A change of pace

Girl Friends — Milk Morinaga

Minitokyo.Girl.Friends.439064

On November 22, I vowed that “I swear, the next new book I get sent that’s about the doleful world after EVERYTHING FELL DOWN AND EVERY ONE WAS SAD AND ALSO THE SUN CRIES BITTER TEARS, the review after that is going to be a manga by Morinaga Miruku.” Hoping for recent F&SF that isn’t a variation on EVERYTHING FELL DOWN AND EVERY ONE WAS SAD AND ALSO THE SUN CRIES BITTER TEARS was stupid of me1 but at least having to live up to the vow gave me a pleasant change of pace.

Doing the requisite background research also drew my attention to an aspect of this work that made me sit back and go “huh”. More on that after we visit the land of schoolgirl romances

But first a helpful definition that I will lift from Wikipedia, on the assumption they know more about this than I do.

Yuri, also known [as] girls’ love,is a Japanese jargon term for content and a genre involving love between women in manga, anime, and related Japanese media.[…]Yuri focuses on the sexual or the emotional aspects of the relationship, or both[ …]

As Milk Morinaga’s 2006–2010 serial Girl Friends opens, teenager Mari Kumakura is a studious loner, who wouldn’t mind having friends but has no idea how to go about acquiring them. Mari catches the eye of fellow schoolgirl Akko Oohashi, who befriends Mari. Akko lacks Mari’s skill at schoolwork but she credits herself with a keen sense of fashion, one that she has very little hesitation inflicting on Mari. Akko also eagerly catalyzes a social life for Mari.

This isn’t Thirty-Five Chapters in Five Bound Volumes of Mari Lamenting Her New Hairstyle. Mari likes her new look and enjoys joining Satoko Sugiyama and Tamami Sekine in Akko’s circle of friends2. Even better, scholarly Mari can offer Akko much-needed hints about how to tackle schoolwork. They can both explore fields unfamiliar to both of them, like body shame and fanatical dieting (sigh). The situation is not a loser being taken under the wing of a benefactor, but rather a symbiotic relationship.

A good stretch of this book is a slice-of-life sequence showing the developing friendship between Mari and Akko, and to a lesser degree the friendships between Mari, Satoko, and Tamami. Since she was a loner before Akko took charge, Mari lacks the context to understand the significance of her growing closeness to her new friends and especially to Akko. Satoko and Tamami have to point out to Mari that she is now Akko’s dearest friend. However, her father interprets what he sees of his daughter’s new interest in socializing as a sign that she’s discovered boys.

High school is a series of changes and in this case one of those changes involves the classmates splitting into different streams and classes. Although they promised to stay friends, Mari notices that Satoko and Tamami begin to drift apart as soon as they are in different classes. She cannot help but wonder if she and Akko will also stop being friends as soon as life takes them in different directions. When someone asserts that fashionable Akko will no doubt soon have a boyfriend, that bothers Mari as well.

It takes the whole of volume one for the penny to finally drop. Mari finally understands why she so minds the idea of losing Akko, especially to a boy. This is a Milk Morinaga [link] work, so of course it turns out Mari’s father wasn’t too far off the mark when he thought Mari had fallen in love. He just got the gender wrong.

I cannot say I am an expert on lesbian romances but apparently breakneck speed isn’t one of their defining characteristics. The leisurely pace in this is because the characters have no idea for the longest time that they are even romancing. IIRC, the pace in the later chapters is composed in large part of hapless flailing as they try to process the revelation. Frankly, I would have expected that once Mari came to terms with how she feels about Akko, she’d have applied the same organized approach to romance as she does to schoolwork. Perhaps the skills are not transferable.

Although they should be transferable. There is nothing under the sky that cannot be tackled with a coldly rational, methodical, reductive approach. Probably the real reason Mari did not constructively apply her scholarly skills to the situation with Akko3 is because the author wanted to avoid having her serial resolved in the chapter immediately following Mari’s realization that she’s in love with Akko.

Either I never knew or I knew and then forgot that gāruzu rabu [link] has distinct markets: shoujo (girls, including teens), josei (adult women), and seinen (men). Girl Friends was first serialized in Comic High!, aseinen manga magazine published on a monthly basis by Futabasha. Learning that this was aimed at men is the discovery that made me sit back and go “huh.”

Akko and the others spend an awful lot of time talking about fashion in great detail, explicit brand names and all. Thinking about the intended readership makes me wonder if this obsessive focus is there to reinforce the … illusions isn’t quite the right word … stereotypes seems wrong, too … conventional views? that the male readers have about women. Is this entertainment or just pandering? My impression that Milk Morinaga often subverts the conventions of her chosen genre only makes me wonder that much more about what her intentions might have been.

I enjoyed this but … the fact that discovering the nature of the intended audience condemned me to the land of infinite reviewer recursion suggests that I lack sufficient context for this work to an even greater degree than I knew. That in turn says to me that I have to track down examples of gāruzu rabu aimed at the shoujo and josei markets (ideally also by the same author, to reduce the number of variables) to compare and contrast how those issues are handled. Because, as previously established, there is nothing under the sky that cannot be tackled with a coldly rational, methodical, reductive approach.

The complete run of Girl Friends is available in two fairly hefty tomes from Seven Seas.

1: Back in, um, 2012, I was sent a book about two kids trying to stay alive in the endless petty wars sweeping an America fallen into warlordism, Not only was it not the most depressing book I had read that day, it didn’t make the top three for the previous four days.

2: Not that Mari particularly has the skills to say no at this point. Akko does belatedly wonder at one point if Mari actually wanted her makeover or if she was just going along with it to be polite.

3: Girl Friends is way too big to reread in one evening so I didn’t get to the part where either Akko or Mari decides to use the internet to research lesbians. A solid idea but it underlined how research becomes so much easier once one has the context to frame questions properly.


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