An English proverb ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ came to mind.
Behind me lies a devil, ahead lies a situation which you could liken to a deep blue sea
There’s no salvation no matter which one I choose.
– But I hold no fear.
Le volume sur printemps
Deep within a forest, an all girl’s school surrounded by pastel-coloured flowers can be found. Built in the late 1800s, Saint Angraecum has earned itself quite the reputation for preparing young ladies for life on the outside, as it were. Now, students who are to enroll in April will become part of its Amitié system. On entering they will be rigorously assessed and subsequently matched to a pair who they will grow to be firm friends with. The trio will share rooms and generally, be encouraged to be together. Doesn’t sound like a bad deal, right?
One student who has taken an interest in this system is our protagonist, Suou. A quiet soul, she’s lived her life without a single friend to call her own, isolating herself in the world of books and films due to personal issues. Believing that she’s unlovable, she enters Saint Angraecum holding the desire to make the kind of lifelong friends she’s always dreamed of having; the kind who she can take midnight trips to the bathroom and share sweets with. The Amitié system eventually matches her to a pair of girls who by no coincidence, she had fateful meetings with that first night. Her heart beating at all the new experiences which no doubt await her, Suou’s very own spring in all its rich verdure begins…
Considered to be a fairly well-regarded company, Innocent Grey’s horror-infused titles have been fascinating readers for years. Many believe that they’re the company to turn towards whenever one is in the mood for something spine-chilling; their works lauded for breathtaking art and tales full of unexpected twists. Yet others find them to be tedious affairs, offering little pay-off for all the monotonous playing at detective one must suffer through. After reading perhaps their most celebrated work, I’m still not sure where I stand. Despite Kara no Shoujo offering a smorgasbord of elements I usually find myself greedily drawn towards, I ultimately didn’t like it and to this day I still can’t put my finger on why, exactly. It had the setting, the grisly string of mysterious deaths, and a sense of intrigue enveloping the narrative. So what threw me off? Perhaps, it was due to its overwhelming similarity to Kyougoku Natsuhiko’s Mouryou no Hako that over time, I stopped caring about the mystery and found myself growing increasingly preoccupied with how by the hour it was becoming less of a homage and more of a retelling. For what was supposed to be the murder mystery that the medium had to offer, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed.
It all felt a bit done and there were hardly any surprises taking its spiritual predecessor into account. I’m certainly not the only one to think that, with many Japanese reviewers also noting comparisons between the two, but usually tend to say that even through the unavoidable similarities KnS still proves to be interesting. But I digress as that is not the work which is under scrutiny here – rather, a work that’s not remotely comparable is. Not too long ago, it came as a surprise that the company known for lovingly drawn Glasgow smiles and murders swathed in snow were trying their hand at yuri– and not only that, but an all-ages yuri title. After researching what people tended to gravitate towards in such titles, they came to the conclusion that fans preferred all-ages works. Such an announcement was met with disdain; many joking on how it wouldn’t perform up to expectations. Disregarding my KnS misgivings, I couldn’t help but feel cautiously optimistic. The one or two GL titles I’ve checked out were not really to my liking, so is it any wonder that I got myself so worked up about a well-regarded company possibly offering their own version of Shingakkou -Noli me Tangere-? No point totally writing off a company because you didn’t like one of their works and all that.
So, how did FLOWERS fare?
Before attending Saint Angraecum our protagonist Suou lived with her beloved grandfather. While that may have allowed her the freedom she so dearly needed considering her difficult family situation, as the work begins she’s still very much trapped on an emotional level. A curse having been placed on her by her evil stepmother, Suou has come to believe that she’s unlovable. And so, she prefers to lock herself away in a world filled with films and books, pulling quotes from Casino, All the King’s Men, and The Shawshank Redemption to put new experiences in a context she’s familiar with. As a result of this self-imposed isolation she is rather reserved, at odds with what her appearance may imply given the tall, dark, and bishoujo trope (which another character even jokes about).
Possessing an anxious disposition, classmates constantly commenting on wow how tall or gosh how pretty she is does little to help. More than anything else, she would like to get along with her classmates but those first few weeks prove to be tougher than expected. Mustering up all her courage to ask someone to wait after class falls on deaf ears, her voice too low to register. All she wants to do is normal things with her friends, like speaking about love, and telling each other ghost stories in the depths of night. Is that too much to ask…? Depending on how you play FLOWERS, Suou just might be able to overcome her issues.
