There’s no shortage of anime with apparently gay characters and pairings, or “yuri/yaoi bait” as it’s sometimes called. In many—perhaps most—cases, these characters exist as comic relief (‘Yuru Yuri’), fanservice (‘Valkyrie Drive: Mermaid’), or their romance is “implied” (‘Hibike! Euphonium’), meaning they’ll occasionally act super gay, but actually aren’t.
Aoi Hana does something that’s quite rare for an anime to do. It attempts to portray non-straight characters openly and legitimately, without invalidating their sexual orientation as a perversion or passing phase. It tells a story that briefly touches on significant issues like the social expectations placed on them, and even the struggle of coming-out.
In the opening episode, we meet the principal characters: Fumi Manjome, a tall yet timid girl who recently moved back to Kamakura after being away for 10-years; Akira (Achan) Okudaira, a spunky longtime resident of Kamakura; and their respective families. Both girls are due to start their freshman year at closely neighboring schools—Fumi at the prestigious Matsuoka Secondary School for Girls, and Akira at the historic Fujigaya Girls Academy. The two were classmates and best friends in elementary school until Fumi moved away. After a tearful goodbye, they promised to write each other, but neither ever did.
Fumi is visibly downcast when we first see her. She developed strong feelings for an older cousin, Chizu Hanashiro, who didn’t take things as seriously as she did. Already marred by regret over some of the choices she made, Fumi’s depression is exacerbated further when she learns that Chizu is getting married soon. To cope, she takes refuge in books, and distances herself from social contact. Conversely, Akira doesn’t appear to have much interest in love or romance yet, but can envy people who do.
Yasuko Sugimoto, a popular senior at the Matsuoka Secondary School, takes an interest in Fumi. Her personality is similar to that of the character Saint-Just from the classic 1991 anime ‘Onii-sama e…’, of which ‘Aoi Hana’—among many other shoujo-ai—could be considered an offspring. Like Saint-Just, Yasuko has a more traditionally masculine demeanor, and is deeply admired by her fellow classmates. Initially, it’s unclear what Yasuko sees in Fumi, or what her intentions are. Maybe she’s attracted to Fumi’s coy disposition; maybe she’s just appeasing her own ego; or maybe it’s something else entirely.
If you expect to see any romance between Akira and Fumi, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This adaptation only covers the first 18 chapters of the manga, which centers primarily on Akira and Fumi attempting to rekindle their friendship, the relationship between Fumi and Yasuko, and the love interests of some of the supporting characters. Two complaints I sometimes hear about this series is that it has a somewhat abrupt, read-the-manga, ending, and the pacing is very relaxed. My own criticism would be of the sexual assault in the first episode that’s used as a catalyst to reunite Fumi and Akira. I wish they could’ve been brought back together under better circumstances.
Aoi Hana was animated with a tranquil pastel pallet by JC Staff (‘Shoujo Kakumei Utena’), and masterfully directed by Kenichi Kasai (‘Nodame Cantabile’), who brilliantly captures the non-verbal cues and body language of Takako Shimura’s bold manga. If you’re looking for a mature, unusually nuanced, LGBT anime, I highly recommend Aoi Hana. If you enjoy it as much as I do, you may want to consider buying the recently released Blu-ray from Nozomi/Lucky Penny Entertainment; the English title is ‘Sweet Blue Flowers.’ Apparently, Aoi Hana didn’t sell well in Japan when it was originally released in 2009. To have more series like this, it helps to support them.