Thursday, March 19, 2009
While Milk Morinaga's Girl Friends is a current fan favorite among yuri fans, the first volume was fairly hit or miss with quite a few people, primarily for the first five or so chapters. Rereading it after reading the latest installment, the first volume seems better and worse in different ways than it was the first time I read it.
Girl Friends is about Mariko Kumakura, a very intelligent, introverted first-year high school student who gets approached and instantly befriended by the vivacious, if academically-challenged, "Akko," who begins to call her "Mari-chin" right off the bat. The day after they become friends, Akko takes Mari to a salon (her first time not getting her hair cut at the barber with her mom), where Mari gets her long hair cut into a stylish short, layered style. With her new friendship and new haircut, Mari begins to socialize more and make friends with Akko's group, Satoko Sugiyama (or "Sugi") and Tamami Sekine (or "Tamamin"). Sugi's a sensuous, hyper-confident playgirl (she later remarks at a mixer that she's "still looking for a main boyfriend" ^^;;), but she defies expectations for characters of her type by never condescending to the people she knows, getting good grades and planning for her future, and genuinely caring for her friends. Tamamin is the blithely carefree hardcore otaku, who likewise defies her character stereotype by being socially adept and meshing almost perfectly with Sugi. Meanwhile, Mari becomes Akko's best friend.
Eventually the girls enter new classes in their second year with Mari and Akko in the same class, but Sugi and Tamamin placed in separate classes. Mari and Akko immediately make new friends (largely due to Akko, whose intense interest in her new classmates reminds Mari of when Akko befriended her), grounded tomboy Kuno and her air-headed counterpart Taguchi. The manga really begins to find its direction when Taguchi and Kuno invite Mari and Akko to a mixer, but when the group is on its way to the mixer Mari begins to cry at the thought of Akko getting a boyfriend. Akko understands that Mari doesn't want to go (although not why), and claims that Mari's sick and needs to be taken home. She's gets Sugi and Tamamin to attend the mixer in their place, which allows them to reconnect after they started drifting apart after being placed in different classes. When Mari and Akko get to Akko's apartment, Akko serves them both alcohol and falls asleep because of her low tolerance. Mari impulsively kisses her, then ends the volume shocked at what she's just done. (Even though the reader could see it coming chapters away. ^^)
While the bulk of the plot happens in the 6th and 7th chapters (changing classes, the mixer, etc), the first five are largely "plotless" slice-of-life segments that serve to establish the characters and the "how"s and "why"s of their relationships. Like Akko, Sugi, and Tamamin taking Mari shopping and Mari buying her own clothes for the first time, Mari and Akko dieting together over winter break, Akko seeing how different outfits look on Mari, etc. In these chapters, there is a ton of clothing/make-up related content, which didn't bother me as much as it did some people, but for people who don't care for such things, these chapters will probably be hard to read. ^^;; (I'm pretty surprised that this runs in a "shoujo" magazine for guys, honestly.) Nevertheless, in chapter 6 Morinaga begins to take the story in a solid direction that develops into the addictive romance-drama that fans of the series know and love (and agonize over) from volume 2 on. And at that point, the make-up and clothing become incidental instead of the driving elements of the plot.
As for the art, it's pretty, polished, and clean with pretty/cute character designs and pretty outfits. :) It's also nice that the characters dress in a way that reflects their personalities when they aren't in uniform. Plus, Morinaga manages to do appealing shoujo-style art without drowning it in screentones.
This volume sets the foundation for what will become an arresting, slow-cooking romance. Highly recommended as a series to begin for those who like introspective romantic dramas.