I want to preface this review with the simple statement: I love J.C. Staff. Toradora! and Nodame Cantabile occupy spots on my "Top 5"; I've been able to recite Lina Inverse's Dragon Slave chant (Slayers) for almost a decade; and I laugh heartily every week at the antics of Hayate and the gang (Hayate no Gotoku!!). Combined with my growing appreciation for shoujo-ai anime, I figured I would find their 2009 anime, Aoi Hana, enchanting. Wrong. Instead of adding another sterling title to one of my preferred genres, my favorite studio coughed up a pretty picture-book about a pair of girls' schools, and then marred it with a halfhearted story of heartbreak and friendship.
Over its too-short eleven episodes, Aoi Hana details the life of a high school freshman, Fumi, and her relationship with a senior at her new high school. To spice things up, the series throw the lead's childhood friend and a classmate who harbors a deep, unrequited love for the princely upperclassman into the mix, creating an odd love-polygon. Closely monitored, the interactions between these girls could have made for compelling drama, but the show's obsession with its own beautiful scenery and failure to flesh out its its main characters torpedoed the effort. Scenes of school and town life dominate each episode, forcing the story to the sidelines and causing the narrative to skip jarringly around without much context or reflection. Interesting bits of history do spin off the central characters, but the series refuses to chase their consequences, leaving any potentially rewarding plot threads hanging in the warm summer breeze.
The lax focus even sucks vitality from what little plot does mange to play out. When major dramatic moments arrive, the series seems to lack the guts to really drive them home and the show quickly cuts from any confrontational events to pan over more scenery. The fleeting and deft approach to these major interpersonal interactions does not generate the aura of maturity and realism that the series likely intends. Robbed of sufficient buildup and receiving only the faintest attention from the narrative, almost all the story's twists and turns arrive with a sigh instead of a bang.
On a positive note, it appears that J.C. Staff placed the fantastic art team of Nodame Cantabile at the reins. Whereas its predecessor uses the climatic concerts as excuses to flex its visual muscles in lock-step with its plot, Aoi Hana milks its relaxed narrative to trot out the sumptuous backgrounds and understated animation during every break in the action. The watercolor scenery here rivals any I've seen in the genre, and the series so flawlessly integrates its limited CGI into the frame that only under careful scrutiny can the viewer differentiate between computer models and hand drawings. Each shot's lighting is also superb. From the change in light quality when episodes transition between day, afternoon, and night to the tiny sparkles on falling tears, this series creates a sense of reality and place that contributes to the ambiance. However, the focus on the setting and heavy use of montage that flows from it causes some episodes to play out more like a series of paintings than an animated TV show. No matter how pretty, still shots of the school buildings and town get old after a time and their pervasive presence drains valuable screen time from the cast interaction.
Aoi Hana sounds pleasant enough. The OP swells beautifully from silence into an enchanting little melody, but the series once again chooses staid over melodramatic and the performance doesn't capitalize on the song's potential. Following the tone set by the OP, the rest of the gentle soundtrack, comprised mostly of classical piano pieces, perfectly compliments the series' laid-back visuals, but quickly fades from memory.
On the whole, the voice cast's approach to the script follows the musical components' level of uninspired competence. Chiemi Ishimatsu delivers Sugimoto in a listless monotone that perfectly matches her character's expression. In this case, Ishimatsu-san does the audience a disservice by failing to provide any nuance that would have given greater insight into the character. Additionally, the normally electric Yui Horie vanishes into Kyoko, which particularly disappoints given the actress steals nearly every scene when she appears in Kanamemo and Bakemonogatari (both airing in the same season). In contrast, Akira's seiyuu, Gibu Yuko deserves special mention for bringing her vivacious charge to life. Much of Akira's personality comes through perfectly in Gibu-san's interpretation, and her effervescence brings a smile to my face every time the she opens her mouth.
