A Garland for Girls: Blossoming Shoujo Imagery in Ace wo Nerae

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If one were to daintily waltz through the lily garden, of light foot and lighter heart, they would perhaps stumble upon Ace wo Nerae! (1973). A shoujo coming-of-age tale courtesy of Yamamoto Sumika, it facilitated the blooming of flowers within closed gardens for decades to come through focusing on its plucky protagonist Hiromi swept up in the trials and tribulations of her school’s tennis club. It would be considered an early yuri contribution in part due to Hiromi’s attraction towards the club’s shining star, Reika, in turn establishing genre hallmarks long before they were officially adopted by the mainstream.

To that end it is by no means a coincidence that diabolical genius auteur Dezaki Osamu consciously draws attention to floral imagery throughout its stunning premiere – an encompassing motif which represents a rich spectrum of sexuality in full bloom. However, it would be remiss to cite Ace wo Nerae! as the work which sowed the seeds that would eventually bear fruit via more infamous offerings such as Maria-sama ga Miteru (1998) and Strawberry Panic (2003), that honour exclusively reserved for Yoshiya Nobuko’s Hana Monogatari (1916). A collection of short stories from one of Japan’s most beloved twentieth-century authors, it depicted blossoming same-sex relationships in a manner which modern yuri series have certainly been shaped by; ornate imagery lending itself admirably to intense connections which took root in girls’ imaginations, profoundly influencing literature for that particular demographic. Material proved to be at once reserved and titillating, bridging a developmental gap through ambiguous yet tangible delineations which flourished within a unique liminal space alongside the very notion of girlhood.

In a startling departure from what would be considered Dezaki’s finest televised achievement, in terms of aesthetics the sprawling, techicolour freedom which the tennis courts of Ace wo Nerae! provide are a far cry from Onii-sama e… (1991) with its dizzying Dutch angles and claustrophobic hallways echoing the adolescent anxieties which threaten to consume its cast. In direct opposition the former spends little time within its school’s halls, preferring to highlight the vast expanse where dreams take flight, Hiromi suggestively likening the court to a flower garden. As if gently beckoned by her words, flowers grow alongside dreamy pastels, corresponding to an emerging adolescence in full bloom; possibilities extending as far as their imaginations allow. Of course no bildungsroman would be complete without a love interest, and (one of) the subject(s) of Hiromi’s starry-eyed adoration happens to be Reika, a figure that rather fascinatingly also happens to serve as the progenitor of elegant well-to-do-ladies with cascading curls which, to this day, are a staple of otaku media. Ohoho~.

The star of the tennis club leaves glittering shoujo sparkles in her wake; epitomised by only the softest of lilacs and pinks, the tennis court she governs over bathed in the same hues enhancing the girlish cadence which pervades the introduction. Hiromi admires Reika from a distance, considering her to be the equivalent of a butterfly flitting amongst her ever-loyal subjects within a space that is reserved for her and only her… This whimsical fever dream continues long after the club ends for the day, Reika and her court entering a café in a decidedly surreal manner illuminated by the same hues as the flowers which adorn their path, all sugary pinks. Even when the direction momentarily shifts to capture Hiromi’s reaction, the cinematography gently reminds us of the narrative’s pulsing undercurrent via a floral portrait tellingly hanging over the table where she sits; Hiromi’s own room filled with similar imagery. For a sequence dominated by these often transparent motifs it appears to be more than welcome.

However, as any bildungsroman worth its salt will attest all that blooms initially must eventually wilt lest the tales slips into irreversible stagnancy, to allow for a sturdier foundation – the fate of Hiromi no exception. Her giddily taking after Reika, all stutters and blushes, while sweet in its own way, will never allow her to truly grow. And so the stage is set for dissolution ushered in through masculinity and decidedly unfeminine norms invading what appears to be this sheltered matrilineal realm, rendered by an abrupt shift to deep blue shades. The flowers which dominated the visuals for the first half, thriving alongside Hiromi’s affections, noticeably fade from sight with the arrival of Munakata, a fearsome coach who tests the aptitude of each club member as opposing colour spectra clash. It is a motion which threatens to overpower the sanctity of the court alongside Hiromi’s own emerging sense of self; no longer an isolated haven free from external influences but a psychological battlefield where even its ruler may fall. Although Reika certainly appears to accept her defeat with grace, Dezaki’s direction nevertheless belies her true emotions – no longer wrapped in her comforting hues, the surrounding fences stand tall and intimidating as she limps away.

This is not an outcome which Hiromi will passively accept, at once proving Ace wo Nerae! to be a different kind of shoujo series, representative of new stories weaved for the modern girl. In order to preserve the tattered remnants of her adolescence, and to defend her beloved’s honour, she takes after Munakata by entering what becomes a ghoulish pseudo-lair. Their face-off occurs in a narrow, constricting passage at odds with the sprawling freedom which the tennis court and Hiromi’s burgeoning affections grant. It is impossible for girlish whimsies to bear fruit here, for her imagination to take flight, so appears to fail as Munakata walks way, his victory assured. Later, however, the tones shift to a more neutral palette which is neither characterized through the vibrant mauves of Reika’s soothing empire or the threatening navies of masculinity, but a warm orange glow that comes with the setting sun. And so, Munakata begrudgingly accepts his defeat. The girls are still able to dream and his presence is nowhere near as menacing.

Through Munakata’s arrival, Ace wo Nerae! aggressively eschews dainty genre constraints through welcoming Hiromi into the blazing arena of sports where she quickly becomes an active participant, no longer a swooning debutante gazing from afar. This aspect is certainly worth praising as her role is directly at odds with the girlish pursuits which were emphasized during the first half of the century, championing subservient and passive traits in order to prepare young ladies for domestic duties they would uphold upon leaving school. True to Yoshiya’s desire to have readers engage with their true selves and not be taken with traditional flights of fancies which society dictated (she infamously scorned the notion of magazines placing such an emphasis on marriage), Hiromi challenges normative structures through a transferal of agency by taking up her racket with conviction, determined to improve her skills and later, win.

The following episode opens with the club practicing in comparatively natural lighting, free of the vivid fantasies which dominated the previous episode’s palette. Thus truly begins Hiromi’s journey of growth, no longer held captive by potential genre constraints and able to follow her heart’s desire. In a symbolic act of both destruction and acceptance, following an unsuccessful plea with Munakata to remove her from the team, she furiously destroys a flower, sending the petals flying. In a way it serves as a means of severing herself off from other simpering shoujo heroines, having asserted her own agency. Through defying what society and the genre expects of her, Hiromi is able to advance.

As a testament to the strength of Dezaki’s direction, over the course of a single episode or so what we bear witness to is a successful transition from a restrictive realm to one which facilitates Hiromi’s growth; flexible sexuality enabling us to construct alternative interpretations with her attraction to both Reika and Toudou unmistakable, each of them serving as a source of inspiration. Nevertheless at this point in time it all proves to be a remarkably chaste affair, void of eroticism, but this is an expected quality in light of the genre’s infancy (at least where this medium is concerned), unlike later efforts which actively dismantle established norms swathed in lily petals such as Yuri Kuma Arashi (2015) and the recent fifth episode of Flip Flappers (2016). However it is worth noting that Yoshiya’s oeuvre is likewise coded in implicit eroticisms, sexuality heavily intertwined into each narrative’s body yet rarely leaving the margins, often expressed through floral imagery.

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