Scoring the highest on Saint Angraecum’s entrance exam is a girl named Rikka, so she is understandably made class president upon enrollment. As expected of her role she’s helpful to all, going out of her way to offer tips on how to brew just the right kind of tea which would suit a requester’s taste. In that sense, Rikka possesses a maternal warmth which is able to put one immediately at ease – but it would be a mistake to think that she’s a pushover. When it comes to obeying the rules she’s near unshakable, quickly growing irritated whenever the prospect of someone breaking one arises, however minor. She dislikes the daredevil sort and won’t hesitate to frostily lay down the law, which certainly doesn’t bode well for any free-spirited character she may eventually come to meet…
Rikka meets Suou that first night, and is immediately struck by how beautiful she is. Readily confessing as much however, is such a direct approach that it leaves Suou flustered and unable to do anything but run off. Which perhaps, sets a precedent for future interactions… Since the system has three members, there is another character which rounds off the trio. However she, Mayuri, eventually becomes a sore spot for our class president. On seeing her and Suou speaking, she can’t help but cut in, desperately wanting to know if there’s something private between the two of them. While being proactive is generally considered to be a positive trait, here it just might just destroy their system…
The Scarlet O’ Hara to Rikka’s Melanie, Mayuri is a vibrant girl able to charm anyone she meets through her whimsical and carefree approach to life. In how she shines down on everyone, Suou often compares her to the sun: one of the many romantic and girlish observations where she’s concerned. Mayuri is able to captivate Suou without even trying, warmly inviting her to watch the falling sakura petals after she leaves Rikka. As if a spider’s thread has pulled Suou in, her body becomes powerless and she no choice but to accept and allow fate to do its thing. The thread refuses to be severed, for it binds Suou long after that night. Despite Suou’s growing attraction, Mayuri doesn’t even see her as a friend, but more of an acquaintance. While she may indeed be like the sun, she fails to shine on Suou which leaves her in darkness – a flower unable to bloom.
Mayuri is certainly no slacker, instead being one of the more rational characters. While everyone else may be going to pieces Mayuri will be the one doing her best to pick them up and put them back together again. Instead of drowning in the horrifying implications of a story told, she’ll work through it and offers a clear-headed perspective. She will often play the Watson to Suou’s Holmes, tentatively building on examples she puts forward by throwing out her own pieces of information. When speaking about Wuthering Heights, she says it’s a story of revenge whereas Rikka believes it’s a love/hate drama through and through, marking their differences early on.
Prior to release Flowers was marketed as a ‘yuri mystery’ yet as the reader will eventually come to learn, those looking for an elaborate work full of twists and turns on par with the company’s other titles will find themselves dissatisfied on a number of levels. Its mysteries are relatively mild compared to the labyrinthine thrillers cultivated over generations. Flowers‘ mysteries deal with the most minor of incidents ranging from classmates getting lost in the rain to stolen books from the library. After reading the trial, all I had to say about it was how dull the mystery was with the underlying tensions between the characters the furthest thing from my mind. It was truly just that woefully presented, and you will find that many of Flowers’ mysteries run along similar tracks. In fact, if it weren’t for a friend’s encouraging me to pick it back up again I wouldn’t have. It can be difficult to follow Suou’s train of thought and many of the solutions require a bit of trial and error. For example, one chapter’s mystery deals with someone’s name. All the emphasis leading up to that point and references to a particular novel made throughout amount to nothing. There is a culprit who is never presented until the very confrontation, and if you decide to check this out, let me warn you well ahead of time that you will come across one of the more mind-numbing climaxes possibly ever written despite a main character’s reputation on the line.
