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.

Ao Haru Ride, Vol 4

Ao Haru Ride Volume 4 by Io Sakisaka

Oh, the agony of teenage love triangles! Ao Haru Ride explores this in the form of two best friends having crushes on the same boy, but the unique twist here is that they actually manage to remain friends as they wrestle with their emotions. The fact that one of the characters is dealing with profound loss creates a backdrop of melancholy that makes the teen romance have a timeless and nostalgic quality.

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This volume delves more into Kou’s backstory as the recently formed friend group of Futuba, Yuri, Shuko and Aya are determined not to let Kou fail out of school. Kou’s issues are not because of a lack of ability, but he has difficulty getting himself to truly try at anything. Kou is still struggling with the death of his mother, and the reader gets a flashback to see how he was put into a caregiving role during her illness at a young age. Kou’s walls of isolation from his friends don’t last forever as Futuba is determined to get through to him. There’s some great paneling and action sequences as they tumble together down a hill in a scene made for a romantic movie. As Kou embraces Futuba, she stays still so he won’t be embarrassed by her seeing him cry.

One of the earlier themes in Ao Haru Ride is Futuba’s difficulty relating to traditionally feminine behaviors, and this is brought out again when the group decides to attend a summer festival together. Yuri shows up looking strategically adorable in a yukata, and Futuba starts to feel jealous. But when Kou sees another boy talking to Futuba it is clear that he’s not as indifferent as he pretends to be. Yuri observes his reactions, but the girls continue to affirm their own friendship even while navigating their crushes. Overall, this series just continues to be wonderfully executed shoujo. Sakisaka excels at capturing quiet moments between the characters that show the glimmerings of first love.

Shortcake Cake, vol. 3 and Ao Haru Ride, vol. 3

Third volumes are when I feel longer running series start to settle in a bit. The reader knows all the main characters and the ongoing story lines have been established. In the case of most shoujo manga, it also means it is love triangle time!

Shortcake Cake Volume 3 by suu Morishita

Shortcake Cake 3 opens with a rainstorm, and the unsettling weather continues to mirror the turbulent emotions associated with teen romance throughout the volume. Ten continues to be fascinated with Chiaki, while Chiaki and Ten are pretending to date to throw off the odd obsessive impulses of Riku’s brother Sei. At the same time Chiaki is feeling guilty because he thinks that Ten should be with Riku, even though Ten already previously rejected him. This all sounds like teen-age soap opera insanity when I type out a summary, but Shortcake Cake delivers this all to the reader with a level tone, interspersed with the slice of life aspects of the characters being thrown together in the same boardinghouse and having to deal with issues like fending for themselves when their House Mom gets sick. Riku and Ten have a few moments together where it is clear that he’s not yet gotten over her, as he casually asks what she thinks of Chiaki. This encounter happens when they are crouched under a table cleaning up after a kitchen mishap, showcasing Morishita’s ability to make every day incidents seem oddly intimate.

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Rain shows up as a background image to the panels where Ran contemplates this moment, thinking “It was as if he was saying all over again that he likes me.” Chiaki keeps his feelings to himself, and keeps pushing Ten towards Riku. One of the reasons why I like Shortcake Cake so much, is that this point I’m genuinely unsure of who Ten might end up with, and she’s not portrayed as fickle or uncaring, just a girl who is uncertain of her feelings. This volume was much more somber in tone than the previous volumes of Shortcake Cake, but it explored new emotional territory for the characters. I’m continuing to be fascinated by the way they influence each other, and that makes for an intriguing series.

Ao Haru Ride Volume 3 by Io Sakisaka

In contrast with Shortcake Cake, I am firmly convinced that Futaba and Kou are going to end up together, but seeing how this unfolds with the pressures of teenage friendship and Kou’s newly acerbic personality is what makes Ao Haru Ride interesting. The volume opens with Futuba dealing with the fact that her new friend Yuri also has a crush on Kou. Futuba cycles through a variety of feelings, as she wants to be supportive to one of her first real friends, but she can’t escape her attachment to Kou. First, Futuba vows to like other boys, but this resolution does not last long. I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I enjoy about Ao Haru Ride is the characters’ tendency to get things out into the open fairly rapidly, so it doesn’t seem like there will be multi volume story lines revolving around people not talking to each other.

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Futaba isn’t really able to deal with her feelings honestly, and attempts to come up with arbitrary tests like “if Kou follows me off the train, I’ll keep loving him.” Sakisaka’s excellent paneling makes a conversation near a subway platform look filled with dramatic emotion. Futuba and Kou keep getting thrown together, which doesn’t do much for Futuba’s impulse to bury her feelings to maintain her friendship with Yuri. One of the things I liked most about this volume was seeing Futuba, Yuri, and Murao bond over their romantic tribulations. Futuba is starting to piece together what type of person she wants to be and pondering how to be a good friend. This volume finishes on a bit of an emotional cliffhanger, so I’m curious to see what happens next.

