‘First love may not be exactly what you expect.’
It can be difficult joining a school mid-year when everyone else has already made friends but when Dai Noshiro transfers in to the eleventh grade, his cheerful, outgoing nature means that he is soon accepted by his classmates. All, except for Sanada, who keeps himself to himself – which baffles Noshiro. When he hears the rumours that Sanada is gay, Noshiro is even more determined to involve Sanada – he doesn’t see what the problem is; Sanada is just another classmate to him. But Noshiro’s efforts to get Sanada accepted by the others stem partly from his own misreading of how Sanada feels and partly from his own misunderstanding of what it might mean to be gay. Cue many confusions and hurt feelings as Noshiro is not one to give up on people – and Sanada is, understandably, not amused by this sudden interest. Thanks to Sanada’s kind-hearted childhood friend Ayumi Yamamoto, the three manage to hang out together and Sanada begins to relax a little around Noshiro. But a chance meeting with a bearded adult called Hide leads to the revelation that he is Sanada’s ‘ex’. Noshiro doesn’t know how to handle this new information. Will he ever persuade Sanada to show him his true self – and why is this so important to him?
Good-hearted Noshiro, the ebullient hero of Okura’s first manga, is so earnest and well-intentioned that the reader is soon rooting for him. He’s the kind of guy that can’t bear to see bullying, overt or covert, and readily steps in to point out if others are out of line. Sanada, on the other hand, just wants to get through his school life with as little fuss as possible and finds Noshiro’s interference unwelcome and annoying. At first. He’s so used to being ostracized that he can’t allow himself to begin to hope that he might have found a real friend in the loud, jolly newcomer. So far, so good…but then the story strays into slightly difficult territory with the appearance of Hide. The eleventh-graders are c.16 and Hide is 26 and even though he’s presented as a benign figure to whom Noshiro turns to get answers to the questions about homosexuality that are confusing him, it’s hard not to feel a slight shiver of concern when Hide invites him out to coffee and then to a meal…
That Blue Sky Feeling began life as a webcomic – then, due to its popularity, Square Enix picked it up for its shonen magazine Gangan Joker and commissioned new artwork from Coma Hashii (examples of mangaka Okura’s original art can be found at the back). It’s not published in a BL magazine and the mangaka, Okura, is a man (there are male BL mangaka, like Hirotaka Kisaragi, but they are in the minority). So this series falls into the growing genre of LGBT+ manga, like the exceptional Shimanami Tasogari by Yuuki Kamatani (due out in 2019 from Seven Seas).
I wanted to like That Blue Sky Feeling rather more than I did. Its heart is in the right place. You find yourself rooting for outward-going Noshiro, as he stands up for Sanada. And yet it didn’t speak to me in the same the way the immensely likable and quirky Don’t Give Up, Nakamura did. Or prize-winning My Brother’s Husband Gengoroh Tagame which presents a same-sex relationship in a family context, demolishing many prejudices along the way. Perhaps the artwork is part of the problem; the school students are drawn in a very simplistic way, making them ‘feel’ younger than sixteen/seventeen and close-ups of faces lack nuance and shading.
So why 8/10? Because I think this is a really valuable resource, especially given its age-rating: Teen (13 +) as a means to read about -and maybe discuss – LGBT+ issues. The struggles we all face as we reach our teens and grapple with who we are and who we’d like to be are depicted in an engaging and relatable way. There’s no moralizing subtext going on in the background. There’s no BL either, even though the VIZ strapline (quoted at the head of the review) implies that first love will be explored in this first volume.We might venture a guess as to where all the questions Noshiro asks himself about friendship are leading or what patient Ayumi really feels about her childhood friend, but love? Not yet.
VIZ Media have given this release a handsome cover with embossed lettering – and translator Jocelyne Allen does an excellent job, rendering the dialogue realistically colloquial. (A word of praise too for the letterer Joanna Estep.)
Are the feelings Noshiro is developing for Sanada stronger than friendship? Why are they so painful? It will be interesting to see where Okura takes Noshiro, Sanada and Ayumi in the second volume (not due out from VIZ until Spring 2019).