Sunday, May 31, 2015

Merry Month of Manga Finale: GIRL FRIENDS

To wrap things up, let me say something nice about Seven Seas for once by taking a look at the series that put Milk Morinaga on the map as far as American manga fans are concerned.

GIRL FRIENDS (Garu Furenzu), by Milk Morinaga.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2012.


Mariko Kumakura is a quiet girl, the sort of girl who spends most her days alone studying.  Everything changes on the day that Akiko Ohashi convinces Mariko to get a haircut.  Akiko is bubbly and popular, and under her influence Mariko starts to come out of her shell and start making some friends and enjoy herself.  Mariko becomes very attached to Akiko and the girls' feelings start to grow into something deeper than mere friendship.  Just as they are the verge of confession, Mariko gets a boyfriend and her friendship with Akiko suffers as a result.  Will the two of them ever repair their friendship?  Will they ever realize that the both of them want to be more than just friends?


Yuri is a neglected genre here in the US, and outside of titles like Strawberry Panic, it doesn't tend to get much notice even from manga fans.  That's why I was happy to see Girl Friends make such a splash with the fandom, first when it was on the late, lamented JManga site and later one when Seven Seas licensed it.  It's a very intimate and character-driven story, and much like the better examples of yaoi out there, it understands that we need to understand who our leads are as characters so that we can be invested in their romance.

Between this title, Kisses, Sighs & Cherry Blossom Pink, and Gakuen Polizi, it's clear that Morinaga goes for a particular sort of type when it comes to her couples.  She likes to pair up introverted or bookish brunettes with short hair and extroverts with light, long, loose hair.  I don't know if this is because Morinaga is going along with yuri conventions (like this was something akin the uke/seme deal in yaoi) or if this is just her particular fetishes shining through, but it's a pairing that works really well here.  Mariko and Akiko complement each other well, as Akiko encourages Mariko to engage with the world while Mariko keeps Akiko focused on important things like schoolwork.  It's easy to see why these girls would be fast friends, and the many scenes of Mariko enjoying quality time with the girls is just darling to read.

Of course, this being a yuri, things have to get a bit more complicated, and Morinaga weaves the romantic tension in seamlessly with the main narrative.  Mariko becomes more and more possessive about Akiko's attentions, finding herself longing for her praise and touch.  Akiko is the more physically aggressive of the two, so she tends to find excuses to touch and flirt with Mariko while still trying to play things cool and casual.  At times it becomes frustrating watching these two fumble their way through their problems because we've had so much time to get to know them as people.  You want them to be happy, and it's clear that they would be happiest if they would just have some frank conversations with one another and stopped beating around the bush.  Even their friends realize that the two need one another, even if Akiko's friends are completely unaware of the romantic complications between them.  The falling apart of their friendship ends up neatly paralleling the girls' concerns about being split up as they enter their next year of high school, and it leaves this volume ending on something of a cliffhanger.  Like Mariko, you're left wondering if these relationships are reparable or if it's simply the nature of teenage friendship. 

Girl Friends is the sort of romance that you can't help but get swept up in.  The character are so compelling and real that you can't help but feel what they feel.  You root for them, you despair for them, and you want them to be together.  If that's not testament to Morinaga's ability to write great characters and great romance, I don't know what would be.


Morinaga's designs are very cute and round, although they tend to be a bit generic and a bit bobbleheaded.  She does well at distinguishing all the different girls in both look and attitude, but they do all tend to have the same doe-eyed blushing face.  Fanservice is fairly minimal, a few bared boobs here, a bit of undergarments there, and in a rather meta touch we see a bit of a yuri doujin that can only be described as what happens when you cross Strawberry Panic with a magical girl show.  Backgrounds are nicely drawn, but they mostly feature a lot of ordinary streets, schoolrooms, and bedrooms.  This is a fairly talkative manga between Akiko's chattiness and Mariko's ever-present inner monologue, but Morinaga takes care to keep this from turning into a talking head montage by letting things widen out once in a while or letting things get a bit abstract.  Overall, Morinaga's art is cute but nuanced enough to let the emotion in the story shine through.


There's an extended omake from Morinaga which is surprisingly informative.  It confirms not only that Mariko and Akiko's looks stem from her own personal preferences but also her own experience growing up in an all-girls school. 


You don't have to be a yuri fan to enjoy Girl Friends.  All you need to be is someone who can appreciate well-written characters and romance presented with a subtle but emphatic style and a lot of shoujo-cute girls to go around, and that's enough to make this an instant recommendation from me.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  This series is complete in Japan with 5 volumes available.  All 5 have been published in 2 omnibuses, and both are currently in print.

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