Two high school girls desperately in love with each other point their rifles toward the 3,000 cops marching into the school. They want their vengeance and more importantly, their love, to be remembered before they are either gunned down or captured. They kiss and it is that moment — that eternal moment that will sweeten the bitter cynicism of reality like a hint of vanilla in a dark, black coffee.
With that kind of description, Vanilla: A Sweet Partner by Asaura is certainly not the yuri light novel you’d find if you go around asking people for yuri light novel recommendations. They’d think of Adachi to Shimamura or Maria-sama ga Miteru. These works are sweet light novels about girls who really like each other. The deceptive vanilla-ish title of Vanilla might be a total shock to those who, well, just want yuri.
The book begins promising enough at least. A young girl named Kei reminisces about the good times with her parents until her mother dies; her father remarries and she learned what hell was like under the rule of her stepmother. Her stepmother bullies her and destroys any remnants of her past mother’s belongings before influencing her father to shoo her away from the house. Kei leaves, gloomy and desperate for a new life.
But the cliched bittersweet prologue ends here. A cop gets to the crime scene and looks at how much of a goddamn mess it is. He figures that the sniper should still be around here because rifles take a while to pack up and leave. The cop runs around and corners the sniper, but he gets shot instead. All he remembers is his confusion over who shot him: a young woman in a high school uniform.
Kei reappears again as narrator in the next chapter. She wakes up with her new love, Nao, by her side as she smokes a cigarette by the ventilation. The two girls are living a double life: they are high schoolers with no remorse for killing those who have betrayed them. For Kei, it’s her father and stepmother who have stepped on her and her past mother numerous times. For Nao, it’s her brother who ruined her life. This is the only way they know how to alleviate their pains because their voices aren’t heard by anyone, let alone the police. They know they’re seen as serial killers under the law and that the cops are close by.
But they are ready to make a last stand against them if necessary.
The cops in the meanwhile get a lot of attention in the book (they actually have as many insert illustrations as the girls) as they figure out why they are even nabbing the girls in the first place. Written in the most third-person hardboiled fashion possible, internal political strife and claims to good ethics are in the back of their minds as they begin to learn more about why Kei and Nao have become cold-blooded killers in the first place. They realize they are supposed to represent the justice and goodwill of society, but they couldn’t prevent their situations from occurring. And what’s worse: the cops have to arrest them for murdering the people who have tortured them. The cops are arresting the victims for murders they’ve committed. They know they are as responsible as the girls are.
What follows is a complicated, chaotic thriller about the meaning of innocence and yuri in a crime-laden society. One chapter may be about the girls eating candy and cake while thinking about the training program they went into or the arms smuggling they did. Another may be about the cops who bicker against each other while investigating the high school the girls are in. Due to the nature of the chapters and the writing in the book, Vanilla almost seems like it’s written by two writers when it’s only by one, Asaura.
Asaura is probably most well-known for Ben-To, a light novel series about people punching and kicking the living hell out of each other for discounted food box sets. He lives in Hokkaido and loves food, hence naming this light novel Vanilla after the vanilla essence. But he also loves to write stories about guns and the bitter reality we are all in. A perceptive and observant writer, he voices his concerns through one of the police characters about how society is like a bunch of monkeys getting baited by the vanilla plant thanks to its smell; yet, vanilla by itself tastes like nothing.
Isn’t yuri — or at least, the innocence and purity of young girls in love with each other — like that? We can go further than just cute girls and see people who are innocent and having a fun time getting their optimism and hope crushed by the monkeys trampling on the vanilla plant.
That’s the essence of Vanilla: A Sweet Partner. Reality is bittersweet because we force the sweet things in our lives that way. We punish the victims for their crimes against humanity when we should have listened to them in the first place. The innocence of passion and romanticism is thus replaced with our undying love for “realism.” Society is therefore twisted in every meaning of the word possible. It distorts and bends the laws for its own worldview, disregarding that there is actual love out there.
That view of purity is probably why I quite like yuri in the first place. It is an idealism that is quite unlike most fantasies written in the pages of fiction. Plus, there are cute girls being gay — that’s always a plus for me. But the better yuri works in my opinion are those that do challenge societal perceptions of lesbians and queer people in general. They still fight against the “realism” people have developed over the years with a pride and optimism unmatched from anything else I’ve read. Discrimination, misunderstandings, and hate crimes all feature in these works. And yet, the couples in these works regret nothing. They love each other, and that means the world to them.
Vanilla: A Sweet Partner fits along those lines. When it comes to the writing, it may be rough and feel a bit aimless until the climax; however, it has no regrets and pushes itself to the only logical conclusion with its premise. It is in the end a love story that asks its coffee-loving reality-seeking readers, “Does your black coffee go better with vanilla?”
The answer: Of course it does. It is sweet enough to clean away the bitterness of life.
Kastel’s Rating: Recommended, especially if you like the gays