I know how thoroughly
Haru Akiyama's Octave is a prime example of a manga title that I know is exceptionally well-done, but I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "fan" of it. It's extremely well-written, has (often frustratingly) human characters, and possesses a knack for ensnaring one into caring about what will happen to its two leads. Plus, it's a multiple-volume canon yuri series starring an adult cast! ^_^ (Volume 3 will be released this month on the 21st.)
But strangely, it isn't one of my personal favorites, despite the fact that I've recommended it at my two most recent yuri panels.
Octave is about Yukino Miyashita, an 18 year-old woman who used to be a member of a teen idol group called Shes’n. When the group disbanded after failing to take off, she returned to her hometown to attend high school, but couldn't get along with her classmates—the boys and girls alike incessantly bullied her—so she dropped out of high school a year before graduating and returned to Tokyo, working as an assistant manager at the talent agency she used to belong to, but not really enjoying it. She feels invisible but still craves the spotlight—especially as she spends her days working alongside other idols hired by her agency- and later, when she sees that Mika, a former member of Shes'n, has launched a successful solo career. Yukino’s routine gets interrupted when she meets and begins to fall for Setsuko Iwai, a charismatic song composer who also once performed in a failed idol duo, called Fennel- although unlike Yukino, Setsuko really likes her job and seems much more comfortable in her own skin. When Yukino goes to Setsuko’s place for dinner, they wind up sleeping together, much to Yukino’s surprise (but not Setsuko’s), which shakes up Yukino’s idea of how her life "should" play out. (Namely: to continue working at a steady job and eventually settle down with a nice husband.) She nearly quits her job (which Setsuko prevents her from doing), and begins to pursue a deeper relationship with Setsuko. Towards the end volume 1, things seem to be looking up for Yukino- although Setsuko tells Yukino one thing- one offhand comment- that will come back to massively bite her and Yukino when Yukino follows through with it after Setsuko has long forgotten about it.
It's ironic that Octave bills itself as a "mystery-filled romance" when it's one of the more straightforward romance titles out there, especially within the yuri genre. It's pretty abnormal, actually- the characters don't continually dance around issues surrounding sex and relationships, using implied meanings and suggestions of what they may or may not be thinking about- they discuss their feelings openly (but not in a sappy way) and even explore issues of sexual identity with a refreshing candor. (Or in Yukino's case, her lack of certainty in that area.)
Even though the romance is certainly a draw, Octave addresses some other issues that I found appealing- the different career paths the characters take, and what causes them to find satisfaction with what they do (especially the contrast between Yukino and Setsuko's satisfaction with their jobs and personal lives, despite their similar backgrounds, as well as Yukino learning what happened to the other members of Shes'n), Yukino drifting apart from old friends and realizing how much they have (or haven't) changed since they were close, and Yukino's fervent desire to not be average- even if it's for the wrong reasons.
And therein lies a major strength and weakness of the series- Yukino's a well-developed, believably flawed character, but her constant self-pity can get grating at times. Like just about every other person who's read Octave, I prefer cool-headed, magnetic Setsuko, who seems to find Yukino irresistible in a way that I can't entirely fathom (but can't dismiss at this point in the story either). At this point, Yukino's still likeable enough.
The art, like the story, conveys what needs to be said but doesn't indulge in any unnecessary flourishes or gimmickry. It looks clean and spare, but not overly simplistic, with character designs that suit each character's personality. I really like how even the "pretty" character designs don't look impossibly pretty or super-thin. (The latter being the one issue I have with Ai Yazawa's art.) It isn't remarkable, but it's appealing.
As an aside:
I'd really like to see more yuri manga about college-aged women (being in college myself) who are actually in college. (It's a smidgen more difficult to empathize with somebody's decision to drop out of high school to get a full-time job.) It's nice to see a yuri manga starring an adult professional female lead, but when I re-read this volume and realized, "Yeesh, she's roughly the same age I am, but she's paying all of her expenses (not that that's a negative) and already working at a full-time job she hates", ^^; I realized that, as rare as yuri manga (or manga in general, really) starring adults are, there doesn't seem to be much depicting the space between graduating from high school and being a full-fledged businesswoman/OL/teacher/cafe-owner whatever. Just something I thought I'd comment on. ^^
Maybe I should post a list of yuri manga starring college-aged women- with bonus points for characters who are attending college.