animefringe march 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Ai Yori Aoshi - Can Love Conquer All?

A small, slight but pretty girl wearing a blue kimono stands staring at the turnstile of a busy Tokyo subway station. She wonders why the gate won't open when a man brushes past - knocking her and her ticket down. Hard shoes thunder over the fallen ticket and a sudden helplessness grips her. A hand picks up the dropped ticket and a kind voice asks if she is ok. Relief and a sense of security wash over her as she looks into the concerned face. "What a happy stroke of luck", she thinks.

The young college student wonders how a traditional girl like this could have made her way so far into Tokyo. After helping her up and returning the ticket, he shakes off a sudden feeling of nostalgia and resolves to help this poor girl on her way. Luckily, she's taking the same train line as him, to the same station. He learns that this cute girl is coming to Tokyo to meet someone very special and feels a twinge of envy. But, he helps her to follow the simple directions written on a well-worn piece of paper to her destination - an empty lot. Shocked and confused, the girl drops to her knees and breaks down in tears. What's there to do but take her back to his small apartment and try to comfort her? Once there, she shows him a picture of two small children, a boy and girl. A glimpse of recognition flickers in his mind and he mutters, "Isn't this me and Aoi-chan?"

The girl looks up and exclaims, "You're Kaoru-sama?"

Taken aback, he replies, "Yes... I'm Kaoru Hanabishi".

Overcome with emotion, the girl throws herself into his arms. After she regains composure, she announces; "I'm Aoi Sakuraba. I'm here to wed you."

A little cheesy, a bit corny, but completely sweet, this is Ai Yori Aoshi, recently released onto our shores by Pioneer Animation. At first sight, Ai Yori Aoshi may seem to be just another sappy lovey-dovey romance, but the first few episodes promise much more depth than your average Love Hina rip-off.

Aoi is the heir to the Sakuraba group, a powerful family-owned textiles corporation and Kaoru was heir to the Hanabishi conglomerate. They were arranged to be wed from a young age, but things didn't quite work out as planned. Kaoru has a dark past; his father married a woman not approved by the Hanabishi clan, and when he died young, Kaoru's mother was cast out of the family. Kaoru was withheld by his relatives, raised to be the heir... but he did not forget about his mother and vowed that he would see her again. Many years past and Kaoru's mother fell sick and died. His grandfather, intent on destroying her memory, had all of Kaoru's possessions pertaining to his mother burned. Rebelling, Kaoru was severely beaten. Soon after, he left the Hanabishi clan with only brutal scars on his back for remembrance.

Because of his self-exile and subsequent disownment, Kaoru and Aoi's marriage was cancelled. Shocked and dismayed, Aoi left her family unannounced and went to Tokyo to seek out her fiancée. For a few days, she's allowed do everything that a guy could wish for - cooking, cleaning, and even doing his laundry (hey, I'm not trying to be sexist, just honest!).

This is where many Americans might find a problem with this series. In our western society, where a housewife's traditional role is designated as demeaning and oppressive, Aoi's behavior would be disturbing. But, in the traditional communal Japanese society, women view that once they marry, it is their duty to ensure happy household for their husband. Aoi has been raised her entire life to be Kaoru's wife, and by being allowed act it out brings her immense joy. It's merely a matter of cultural differences.

Anyway, enough social psychology from me, back to Ai Yori Aoshi. Kaoru and Aoi's happiness is short lived though. The Sakuraba family soon dispatches Miyabi Kagurazaki, Aoi's caretaker, to retrieve her. Aoi is the heir to the Sakuraba group; therefore her future husband will rise to take over the company. The problem lies in Kaoru's disownment from the Hanabishi clan - since he no longer has power or stature, the Sakuraba's cannot approve of Aoi having a relationship with him.

Aoi pleads with Kaoru to make amends with the Hanabishi clan and return so that they can be together, but Kaoru's budding feelings for Aoi cannot overcome his sense of betrayal. She tearfully agrees to return with Miyabi and Kaoru is once again left alone. Of course, her feelings take over one she's separated and she escapes from Miyabi. Aoi resolves that if she must also forsake her family to be with him, then so be it.

After these few introductory episodes, a host of new characters are introduced and Ai Yori Aoshi becomes more of a traditional romantic comedy. This isn't a completely bad thing, as it allows the show to become more diverse, but it does deviate a bit from the main story between Aoi and Kaoru. Also, by transitioning to a more conventional show, the dramatic flavoring of the first episodes is lost. This is a matter of taste though, and will appeal to some and not others.

At its heart, Ai Yori Aoshi is a love story, and it follows this theme with each of its characters. They travel together, live together, and play together. It's a theme similar to that which Love Hina and others explored, but not quite as silly and perverted. Still, the initial premise is original and many will want to see how Kaoru and Aoi's relationship will end up.

Aoi Sakuraba
- Sweet, innocent, and the heir to a giant conglomerate... what more could a guy ask for? Raised to become the perfect wife to Kaoru Hanabishi, she travels to Tokyo and searches him out when their engagement is suddenly cancelled.
Kaoru Hanabishi
His father died when Kaoru was just a wee lad and his mother was expelled from the Hanabishi clan. When she died, Kaoru left the Hanabishi clan and vowed never to return. He was subsequently disowned and his status as the family heir stripped away.
Miyabi Kagurazaki
She's smart, though, and all business. Miyabi works for the Hanabishi clan and has been Aoi's caretaker for years. She is dispatched to retrieve Aoi in the first few episodes but ends up taking in Aoi and Kaoru at a Sakuraba family mansion when her ward refuses to leave.
Taeko Minazuki
A new student at Kaoru's university, she joins the photography club that Kaoru is a member of. When Taeko loses her part time job as a maid, Miyabi offers her a position at their house and so Taeko ends up living with Miyabi and the others.
Tina Foster
An old American friend of Kaoru's, Tina has an affinity for breasts. Her special greeting for females is a copious chest grope. She's brash, uncouth, rude, and stereotypically American. For some reason, Tina always finds a reason to hang out at Aoi's house.