Warning: This article contains spoilers for all of Bloom Into You
Nio Nakatani's hit series Bloom Into You is one of the most successful yuri works in recent memory, selling over one-million print copies and spawning two manga anthologies, a spinoff light novel trilogy, a stage play, and a television anime. The series deserves every bit of this success and popularity, as it delivers a compelling and dramatic romance with relatable and exciting characters. However, it is not as astounding nor infallible as we like to believe. In our attempts to sing the series' praises and falsely label it as revolutionary or unique, we let some of its derivative and even harmful content go unchallenged while ignoring some of its best qualities. The truth is, Bloom Into You is not as original as we like to think, and while it certainly defies many yuri tropes, it also submits to others.
Much of Bloom Into You's platitudinal material is commonplace in the yuri genre; tropes and narratives born of twentieth-century Class S literature. These “S” stories, which described deep, sisterly companionship between schoolgirls, became the basis for the burgeoning modern yuri genre in the 1970s. As such, yuri adopted the standard set pieces, character archetypes, and narratives from Class S works, which remain a hugely pervasive and influential standard of the genre. Although many recent yuri titles have sought to avoid these elements, Nakatani features them heavily in her work. The most prominent inclusion of yuri tropes in the series is lead characters Yuu Koito and Touko Nanami. Everything from the story beats of their developing romance to their character designs is directly copied from or heavily influenced by common yuri material. The standard narrative of the genre, which I call the “girl-meets-girl” story, details the courtship of two women. These works always begin with the two leads meeting and one falling for the other. After a fair bit of heartache, the affection becomes mutual, and the characters finally express their love through a soulful gaze into each other's eyes, a triumphant kiss, or, in more recent yuri titles, sexual intimacy. Yuu and Touko's courtship follows this format almost to a T. Their story is not only a near-textbook example of the “girl-meets-girl” structure, but various major and minor elements and events within it feature yuri tropes.
Specific moments throughout Bloom Into You showcase scenes and motifs repeated throughout the yuri genre. These instances can be as simple as a girl resting her head on another's lap or as significant as a character's entire role. For example, Sayaka, Touko's closest ally, harbors a hidden attraction to her. Despite the crush being one-sided, Sayaka is content to remain as Touko's steadfast and loyal best friend. Many titles, yuri or otherwise, feature a similar character with unrequited feelings for her female friend, such as Tomoyo from Cardcaptor Sakura, Tamao in Strawberry Panic!, and, in a more comedic take, A Certain Scientific Railgun's Kuroko.
A few of these tropes take center stage in Bloom Into You's story, mainly that of the student council and their play. The main cast of the series are all officers of the student council. In yuri stories, the student council helps focus the narrative by gathering and presenting a collection of a school's most elite members as they dramatically plot, erupt in romantic tensions, and yes, put on plays. Some of the most famous examples include the Yamayuri Council in Maria Watches Over Us and the three councils atop Astraea Hill in Strawberry Panic! Nakatani imitates these yuri tropes especially, making the council and stage play central components of the series, thus tying it down with the tropes and traditions of S-influenced yuri.
Finally, there are the main characters themselves, Yuu and Touko. Schoolgirl yuri works often revolve around senpai-kohai pairings in “Crimson Rose and Candy Girl” relationships. The senior is a tall beauty with long dark hair and a serious, elegant composure. Her junior is, in contrast, a short, naive girl with light-colored hair. Although more variable than the previous aspects, both characters, particularly the senpai, are often plagued by unhappiness, usually originating from their homes. Touko and Yuu embody this “Rose and Candy” model. Despite only having about a seven-week age difference, they are very different aesthetically and personality-wise. Touko, the senpai, is tall with dark hair, presents a bold though graceful persona, and has a deep-seated self-loathing stemming from her sister's death. As the kohai, Yuu is shorter with light-colored hair. While she is by no means cheerful and energetic, she still possesses naive ideas of love and romance taken from shoujo manga, which end up making her feel isolated and unhappy.
Relationships between a senpai and kohai and the “girl-meets-girl” narrative are not by themselves problematic. Unfortunately, Touko, the first to fall in love with the other, contributes to the perpetuation of one of yuri's most harmful tropes, that of the predatory lesbian. Throughout the series, Touko repeatedly kisses Yuu unexpectedly and without permission, even though Yuu has firmly stated that she is not in love with her. Other examples of this trope include Chikane from Destiny of the Shrine Maiden and Shizuma from Strawberry Panic! These actions send the false message that lesbians, particularly those in positions of power, are predatory or violent and, in some cases, try to “lure” women to homosexuality. Sadly, such aggressive behavior is often used for fanservice and rarely leads to consequences in a work or among audiences.
Comments and critical discourse often ignore the many ways that Bloom Into You features and forwards yuri tropes. However, a fair amount of the discussion surrounding this series focuses on one aspect it really should not: asexuality. Asexual people deserve quality representation in media. Some fantastic titles feature and explore it in a realistic and forthright manner, such as Our Dreams At Dusk: Shimanami Tasogare and Mine-kun is Asexual, but Bloom Into You is not their peer. From its inception, the series was labeled and advertised as a yuri story about two girls, both of whom exhibit sexual and romantic attraction to each other, falling in love. Despite her initial struggles with affection, Yuu is not asexual, nor is she demisexual or gray asexual/aromantic. The final volume attributes Yuu's inability to fall in love to a character fault. In her shoujo manga-influenced mind, love is sudden and spectacular, like a flash of a lightning bolt, instead of a process requiring effort and dedication. Once Yuu matures and understands the complexities of love, she feels attracted to Touko and is assumed to be allosexual.
