Sunday, 7 August 2016

Review: Sweet Blue Flowers (2009 Anime)

‘Gentle’, ‘soft’, ‘tender’ – all apt words to describe Sweet Blue Flowers, yet imperfect ones. They make the show sound tepid. While this show may not boil with emotional intensity, while it may not even simmer with latent passion, one cannot say it’s tepid. It is warm, but not luk-warm. Its characters are gentle. They neither yell, nor spite each other, but not for lack of strong emotions. Its music and visuals are soft, but not saccharine. All relationships are tender, but not mawkish. This is a story about the symbiosis of half-false-loves and half-false-selves. It is slow-moving drama about characters too mature to misunderstand or despise one another. Sweet Blue Flowers trembles with empathy.

Our ensemble coming-of-age story begins with Fumi discovering her cousin is marrying a man. She feigns sickness to avoid the wedding. Fumi’s cousin, her first lover, has abandoned her love. Still-standing, but aimless, Fumi crushes on a Princely girl, Sugimoto; and Sugimoto seems to reciprocate. But just as Fumi’s heartbreak guides her lovelorn grasping, so too does Sugimoto’s. 

I hesitate to call Fumi’s love, or Sugimoto’s love, or any character’s love ‘false’. The series is never so cruel as to dismiss their feelings. Perhaps theirs is misguided love? Their motivation to love is not love, but heartbreak. After Fumi’s cousin shatters her, she reaches out for Sugimoto. Her love with her cousin was taboo, homosexual and incestuous. Their love grew in the dark. To have her cousin marry a man – a most conventional, societally-accepted union – Fumi feels discarded. Her cousin left her in the dark to live in the light. The hole this leaves needs filling. In Sugimoto, Fumi finds a complimentary girl. Sugimoto’s own hurt allows her to fill Fumi. She was denied, too, by Mr. Kagami, fiancé to her elder sister and Sugimoto’s former teacher. When she confesses her love for him, Kagami asks they not speak of it again. Like Fumi, her love is not just denied, but dismissed.

Sugimoto plays the prince, the dashing girl who the other girls swoon over. Though this sounds a yuri cliché, it is a subversion. She plays the prince. She wanted to move beyond Kagami’s denial, to gain independence from her old feelings. So she donned the trappings and suits of independence and nonchalance. The midpoint of the series presents school productions of The Little Prince and Wuthering Heights. The plays allusively illuminate Sugimoto’s façade. An epigraph from The Little Prince: ‘I should have realised the tenderness underlying her silly pretensions.’ Her princeliness is pretension covering the cause for her princeliness; awareness of her own fragility pushed her to act firm. In Wuthering Heights she plays Heathcliff. She literally plays a Romantic, yet self-centred archetype; according to her audience, the role was made for her.

Despite potential for melodrama, the series is calm, but not lethargic. It is a river with a strong flow that never froths nor splashes. This subtlety owes to the characters’ maturity. In a conventional drama, climatic scenes build to bursts; emotions simmer, then bubble, then explode. People say what they do not mean, or what they do mean but would never otherwise say. Drama comes from antipathy and stubbornness. Not the case in Sweet Blue Flowers. The leads may be teenagers, but they have perspective. One of the few scenes in which a character does get riled is followed by an apology. Characters despair at the situations they are in, not the people they are in them with. They despair that their own goals and their friend’s are mutually exclusive. They do not despise their friend for having those goals. Take the scene where Kyoko, who professes love for Sugimoto, accepts that Sugimoto likes Fumi. Her friend says that Fumi is a ‘good girl’. Kyoko cannot disagree. No jealousy, no anger does she direct at Fumi. She accepts that Fumi loves Sugimoto, and Sugimoto Fumi. Kyoko’s own love does not warp reality around her ego.

