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Blue Period (2021)


Yatora Yaguchi is not your typical high-school delinquent.  Whilst he is out late at karaoke and watching the game with his friends he studies hard in the gaps which, with some natural talent, has him doing pretty well at school. Something however is not quite right for Yaguchi, there is a restlessness about him or a pretence when he is with others. It's almost like he is searching for *that thing* that will set the path for the rest of his life. He is quota or target driven - he works, he achieves and then, well, what? At school Yaguchi happens upon a work in progress painting by one of his seniors, Maru Mori. Suddenly he hears its call and Yaguchi knows what he wants to do for the first time. Now it is time for him to find out how drive, practice and talent combine to realise the ambition of achieving one of the few places at Tokyo University of the Arts. He is about to enter his Blue Period.

These days with streaming services there is an abundance of choice as to what is available to watch, often 'curated' based on what we have liked previous or watched. As such I have a sense of dread when I see the anime line on my Netflix account and tend to find I just scroll through, watch a trailer and then on to the next. Without realising I have spent 20 minutes just doing that and I could have watched an episode of *something*. There was something about the Blue Period thumbnail that drew my attention (funnily enough how the eye is drawn through artwork was discussed in the show) - it did not appear as the standard anime thumbnail. There were no characters and there was no real sense of what it was about so that piqued my interest. When I watched the trailer and saw that it was about art, studying for art college/university and saw some of the artwork in the show I was drawn (no pun intended) into it. Was it going to be that 'classic' or familiar anime-style (I know it is not a style but you know what I mean) or was it going to do something a bit like Undone or Loving Vincent but on a smaller scale? Either way I was in for the experience and I was genuinely surprised at how enjoyable the show was and how I found myself getting emotionally involved in it.

Blue Period (I'm assuming that it is named after Pablo Picasso's Blue Period (1901 to 1904) given he is mentioned a few times in the show) is a standard slice of (student artistic) life anime based on the manga by Tsubasa Yamaguchi who herself went to  Tokyo University of the Arts. The fact that this art institution is the goal of our protagonist Yaguchi cannot be a coincidence here and would explain some of the significant details in elements of the story around exams and the preparation for them. The manga started in 2017 and was originally published in a seinen publication with the target audience of young adult men. The anime was adapted by Seven Arcs in 2021 and was streamed on Netflix in September and was also shown on Japanese TV from October to December the same year. This anime was directed by Koji Masunari who also directed R.O.D the TV (a show which I enjoyed immensely when I watched it on DVD). For fans of Makoto Shinkai's She and Her Cat, Yamaguchi adapted this short story as a manga in 2016.

As stated earlier the plot of Blue Period revolves around Yatora Yaguchi and his newly found passion and drive to do art at university. It is a bit of an about turn given we first meet him out partying with his friends and coming across as a bit of slacker and slight troublemaker. But of course someone who looks effortlessly cool whilst doing it. Even more of an about turn in how he logically deconstructs why someone would want to follow something that you're unlikely to follow into a career. So his near spiritual experience from gazing on a piece of unfinished art by his senior in school takes the show in a very different direction that the opening might have suggested and he has a lot of convincing to do to make us believe in this sudden change.

Because of his reputation at school (think delinquent who actually works hard) when he joins the art club at school some of his club mates have a hard time taking him seriously. Ryuji "Yuka" Ayukawa has a kind of combative relationship to begin with, perhaps seeing something in Yaguchi that he is not aware of whilst Maru Mori genuinely cares about his passion and development. I really enjoyed the scenes with Yaguchi and these other characters. Mori's open belief in Yaguchi is disarming and without agenda - it is a constant throughout the show. Yuka was a character I wanted to spend more time with. The slightly playful and combative relationship with Yaguchi papers over a backstory that is explored as the series progresses leading to a moment of complete vulnerability for them both which I found quite emotional to watch. 

When he joins the art club and introduces himself, the looks of disdain and half-hearted applauses speaks volumes. His dedication (or obsession perhaps?) wins them over as his work improves and he makes commitments to what he wants in the future. He becomes more real, more approachable to his club mates as he sees the world differently. Even his close male friends see him differently - his passion opens up conversations with them where he feels like they *really* are talking. With the decision to try for Tokyo University of the Arts that opens up a whole new group of people to meet, study with, compare himself to and ultimately compete with for those few places available. 

At every step he is made aware of just how challenging his ambition is and we are with him every step whether he achieves it or not. On paper this show should be just OK or kind of average. A series about getting into art school is not necessarily going to catch the imagination. But this does. It works and within a very short time I was utterly hooked and it was for things I was not expecting.

