Review: Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke wo - Anata to Koibito Tsunagi OVA


[Back in August, The-Excel wrote this massive piece on a yuri work that deserves to be revisited now that we're in full swing of Ero Week. Enjoy, and watch out for some of the NSFW links enclosed. The post itself is fine for your consumption at work, though. -- Brad]

In 2006, a bunch of dudes in the eroge development field noticed that there were very little offerings in adult eroge that didn't involve all of the weirdness commonly associated with it. They also saw that yuri was sorely lacking as well. Any eroge with more than one girl in had a high chance of also featuring futanari, marital aids, supernatural elements, bait-and-switch of any kind, tentacles, and other frankly disgusting things, if it doesn't just betray its own genre and have a dude involved.

They decided to do something about it by forming the doujin circle "Fuguriya" and releasing their flagship title, Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke wo (commonly translated A Kiss For The Petals or something similar), in September of that year. In the years that followed, the series saw seven more eroge, three drama CDs, ten light novels, a YouTube series (work-safe; translated in part here), and a one-episode OVA, collectively covering the stories of five couples. That sounds like a lot for a single franchise, but it is very obscure outside of yuri fandom.

To quote the anime blog Listless Ink, "Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke wo (その花びらにくちづけを) began as a simple yuri visual novel that features a really light yuri story. It emphasized the soft romance between two girls and quickly became one of a kind in a world dominated by fetishist and heavy materials. It was also the first ecchi visual novel that features purely yuri relationships. Because of its uniqueness, it soon gained widespread popularity not only within the niche, but among many anime fans." While I have yet to find that last sentence to be true anywhere, this contrast is the only reason I pay any attention to this series alone out of all of the hentai out there. Since day one, Fuguriya has prided themselves on deliberately having none of the hentai staples that make animated pornography unbearable in any of their products. In other words, it's exactly the kind of smut I can endorse. It's the exception to the rule, much like most of the things I like. The OVA was announced last September as the first production of the animation studio "chuchu" and like Fuguriya, it was formed for the express purpose of filling the yuri-shaped void in mature animation. And it couldn't have come soon enough.

This OVA is loosely based on about 10% of the eroge of the same name, the third in this series. Anata to Koibito Tsunagi follows the relationship between the perpetually cool-headed Mai Sawaguchi and by-the-book tsundere Reo Kawamura. Mai's unending advances toward Reo fuel a tension that comes to a head when Mai misses school due to sickness. Reo visits her home and reveals that she's hopelessly in love with Mai. Thus begin the sexy adventures of one of the most popular yuri couples in recent history. However, if you watch this anime without any background, you likely would never guess any of this. Due to the criminally short runtime of 21 minutes, the animators had to make serious compromises to fit as much of the spirit of the eroge as possible. And for whatever reason, the events of the OVA are backward from the eroge it adapts; here, Reo gets sick and Mai comes to visit. Sure, there are bits of humor and heartfelt romance in the time between the kissing and caressing, but most of the duration is monopolized by the cleanest, most well-animated explicit sex in the history of Japanese animation.

Before I continue, allow me to make an aside. After I watched Inception, I noticed a pattern with many of my favorite works. The shows and movies that most effectively hold my attention embrace brevity. Inception used cuts that were kept as short as possible, not repeating or showing anything that did not absolutely have to be seen. I often state that the original Di Gi Charat is my favorite anime of all time for the same reason, having minimal character development that was just enough to fully explain everyone's motivations. Azumanga Daioh, Nanoha, and FLCL are other works that earned my respect by keeping things brief by virtue of episode count (or by segmentation in Azumanga's case).

By that pattern, I believe Sono Hana as a whole to represent adult-oriented yuri distilled to its absolute essence, disregarding its own constraints with a school setting. The eroge themselves run only several hours at maximum and can be completed in a single sitting or two. They could be meatier, but their relative lack of weight doesn't work against them. Consequently, due to its length, this OVA is Sono Hana distilled to it's essence, being a sample of what it's about as a whole. It strikes the right balance of story and passion despite its short length by mirroring the flow of the eroge. Everything about this production is lovingly done, from the minute physical reactions to the orchestral music composed for the purpose, though the music does get loud at points.

