Artist spolight: Ume Aoki

For some our first encounter with her was with the Character Designs from the alternative magical girl show “Puella magi Madoka magica”.

For others its been via her sleeper hit manga and anime series “Hidamari Sketch”.

But however you know her there’s no mistaking the art style of Ume Aoki.

Born on August 3 in Hyōgo Prefecture Japan Ume Aoki started off her career as a Doujinshi artist, using firstly the pen name Apply Fujimiya [for the 2005 Nekoneko Soft visual novel Sanarara] before later on using the name “Apricot+” for her various Doujinshi that she still releases today [as do any many other mainstream mangaka like Yoshitoshi Abe and Ken Akamatsu].

She also provides the voice for her ‘metapod’ persona in all four series of the anime adaptation of Hidamari Sketch. Aoki also provided the original character designs for the anime production, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, developed by Shaft.

Also, like a lot of mangaka its almost impossible to find actual pictures of Ume aoki herself, she preferring to use her “metapod” avatar above. However I did some digging around and found this image on “Hidamari Sketch Fandisc Episode – March 31 – Hidamari Days” and well, it MAY be Ume Aoki, but until an official picture appears this may the closest to her real identity we may get.

The Real Ume Aoki?

NOTE – While I’d love in include all of her Doujin as well as her official releases the fact that Ume’s Doujin work alone could take up an article by itself I’ve decided to only only focus on her non Doujin work – for those of you wanting to know more can go to the doujinshi and manga lexicon, where you can get an up to date list of all of her Doujin.

2005 – Two smiling faces
While this is only a short story [only coming in at 6 pages] this marks one of Ume’s first professional publications.
The story though is, like a lot of her work, anything but ordinary – a nameless males equally nameless girlfriend [ who looks quite like Miyako from Hidamari sketch] comes down with an disease that [I kid you not] robs people of a random emotion – in her case sadness. While an interesting [if unusual concept] I felt that this was the weakest of her works, with the plot stymied by page length and plot development – we never really seemed to see the real effects of the disease other than one page of her trying to show anger, only to come off as bitter looking – and the ending itself seems incomplete and unsatisfying generic to make me wonder if the script had benn written by someone else, with Ume only supplying the art.

As a first professional release it shows the beginnings of Umes talent and skill – but that’s all – and doesn’t highlight Ume Aoki’s true potential – a potential that came to light with the next release….

2005 – present – Hidamari sketch
One of the three ongoing series Ume Aoki is working on as of this article [yes three – more on them shortly] Hidamari sketch [or “Sunshine sketch” in its English release] is by far the most well known of Umes work to western fans, thanks both to the original manga being published in the west by American manga company Yen press and the release of the anime series by Sentai Filmwork.
The ongoing series [currently published in “Manga Time Kirara”] follows Yuno, a highschool student at Yamabuki high – a private high school that teaches art as well as normal studies, and her friends at the Hidamari apartments – simple seeming, yet artistically talented artist Miya, the always sensible appearing, professional writer Sae and her…..Friendship with warm motherly Hiro [ interesting fact here, In an interview Ume admits that while editors insisted that no same sex relationships were to exist in the series, Ume none the less was still able to slip in enough hints to reader to guess otherwise]. Later on in the series we’re introduced to two new members – the shy but lovable Nazuna, and her opposite, the outspoken and forward IT expert Nori.
The supporting cast also get their time to shine in the series, from the girls art teacher and rampant cos-player Yoshinoya sensei, and her never ending telling’s off by the school principle, Natsume [a fellow students who despite wanting to make friends with Hiro, always seem to end up getting into arguments with her] – Even occasional characters like the female manager of Hidamari apartments gets her own time to shine and develop in the series.

But for me theres one factor that makes Hidamari sketch shine [pardon the pun] from the plethora of other manga series with similar concepts, and thats the writing – the series is able to go from silly to thoughtful to engaging with an ease that many other series only wish they could achieve. Also again the characters are written as realistic people with their own strengths and weakness – from Hiros endless obsession with her weight to Hiros worries about her work to Nazunas worries about living on her own for the first time, while in reverse we have Miya’s endless energy and ability to always see the good and best out of any situation, and Yunos occasional worries countered by her ability to persevere and conquer those worries – all of them are given there moment in the spotlight to grow and develop as time and the series progresses.
As the only series of Ume’s to date to get a western release this sereis is and absolute joy to read and to re read.

2006 – present -Tetsunagi Kooni
Her second ongoing series and, to date, the only one not to be published in manga publisher Houbunsha’s Manga Time Kirara magazine line [ in Kooni’s case in Fujimi Shobo’s “Monthly Dragon Age”] Tetsunagi Kooni [or ”Hand Holding Little Demon”, due to her habit of holding fellow lead character Shinos hand at night for security] eschews the 4 koma panel format of Hidamari, in favour of a more standard comic strip style of layout as we follow High school girl Shino after she discovers a young female Oni called Sanri, who comes down from the mountains near Shinos town after the disappearance of Sanri’s mother. Later we’re introduced to Yukki and Nakanishi, two friends Shino [and, in comparison to Hidamari, not only Nakanishi is a male character who is also a main character in the series, but also Yukki and Nakanishi are an actual couple].

At times funny and yet at times poignant and thought full [we discover early one that the reason for Sanri to come into town was due to her mother disappearing after hunters came into the woods] Tetsunagi Kooni is a suprising and engaging addition to Ume’s catalogue [and a pity that this is available in the west yet].

2012 – present – Mado no Mukougawa
The newest of her works [which translates roughly as “The Other Side of the Window”] this new series, which is published in publisher Houbunsha’s newest manga magazine “manga time Kirara Carino”, introduces Kei Sonofuji, whose dreams of setting a good image on her first day at high school are ruined when she gets the mumps on the first week – only to discover that in her absence she’s been elected as class rep, alongside male student Ishizaki. Like Testunagi Kooni Mado eschews the 4 koma panel format of Hidamari, in favour of a more normal comic strip style of layout and while I’ve only seen the first episode of this, a intended ongoing sees, I have Huge hopes that Ume will add her own inimitable magic to this work, and that a western release will not be too far off in the future.

Going into this , like a lot of people probably would, I honestly expected to see a short but talent number of releases.
After finding that Ume Aoki has the talent to create works covering a wide expanse of subjects and genres and her ability to create fully developed, believable characters I find myself even more amazed and even more in admiration for this most elusive and prolific of Mangaka’s.
As of this article Hidamari sketch is available in manga form from Yen press, with the anime adaptation available from Sentai filmworks. However Two smiling faces, Tetsunagi Kooni nor Mado no Mukougawa are currently available in the west.