I have seen people complain that some of the mysteries rely on knowledge not presented, being more general knowledge things (such as the name of Wuthering Heights‘ protagonist). I know nothing about floriography save for symbolism 101 stuff that anyone would, so given that such a knowledge hinges on a solution, I’ll reluctantly agree. Gripes aside, since I found myself being swept along by the work’s gentle current they eventually charmed me. Its mysteries aren’t on a grand scale involving serial murders or disfigured corpses (which another character even lampshades at one point), but the work is so wonderfully atmospheric that you end up getting pulled in regardless. In that sense, it reminded me of Kyoto Animation’s 2012 work Hyouka. Chapter five is the horror-tinged one here, guaranteed to have your heart beating throughout. I felt just as on edge as the girls gingerly making their way down a dark school hall did; so unnerved that although I had the lights down low, I had to turn them right back up again. I respect a well crafted atmosphere far more than jump scares as the former takes effort. Not so much the latter.
Flowers’ mysteries end up being more of a secondary, if not tertiary element. They don’t matter one bit. Instead, what we have here is an effectively done s’lifeish work dealing with girls being friends, and maybe something more. Most of the early chapters lack drama, and it only really comes in towards the end although tensions do rise every so often- especially where Rikka and her jealously is concerned…
Its major ‘mystery’ (if you could even call it that) lies within the intricacies of the Marimite-inspired Amitié system. Here we have friends (amitié) instead of sisters (seuor), the girls being on a more equal scale as opposed to a grade-based hierarchy with a relatively rigid council at the helm. Indeed, one may think that this may be for the better, but it can be a challenge depending on who happens to be involved. Instead of pairing characters up in order to deepen friendships (or for many, playing at being friends which breeds bad habits later on in life), they’re instead put into groups of three to foster cliques. Better than becoming a pair of pseudo-friends or worse, frenemies. But is it better, really? In such a system someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to be left out, which the situation we see steadily bloom in Flowers painfully exhibits.
Not just taking the Amitié system into account, you would expect an unmistakable Marimite influence since it is the de facto yuri work that people look towards in the same manner that people look towards Kaze to Ki no Uta for BL. However, I would be more inclined to compare it to Aoi Hana’s tender yearnings as opposed to Marimite‘s romantic two-girl friendships, characters breathlessly calling each other ‘onee-sama~’ all starry-eyed. Saint Angraecum, much like Lillian, is a school for ladies expecting to enter society as the perfect débutante; an unspoiled flower. For a while one does believe that the characters are content within such a frustratingly anachronistic system, so far removed from the real world that it veers on unsettling. But such a model is eventually dismantled through a character growing weary of the daily pleasantries, doing anything they can to shake things up a bit. After all, what on earth are they supposed to do in a place like that?
The romantic aspect is dealt with in perhaps a more serious manner than you gingerly brace yourself for. Set in the modern era, girls being into other girls is commendably handled with no one holding objections to the girls entering relationships as such. As one character dryly remarks, there may be other students in similar relationships, and it’s technically better than leaving to fool around with guys. Early on you wouldn’t expect it, with plenty of prickly comments about the possibility of rumours spreading due to girls blissfully holding hands. A relationship announcement during a tea party is received as if the girls announced that they were the very best of friends. Closer than anyone, everyone briefly approves before continuing the party which neatly ticks off all the Class S boxes. Yet during a midnight discussion involving love, one character asks another if there’s anyone she’s currently interested in. She laughs, saying that it’d be kinda gross considering where they are. At her careless words, Suou’s chest stings.
What may gently dissuade a relationship is that it may hurt someone else: not because it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ and I can appreciate that. While nothing goes further than a kiss, it’s all tastefully handled and can be quite poignant when it comes down to it. The drama isn’t on the level of say, Yamagishi Ryouko’s Shiroi Heya no Futari but it still proves to be tremendously affecting. Somewhere in the midst of tea parties and midnight conversations about love, a rumour spreads among the first years. By early summer disappearances dull the academy’s pastel hues and smiles fade from the girls’ faces. Classmates vanish without a word, their drinks still warm. Amitié members are given the cold shoulder, hurt clouding their faces as they sit apart from everyone else. A character worries about the consequences of another’s love for women being made known – would she be expelled? – yet refuses to divulge her secret even when her friendship with a third party is on the line. Feelings of jealously and loneliness are rife throughout this period, threatening to snip the flowers in mid-bloom. Can a happy ending lie in store for them?
