Ao Haru Ride, Vol 11

Ao Haru Ride Volume 11 by Io Sakisaka

Throughout this series, nostalgia and feelings of being haunted by the past have come up in a variety of ways, and this volume shows a bit of movement forward on Kou’s part as he goes to visit various sites from his past. He ditches during a school trip where he used to live and induces Futuba to come along with him “as friends.” She comes along, knowing in the back of her mind that she’s lying to herself.

Together they visit Kou’s old apartment, middle school, and his mother’s grave. Kou seems much more emotionally resilient, coming out of this nostalgic trip with a greater sense of certainty about what he wants to do and who he wants to spend time with (spoiler alert, it is Futuba!). There are also some nice side stories with the larger friend group interspersed as Futuba and Kou wander around with each other. Futuba ends up being stricken with guilt that she was hanging out with Kou without telling Toma what was going on, and ends up going to angsty extremes in dealing with her emotions. Toma’s on the cover of this volume, and he definitely deserves it, as his steadfast approach to romance with a girl who is fairly honest about her wavering feelings makes him a stabilizing presence. While Kou might finally know what he wants, and I’m team Kou all the way, Sakisaka infuses scenes of Futuba and Toma talking to each other with so much joy that I felt myself wavering a bit! There’s always plenty of drama in each volume of Ao Haru Ride, but it never seems to be over-the-top or unearned, because so much of it is drawn from the characters’ internal motivations and the changes to their personalities as they are gradually growing up. This was yet another solid volume in a very good shoujo series.

Ao Haru Ride, Vol. 8

Ao Haru Ride, Volume 8 by Ao Sakisaka

Ao Haru Ride continues to provide a unique shoujo story by combining teen romance against a backdrop of grief. Kou continues to think he can fix the world by taking on the responsibility of being sole friend/psychotherapist/boyfriend to his old classmate Yui, but Futuba may finally be ready to move on.

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As the volume opens Futuba tells Kou that she likes him, in full expectation that she’s going to be rejected. She wants to get everything out in the open so she can attempt to move on. Kou’s words are carefully chosen, he says “I can’t go out with you” and Futuba smiles and says “That feels like closure.” Her smiling face interrupts a sequence of panels where Kou’s expressionless face is shadowed, pointing to the facade he’s wearing to hide his feelings. Futuba walks away and when Kou’s phone rings (presumably a call from Yui), he smashes it. While Futuba has vowed to move on, she can’t resist trying to make Kou feel a bit of regret, and she decides that she’ll act more feminine and further distance herself from the tomboy persona that she used to assume. She wonders “Is everyone else pretending to be the person they want to be?” Toma seizes his chance and tells Futuba that he likes her just as she is. She isn’t quite sure how to respond, but Toma tells her that he’ll wait and see what she thinks after she gets a chance to know him.

Futuba accidentally runs into Kou at school and he’s back to his usual harsh comments telling her that her attempts to be more feminine totally don’t work for her. Futuba’s introspection makes her both relatable and endearing, as she comments to her friends, “Spending time thinking about a boy who didn’t pick me…is a waste of my youth!” Kou and Futuba are generally so much better together than they are apart, and the attempts to put distance between them simply don’t work. This is a solid middle volume in this series, and there’s a nice one-shot included as a bonus. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Kou decides that he’s no longer responsible for fixing the universe.

Ao Haru Ride Vol 7

Ao Haru Ride Volume 7 by Io Sakisaka

With both Shortcake Cake and Ao Haru Ride coming out at the same time, it feels like the Shojo Beat imprint is going full steam ahead with romance manga that is a bit more introspective than usual. I’m finding all the interior soliloquies more diverting than usual in this series. Is there any kind of tension worse than seeing the slowly moving train wreck of someone making the wrong decision for seemingly noble reasons? It is pretty clear that Kou likes Futuba, and yet his traumatic past and issues dealing with his own grief have led him to willingly step into the role of quasi boyfriend for Narumi, who is surely having her own issues but is also spinning them in order to ensnare Kou into a closer relationship.

