If Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun was the series that blurs all the demographic lines, Ao Haru Ride is the opposite. This is a show that wears its shoujo proudly, from the moon-eyed character designs to the dialogue to the emotional tone. There were some elements in the first episode that I quite liked, though on balance it failed to grab me in any meaningful way. The problem with one-cour adaptations of long manga, of course, is that there isn’t a whole lot of margin for error when it comes to slow starts.
Production I.G. is the studio behind this one, and they certainly know their way around shoujo by now. Interestingly the premiere is actually a mix of two trademark shoujo visual styles – the flashback sequences to Yoshioka Futaba (Uchida Maaya) and Mabuchi (though was called Tanaka then) Kou (Kaji Yuuki) in middle school sport a very retro, 90’s look (think Brains Base). And the present-day high school visual palette is the classic contemporary shoujo template, very similar to what I.G. delivered in Kimi ni Todoke. The two leads were in the halting stages of a pubescent romance in middle school, which was cut short when Tanaka never showed up for a festival date and Futaba later hears that he’s transferred schools.
In the present day, Futaba is overeating and playing the tomboy in a (successful) attempt to keep herself from being too popular with boys – which was causing her to be unpopular with girls. She hates boys, apparently – all except the Tanaka-kun of her memory – which is why it’s such a shock when she seems him in the hallways at school one day. Thought he calls himself Mabuchi Kou thanks to a family divorce now she soon discovers that it’s the very same guy – though he’s changed considerably. While she seems ready to pick up where they’d left off, he tells her that’s impossible – those days are gone and they can never go back.
That’s not a bad setup as shoujo premises go, and I’m curious to see what’s behind Mabuchi’s new coldness towards Futaba. But I confess that I didn’t really get a lot of emotional connection from either of them. This is one of those cases where casting may be an issue, and while I’m not here to re-open the Kaji Yuuki can of worms I can only be honest and say that he’s not helping the case for me. I’ve always found Kaji to haver a very small sweet spot (Shin Sekai Yori was in it, and Noragami was close) as an actor – comedy is out, genki is bad, and he’s not good with drama or “dark and brooding” as he is here, either. He’s not such a distraction as to be a deal-breaker but in a character-driven romance, you need more from the cast than that. As for Uchida I’m hit-and-miss with her – I have liked some of her performances (again, Noragami, as well as Sankarea spring to mind) but found her rather grating in others. Whether it’s her or not, for whatever reason I’m not feeling Futaba yet – she is grating on me a bit, in fact.
There was some stuff here I did like – the scene where Mabuchi saves Futaba from the bitchy attendant at the school store who accuses her of stealing bread she’s paid for was very nicely played and surprisingly tense. And very often I find in shoujo that I like the supporting cast better than the leads, so hopefully when the rest of them are introduced Ao Haru Ride will get a little spark. It’s not a bad premise, as I said – for me the execution just lags behind it in the premiere. We’ll see how things look after the next episode or two.