By Milk Morinaga
Milk Morinaga is a straight adult woman who loves making manga about young girls in cute uniforms, who happen to be gay. Her series perhaps best encapsulates the overall conceptual appeal of yuri. From a purely sales demographic perspective, yaoi is intended for women, and yuri is intended for men. Both appeal to a fascination with taboo romance, and escape from heteronormative power dynamics in relationships, through the erasure of their own gender. If that binary classification is true, Morinaga becomes an anomaly within that demographic spectrum. Whereas yaoi offers women the ability to indulge in sexual power fantasies without being objectified, yuri provides something more idealized and pure. Yuri takes the relaxing voyeuristic appeal of moe and adds in a romance element that acts more or less an in-universe mutual appreciation of cute girls being cute, and finding each other cute. That they fall in love is, like everything else they do, adorable.
Hana & Hina After School is a particularly on-point representation of this approach to yuri. In the omake, or extra content, Morinaga explains her fascination for part-time jobs and her fantasy of working at a part-time job wearing a cute uniform, which explains her inspiration for this series. Hana loves cute clothes and fantasizes of having a closet of clothes where she could spend her day just choosing what to wear. Hina loves cute character goods and the act of collecting, and admiring them soothes her. Neither Hana nor Hina enjoy these things for deep or practical reasons, their motivation comes from more of an aesthetic appeal. Admiring cute things is enjoyable and defines their personal identities. In this regard, they serve as Morinaga and the reader’s self-inserts, especially during scenes where they’re gawking and clasping their hands at how cute the other is. While Hana and Hina have different outlets for what they find cute, they both share an interest in collecting and admiring cute things. This in turn provides a foundation upon which they start finding each other cute, and form a relationship with each other that becomes personal and important. It’s a pure love story based in an innocent mutual infatuation.
Cuteness doesn’t belay substance. Hana & Hina provides a unique subversion of the kohai/sempai power dynamic in manga romance stories by betraying archetypical expectations. Though taller and more mature, Hina is younger than Hana and holds her sempai in high regard. Her normally stoic personality is quickly dispelled whenever she’s given the opportunity to spend more time with Hana or squeal at her cuteness. Though older, Hana is less composed than Hina and wears her emotions proudly on her sleeve. In spite their different personalities and the dynamic created by their ages within the social hierarchy, ultimately the most subversive idea is that there is no power disparity between the two. Unlike most romance stories, neither is prompted into the relationship by the aggressive interest of the other, or another party forcing them to recognize their brewing mutual feelings. This volume instead finds them slowly forming a friendship based on mutual interests and meaningful emotional support, deepening their bond in an organic, equal playing field.
What works about Hana and Hina’s dynamic is that their personalities are different, yet similar enough to understand why they’d become interested in one another. Where Hina hides her love for cute mascots and Hana out of embarrassment, Hana openly admires the cuteness of uniforms and Hina. Both girls don’t quite know how to handle their mutual attraction to one another, which results in a few humorous sequences of embarrassment and jealousy and a particularly amusing sequence in which they awkwardly avoid talking to each other while taking the same route to their part-time job. By sharing their interest with one another they become more self-confident in their passions and personal identities, Hana’s prodding eventually helping Hina admit to her love of mascots and then provide a similar validation for Hana’s love of cute clothing.
This desire to be comfortable with what you like and appreciated for who you are provides the underlying thematic foundation of the manga. There’s catharsis when Hana and Hina talk about their interests with one another, and cruelly challenged by the rejection of Hina’s desire to kiss Hana, and want to be known with her forever as “freaky” by her classmates. Though Hana and Hina find emotional fulfillment and happiness in their relationship, to the world around them if they were ever to become more than just friends it would cross a line. More than being afraid of what others think of her, what Hina is afraid of most is that her “weird” desire to be with Hana will scare her away.
This fear will no doubt be challenged in later volumes, but it already establishes the anti-heteronormative stance of the manga, and rejects that a relationship between two girls is a weird thing and something to be ashamed or afraid of. This is the abject positive message of yuri manga: the relationships between the girls are so pure and innocent, that to call them unnatural and not a beautiful representation of true love is sanctimonious. Moreover, Hana & Hina thematically ties the lead girls’ exploration of their sexual identities with their personal identities, allowing a connection to the girls’ assurance their interests aren’t unusual. This manga basically tells insecure readers to ignore those normies because they don’t matter, you matter, and you shouldn’t be bothered by what other people think, because there are other people out there who share you interests you can connect with, befriend, and perhaps even fall in love with.
I don’t proclaim to be an expert in yuri, or even Milk Morinaga’s work, but I appreciate a positive message, and Hana & Hina After School has a pretty cathartic one. It’s voyeuristic appreciation of cute girls and cute things speaks to the innate appeal of yuri as a genre, while exploring its characters and their relationship with subtle character interactions, gestures, and dialogue that help make them feel believable, consequently more relatable. Am I overrating it? Probably. But conventional objectivity is meaningless in the face of such overwhelming cuteness.