Another week, another harem series to loo...wait, are we sure this is a harem series? Where are the other girls?
AI YORI AOSHI (Bluer Than Indigo), by Kou Fumizuki. First published in 1998, and first published in North America in 2004.
Kaoru Hanabishi is your typical lonely student until the day he stumbles across a lost young woman at the train station. She is named Aoi, and is dressed in a full, formal kimono. It turns out Aoi has been looking for Kaoru for ages, as they were betrothed as young children by their rich and heavily traditional families. Kaoru has no interest in returning to his family because of their terrible treatment of his mother, but he finds himself growing more and more fond of Aoi. When some of Aoi's family shows up to take her back, Kaoru must make a choice: to stay with Aoi or to let her go.
Seriously, are we sure this is a harem series? I'm only seeing one girl here. Honestly, if not for the second volume preview in the back, one would not even GUESS that this is supposed to be a harem series. Mind you, if you must have only one girl, Aoi's not a bad one to have, being pleasant and soft-spoken. Mind you, she's pretty much the Yamato Nadeskiko trope personified, as well as a kimono fetishist's dream come true. As such, she's a very passive character and she thinks only of pleasing Kaoru practically from the moment she meets him. Yeah...Aoi's not going to be leading any feminist revolutions any time soon.
Kaoru fits the role of harem lead well, in that he's generally nice but rather nondescript in personality. He does at least have a bit of a backbone, because we learn how he has suffered at the hands of his family. The reader can perfectly understand his determination to neither return nor capitulate to them, and this plot thread grounds this story in surprisingly serious drama. This same sort of seriousness applies to the romance, as the most compelling part of the story was watching these two kids bond over their shared past and their issues with their families. It's approached with sensitivity and restraint, two qualities which are incredibly rare in harem series. I almost wish their relationship had been the sole focus, as it would have made for a solid dramatic romance.
Sadly, the mangaka didn't have that kind of conviction, and thus has to pad things out with a LOT of fanservice. He finds an awful lot of opportunities to focus on Aoi's boobs, as well as finding plenty of excuses for bath scenes to get Aoi out of her kimono. I'm not a fan of fanservice in general, but here it feels especially superfluous. The mangaka is making it difficult for that serious drama to shine when he keeps finding excuses for Kaoru to freak out over Aoi's boobs.
Ai Yori Aoshi is the rare harem series where I feel like there is genuine potential in its story, that there was something serious and substantial beyond an overly extended romance. It could have been something approaching classy, but then it distracts itself with fanservice. It's not enough to ruin the story as a whole, but it drags down the quality greatly.
The character designs are pretty average looking, but they look a little more polished than average thanks to Fumizuki's attention to detail. Everything from Aoi's formalwear to the backgrounds to (of course) the fanservice is surprisingly well-drawn and detailed, and the panels and pages are presented in a plain and simple manner. Overall, the art isn't overly flashy, but it is solid and well-drawn. It's nice to see some genuine care and effort put into a harem series, which are normally drawn and presented in a much more slap-dash manner.
There are some brief translation notes, as well as a guide to the different terms and pieces of Aoi's wardrobe.
While Ai Yori Aoshi has some trashier trappings, it's centered upon a core of solid, moving drama which in turn makes the romance more compelling and touching. I only wish the mangaka had more faith in that dramatic core and gave it more room to shine.
This series was published by Tokyopop. All 17 volumes were released, and all are out of print.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!