careers.
The art isn’t quite moe but retains a chubby-cheeked roundness, and all of the young women in the cast are written with a respect for their personhood. It is slightly saddening to hear them all talk about crash dieting and how “fat” they are, one of those things that’s true to life but disheartening to see replicated mostly uncritically (though Mari eventually decides to pursue nutrition because of Akko’s worrying diets).
I’m perpetually tired of yuri set in high school, but I have nothing but respect for this kind, gentle, grounded story. I can’t recommend it enough.
Hayate x Blade (vol 1-2)
The all-girls boarding school Tenchi Academy isn’t just known for its quality academics—it’s also known for training the top sword fighters in the country. Students in the special “Sword Bearer” program compete in a school-wide battle known as the Star Stealing, striving to win both money and fame.
When the spunky and cheerful Hayate learns of the mountain of debt her old orphanage, the Dandelion Garden, owes to Yakuza loan sharks, she decides to become a Sword Bearer and win the Star Stealing.
There’s just one problem . . . she needs a partner to compete—and the one girl Hayate has her eye on wants nothing to do with her!
The copyright page of Hayate x Blade assures me that this title started publication in 2005. This is a shock to me, because no manga has transported me back to 1997 quite so quickly or so hard as this one. From the short-limbed, pointy-cheeked character designs to the heavy reliance on tsundere slapstick between the main couple-to-be, Hayate’s tone and aesthetic is right out of the late 90s.
The dynamic between the two leads is standard—a dark-haired sempai with a Tragic Secret and a perky underclassman who’s going to break through the shields of her hearts with ditsy exuberance—give or take said tsundere slapstick whenever Hayate gets a bit too affectionate. I’ll be honest, I was happy to see that trope die off, and having to relive it here was fairly irritating. None of this is helped by the recurring tendency, whether in the original text or as a translation choice, to infantilize Hayate’s dialogue. If I took a shot every time she said the word “potty,” I’d be blitzed enough to forget those conversations ever happened.
Nothing here is necessarily bad as far as basic mechanics, but it distinctly has an air of being made for a middle-school aged audience, more so than a lot of battle manga. The wackiness of the jokes winds up feeling forced, and the infodumping about how battle system works often far outweighs actual action on the page (once again in fairness, this is characteristic of many battle manga’s early chapters).
I suspect the main appeal of this manga is that it’s a fairly standard shonen setup with a bonus yuri element. Battle shonen is emphatically not my bag and hasn’t been since I was a teenager—in fact, I suspect everything about this manga would’ve really vibed with me when I was a fresh-faced 13-year-old rather than the grizzled 27-year-old I am now. But here we are, and while I can appreciate the theoretical appeal of a series that’s “a popular by-the-numbers genre but with gay on top,” I won’t be reading any further volumes.
After Hours (vol 1)
Emi Ashiana is 24, unemployed, and not really sure what she wants do with her life. When a friend invites her to a dance club, Emi doesn’t expect much. But what she finds will change her world!
The club is hopping and Emi isn’t…so she ends up hiding in a corner after her friend ditches her to flirt with a guy! Emi figures the night is a bust, but then someone amazing comes to her rescue. Kei is a DJ, and her effortless self-confidence captivates Emi. Is this just a wonderful night out or the start of the rest of her life?
The most eye-catching element of After Hours is simply that it’s doing something different from the bulk of yuri that makes it to the west: the main characters are adults, it takes place in Japan’s club scene, and the central couple meet by having a one-night stand. That said, there’s nothing wrong with structuring your story to stand out, and the manga’s first volume has the character goods in addition to the blessing of not being yet more high school fare.
The main couple have an “assured professional” and “adrift protagonist looking for purpose” dynamic, which is mostly just getting started in the first volume here. A lot of time is also dedicated to establishing the supporting cast and explaining the technical basics of what it’s like to work as a DJ. It doesn’t leave a ton of time to dig into the relationship aspect, but that’s not so much a problem.
The pair clearly have a somewhat casual but warm relationship, which happens to include sex in a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner—a trip to the bath house also reveals that while the art is a tad sketchier than I usually prefer, its portrayal of anatomy is willing to show off sags and realistic-looking curves.
The volume doesn’t end on the strongest hook (Emi wants to find a purpose), but there are enough unique and likable elements here that I’m excited to see the next volume.
Strawberry Panic, the Complete Manga Collection
For new transfer student Aoi Nagisa, St. Miator Girls’ Academy offers her the chance at a fresh start and a way to redefine herself. But these noble intentions go out the window when she catches her first glimpse of honor student Hanazono Shizuma, whose porcelain white skin and goddess-like beauty leave Nagisa speechless.
It’s puppy love at first sight, but naive Nagisa is unaware that Shizuma is a serial heartbreaker who has set her sights on Nagisa herself. Will Nagisa end up as another notch on Shizuma’s belt, or does fate have other plans in store for the new couple?
Speaking of teenaged Vrai, my God Strawberry Panic was inescapable in the 2000s. It might’ve been the most famous yuri series outside of Maria Watches Over Us; its very saliva-heavy kisses certainly showed up in their share of AMVs (I know, I watched them). But lacking the funds or savvy to acquire the anime back in the day, this manga compilation wound up being my first brush with the plot of this series.
I….am less than impressed. And while Hayate probably has charm to new readers who aren’t me, I have a hard time imagining SP appealing to anyone who isn’t already equipped with a heavy nostalgia filter. First there’s the inescapable fact that the manga lacks an ending, with neither the main plot nor relationship conflict resolved by the end of the series. Rather than housing any more manga chapters, the second omnibus is instead a collection of novels. It’s still entirely possible to watch the anime to get the full story, but absolutely nothing about this compelled me to seek out as much as a Wikipedia summary of the ending.
This is primo-grade Class-S yuri, where the relationships are referred to as “sisterly” even as characters are groping the hell out of each other for the sake of fanservice, and where vows of eternal devotion are tempered by the fact that no men exist anywhere in this entire closed universe (nor even any sense of life outside the school). It also has an inexcusably large cast stuffed into too few pages, many of whom seem to be there purely for the sake of getting more makeout scenes.
The plot is heavy melodrama, with the Mysterious Sempai stricken with grief over a dead lover and vowing to play the field but never settle down until the innocent new girl comes into her life. It’s clumsily written, and the large cast dilutes any enjoyment that might’ve been had from really zeroing in on the angst between the two leads. We didn’t have time to finish the main story, but we sure had time to make sure tertiary couple C feels one another up in the stacks!
It feels tawdry and cheap with little respect for its cast beyond their use as meat puppets (a problem that also plagued Panic’s BL contemporary Sukisho), and most damning of all is the fact that its fanservice, above and beyond the fact that it’s of high schoolers (which seriously, no thanks), has all the allure of a wet sock.