Tenderness fills the series. Characters cry, but never forced tears. So receptive is the audience to the characters’ minds, so aware are they of a scene’s emotional cause-and-effect, that when a character cries, the audience feels they could do nothing other than cry. Not to say that every emotional scene ends in crying. More than once I feared a scene would end in tears without earning tears. As if in response, the characters restrained their emotions. More than climatic tears, the series so finely communicates characters’ emotions that the audience cannot must feel along with the characters.     

The serenity of the visuals and music support the emotional tone. The characters are calm, so is the aesthetic. The aesthetic calms the audience, and thereby puts their mental state in sync with the characters’. In many series, good animation merely frills the narrative; in Sweet Blue Flowers it helps the audience empathise. Water-coloured plants and streets are the most lulling backgrounds. Such stylised backgrounds risk the more plainly drawn characters looking disconnected from their surroundings. The risk is avoided. As with many anime, characters suffer from limited animation. But while minimal movement is a compromise in other anime, in Sweet Blue Flowers it reinforces the still serenity. The tinkling music also helps the tone. It does not manipulate the audience, or if it does, it does so properly, subliminally.      

The visuals never go for cheap flash. In the entire show I remember only four or five moments that break the naturalism of the series’ proper. Even then, most of these occur in flashbacks. The gold and black abyss around Fumi and her cousin, for instance, owes to Fumi’s memory. Other flashy shots happen in the plays. While some of those shots could never be accomplished on stage, plays are still sufficiently removed from reality. The only flashy shot without contextual justification is the final one in the series. At that point, they’ve earned it.

Those who have seen the series, or have read a synopsis, or have even looked at the DVD cover, may be wondering why I’ve not mentioned Akira. Her lack of noteworthiness is the series main flaw. For a character present in every episode, for a character so vital in the opening and closing episodes, for a character who appears in the opening credits, you’d think she’d be a main character. She is a side character, one who happens to have the screen time of a main character. If she is not a flat character, then she certainly experiences little development in this bildungsroman. Side characters and undeveloped characters are perfectly fine, even necessary in narrative fiction, but Akira undermines the series. Forgive me for spoiling the end (thought the opening credits and cover give it away): Fumi comes to love Akira, or rather, realise her love for Akira. The poetic sequences between Fumi and Akira in the first and final episodes do not justify their dearth in the rest of the series. Akira is not enough of an emotional presence to earn this ending. Perhaps Akira gets more rounded in the manga, but anime-Akira is the only crack in the series.

Apart from Akira, my only hesitation in recommending the series is my fear of overhyping it. In promising the Ideal, I may desensitize viewers to the series’ beauty. I must recommend it, however. Do not let my gushing deprive you of Sweet Blue Flowers.        

[Screencaps taken from Right Stuf's DVD release.]   


