Girl Friends was one of the first manga I read when I started getting into yuri. Strangely, rereading it made me realize I lost my passion for a romance with no guys. I don’t dislike yuri, but I can’t be bothered to read something anymore just because it’s a girl-on-girl romance. I say this because my mistake reading it the first time was expecting yuri right away, leaving me disappointed. Don’t do that.
Part of the reason Girl Friends can disappoint impatient readers who expect yuri right away is its story. It’s the classic tale of a popular fashionista—Akko—bringing an unassuming bookworm—Mari—out of her shell. But the more this bookworm steps out of her shell, the more she steps into feelings she’s never experienced. Much of the story focuses on Mari’s growing feelings for the oblivious Akko, so actual yuri events—whatever it might be—won’t be there to instantly satisfy readers.
Instead, readers will confront an emotional gauntlet. It’s easy to feel frustrated when Mari rationalizes wanting to kiss Akko by thinking of her as a cute pet, and there’s a certain hilarity in their friend Sugi who has a habit of stripping. Basically, Girl Friends teases out every emotion from jealousy to bliss. And that’s how it should go. People experience a variety of feelings, especially when dealing with teenagers, and moreso with a teenager who loves someone of the same sex.
The story itself smoothly flows from one emotion to the next. Partly because the story never hangs on the inner musings of a character for too long, and partly because the characters themselves show considerable maturation to resolve conflicts a little easier. Early in the story, Mari worries about something she did, and Akko casually breaks the ice saying it’s a natural thing for friends to do. Later on, a conflict between Mari and Akko involving college is resolved by the former’s own, indirect way.
And it’s moments like these that emphasize how far a character has come. Mari starts out introverted, tongue-tied, and not too worried about her looks. But by the end, she’s outgoing, speaks smoothly, and becomes a fashionista in her own right when she helps an old friend. The development itself is fantastic, not once going too fast. The blush crossing Mari’s face resulting from Akko’s honesty slowly becomes a flush of love, hidden behind a series of questions wondering about her own anxiety over Akko’s friends and lovelife.
There’s not much else going on with Mari, but it makes sense since Akko essentially gives her a social life. As for Akko, she’s got it going on being the center of attention, a fashionista, and generally outgoing, determined to bring Mari out of her shell. Later on, Akko’s backstory gives a sense of WHY she wanted to bring Mari out of her shell. But it isn’t until after a certain event a little under halfway through that Akko starts to change. She becomes noticeably more tongue-tied as she questions her feelings for Mari, and this change makes sense considering the suddenness of this certain event.
That said, the story doesn’t give a definite reason for why either character ends up feeling the way she does, nor does it draw a line—at least not until the end—for when friendship ends and love begins. But why does it have to be that way? One of the central conflicts on Mari’s side of the story is how she can’t tell if what she’s doing, what she’s feeling, is normal for friends. And it’d diminish their feelings if there was a definite reason. Love doesn’t happen because of one reason, but from a multitude of things unique to each person. In other words, Akko and Mari are believably compelling characters.
Rolling the third wheel from the side characters is Sugi. She doesn’t change much throughout the story, but she doesn’t need to. Beneath her extensive line-up of boyfriends is a maturity to match the body that unveils itself every time she strips. She’s very much learned a lot of harsh lessons in love, shown when she’s giving up-front and blunt advice for Akko on more than one occasion, or when reminiscing about how she used to act. Jaded but well-meaning, she’s Girl Friends’ most developed (ahem) side character.
The other side characters aren’t explored much, but it does show how the world still moves regardless of what Akko and Mari are feeling. They have their own aspirations (tennis), their own hobbies (cosplay), their own delusions (‘I’m going to see my Prince!’), basically their own things going on from ghost stories to boyfriend talk. When Akko, Mari, or Sugi can’t do it, anyone of the other characters will basically break the ice to stop the story from staying serious for too long. The story isn’t afraid to be heavy, but it knows when to lighten up.
Oops, I mentioned guys in a yuri story. In a breath of fresh air, Girl Friends isn’t afraid to fully explore sexuality by bringing guys into the mix. From Akko and Mari’s side, it explores the complicated feelings of loving someone of the same sex, while the male part of the equation poses a problem for Mari especially. That isn’t to say the story uses guys as antagonists but, for the two major guys it brings in, they are simply two, genuinely well-meaning people. Signs of deviancy still show from them, especially with one of their backstories, but the same can be said for Akko, Mari, and Sugi.
See, when I say Girl Friends explores sexuality, I mean that in every sense of the word. It very much addresses what lovers do, and doesn’t play cloyingly with its subject. It knows infatuation can create fantasy, as Mari can attest. It knows the cluelessly curious will look things up to not be clueless, as Akko will admit. And it also knows being drunk can cause strange behavior, as Sugi unwittingly demonstrates with Tama. Because of this, Girl Friends is a case where fanservice makes sense (save for that one moment in chapter two...); love is a sweet thing carried out by saucy actions.
Carrying every moment from the sweet to the saucy is Morinaga Milk’s artwork. Apart from being the most aesthetically pleasing thing you’ll ever see, character designs are distinct. Akko and Sugi are both fashionistas, but the curves greatly favor the latter. Tama and Mari are petite, but there’s a sense of energy only the former has. And when the lovely art isn’t sensually and sensitively expressing any of their feelings, it becomes a veritable fashion show for all the stylish outfits the characters wear. If nothing else, the story can’t be knocked for having school uniforms all the time.
Not that there wasn’t much to knock down the story over anyway. Even in its final volume worth of chapters, Girl Friends manages to stay fresh. It brings in new angles, commitment, and addresses the real amount of effort any relationship needs to last. That said, if the pacing was a little tighter, or if the story did something crucial that Akko and Mari need to eventually face, I’d have no qualms about calling Girl Friends a masterpiece.
But as it stands, it’s still an excellent, heartfelt story with a dash of honest naughtiness, not to mention easy on the eyes. Readers who don’t mind a slow but deliberate pace will find a lot to like, while people new to yuri expecting yuri right away might want to look elsewhere. It might not be a story everyone loves, but for these girlfriends, loving each other would be enough.