The conversation between Yaguchi and his male "delinquent" friends is natural and relatable. At times is it a bit crass but mostly just the mundane life stuff friends talk about, male or female. What's the plan for the weekend? Whose house are we hanging in? Can you help, they’re a bit unsteady on their feet! As Yaguchi explores his interest in art his conversation changes - he talks with passion on topics, he asks questions and he is almost consumed by this … obsession. Again something I can relate to and in the English dub Johnny Yong Bosch does a fantastic job (again) of making Yaguchi an everyone character but with personality. 

On Yaguchi's journey he meets new friends and potential rivals who all treat each other with mutual respect, compassion and who all look out for each other. With each of those encounters he grows as a person, learns more about himself and we as the audience get a glimpse of the life of those working to achieve their dreams. I was really surprised just how much the show absorbed me and just how emotionally involved I got with it. On many occasions I found myself welling up and then felt silly, only for it to happen again! There was something about seeing that earnest, natural and at times inconsequential human interaction that disarmed me. I guess that, although not about art, some of the relationships on display in Blue Period reminded me of my own friends. 

For a show about visual art I found myself wanting a bit more imagination and flair on display in its visual styling. It feels unfair to level this slightly petty gripe at the show. Blue Period looks good for TV anime. The lines are crisp, you can distinguish the characters using more than just hair or eye colour and as such feel slightly more grounded in reality. The physical locations - from city streets to coastal towns to studios have lived in and grounded sense. When the art is on display your attention is drawn to it, the colours are a bit bolder or just turned up … but that is it. These short static pans are nice to look at but I wanted a bit more. Yaguchi's reaction to his friends' art or that of his peers is often enthusiastic but doesn't often it does not make much use of the animation to convey that feeling. They felt like moments where you could cut loose with something imaginative or when Yaguchi is inspired it could have been visualised in some way. (I'm thinking here of some of the imagery used in Drops of God where we saw the response to tasting wine as a Queen rock concert in the taster's brain. ) I'm guessing it was being faithful to the manga but it just felt a bit like a wasted opportunity and it could have really punctuated the anime.

In some ways Blue Period could have been done as a TV drama but the speed with which Yaguchi takes to art and his progress may have come across a bit unrealistic or fantastical in live action. That fantastical element of his rapid progress does not seem as out of place in an animated, slightly un-real medium. I enjoyed the fact that he had to work hard once he had found that thing that set his pulse quickening. The fact that he wasn't from an overly privileged background, that he had parents who took some kind of interest in him was a bit refreshing - how often in anime are the protagonists truly gifted and the parents absent (and that is unexplained)? I enjoyed meeting and spending time with the cast of characters - some become friends, others are passing acquaintances but there is a sense of shared purpose, appreciation of talent and also a respectful competition as they strive for their goals which not all will reach. 

That last point, about goals and how some will not achieve them was a really strong element for me. We're used to seeing in the action-packed anime a training montage, perhaps a defeat but then ultimately the protagonist championing. What we don't see are the consequences and that was on display here - not in your face necessarily but it was there. I went to university over 20 years ago - a very different time in the UK, I worked to get in and it was a privilege - on show in Blue Period are how the young today are trying to balance study, friendship, work, family, fun and the expectation that they will 'do more' or 'be more' than their parents. I found that quite affecting in the way that they showed this to the viewer and I think that was one of the emotional hooks for me whilst watching.

There was obviously something about Blue Period that attracted me, whether that be the thumbnail or the trailer but it was enough for me to add it to my list over everything else anime related that Netflix was hurling at me. I'm glad I responded to whatever that was because it was a breath of fresh air. Yes it is an anime set at high-school and it features some the cliches and visual short hand but it somehow felt more mature than that. Maybe it conjured up distant memories of those teachers that inspired me or that it showed the hard work and determination that we all go through in our studies or what we do for our passions. Whilst at times it referenced serious topics it never ridiculed them or made them the punchline of bad taste jokes (we've all seen anime like that) and whilst I would have liked to see how the anime might explore them further they were right to keep these issues there but not dwell on them too much. The subject of "art" in Blue Period acted as the conduit for those human interactions and relationships that felt real and familiar, that felt like discussions I had had and have with my friends. For all those reasons and more it drew me in and had me hooked. Of course it could have made more of art, painting and different styles (as Loving Vincent displayed) but on reflection could that have distracted me from those elements I found such joy in? Blue Period took me on an emotional journey with a refreshingly innocent story or people wanting to follow their passions, and maybe that it was caught my eye that first time.

 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: STREAMING  FROM: Netflix RATING: TV-14 [US] 12[UK]  RUNNING TIME : 25mins x  12 episodes [series]


  Like all good pieces of art it catches your eye and then draws you into an emotional journey which may be more about you than what you are looking at.