As far as hentai goes, this OVA occupies an interesting rank. It's in a class all its own, literally—reviews for it call it "classy," "pure," "tasteful," "tame" and "art." Some have complained that they were unable to do what they normally do with it. Unusual labels for what is objectively porn, to be sure. This is accomplished by drawing attention away from the mosaic regions and to the faces, which tend to be much more expressive. The sheer emotion on display overshadows any hardcore feel, which is an accomplishment in itself. That people enjoyed it despite that confirms my hope that this OVA is if nothing else a beacon of hope for the future of yuri. It is, in a way, a prot of the ideal yuri hentai: erotic yet clean, with just the right amount of story.

Yes, we all know porn has no story, but let's be honest; everything needs some kind of seed to get the affair started, even if it's just how the subjects meet. Koibito Tsunagi does one better by compressing an entire love story and all of its sentimentality into one episode. chuchu proclaims that their specialty is in "high-quality yuri", and there's no denying that they're on a good start.

Unfortunately, I find it a little difficult to recommend to someone just looking for a self-sufficient shoujo-ai story. It's in there, but the viewer will need to look elsewhere to fill in the blanks left untouched by this OVA. You could be forgiven for thinking this is an adaptation of a one-shot, but it's a lot deeper than that. If you don't know the plot of the original eroge, you'll see two schoolgirls making out for half an hour when you press Play and not a loose adaptation of a much deeper story.

The very first scene is sex in the nurse's office with no context whatsoever. There are bits of flashback in between that retell the start of their relationship and where it's headed, but the juicy bits themselves are joined with frequent jump cuts that can make the entire affair hard to watch for those unfamiliar with the series. The world in this animation also feels empty compared to the source, as Mai and Reo are the only characters in it. We don't even see other students walking out of the school in the first flashback. This reflects how the eroge doesn't show any other characters on-screen, but at least that acknowledged they were there. Here, it's like everyone else on the planet vanished, what with the outdoor shot of the school and absolutely no one else surrounding it. St. Michael's School for Girls isn't even featured as prominently as it should have been, as most of the episode takes place in Reo's bedroom.

You could argue that this sharpens the focus on the main characters, but if not for the sheer size of the bedroom, it would have felt even more isolated than it already is. Additionally, if you are familiar with the original eroge, you'll notice almost immediately that a lot of liberties were taken. Particularly, the perspective was switched to Reo's point of view (which was probably for the best) and Mai's personality is entirely different from the one in the eroge (over which some have taken issue). As it stands, it feels more like a 1-episode abridged series or a pilot or even just a one-shot than a coherent product derived from a larger whole (which is exacerbated in the recap over the credits). It's a much better experience if you already know who's who. Therefore, this OVA is not the friendly introduction to the series that I was hoping it would turn out to be. Then again, minimal storytelling didn't hold back the above works, so maybe my knowledge of the series is tainting my opinion on this.

The Sono Hana eroge are in a class known as nukige, games built solely to titillate. Superficially, every entry in the series can be summarized as "two schoolgirls do each other over and over." While that isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself for what it is, the only thing that makes it noteworthy is that it's the closest thing yet seen to pure yuri with zero subtext. All of Sono Hana is two girls going further and further with their relationship, nothing more, nothing less. The more respected girls' love stories are known for depth and emotionally charged drama that explores the nature of same-sex relationships. While Sono Hana is known more for its light, saccharine story and untainted ecchi content than any level of substance, it doesn't let that or anything else get in the way of what the audience came for. That's exactly what I think makes it so popular. The fact that there actually is any story to speak of, mostly in the form of character development, helps too. Now that it's been extended to animated form, many more people are now able to experience that for themselves.

