By the time my first semester of college rolled around, I had developed a lot of preconceptions about what it would be like. I wasn’t gullible enough to believe that campus life would be a 24/7 bacchanalia, but my expectations were still high. New places, new friends, maybe a new girlfriend. Go to some parties, maybe find somewhere I felt like I could really fit in. I think in the back of my mind I expected it to be some kind of revelatory experience that would change my life in obvious ways.
Of course, life doesn’t always go the way we expect, and it’s no different for Grand Blue Dreaming‘s main man, Iori Kitahara. When he moves away from home to go to college in a seaside town, he has dreams of reinventing himself. Dreams of meeting girls, and generally reveling in his youth. Despite some apprehension, it looks promising at first. He’s living at his uncle’s scuba diving shop, right on the beach. His cousins Chisa (prickly and obsessed with diving) and Nanaka (gregarious and obsessed with Chisa), both of whom he hasn’t seen for years, have grown up popular and beautiful.
But there are also the members of Peek-A-Boo, the university’s strangely named scuba diving club, to contend with. They’re generally friendly, but they’re hard partiers, heavy drinkers, and, for some reason, spend a lot of time completely naked. The club leaders are also physically intimidating, and use that to their advantage when badgering, I mean convincing, Iori to join the club even though he can’t swim. After some hesitation, Iori agrees, and his life devolves into a hilarious mess of alcohol, embarrassment, nudity, and women. Rarely all at the same time and even then, never in quite the configuration, he’d hoped for.
Grand Blue Dreaming is fundamentally a frat house farce in the vein of something like American Pie or The Hangover. It seems unique to me in that regard – I can’t think of any other manga that focuses on partying in quite this way. And it certainly has the comedy chops to back up the comparison to those genre classics. It’s written by Kenji Inoue, best known for the Baka and Test series. He piles the jokes on thick right from the start, ranging from simple sight gags to long cons that take entire chapters to pay off. His comic timing is impeccable, making great use of page turns, and even manages to make repeating the same punchline funnier the second time. The translation reads smoothly, with only one typo across three volumes, and bolsters the jokes with curse-laden dialog that feels true to the way real life college kids talk.
Artist Kimitake Yoshioka isn’t known for much besides Grand Blue Dreaming (he drew the manga adaptation of Amagi Brilliant Park and a Rinne no Lagrange spinoff, both fairly short-lived), but this is without a doubt his crowning achievement so far. So it may seem odd to say that while his character designs are pleasant, his paneling is clear and easy to understand, and a striking amount of detail has been put into the underwater landscapes during the diving scenes, it all still feels somewhat workmanlike. It’s the product of competence, not genius.
But Yoshioka is a genius at one thing in particular – Grand Blue Dreaming is a stunning treasure trove of reaction faces. With influences from hot-blooded fighting anime, horror movie framing, and direct references to other franchises, like this Onizuka classic:
or these that look suspiciously like another Kodansha series:
Yoshioka’s art elevates the comedy to incredible levels.
Grand Blue Dreaming even manages some moments of genuine feeling amid the drunken antics. Iori’s reinvention doesn’t pan out quite like he’d imagined, but that doesn’t mean he’s not changing at all. Accepting the Peek-a-Boo club’s invitation opens up opportunities for all kinds of new experiences. He learns to swim, for one thing. And when he’s finally on his first real dive, the sight of the almost alien underwater landscape is a humbling experience that helps him understand why his new friends love diving so much. Whether he’d like to admit it or not, he comes to fit in well with the sloppy drunk fools that hang out at the Grand Blue dive shop. This slow shift, due more to the people and events Iori experiences than any conscious effort on his own part, reminds me of my own college experience.
Even though it can be incredibly relatable, Grand Blue Dreaming is not going to be for everyone. The male characters range from lovable bastards like club senpai Tokki and Bukki to absolute scumbags, with Iori somewhere in the middle. He has a veneer of respectability that gets shattered the moment he takes a sip of beer. He’s loyal to his friends as long they’re not hurting his chances to get laid.
The female characters have more nuance than you might expect from this particular strain of comedy, with the exception of Nanaka, who is pretty one note. But the way the guys treat the girls is not going to live up to everyone’s expectations. The comedy, on the whole, tends towards the mean-spirited, but it’s usually at the expense of whoever is being the biggest douchebag at the time, which takes the sting out of the spitefulness.
The other element that might not work for everyone is all the nudity and fanservice. The most explicit nudity actually comes from the boys in the club, who tend to strip when they get drunk. If big muscle men with chiseled butts and barely censored crotches are your jam, then you may get something out of it. But it’s never really portrayed as something that’s supposed to be sexy.
The women, however, in their skintight wetsuits, bikinis, or the occasional glimpse of underwear, are clearly supposed to be titillating. But the double standard in framing might bug some. There’s also an incestuous thread running throughout the whole thing. Chisa, who’s set up as Iori’s main love interest, is his cousin. Nanaka has a major sister complex. There’s never any actual romantic progression, though, and anime and manga are so saturated with incest jokes at this point that my brain pretty much tunes that content out. I think it’s easy enough to ignore, but fair warning if you disagree.
Your mileage may vary, but if you like bawdy, horny party comedies, I cannot recommend Grand Blue Dreaming enough. It’s a masterclass in expression work, nostalgic and affecting at times, and an absolute riot. It had me howling with laughter the first time through, and even on my second read for this review, I still cackled like a goblin at the best gags. Grand Blue Dreaming is rude, crude, nude, and easily one of the funniest manga I’ve read in years.
Grand Blue Dreaming volumes 1-5 are available digitally from Kodansha Comics. Grand Blue Dreaming Volume 1 will be available in print July 10, 2018.
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