The proliferation of discussions about asexuality in Bloom Into You is likely exacerbated by TROYCA's anime adaptation, which covers the events from approximately the first five and a half volumes of the manga. By the anime's conclusion, Yuu has not yet fallen for Touko, and although she arguably displays some romantic affection, she shows no signs of sexual interest in her. If one has not read the manga, it is a valid and understandable argument. We are often too quick and eager to see underrepresented identities even when they are not there, or when their portrayal is not positive. Sadly, even side character Maki, who is asexual, is not a genuine representation. The series describes him as an observer of others' stories, unable to have his own because of his sexuality, or lack thereof. However, real ace/aro people can have meaningful lives and stories of their own that do not necessarily involve courtship.
The most frustrating repercussion of arguments speaking to the series asexual representation is that by focusing so much on this topic, we often miss some of Bloom Into You's best qualities. While the series is deeply entrenched in yuri traditions, presenting genre standard story arcs, set pieces, and characters, Nakatani actually manipulates and even challenges quite a few of these tropes in fantastic ways. Take Touko, for example. While she is the typical senpai archetype in design and history, her calm and controlled manner is a facade hiding a very vulnerable girl. It is an exciting play on the character. She struggles so much to fulfill the archetypical role that is effortless in other works, but it is a burden to her, not a natural ability, and she changes and learns to be more comfortable with her true self. Additionally, Nakatani's slight manipulation of the “girl-meets-girl” story arc helps modernize the classic structure.
Erica Friedman describes the typical yuri story as, “There is a girl, she likes another girl. The other girl likes her. They like each other. The end.” However, for Bloom Into You, “the end” comes a little bit later. Yuu and Touko admit their feelings for each other in the final volume, but the story continues. In the penultimate chapter of the manga, after dating for some time, Yuu and Touko sleep together, in defiance of S tradition. Although the girls in S stories had deep and even romantic friendships, these relationships seldom involved sexual attraction. To this day, yuri manga, including Bloom Into You, rarely openly name or label homosexuality. Nevertheless, Bloom Into You defies the “pure” relationships of early yuri works in favor of more realistic, sensual, and fulfilling content. It is not the first to do so, as Milk Morinaga did the same thing as early as 2005 in a chapter of Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink. However, even if she was not the first, Nakatani masterfully delivered this triumphant and extremely queer conclusion to one of history's most popular yuri pairings. The next and final chapter of the manga is even more defiant of yuri tropes. Set a few years in the future, it showcases that now college students Yuu and Touko are still girlfriends. Very rarely are girls able to continue their romances beyond high school in yuri. Historically, such relationships between two young women were effectively practice, and they were curtailed after graduation as the women married men and became mothers. This trope reflects contemporary ideas about same-sex relationships, and seeing the characters of Bloom Into You transition from school to adulthood with a continued relationship is a confirmation of LGBTQ identities' existence and permanence. Although this feat had been done a year earlier in Kase-San, which extends past high school in a sequel series, Yuu and Touko going to college was not Nakatani's first or even most significant stance against transitory same-sex love.
Sayaka may take the standard role of the best friend with an unrequited crush, but her character and journey are so much more than that. As we see in brief flashbacks, she dated a senpai named Yuzuki in middle school, but, after graduating, Yuzuki pulled away, saying that they should not “play” at romance anymore. Their breakup is a deliberate reference to the temporary lesbianism of S works. However, Sayaka continues to defy these harmful tropes as she maintains her love for women and moves onto college to meet her fantastic girlfriend, Haru. Although only briefly touched on in the original manga, Hitoma Iruma's Regarding Saeki Sayaka spinoff light novels thoroughly explore Sayaka coming to terms with her sexuality and her relationships with Yuzuki and Haru. However, there is one fantastic piece of her experience highlighted in the original manga, and possibly the only actually “groundbreaking” aspect of the series' story.
As Sayaka struggles with her complicated feelings for Touko, she becomes close with two astounding women, Riko and Miyako, her teacher and the manager of a café. They are adult women in a same-sex relationship, and they talk with Sayaka about that, helping to guide and comfort her. These two again disrupt the “just a phase” myth and help normalize adult LGBTQ life for the yuri reader and Sayaka, who has not yet experienced or witnessed a healthy queer relationship. As Alex Henderson notes, “They provide this affirmation to Sayaka, but they also provide it for the audience.” The presence of queer adult figures guiding the next generation is tremendous and not something we have seen in any yuri this accessible before.
Bloom Into You is widely consumed, praised, and beloved. While I advocate for acknowledging this series as an exhilarating but flawed and often unoriginal work that challenges some tropes while reinforcing others, that does not mean one cannot enjoy it. Media does not need to be flawless or revolutionary to have a profound effect on its audience. I can stand on my soapbox all day and explain how it widely uses genre standard characters and plots, but that does not negate that Bloom Into You helped someone get through a hard time, or exposed them to new ideas, or led to someone exploring and accepting their identity. In fact, I adore this series, for no reason less than that it attracted new fans and attention to the messy and complicated yuri genre that I so deeply love.