At Otakon this year, I attended a panel that discussed yaoi and yuri and how the latter "gets no love". More specifically, when it does get love, something always has to ruin it. It can't just be about two girls' romance, there has to be things like contrived love triangles, artificial penises, unrealistic proportions, and kinks that saturate the genre. One attendee reasoned that most hardcore yuri is written by normal hentai writers, so it's formed the same way, dicks and all. However, they concluded that all yuri that goes beyond subtext is doomed to this fate. Fuguriya was apparently sick of this attitude and chose to defy it; for that reason, they enjoy a loyal, albeit sizable, following. They have not only proved that more than a few people out there want clean explicit yuri with a strong emphasis on romance over lust, but they don't mind waiting months to get it. And yet for some reason, only two people at the panel had heard of this series. While it is expected (albeit sad) that what could be considered vanilla hentai is the exception, it doesn't make sense to me that it should be at a premium. I mean, you would think that since so many people think girl on girl is hot, there would be a lot more of it in hentai. But for whatever reason, that isn't the case. And that sucks for me, since I have to enjoy what little I have, just like everything else in my life. With any luck though, the success of this OVA will turn that around in the coming years.

Above are the rankings for anime DVD preorders on Getchu on 16 June 2010. As far as I can tell, the OVA shot up to #1 very soon after it was available and stayed there since at least early June until release. Notice the entries below it: shows like Angel Beats!, Bakemonogatari, Seikon no Qwaser, Working!!, and others with more public exposure lose out to it. Granted, this is only one storefront, but it's very telling how a single episode in what is currently a very niche genre has earned this many preorders. The reviews seem to agree with these numbers, with all of them expressing anticipation for the next release from chuchu. There is little doubt that this will see some kind of sequel or expansion into a full series. It's a shame that we had to settle for a side story to the eroge instead of an independent work in the meantime, but you'll still find enjoyment in it if you're looking for a hentai that promises to never to shock you in any way. You'll be too busy going "awww" instead.

If you're not against this kind of thing, go watch it. And you will see that even in the field of animated erotic imports, Sturgeon's Law is king. 99% of it is terrible, but the other 1% is more than worth the trouble. The only real problem with this is that it isn't of the couple I wanted. Oh well. Such is life. In conclusion, I waited a year for this and it was totally worth it, if only for a taste of something more to look forward to. Here's hoping that I won't have to wait another year for an announcement of an anime of Tenshi no Hanabira Some.

A frame from the sequel to this eroge, Anata wo Suki na Shiawase, rendered by Peko. I wonder what he thought of the Mayoi Neko Overrun! anime.

A note of caution: If you choose to pursue the source material, there isn't much in the way of English translations. Only the first eroge has been fully translated, and it's not related to this OVA. However, I can't in good conscious recommend it solely as a link to this anime, because although it isn't bad, it just doesn't represent what the series is best known for as well as everything that followed. Look it up if only to see where it all started. Translations for most of the other eroge are underway, but none of them are anywhere near finished. One of the pairs involves a grade school student hooking up with her teacher, but it is far raunchier than anything Kodomo no Jikan ever attempted, to the point that it spits in the face of that Nonexistent Youth proposition. Avoid anything named Amakute Hoshikute Torokeru Chuu unless you're brave. Also, beware any scene that occurs in a bath.

Another note: As noted above, the characterization was altered in the transition to animation. If you want to see how Reo and Mai normally act and you don't want to see the OVA or play the eroge first, watch the Reo/Mai Diaries and you might be surprised at the differences. Incidentally, the entirely work-safe YouTube series gives a better introduction to the characters and the world of Sono Hana without any of the risk. It's formatted like an eroge, so it will probably look awkward if you haven't played any eroge before. The translation adds the interface of one so you can at least tell who's talking. However, as of writing, the translation is ongoing with only three episodes out of ten translated.

[Update]The fansub group SHiN-gx announced a decalingual fansub of this OVA in the works. If you speak Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, Norwegian, or Indonesian, you will soon have little excuse to not give this a chance. I have never seen anyone so dedicated to give a single work so much exposure before. How many anime have been subtited in Indonesian?

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