Akira's forthright nature, cavalier attitude, and friendly demeanor make her the only bright point in an otherwise completely lackluster main cast. While we're given a cute trio of girls and a pair of amusing boys to round out the auxiliaries, Weepy (Fumi), Beanpole (Sugimoto), and Fangirl (Kyoko) consume most of the screen time. The principal lead drifts through the series, substituting tears for positive action and allowing and her sempai's whims to run roughshod over her feelings. Mild mannered to a fault, the tearful girl abides and trusts when she should resist and question. Under normal circumstances, this young lady's thrashing and inner dialog would illuminate her decisions and consume the anime's quiet moments, but not so here. Instead, the anime locks Fumi's inner conflict behind inscrutable facial expressions aggravated by the series' understated artwork. Her mood appears to shift between listless melancholy and vague discomfort, neither of which betray any depth of feeling or aching love for Sugimoto. When the protagonist finally starts to change in the second half of the season, her pivotal moments arise out of nowhere and ring hollow as a consequence of this largely hidden emotional evolution.
Neither of the other two girls in the love triangle prove any more interesting. The writers had probably intended Sugimoto's stoicism and willfulness to come across as coy and capricious, but her stony-faced expressions, even-tempered voice, and extremely late-coming background portray her as merely mysterious throughout most of the series. Confused, heartless, and impossible to read, she doesn't even divulge enough of herself to either inspire hatred on the part of the audience or justify her admirers' affections. Kyoko similarly shows nothing to the audience save for her slavish love and devotion to her sempai. The few moments she shares with other cast members paint her as a typical high school girl and don't explain what makes her tick. Towards the show's end, she receives a small bit of back-story, but it only provides her the thinnest of motivations, generating an "I guess..." from the viewer instead of an "Ah-ha!". Given that the three main actors in this drama are ciphers, it's hard to empathize with anyone. Even the more interesting side characters like Sugimoto's sisters and the sponsor of the Fujigaya Academy's drama club can only bring so much to the story when the leads give the plot so little to work with.
Aoi Hana's setup could have delivered a deep and engaging love story, but its inability to stay focused on its narrative spoils the effort. No matter how lush the visuals, drama sinks or floats on its ability to elicit empathy from its audience. In choosing to showcase the scenery around town at every opportunity, the show robs the viewers of the time necessary to understand its main characters, blunting the effect of what could have been powerful emotional moments in these girls' lives. Unfortunately, what attention the anime does pay to its central plot cripples it as a slice-of-life venture, and in the end it drops both balls. Aoi Hana takes itself on a jaunt around a beautiful town during which the series gets lost, arrives at nowhere, and tries to claim it as a destination.
There's no mistaking that Aoi Hana is exceptionally drop dead gorgeous. With watercolored backgrounds that appear to have been taken straight out of Iblard Jikan and a flawless mix of CG and regular animation, Aoi Hana would seem to be a must-see.
Except that it's so, so incredibly boring that I almost cried alongside the characters in Aoi Hana, who also incessantly cry.
To be clear, I like slow anime; Kino no Tabi, Haibane Renmei and Piano are three slice of life titles that I love to death. But Aoi Hana is easily in my top 5 (or maybe even 3) most boring titles of all time. It's soul crushingly slow and uninteresting to the point that I had to watch the last episode in pieces to remain coherent.
Preliminary reviews of Aoi Hana seem polarized - at least on the surface - between those who are avid readers/watchers of shoujo-ai, and those who aren't. Those who are have heralded Aoi Hana to be rich in character development, especially compared to other titles in the genre. I fully admit that it could be I'm not a conniseur of shoujo-ai; I don't mind it, as I watch romance/drama anime for the romance/drama, and not the sex of the couples. Regardless, I have no desire to compare Aoi Hana to other shoujo-ai titles - compared to other titles period, it's flat out uninteresting and slow to a fault.
Character-wise, it's difficult for me to understand the argument that Aoi Hana is filled with fantastic beings. From the get-go I was put off by Fumi's obnoxious, inappropriate crying, and the rest of the characters don't have nearly the amount of depth I'd expect from such a well-lauded show.
Romance-wise, by the end of episode three at least one relationship has begun to flourish - but frankly I didn't care at all. There's nothing three dimensional or deep here - same-sex aside, I found much more value and impact from a series like Paradise Kiss.
Maybe I'm just missing something, but I could barely get through three episodes of Aoi Hana, and I definitely won't be watching the rest. It's beautiful, but ultimately was a huge waste of my time.
