By Nakatani Nio
I recently reviewed Milk Morinaga’s Hana & Hina, which played with the archetypical yuri romance setup by having the senpai be a more emotionally open character, in contrast with her more emotionally guarded, shy kohai. Similarly, Nakatani Nio’s Bloom into You challenges assumptions of what its protagonists are like before the end of the first chapter. Shojo manga-loving protagonist Yuu turns out to lack the romantic heart of one, whereas her senpai Nanami’s confident exterior personality masks profound emotional insecurities. The will-they wont-they of this manga is more nuanced than whether the protagonists will admit their feelings. On the contrary, both make how they feel explicitly clear, and that’s where their problem lies. Nanami is deeply in love with Yuu in a way she’s never experienced before, and she doesn’t know how express those feelings. Normally composed and self-assured, she gets swept up by her feelings for Yuu and does impulsive things, like kissing and confessing to her. But Yuu’s feelings towards Nanami are themselves abnormal. While a normal person would at least be taken aback by someone kissing them out of nowhere, Yuu isn’t flustered. Whereas Nanami is mortified and embarrassed, Yuu has no strong feelings about what just happened, just unsure of how to reciprocate the love of someone whose company she enjoys but she feels no romantic interest in.
Yuu is heavily implied to be aromantic, which is rarely represented in media, much less romance series. She has a robust social circle of many close friends, but though she likes the idea of love she doesn’t desire it. While she’s a fan of romance manga and enjoys reading about the emotions love entails, she simply cannot understand feeling love for another person. She’s twice put into a situation where someone confesses to her in this volume, and neither time does it excite her or make her heart flutter. In most stories of this kind, even if the heroine doesn’t feel the same way as someone who confesses to her, she would empathize with that person and be emotionally touched by their feelings for her. Depicting a protagonist who simply can’t understand those feelings, with no empathetic capacity, and yet still portraying that character as believably human and sympathetic is a delicate and impressive work of characterization.
While being of love with somebody is an alien concept to Yuu, she has a remarkable sense of emotional awareness. Several times throughout the volume she notices how characters truly feel in contrast to what they say or do, whether it be her friend Akari downplaying her broken heart or Nanami’s confident facade betraying her nervousness over the Student Council elections. It seems Yuu is skilled at recognizing feelings in herself and others even though she incapable of understanding them. I said before this manga has a very different kind of will-they wont-they, and that’s because Yuu doesn’t need to confess her feelings to Nanami, she needs to figure out if she has any at all, and if she doesn’t, whether she can continue a friendship with someone both obsessed and emotionally dependent on her.
Nio contrasts Yuu’s aromantic characterization with how romance is normally depicted in our media. Yuu’s ideas of love have been informed by reading shojo romance manga, hence her confusion when she’s placed into a confession scene right out of one but doesn’t find it to be as emotional or life-changing as her comics would depict it. She holds out on answering a love confession to a boy for months just to see if any feelings would develop, but she still never felt anything at all towards him. Similarly, when Nanami kissing Yuu would be a big dramatic moment in most other manga, but here it’s portrayed as an awkward, fleeting moment. After it happens both girls move on with the rest of their day without dwelling on it, not really knowing what they should’ve done next. In scenes like this Nio directly critiques the fatalistic and fantastical sentimentalism of romance stories by showing how situations like confessions and kisses aren’t always as special as our stories depict them to be.
Nio also critiques our cultural obsession with forming romantic relationships at an early age. Yuu’s friends all lament that she hasn’t found love yet when she’s already in high school, even though Yuu herself doesn’t necessarily want to be in a relationship yet. Akari joins the basketball club solely to be close to the senpai she has a crush on. When he rejects her, Yuu comments how the response she gives about not giving up on love felt rehearsed. It’s implied Akari performed some sort of mental gymnastics to trick others into believing she wasn’t outright rejected, and convince herself that she still has a chance with him. All of Yuu’s friends tell Akari not to give up on love and that love takes time, but it’s obvious that no matter what Akari outwardly says to palliate herself, she’s doubtful, and knows deep down that the romance she’d imagined for herself just isn’t going to happen.
This scene goes by quickly but it’s one of the most important critiques of how our culture pressures kids to want romance before they even understand what a romance entails. All the characters who pursue romance in Bloom into You don’t have their feelings reciprocated instantaneously. Instead, the series advocates that forming a real relationship and real romance takes time and can only happen if both parties mutually love one another. To continue pursuing someone who has no interest in you is desperate and unhealthy, but our cultural ideal of true love and a plethora of media insists that it exists, and that if you keep trying you can make someone love you. Unfortunately, as many broken-hearted youths in these girls’ situation find out, relationships don’t work that way.
The realities of life aren’t the only obstacles to young romance though. Nio depicts ingrained cultural homophobia that outright makes coming out and forming open relationships difficult for queer couples. Several characters like Yuu’s sister joke about Yuu and Nanami being close as if the idea of them being a couple is a funny or embarrassing thing. Yuu’s friends get excited when they find out she’s become close with a sempai but instantly dismiss the possibility of them being romantically involved when they find out she’s a woman. Yuu’s father outright states he will “put [his] foot down” if Yuu was actually going out with Nanami, implying that he would go out of his way to prevent his daughter from being around the person she loved if that person was a woman and not a man. Yuu herself thinks that the idea of falling in love with Nanami is ridiculous because they’re both girls, which is a common cliché rebuke in yuri manga, but is presented here with far dire implications.
In context, Yuu is not just saying she doesn’t think she’s gay, she’s saying that she flat-out doesn’t believe that two women can be romantically involved at all. Considering the casual homophobia pervading her home and social circles, it makes sense that she genuinely believes this, and that’s the problem. Her misguided values prevent her from recognizing her true feelings and embracing her sexuality. While she doesn’t discriminate against Nanami for being gay like her father would, her beliefs on homosexuality do inform how she treats her advances, downplaying how Nanami feels and hurtfully calling the idea of them being in a relationship weird. Nanami has probably been raised in an open-minded enough environment wherein she was able to healthily asses her own feelings as a queer woman. In contrast, Yuu’s homophobic cultural and social environments might’ve actually stunted her emotional growth, contributing to her confusion on how to interpret and expresses love.
It’s worth nothing that none of the characters practicing homophobic behaviors are vilified, which I think speaks to the optimistic heart of the manga. Bloom into You critiques how media depicts romance and our obsession with finding love before we even know what it is, but not through a cynical approach. It sympathizes with its characters and their yearning for meaningful, emotionally satisfying relationships, and their struggle to find them during an especially confusing time in their lives. It doesn’t chastise its characters for following their romantic dreams or even their homophobia. Instead, it’s an invitation to think about how much of our ideas of love have been informed by our media, peer pressure, and cultural expectations, and whether its healthy to blindly believe in those messages.
Both of Bloom into You’s protagonists are strong heroines who explore these themes through an emotionally satisfying and cathartic narrative. Even in an environment as unforgiving to queer women, as the one Nanami finds herself in, and how emotionally vulnerable she really is, the way she perseveres against the odds to succeed and find personal happiness is nothing short of admirable. Likewise, whether Yuu will overcome the particular circumstances that inform her aromantic veneer or come to terms with never feeling love, and what that’ll affect her friendship with Nanami, is a fascinating, irresistible character arc that leaves a yearning for a happy ending resolution. Bloom in You is rooted in fertile ideas about love and relationships rarely explored in yuri or romance manga to this level of depth. The story that blossoms through its unique and deeply relatable characters will no doubt flower into a romance manga for the ages.