Given my negative experience with the trial, I braced myself for cutsie archetypes not falling too far from the ‘gay until graduation’ tree. Yet throughout my short reading of Flowers, I found myself growing to care for the characters more than I expected to. I ended up disliking Rikka quite a bit (especially towards the end), but ultimately even she too is worthy of pity. The most impressive character development goes to Suou, who will sprout magnificently if the reader allows her to. All choices with Mayuri lead to Suou gaining a better sense of self, speaking her mind freely from the beginning whereas Rikka’s leave Suou more taciturn, drowning in her anxieties. The side characters could have easily become grating, but they proved to be some of favourite characters. Yuzuriha who dabbles in the cooking club is a vivacious senpai, dominating every scene she appears in. Erika achieves the same effect in her delightfully playful manner. When both break character for just a moment, it truly is a sight to behold. The twins Ichigo and Ringo are tremendously likeable from the beginning, and even go through some welcome character development of their own.
As you may have noticed, the art is nothing short of exquisite with even the more banal CGs involving pinkies being linked or a cake being served on a plate worthy of admiration. Sugina Miki has a real eye for the human figure with no suspect proportions. Flowers‘ cast may wear the same uniform and don’t have absurd accessories adorning their hair, but they look substantially better than most heroines you’ll find peppered throughout the medium. It’s all gentle colours, flyaway hair strands and tendrils making it all look very natural with how they fall on the face. You thankfully won’t find any shirt that magically clings to balloon-breasted characters that stretch with the body line. Outfits have a much needed sense of volume and shape. The uniforms in general are beautiful, quaint but stylish with some snazzy detailing like buttons lining the cuffs. Every fold is perfectly in place with realistic billowing. Rain-soaked clothes look heavy and uncomfortable to wear.
The backgrounds are also a treat, and you’ll perhaps find yourself staring more at them than you’d expect. Sunlight reflects off the glass, mirrors are slightly misty. Floors so shiny you can see bookcases perfectly reflected them, as if there’s a whole other world underneath. Candy-coloured hues of flowers surround the school. It’s all very idyllic and still, yet the dark blues of the night dye them. In the rain, they lose their lustre. The only complaint I’d have with the art in general is the lack of tachi-e, with each character having two and there not being a single CG of Rikka on her own despite being one of the main characters. The tachi-e never change even while the girls are in different outfits such as their ballet clothes. With how poofy the underskirts are, some characters such as Ichigo are drawn with hands resting on them. With those other costumes it looks like they’re awkwardly posing, hands resting on air. This is of course, only a minor problem.
As pleasant as the tracks are, there isn’t a wide variety and they get old fast. The soundtrack is plagued by the same three or four tracks, the jovial violins throughout the school day (‘マーガレット’) and tea party theme (‘Afternoon Tea’) making scenes seem longer than they are. By the end they become jarring, insta-skips later. There seems to be a designated track for each scene/mood and it certainly felt like they were on a loop with the programmer forgetting to switch tracks. As much as I originally liked ‘心の棘’, towards the end it too became near-unlistenable. It’s not all bad, however, and MANYO did perform admirably. But unfortunately some of the prettier tracks such as ‘<ユリ‘ and ‘ワスレナグサ’ play less than they should, only really emerging towards the end while we’re stuck with that violin track over, and over, and over. In fact, the most impressive piece would be one that’s not even a MANYO exclusive: the hymn ‘Tota pulchra es Maria’. Listening to it after I had finished the work up, I found myself immensely moved. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it FLOWERS’ most emotionally stirring moment due to what it accompanies. Ending ‘花の頁‘, beautiful in its simplicity also moved me the more I listened to it with lyrics telling of Suou’s clumsy feelings.
As far as the voice acting is concerned, it may surprise you to hear that a pair of side characters offered the most memorable performances. Much of my praise is (deservedly) devoted to newcomer Sakura Ayane (Love Lab‘s Yukio; Joshiraku‘s Mari) who played the haughty Erika. While I felt that I had heard her voice before, I couldn’t quite place it. As a testament to her talent, she left such a strong impression on me from a minor role several seasons back (Uchouten Kazoku’s Kaisei) that I was able to hear Erika and think that I had heard her before. She certainly deserves all the recognition she receives and more for while Erika was a tremendously likeable character in her own right, Ayane’s performance enhanced her charm. In a way, her coquettish performance reminded me of a female Suzuki Tatsuhisa (Shingakkou’s Neil). While I have a bias towards any character Kawashima Rino (Subarashiki Hibi’s Yuki; Kusarihime’s Yoshino) plays, it’s possible that Ayane surpassed her.