Aoi Hana (Sweet Blue Flowers)
Plot: "Shy, crybaby Fumi has just transferred into Matsuoka Girl’s High School, in the city of Kamakura. It’s been ten years since she moved away, leaving her dear friend Akira behind; and soon, the two are reunited once more. Akira is now attending Fujigaya Girls’ Academy, though she and Fumi still manage to see each other regardless. Between classes and social engagements, the two will experience love, the struggle to admit one’s true feelings, and the joy of companionship." (site synopsis)
Story: Yet another shoujo-ai work that came out last year. Aside from the other shoujo-ai that i reviewed recently, Sasameki Koto i liked this one slightly more since it accomplished in 11 episodes what Sasameki Koto couldn't do in 13 episodes. The story revolves around two high school girls, the energetic and cheerful Akira Okudaira and the shy, crybaby Fumi Manjoume. Back when they were in elementary school they used to be very good friends, they were hanging out toghether helping eachother until one day when Fumi had to move with her parents to a different place. The anime depicts the moment when she reestablishes in her childhood town once again and enroling in Matsuoka Girl’s High School. Fate has it that Akira and Fumi meet but since many years they haven't met nor talked they forgot eachother. Akira remained as cheerful and as energetic as always while Fumi remained the same old crybaby like in her childhood. However Fumi grew taller than Akira and it was understandable why they couldn't recognize eachother. The same day Fumi's mother took her to visit an old accquaitance of her and there Fumi realizes that the girl who helped her in the train the same day happened to be her old friend Akira (or Acchan as she used to call her). Unlike Sasameki Koto where there were only two main lesbian pairs here we deal with something a bit more complicated, love triangles, more angst and alot of unclear situations. Fumi and Akira quickly got along and reestablished their friendship, but will this remain the same? Here is where the complicated things start to happen. As soon as Fumi settles in Matsuoka Girl's High School she gets to meet a special upperclassmen Yasuko Sugimoto. It is not long until Yasuko tells Fumi that she actualy has feelings for her and she wishes to date her. At first Fumi accepted it, but since society doesn't view these things with good eyes they had to keep it a secret. However Yasuko is Matsuoka's school idol and things were not that simple. Another girl that had a crush one her Kyoko Ikumi, which happened to be Akira's classmate kept trying to become her lover but Yasuko's feelings for her were non-existant. She got rejected. There wasn't long until Fumi realized that Yasuko doesn't really love her, that she is actualy the object which should distract her from her true love. Unfortunately there won't be too much development between Akira and Fumi. I expected Fumi to have feelings for Akira since they've been friends from way back but its not until the end when she realizes that Akira was actualy her first love. Pretty complicated story which kinda resembles real life in its own way. Unlike Sasameki Koto, even though there was room for more development in this one, the ending seemed like a good point where you can finish a series without yearning for more. Unfortunately the author of the manga stated that because of low disk sales, this won't get a second season so the only option is to go on with the manga.
Animation and Sound: Splendid animation quality, design and directing. The background design were made in a proffesional way and the character designs as well, way better animation than what I've seen in Sasameki Koto. The sound was kinda forgetable and judging from my tastes, really slow ones but typical for slow-paced shows, but definitely not something that is on my tastes. Background sounds were good which fit the atmosphere of the anime.
Characters: What I liked about this show is that all and i mean all the characters were completely developed to their full potential, nothing was left in the dark absolutely no holes in portraying them. We face a theme that is rare in this kinda of shows "appearence different than personality" and yeah I'm pointing at Fumi especially. Her height kinda betrays the fact that deep down inside she is actualy very delicate, shy and a crybaby. I liked how the secondary characters such as Kyoko and Yasuko were developed almost the same effort was put in these characters like in the main ones.
Overall: Short but good, at times boring but in the end worth watching. Those that do not enjoy slow-paced/slice of life shows should really stay away from this one, but those that do enjoy them will find something pretty surprizing. The ending, at least for me, didn't make me yearn for more, its as if "hey, she realized in the end, so thats enough for me, i don't wana get into another love story, into another melodrama". Though i still wonder whether Fumi's love was one-sided or Akira had feelings for her as well but without knowing. Well first thing I will do is to keep with the manga since the possibility of having another season is unfortunately out of the question at this time. Probably later when things settle down a second season might not be something impossible.
