Katie Raynes reviews The Last Uniform by Mera Hakamada

LastUniform

The Last Uniform is a three-volume manga series by Mera Hakamada, originally published in 2005. It’s also my favorite series in the yuri genre – it has the honor of being the first lesbian manga I ever read that wasn’t exploitative or aimed unambiguously at the male gaze. This series is intended for an audience of 18-30 year old men (based on the magazine it was first serialized in), but it doesn’t contain the purposeful titillation or lesbians-merely-for-the-sake-of-hot-girls-getting-it-on that’s turned me away from a lot of yuri manga. I do have one caveat, though: the first two volumes were released in English by Seven Seas Entertainment, but apparently they didn’t sell well enough to warrant translating the third. I scoured the internet to find it in the original Japanese, and I finally was able to buy a used copy from a Japanese online bookstore. I’ve been working on translating it so I can find out what happens, but I’m only an intermediate Japanese speaker, so there’ll be no worries about spoilers in this review!

The Last Uniform (Saigo no Seifuku in Japanese) takes place at Camellia Hill High School and revolves around the lives of several girls who live in the dormitory there. The Japanese version of the manga was originally subtitled (in English) “Our Last Season,” which gives context to the translated title: this is the chronicle of the girls’ last years together at school. The four main characters – Ai, Fuuko, Tsumugi, and Beniko – share rooms, Ai with Fuuko and Tsumugi with Beniko. They’re also the series’ main couples, although their relationships develop at different rates. Ai is ostensibly the protagonist. She’s dutiful and somewhat serious, taking on the role of the cautious rule-enforcer in her relationship with Fuuko, who is reckless, goofy, and usually oblivious to other people’s feelings. When they’re assigned a new roommate, Ai becomes extremely jealous of any attention (even innocent) that Fuuko pays to the new girl. Because of this development, Ai begins to understand her true feelings for her friend.

Tsumugi and Beniko are the other central pairing, and they’re my favorite – Tsumugi is a prickly tomboy who shows she cares about her friends in roundabout ways, and Beniko is self-assured, elegant, and adored by scads of younger classmates. I consider Tsumugi’s feelings to be the most well-developed and relatable of all the characters. She knows that she’s in love with Beniko but she doesn’t know what to do about it, and she sometimes finds herself acting one way even when she knows she should be doing the opposite. On the surface, Beniko seems like the only one who can discuss her feelings without embarrassment, but it becomes clear over the early chapters that the things she says don’t actually reveal anything about her at all.

Other students who make up the supporting cast include Anzu, Ai and Fuuko’s new roommate; Kimiko, another student in the dorm; Asagi, a wealthy student who is obsessed with Beniko; and Tamami, Asagi’s friend and an amateur author of lesbian fiction. They make the love triangles into more complex polyhedrons, but the girls don’t bounce around between relationships. There’s a single intrusion of a boy who’s interested in Fuuko, but other than that, there’s really no question of who likes whom – it’s only a question of whether they’ll manage to get together.

The art is simple and unadorned, and it definitely improves over the course of the series. There are some distracting art errors early on – backwards hands and things like that – but I found it charming and expressive for the most part. The romances are handled very lightly, with hugs and kisses being as far as anything goes. There’s only a minimum of the standard yuri “But isn’t it weird for two girls to love each other?” ambivalence. I love it because of this, and because the story really is about the characters and their relationships rather than the expectation that “forbidden love” will excite the reader. That’s something I truly appreciate in manga involving lesbians, and it’s pretty rare.

Danika reviews Revolutionary Girl Utena manga by Chiho Saito

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If you have never heard of Utena, I’m not sure exactly how to explain it to you. It is an anime, manga series, and movie. It’s sort of like Sailor Moon, but darker, weirder, and with more subtext and incest (between siblings). I watched the anime first, then the movie, then the stand-alone manga (The Adolescence of Utena), and now I’ve finished the original manga series. Utena follows the main character, Utena, who was rescued from near-death (or despair, depending on the version) as a child by a prince. The prince tells her to stay noble, so she is inspired to grow up to become… a prince herself! How can you resist that premise? When Utena grows up, she is told that she will meet her prince at a boarding school. There she is caught up in a bizarre dueling club and a mysterious plot surrounding someone named “World’s End” and the power to revolutionize the world. Also there’s an upside-down floating castle in the sky when they duel. Utena fluctuates between realism, fantasy, and comedy (that’s mostly in the anime).

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Caught up in this duelling club is Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride (the other girl on the cover of volumes 2 and 5). The Rose Bride is given to the victor of a duel, and she must do anything the victor says. Utena is appalled by this, and tries to win the duel to keep Anthy safe and befriend her. Their relationship is most important one in the book, though the other members of the duelling club, and Anthy’s brother, are also significant. I do think the treatment of Anthy as a woman of color in this series is very problematic, because she is treated as weak and a servant through most of series (and she is constantly being slapped). For on, the manga describes her as “exotic-looking” in the intro. (I guess that all of the characters are people of colour, but Anthy is treated differently as a dark-skinned woman.) At the same time, Anthy does get her own character arc, and I am glad that darker-skinned characters are included, but there are definitely problems with how she is treated in the entire series.