  1. Sweet Blue Flowers, is written and illustrated by our dear acquaintance, Takako Shimura, who has given us Wandering Son. Everything we can praise that one, we can give to this one as well — humanised character, water-coloured backgrounds with simple characters with complex psychology.
    However, what is the unique artistic expression from our sweet flowers? Shimura perhaps (as I have not read the manga or watched the anime), began to use a ‘new’ model of story-telling, rather than begin-middle-end structure, we have middle-begin-end instead. We are in the middle of Fumi’s pain, or we are in a lots of different characters’ pain, before we discover the cause and learn whether they would move on. “Coming-of-age story” is a healing process.
    The controversy of healing process here is to fallen in love again… We are at the realisation stage of the existence of substitute/filler lovers. We love because we have a hole in our heart, and Fumi and Sugimoto love each other sincerely, less like lovers, but more like two soldiers both wounded in the battle, two cats licking each other’s wound. Yet, the most problematic part is that both of those two have not realised that initially…
    Love to fulfil the solitude, the inner-need is so universal, sensibly, it is the wrong reason to fall in love, to cling on an idealised image of love, losing one’s own identity further, (we drink the poison to relief the thirst), but who is so emotionally wise at the start? It is important to encounter the past, to arise above it, and learn to be independent, loving oneself before loving others… and that moral lesson is to be fully learnt with all the struggles on the road, mistakes must be made, false hope must be cherished, and new wound must be crafted…
    Fumi and Sugimoto love each other, but do they love the real human being behind all the pretence of glamour — the self that is abandoned, the crying self… Yes, they do love each other, but not in romantic love. They love in a universal way, a sympathy of ‘oh, you must feel the same’, ‘you must understand’, and ‘you are wounded, too’, a love derived from human sympathy, as in the sense, we are all humans who need love…
    Sugimoto’s self-invention as a prince attracts not just Fumi, yet, Fumi has fallen in love romantically an idealised symbol nonetheless, it is a dilemma of gender expression — prince seems to have more freedom, more liberty, but underlies the problem of concealing and compressing one’s true emotion.
    Fumi and Sugimoto both create a situation where their romantic love will dissolve if Sugimoto becomes a ‘real human being’, but the most mature form of romantic love is to, though improve upon each other, but also accept one’s past. This acceptance is unacceptable in the foundation of the romantic love, and Fummi and Sugimoto would be better to be friends than lovers (the same problem perhaps also exist within Shuichi and Yoshino for Wandering Son).
    Even though their romantic love is dissolved, they would both heal psychologically and move on. Pretending to be something else is impossible to maintain without further mental breakdown. To simply be oneself is best form of maturity — independence without pretence.

  2. Fumi needs to pretend to be a princess to fit a prince, and thus they keep a perfect image for each other which neither of them can maintain without a sense of betrayal (I suspect thus, that is), and their idealised love is to have no pretence, as their hearts cry for sincerity, but yet, in order to taste this romantic love, their true self must not be revealed…
    Hence Akira is introduced, a framing device to some extent. Her initial purpose is to frame Fumi and through their interaction, we hear Fumi’s past and her emotional dilemma, and we get a strong characterisation of Fumi (and we can get the character of Akira from her interaction as a frame device with the story-telling characters), but she is not necessary in term of Fumi’s psychological maturity.
    In term of story-telling, Fumi’s past can be introduced through stream of consciousness, flash-back, and other methods than a frame device, but through this manner, we see also why Akira is more suitable than Sugimoto for Fumi, because Fumi can be vulnerable in front of her. Nevertheless, the problem still remains, artistically, that Akira will service generally a secondary character in Wandering Son, a royal friend who listen and support but does not have any psychological drama beyond the troubled friends, that is, she doesn’t have drama and conflict of her own. If we delete her from the story, Fumi’s maturity will perhaps come later, but this emotional centre is still to be the same, the foundation of the emotional core for this art is not to be shaken.
    Akira is not Saori (as a friend who wishes to support, wishes her beloved to be happy, but also has her own emotional need, and that is, she has loved) in Wandering Son, but Kanoko, a character introduced in chapter two, and no named until volume two, as everybody’s friend…
    Kanoko has remained a secondary character in Wandering Son, whilst Akira is needed to be both frame device and our dear protagonist’s lover… It is a contradiction, as to present another’s story in the best light, she is nipped off her own complex psychological struggle in favour of other’s drama, but as one, a love interest, who should play a major role in our protagonist’s life, she is underprepared for the expectation.
    Akira can be, thus summarised after all the stream of consciousness, flash-back, in a summary of Fumi’s finally goodbye to the reader, that “I have fallen in love with one that I can show my true self”, and that is all we need to know, that she has found love.
    Yet the best or ‘the worst’ (depending on your perception) part of the artistic style and emotional truth about this creation is that, it transcends the gender, that whether it is a story of heterosexuality or homosexuality, or inter-racial romance, as long as it is about love, even with animals… the emotion is universal and worth investing. At one hand, homosexuality has perhaps little to do with the emotional core of the story, but at another hand, perhaps that is more truthful towards how LGBTQA community wishes to be perceived beyond their labours, and after all, love is love, human is human…