Futuba is avoiding Kou and falling back into her overly boisterous behavior, but Kikuchi keeps showing up to talk with her, despite some hilarious glaring from Yuri whenever she is at Narumi’s side. The attempt to put distance between Futuba and Kou utterly fails when Mr. Tanaka sends her over to check on Kou when he is sick. Futuba decides to confront Narumi about her and Kou’s weird co-dependent relationship that has them both stewing in grief, and Narumi promptly admits her tactics and then turns things back around on Futuba by accusing her of being selfish herself for intervening. This of course sends Futuba into another bout of introspection where she questions her own motivations. The forbidden attraction between Mr. Tanaka and Shuko almost spills over into a genuine incident at the school, but Ao Haru Ride tends to keep moving forward through plot twists while preserving the points of tension with the character relationships that keep the larger story suspenseful. The exploration of grief contrasted with the romantic foibles of teenage characters continues to make this series a compelling read.

Ao Haru Ride, Vol 6

Ao Haru Ride Volume 6 by Io Sakisaka

I’m enjoying the way this series presents young romance with a sense of nostalgia mixed with compassion. Futuba’s heightened awareness of memory and lost time as she attempts to get to know Kou after not being in contact with him for years has her approaching school milestones with great introspection as she attempts to find just the right moment to confess her renewed feelings.

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Complications loomed at the start of this volume, as it is clear that Kou has gotten himself a bit enmeshed with a former classmate named Narumi, who is leaning on him as her main source of emotional support. Narumi shows up at the school festival, and Futuba tries to figure out what sort of relationship she and Kou have. Futuba’s friends see through this situation and warn her of being too trusting. Kou continues to be motivated by jealousy, when he sees Futuba make a point of attending a performance from Kikuchi’s band, he also attends and they accidentally kiss. The fallout of this event dominates the rest of the volume as Futuba tries to figure out what it all means, if anything.

As far as enigmatic yet troubled dark-haired shoujo male protagonists go, Kou is rapidly moving up my unofficial rankings. He has not yet reached the heights of Izumi Sano from Hana-Kimi, but who knows how I’ll feel by the end of this series. While his tendency to go hot and cold and engage in impulsive actions that cause Futuba to experience the torments of teenage angst, his background and his own emotional turmoil still make him sympathetic. There’s a hilarious sequence where Futuba keeps running away because she doesn’t want Kou to be able to see her face and he keeps running after her, eventually cornering her in a classroom where she proceeds to hurl maid costumes at him. Futuba again gets some key advice from her friends as she struggles to deal with her emotions. Kou disregards the advice of his friends who tell him, quite reasonably, that “You can’t save everyone!”

This volume of Ao Haru Ride concludes by pulling off an impressive narrative maneuver of making mostly everybody miserable, but all for very good reasons. Surely this will sustain the shoujo drama for several more volumes and I have to say I am willing to endure plenty of tears to eventually get some sort of happy ending, or somewhat wistful conclusion.

Ao Haru Ride, vol 5

Ao Haru Ride Volume 5 by Io Sakisaka

One of the reasons why I like Ao Haru Ride is the way it effectively gets into the agonizing headspace of first love, where tiny decisions or comments made in a moment fraught with tension end up propelling a relationship forward or dooming it to the status quo. It takes some superior authorial skills to portray the inner soliloquies of teenagers as consistently sympathetic but Sakisaka has the chops to make the reader fully invested in all of these charged interactions. Futuba is still struggling with her feelings towards Kou, and it looks like things are going to go to the next level when he actually asks her out to a summer festival.

Futuba builds up the prospect of festival attendance in her mind, thinking it is a perfect time to tell him what she feels, but Kou ends up canceling and before they know it they are back in school. Kou seems more distracted than usual, spending a bunch of time texting on his phone. Ao Haru Ride is heading into familiar shoujo territory as Toma keeps popping up around Futuba, quickly realizes that she likes Kou, but still lingers around since it is clear that they haven’t started a relationship yet. While Kou isn’t asking Futuba out again, he’s clearly getting annoyed at Toma’s consistent presence. Kou’s distraction is due to his trying to help an old friend as they get adjusted at a new school, and any shoujo reader can tell that this is going to introduce a new ongoing complication to prevent Futuba and Kou getting together. Sakisaka is great at portraying the agony of the emotional calculations Futuba goes through, as she thinks if she hits on a magic moment it will be the right time to confess to Kou. Meanwhile, Toma’s keen observations of Futuba show her to be different from the tomboyish self image she’s struggled to maintain. While the plot points of summer festivals and school activities are well-worn shoujo territory, I’m captivated by these particular characters, with all their quirks and awkward moments.