On the lesbian content: it is mostly subtext, [spoilers for movie, highlight to read] except in the movie, where they make out [end spoilers]. The manga is subtextual, though, to see the kind of subtext we’re talking about, here are my notes about it concerning the first volume: “Just subtext for now. Well, I mean, between Anthy and Utena. They’re just, you know, engaged. And Utena’s best friend constantly says that she’s in love with Utena, only has eyes for her, etc. And all the girls in school swoon for Utena, whether she’s wearing a boy’s uniform or a fancy dress.” The subtext also gets more and more intense between Utena and Anthy throughout the series. There is a character who is a lesbian in the anime and straight in the manga, however.

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Utena is a series that is re-told through each medium, almost like how a fairy tale can be told many different ways. The manga, the stand-alone manga, the movie, and the series all cover the same time period and the same very loose plot, but they differ wildly. (I have theories about this. If you do read or watch Utena, you will probably develop your own. It is not a straight-forward kind of story.) I see them happening in the order manga series, anime, movie, and then stand-alone manga (but that relates to theories). Whether or not you plan to read the manga, I would definitely recommend watching the anime. The art (in the manga and anime) is beautiful, and the relationship between Utena and Anthy is sweet as well as intense.

For anyone who has watched the anime, but hasn’t read the manga, I would recommend picking them up. They do diverge quite a bit. For instance, the character of Nanami doesn’t really exist, Juri has a different backstory, Chuchu gets a story from his perspective, Miki’s sister’s relationship with Miki is more like Nanami’s relationship with her brother in the anime, and the conclusion is entirely different. Also, really, the art is really beautiful to look at. Oh, and there is a backstory for Utena, but I wasn’t so interested in that.

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The first volume of the manga pretty much just sets up the premise of the story, and then it builds from there. I was getting worried at the fourth volume about how it would wrap up, because one of the intros mentioned that Utena had to learn to be a princess instead of a prince (but that’s the opposite of what Utena is all about!), but the conclusion was incredible. It’s so intense, and the subtext gets up to Xena levels, and I loved how Utena and Anthy’s character arcs finished (especially Anthy’s final scene). As a warning, more than half of this volume is extra stories that take place earlier in the main storyline, so don’t get confused like I did. I think that overall the manga is more straight-forward than the anime and movie. (Also, not as much incest as the anime.) I only really think that I would have to re-read the manga once to get how it fits together (though I’d probably like to more than that), whereas I still feel like I need to re-watch the anime and movie at least half a dozen times before really getting it.

I hope I have convinced you to pick up Utena, whether in book or anime format! It’s one of my favourite things. If you like/d Sailor Moon and are willing to read or watch something a little more dark and strange, you should give Utena a try. I really do get a sort of fairy-tale vibe from this series as well, so if you like fairy tales with significant lesbian subtext, you should also check this one out. If you have tried Utena, let me know what you thought!

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Anna M. reviews Girl Friends Complete Collection v.1 by Milk Morinaga

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During an idle moment at work, I pulled the first volume of the Girl Friends manga collection by Milk Morinaga off the shelf and devoured it in one sitting. The book is classified as young adult (despite a bit of nudity) and I have seen it described online as “schoolgirl yuri.” The shy, bookish Mariko often eats lunch by herself until the outgoing Akko sweeps her up into instant friendship, as well as helping her discover her own sense of style. The transformation of Mariko from a girl who has never picked out her own clothing to one who has friends and a social life outside of school is actually rather sweet, despite the fact that it’s such a well-played trope.

However, Mari soon begins to suspect that the feelings she has for Akko are developing into something more than simple friendship. If you appreciate drama, and unrequited love, and misunderstandings that would be easily resolved if people just talked to each other, all set against a backdrop of Japanese schoolgirls, then Girl Friends is for you. Despite occasionally wanting to throttle the main characters, I did enjoy reading the book, except for the part when they went on a completely unnecessary diet together. I would definitely recommend this book to someone who wanted to try out yuri manga.

It’s a thick book, but be warned that the story cuts off right in the middle–just when Mariko has been dating a boy and Akko is trying to figure out why this bothers her so much–and the second volume isn’t due until January 2013. A little googling will yield results for those who don’t want to wait.

Read or Die, Vol. 1

This is a classic case of “does it count?” I read R.O.D. expecting it to be explicitly lesbian, which wasn’t quite true. But first things first:

Read or Die was first a series of Japanese light novels (not currently published in English, but a fan translation is in the works) which then spawned R.O.D. the manga (a series of four) and an accompanying series of manga set in the same universe: Dream Or Die. The manga inspired an OVA, Original Video Animation, which then inspired a TV series.

I just picked up the four manga, available at my library (because I have an awesome library), not realizing how far-reaching R.O.D. is. I was easily sold on it: lesbrarian manga? Sign me up!

Well, this is the thing. I liked Read Or Die; it features a book-obsessed main character by the name of Yomiko Readman. Yomiko, in fact, is the Paper for The Library of England: she has powers that can control any piece of paper to do anything she wants. She embarks on various heroic actions, collecting pallets of books along the way.

By the end of the first manga, things were going along pretty much as expected, since the romantic interest had been introduced and hinted around. But here’s the thing… it never goes past that. Their relationship never quite becomes text, but it comes very, very close in the first manga. Think Xena and Gabrielle. Which brings me to my main question:

Does lesbian subtext count as a queer women book? Do lesbian subtext books belong on the Lesbrary?

This isn’t anything against Read Or Die; I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to watching the anime, plus the yuri that is hinted towards is adorable.

I was really excited to read queer women manga and I found some links for yuri published in English and free fan translations of yuri. Have you read any yuri/queer women manga? What did you think of it?