Kawashima played the immensely likable senpai character, Yuzuriha. She’s perhaps a bit too amazing though, for at one point when she was trying to tell a chilling story the immersion completely broke because, y’know, it’s her. A lot may argue that she’s overexposed, but I find her enjoyable to listen to. Nagatsumi Juri (Tamako Market‘s Kanna; Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai‘s Shichimiya) performing as twins Ichigo and Ringo did a fabulous job, and her Kawashima impression could give the seiyuu herself a run for her money! Although, this isn’t to say the main characters didn’t perform capably. Nazuka Kaori (True Tears‘ Hiromi; Code Geass‘ Nunally) as Suou performed beautifully, bringing the gentle sort of hesitance required of her character across to great success.
As you can tell, the system is gorgeous looking and tidy enough yet the technical aspects in general leave a lot to be desired. There is literally a yuri gauge (represented by a – you guessed it – yuri/lily) which the reader can cultivate through choosing the more open choices, although some are baffling (choosing one sport over the other is more ~yuri~, aparently: who knew?). There are also far, far too many choices for something of its length. It’s broken up into eight chapters, each spanning about two hours, more or less depending on your reading speed. There are two routes, technically, but they only branch off towards the very end. If you’re planning on doing Rikka’s route first so you can save the true route for last, it ain’t happening. If you try to set off her flags first you’re in for a bad end (which will make you have to go through everything again and believe me, with how slow the skipping is holy shit please do not attempt it). There are a couple of bad ends which are inconsequential, tacked on affairs which only span a couple of lines.
The next installment which I am already impatiently waiting for will take place in summer, following the seasonal theme and will apparently take place from Erika’s perspective. It’ll be like the GL version of Starry Sky (except, you know, not among the worst things ever written). Apparently before release Innocent Grey announced that they were printing a second batch, so either expectations were low so they didn’t print that many or pre-orders were surprising. Whatever lead them to print that second batch though, things are looking good! There is certainly a lot of potential to be had and I’m looking forward how the girls grow with the subsequent seasons (especially after the nasty little cliffhanger this one had).
For Innocent Grey’s first yuri title, I have no doubt that they have done a marvelous job performing well and above what I expected of them. I expected GOKIGENYOU ONEE-SAMA~s aplenty borrowing heavily from Class S works with very little substance. A work that you would be tempted to write off as clumsily riding the yuri wave that seems to crashing through the anime industry these days. All cutsie ‘gay until graduation’ crap that appeals to a very specific audience. Instead, I found a relatively tender, almost solemn work which completely took me by surprise. The end left me feeling immensely moved, but it certainly wasn’t the first time I felt my heart stir through my all too short time reading it. FLOWERS is a romantic work with a touch of girlish whimsicality which I won’t be soon to forget.
My praises of course, only reflect the yuri aspect. If you’re expecting a work on par with Kara no Shoujo but with more of an emphasis on Mizuhara Toko as the romantic candidate instead of Tokisaka Reiji you’re looking at the wrong game. As I have mentioned earlier, the mysteries are insubstantial. On finishing FLOWERS, a friend linked me to a particularly scathing review which tore the game apart due to their handling. The reviewer wasn’t the first to do so, and they certainly won’t be the last. Innocent Grey presenting this as a mystery in a way, is false advertising and I will admit that as the game progressed I could not have cared less about them. They are so appallingly assembled and in that sense, it is arguable whether the company achieved what they wanted with this.
It would have performed better as a pure bildungsroman with no bait-and-switch mystery trappings to lure in fans. It’s cheap and they do little to add to the overall enjoyment, deterring from it if anything. You can tell that the mystery elements were more of a last minute thing for the narrative would have progressed quite comfortably without them and honestly, only two of the presented mysteries tie into the greater scheme of things. But given that this is writer Shimizu Hatsumi’s first venture, I am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. There’s certainly a lot of promise to be had here and I’m greatly looking forward to what the company does next with the series.