Ao Haru Ride, Vol. 2

Ao Haru Ride Volume 2 by Io Sakisaka

When reading the second volume of this series, I found myself thinking about how the characters in Ao Haru Ride are different from some of the unusually self-aware protagonists that occasionally appear in shoujo manga. Teens with involved thoughts about the condition of being teenagers are fairly common, but Ao Haru Ride is concerned with issues of time and memory, and how memory can be a constructed choice in a way that feels refreshing to me as a reader.

As Futuba enters her second year of high school, she still struggling to find her niche. Her attempt to ingratiate herself with a small gang of judgemental girls didn’t work out well for her, and she wants to develop real friendships. She makes a point of being friendly to Makita in an attempt to head off a resurgence of rumors and finds herself a topic of gossip. Joining her and Makita in the new class are the enigmatic girl Murao, the boisterous Aya, and Kou. Futuba decided to throw herself into class leadership after hearing about a school-sponsored leadership retreat, and she’s joined by her new classmates.

Ao Haru Ride

Kou isn’t too happy when he realizes that he’s signed up for a trip that his older brother Tanaka is overseeing as a teacher, but he and Futuba reach a sort of understanding about their previous middle school crushes, as he warns her that he’s different now, and she starts appreciating Kou in the present without expecting him to match up with her memories. Futuba is also extremely conscious of making new memories on the trip, as the not-quite-friends-yet group goes through the typical outdoor activities to encourage class bonding. She makes sure that everyone gets together to watch the sunrise, knowing it is the type of memory they will treasure later.Ao Haru Ride’s are unusually insightful and self-reflective, which makes this a shoujo romance manga with so much emotional depth. Kou points out to Futuba that things come easier for him because he just doesn’t care about anything, and the fact that she’s struggling to make things better means that she’s a better person than he is. Futuba in turn notices all the times that Kou’s innate kindness shows through his acerbic exterior.

This series is inching up the list of my all time shoujo favorites after the fourth volume. There’s the potential for more drama to develop as the new group of friends starts to come together, but with Kou and Futaba being such uniquely thoughtful protagonists, I’m looking forward to seeing how they deal with all the issues of high school life. Ao Haru Ride is such a special series, I’m glad to have the chance to read it.

Ao Haru Ride, Volume 1

I remember when Io Sakisaka’s series Strobe Edge was announced initially there was plenty of excitement, but also many many people wondering, “What about Ao Haru Ride?” So I was excited when I heard that this series was being added to the Shojo Beat lineup, even though I wasn’t terribly familiar with it. The story opens with a bit of a prequel as Futaba spends her time in the junior high hallways attempting to escape any attention from boys, because she thinks they are loud and obnoxious. The only exception to her “No Boys Allowed” rule is Kou Tanaka, who is short, quiet, and gentle. After a couple random close encounters they agree to go on a date, but Tanaka overhears Futaba proclaiming her hatred of all men when she gets teased. Futaba waits alone for her date, and then Tanaka moves over the summer, so she’s never able to find out what has happened to him.

Fast forward into the present time and Futaba still wonders about Tanaka as she attends high school, where’s she’s determined to reinvent herself after being ostracized in junior high. She tries to play down her good looks and attractiveness, because she doesn’t want her new “friends” to think that she’s attempting to look cute for boys. There’s a classmate named Mabuchi who dimly reminds Futuba of Tanaka, but she tells herself that he’s too tall to be her long-lost friend. While Futaba continues to go through her tomboyish charade to fit in with the mean girls, she takes notice of a couple different girls in her class who are all alone, who actually seems interesting. While Futaba tells herself that she’s better off with her girl group, I think she’s unconsciously drawn to people who would be much better friends, given the chance.

Tanaka/Mabuchi is very intriguing in this first volume. He smirks at Futuba a bit, and when she starts to realize who he might be, reveals himself to her by leading her back to a shrine where they waited out a rainstorm when they were younger. He seems like a snarkier, more cynical version of his younger self, even though it seems like he can’t help himself from occasionally being kind. His kind actions are immediately balanced out by his habit of bluntly commenting on Futaba’s life, for example by telling her that she has “fake friends”. Sakikasa has a winning way with facial expressions, but one of the things I loved in this first volume was the sense of place, seeing Futuba and Tanaka having charged encounters in the shrine many years apart evoked the themes of both future and nostalgia that Ao Haru Ride is touching upon.

Unusually for a shoujo manga, this first volume covers the first year of high school, but it shows Futuba making some important decisions about who she wants to be as a person, helped along by Tanaka’s blunt prodding. Ao Haru Ride reminded me most of series like We Were There and the Sand Chronicles, just in terms of having the potential to develop into a very sensitive and emotional love story as the characters work through various complex issues. I feel like it has been some time since we’ve seen a series with such a strong emotional core story, and Ao Haru Ride seems like it has exactly that type of potential.