Ariyoshi Kyouko is best-known for her long-running ballet drama, Swan. She also wrote a six volume yuri series, Applause.
Applause is about Shunack and Shara, two girls who fall in love at a boarding school in Belgium before they become estranged and reconnect years later as actresses in New York City.
After ending Applause, Ariyoshi wrote a one-shot prequel called "Bruges," about how Shara and Shunack fell in love shortly after Shara transferred to Shunack's school. (Shara is Japanese. She lives in Belgium because her father works for the Japanese embassy there.)
While Shara, a tomboy, finds her elegant new school alien and overwhelming (think Noriko's reaction to Lillian in Marimite), Shunack practically embodies the school. She's feminine and refined- and at first seems unreachable. At the school's annual spring break get-together for its twenty top students, Shunack announces that they'll be playing a murder mystery game based on the unsolved murder of a student several years ago.
One of the teachers who was around during the murder gets jittery, playing the red herring quite perfectly.
A shadowy figure climbs into Shara's room at night and she screams, causing them to run away. When the other students rush in and find out what happened, Shunack tells Shara that the intruder isn't part of the game. I won't spoil how the characters find out the truth about the murder.
All the while, Shunack and Shara get closer and closer, angering the other girl who likes Shunack. Shunack also gets jealous when she sees Shara embrace a teacher she has a crush on. By the end, Shunack and Shara are obviously smitten with each other.
I liked this story a lot. It's an interesting blend of sweet and creepy, with some eye-poppingly gorgeous art. Here are a few examples.
This tankoubon has two more one-shots, including the yuri "San Francisco Monogatari" ("A San Francisco Story").
Yuuko is a Japanese writer visiting her out lesbian friend Megumu, who lives in San Francisco. Yuuko came to San Francisco thinking that she's straight, but nope, she has loved Megumu since they were high school classmates. Megumu already has a girlfriend, Chelle, who is fighting cancer in the hospital. While Megumu visits Chelle, her friend Tracy (who loves Megumu) and Yuuko attend the city's gay pride parade. Tracy tells Yuuko about her feelings for Megumu there, and Yuuko realizes that she has the same feelings. Before Yuuko can confess to Megumu, Megumu drops a bombshell- that she's breaking up with Chelle and entering a marriage of convenience. Yuuko mourns what might have been, and is shocked (but not comforted) when Chelle tries to comfort her.
So- the marriage of convenience plot device is "blah," but I really like the gay pride parade full of happily out gay people (it's neat to see the American gay community portrayed in a manga), and the way the story contrasts common Japanese and American attitudes about same sex attraction is interesting. I might be overly optimistic here, but I don't see the story as completely sad since Yuuko acknowledges the nature of her feelings for Megumu after having explained them away for years. Despite her initial heartbreak, it's a lot better for her in the long term. Update: Whoops. Uhh...I attributed the final lines to Yuuko, when they were really Megumu's reaction to Yuuko making plans to get married earlier. Man, I'm glad that was pointed out. (See the comments.) So it's a happier ending! Yuuko now knows that she loves Megumu and Megumu tells her that she loves her and only started dating Chelle because she thought Yuuko was getting married. She still has to decide what to do about Chelle...but Yuuko and Megumu both like each other! And Yuuko was never really into the idea of getting married, so that takes care of that. I'm changing the grade for "San Francisco Monogatari" from a B to a B+.
Story: B+ for "Bruges," B+ for "San Francisco Monogatari"
Art: A for "Bruges," A- for "San Francisco Monogatari" (The latter is just as well-drawn, but its setting doesn't give Ariyoshi as much of an opportunity to indulge in opulent character renderings.)