~Enjoy and Cya Around~
As a guy that has come across little in terms of watching shojo-ai based anime, I have to say as a 'person looking in' this has been a wonderful experience, appealing to a new aspect of myself and reminding me what diversity is out there in anime. Please note that i've just finished watching the anime today and will probably be extremely biased toward it.
The story revolves around Manjoume Fumi whom has returned to her hometown of Kamakura after ten years living away leaving her dear childhood friend Akira Okudaira behind. With her return, the old friendship between the two is kindled immediately with the two striking up a closer friendship than ever going about their highschool lives. With Fumi going to Matsuoka Girl’s High School and Akira going to the prestigous Fujigaya Girls’ Academy the two make their own friends with Fumi, meeting the strinkingly handsome 3rd Year student Yasuko Sugimoto and Akira, meeting the 1st Year student Kyouko Ikumi, this encounter of fate leads to something more than friendship between the characters.
The first point I will look at will be the context to the story; the creators of Aoi Hana have done excellently in building the history of the characters with the scenes interwoven within the main storyline creating a real sense of emotional tension that lended to developing the 'true' personalities of the girls invloved, the effect this had on me was profound and really played a vital role in putting me emotionally invested to each of the character's storyline. The love polygon in particular had me rooting for the happy ending for all the characters involved, however, as with all Japanese drama the 'sad' ending was to be the likely outcome with winners and losers. The sub-plots within the story were also a form of relief from the high tension the main plot had and were actually entertaining to observe and absolutely suits the 'school life' genre which makes it a story where you can relate (following how it would be in real life but still distinguishing itself as fiction).
The second point i'll be addressing for the story is the genre of shojo-ai, the relationship formed was tackled extremely well (I lack the knowledge of other shojo-ai animes with a similar plot) and didn't create the awkward atmosphere that I expected watching this genre, in fact it actually made me focus more on the 'romance' and 'compainionship' aspect the anime had and actually reminded me of Hourou Musko which I rated quite highly.
The last point i'll be tackling is the length of the story, over 11 episodes I believe the story conveyed was very powerful despite the fact that I do agree that this could have been extended to 16 to 24 episodes but inversely the compression of the story made it more the impactful though I have to admit the dissappointment I have for the penultimate episodes, though I did leave the anime with a rather 'warm' feeling of contentment with no major qualms with the ending.
The animation for Aoi Hana was absolutely beautiful with the backgrounds and artistic style probably one of the most pleasing to look at from the last decade. It lends itself well into the story being illustrated and a particular scene, that with the grade schoolers acting out 'The Little Prince' was a true show of a story being portrayed solely through the animation of a few frames.
J.C Staff have done an excellent job on Aoi Hana and is probably at the top in terms of animation from the work that this studio has created.
The sound and music has contributed largely to making the anime as emotionally intensive as its been. I actually listened to the opening every episode of the anime when I usually skip it for other animes and to me is a good indication of an anime with good sound. The voice actors in particular were actually so befitting of each character with their voice reflecting their personality to a "T".
In conjunction with the story, the characters in the anime were actually quite well thought through and constructed though this might not be as obvious on the surface. The nuances and subtle changes and development of each character were actually quite hard to catch even the supporting cast in the anime revealed a diversity of aspects through little nuances in the story. To a veteran shojo-ai watcher I might just be babbling but personally the characters provided a change to my usual watching habits and has opened up a new aspect of characters and character development.
I know this was a spur-of-the-moment review, being my first ever anime review and all with quite a few bias's because of the resonating story it had on me but I really believe Aoi Hana was well worth watching, I did actually think the anime had a KEY animation feel to it and I definietly recommend the anime if you're searching for something new and want to break out of the usual tedium you perhaps watch.
Please leave a comment below on what you think of the review, positive criticism is also appreciated but please note this was semi-improvised :^)
Thanks again for reading the review! - Riseagain 04/12/13
Aoi Hana is a pretty sweet anime. It dives into LGTBQ+ themes quite nicely whilst still keeping the story perfectly put together. One could say the ending is a bit unsatisfactory although. One could also say that it took one of the main characters too long to realise her first true love and her real feelings. Although there are faults in the anime, its warming to watch and it keeps you entertained. You might think it just has a bunch of fillers but honestly? i don't think so. Anyways overall its a 7 out of 10 for me. Theres yuri in this anime for sure but not the sexual type. Good watch honestly, but wouldn't watch again.