The Manga Shelf: Relentless Ribbing and Queer Longing in SCHOOL ZONE

The Manga Shelf is a column where I go over whatever I’ve been reading recently in the world of manga. Ongoing or complete, good or bad. Each column ends with a Final Verdict, telling you the reader whether or not I recommend the series and why.

In my brain, there is an elitist impulse telling me that calling School Zone a “yuri manga” doesn’t quite feel right. The term is generally taken to imply actual romance, which isn’t really what’s going on here. But as the genre’s anglosphere definition has broadened somewhat over the years (and swallowed the older westernism “shoujo ai”), we can appreciate that it does include stuff that’s a little harder to fit in just a single box. School Zone, primarily, is a character comedy, centered around our two leads; a pair of quirky schoolgirls named Sugiura (“Kei”) and Yokoe. And later, some other characters who are mostly paired up in similar fashion. Kei is fairly serious, snarky, and is short with a blond crop cut. Yokoe is a screwball, is on the taller side, and has long greyish-black hair. As far as your basic pairups for this kind of thing go, they’re a match made in heaven.

But as mentioned, School Zone is mostly a comedy. 51 of the series’ chapters are available in English, at the moment. (Only in scanlation form, although the series was announced for a pickup by Seven Seas as I was planning out this column. So there ya go.) Of those, the vast majority can broadly be termed “antics”. The two give each other a lot of guff in the same way lots of close friends do.

This sequence here is typical; Yokoe says or does something dumb or outrageous, Kei reacts. It’s a fairly simple setup, but it’s good fun, and carries much of the manga.

However; if one reads something like this for enough chapters to get attached to the characters, the question will inevitably come up. What kind of relationship, exactly, do Kei and Yokoe actually have? The series’ tagline sells it (somewhat asininely) as a “miserable yuri comedy”, so they’re clearly crushing on each other at least, right?

Well, the “miserable” in the manga’s admittedly-overwrought tagline might come from the fact that that doesn’t seem to be the case. Namely, the “each other” part. Yokoe definitely has it bad for Kei. As for the other way around? That’s a lot less clear. The two value each other a lot, and one gets the sense that neither quite wants to take their relationship to the next level because they’re afraid of losing what they have. That’s explicitly the case for Yokoe (as we’ll get to), and it wouldn’t be out of character for Kei either. There is plenty of evidence that the feeling is mutual, but neither character is willing to push it forward. Kei even takes steps to deliberately walk it back.

School Zone runs in what is ostensibly a shonen magazine, but while the situation of a possibly-mutual infatuation that both parties are scared to act on certainly transcends the boundaries of gender and sexuality, it hits especially hard for young queer women. A group for whom not knowing if another girl is hitting on you or just being friendly and you’re reading too far into it is even more common than it might otherwise be.

Even within School Zone itself, Yokoe and Kei’s closeness is occasionally called out as weird. And even if the characters doing that have the best of intentions or are simply curious, it’s not hard to make the connection that this is one reason that they may be unwilling to commit to being more than just friends.

Indeed, throughout other character pairings as well, this kind of longing that seems like it might work out but won’t definitely work out shoots an odd undercurrent of melancholy through what is otherwise a pretty upbeat and goofy series. It’s an interesting contrast, and puts School Zone a cut above those series that are content to be merely formulaic, if perhaps still very squarely in the area of the school life comedy.

Not all of these characters are equal, of course. School Zone‘s biggest demerit is its place next to YuruYuri on the shelf of manga that inexplicably find siscon characters funny.

Yeah, why?

Even then though, that character, Tsubaki, is also paired up with a hyperactive gyaru who seems hellbent on breaking her out of her shell via sheer overbearing girl power. So who’s to say where, exactly, that storyline is going to end up.

And in a twist that genuinely is kind of amusing, her sister, Hiiragi, is subjected to much the same thing, despite going to a different school in another part of town. (I have a suspicion, though I obviously can’t prove it, that the mangaka may have realized there’s really not any comedy to wring out of the siscon character archetype. Hiiragi and Tsubaki have barely interacted since then.)

Hiiragi’s partner-in-antics is also much more on the obnoxious side, but, hey, it seems to work for her.

But as fun as these other characters can be (or not be), it’s still Kei and Yokoe’s story. The manga’s strongest moment thusfar has been its 49th chapter. A flashback where we get a walk through Yokoe’s memory; an aborted half-confession framed by some surprisingly complex panel layouts and shadowing. Panels are slashed in half or inset to contrast the external reality and the internal monologue, or spaced far apart to denote time passing.

It is, above all, sad. A kind of dejected blueness you just generally don’t expect from something that bills itself the way School Zone does. The series seems to have an intuitive understanding that life is not just one thing. Thus, despite their quirky personalities, the two leads of School Zone feel like fully realized people, truly what sets the good slice of life manga apart from the simply decent.

School Zone is still serializing. So it is impossible to say if Yokoe and Kei’s peculiar relationship will ever become anything else. But it’s hard not to root for them. That School Zone makes you do that is, itself, its success as a story.

Final Verdict: Strongly Recommended, with some caveats. One must weigh the “ech”-inducing but thankfully only intermittent siscon characterization of Tsubaki against the otherwise fun comedy and, especially, the more serious explorations of pining the series gets into in its best moments, when deciding whether or not to pick up School Zone.

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All views expressed on Magic Planet Anime are solely my own opinions and conclusions and should not be taken to reflect the opinions of any other persons, groups, or organizations. All text is owned by Magic Planet Anime. Do not duplicate without permission. All images are owned by their original copyright holders.

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