Aoharu x Machine Gun is ostensibly about boys and their toys. After a strange sequence of events, student council president Hotaru Tachibana is conscripted into a tournament involving airsoft guns. At first, she doesn’t understand why anyone would enjoy this sort of thing, but before long, she learns to love the simulated violence, even using it to settle personal disputes.
Hotaru, a tomboy with a strong sense of justice and moral fortitude, acts as a champion of the downtrodden, fending off school bullies and other academic undesirables. She maintains this demeanor outside school when she encounters her neighbor Matsuoka, a teenage Lothario, who is having a lurid conversation on the phone. When a friend later asks for help recovering money that was stolen from her at a host club, Hotaru marches into the club without a second thought—but in a twist of fate, the host in question is none other than her neighbor, who doesn’t realize Hotaru is a girl. Although Matsuoka admits no wrongdoing, Hotaru’s hotheadedness leads the pair to strike a unique deal: if Hotaru can defeat Matsuoka in a gun battle, he’ll repay the money lost. But if Hotaru loses, she must join Matsuoka in Survival Games, an unnecessarily frightening name for airsoft gun battles (like paintball, only with small pellets). After the two students fight, causing a lot of damage to the host club in the process, Hotaru loses, only to find herself an unwilling participant in her neighbor’s shooting games.
Despite being longer than most single volume manga, I never got a clear impression of the story Aoharu x Machine Gun wanted to tell. Initially, it has the flavor of a fish out of water story, as Hotaru’s introduction to Survival Games is a first step into a hobby she’d never even thought about before. Based on the setup, I figured each volume would show Hotaru coming into her own through numerous Survival Games, learning tactics and teamwork along the way. Though she’d be paying off a debt, she’d learn to love the sport in time… except, we only get to see her play one game with Matsuoka and his perverted gun nut friend, Yukimura. There’s an interesting dynamic between Yukimura and Hotaru, since the former views the latter as a rival for Matsuoka’s friendship. Relations between them cool at a modest pace, mired in Yukimura’s insistence on sharing his erotic manga with Hotaru, who has yet to reveal her gender to either boy… and then everything just ends.
Presented with little fanfare or prelude, the second half of the book jumps ahead to a moment in time when Hotaru has successfully paid off her debt, leaving the boys to their games. Yet Hotaru still finds herself drawn to Survival Games, having grown to love the exhilarating thrill; she eventually returns, and the book ends with Hotaru buying her own airsoft gun. The jump forward is jarring at best, lazy at worst; it would have been more believable to see Hotaru get better with each Survival Game match, and without this growth, her sudden fondness for the activity doesn’t come off as genuine. It’s as if I missed out on a season’s worth of storytelling.
Since the script suggests that Hotaru’s gender is an integral story element, it rubbed me the wrong way that it was ultimately unimportant. Matsuoka holds the view that there is no place for girls in Survival Games. If that’s the case, Hotaru could have easily gotten out of the whole thing by saying, “Dude, I’m a girl,” but she didn’t, for reasons I couldn’t follow. Furthermore, the implied gender conflict doesn’t manifest itself in any meaningful way; it just gets tossed around like a hot potato whenever the story calls for it. There’s bound to be a discovery (because of course there will be), begging the question of whether Hotaru will be embraced by Matsuoka as a comrade-in-arms or ostracized (and then have the opportunity to form her own Survival Games team, which would be awesome).
At its worst, Aoharu x Machine Gun stumbles in its storytelling, lacking a solid reason for readers to stay interested in where it’s taking Hotaru, Matsuoka, and Yukimura. The artwork is good enough, though much of the detail work is spent recreating real-world firearms and showcasing them from various camera angles. When the guns come out, expect the characters to pontificate, chatter about tactics, and generally act like action stars.
Aoharu x Machinegun, vol. 1
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 14+