Flower of Life, Vols. 1-4

By Fumi Yoshinaga | Published by Digital Manga Publishing

When Fumi Yoshinaga sets a series in high school, you just know that she’s not going to do it like anybody else.

Harutaro Hanazono is beginning his first year of high school thirteen months behind schedule due to a bout of leukemia. The manga begins as he introduces himself to his new classmates in a manner that communicates much about his character. He’s an honest, simple, and idealistic soul, so is very forthright with his classmates about his illness because he doesn’t like the prospect of keeping secrets from all of them or having to explain multiple times. What he fails to consider, however, is how this information will affect his classmates’ interactions with him, since they all treat him with more consideration than they might otherwise have done.

Harutaro quickly becomes friends with Shota Mikuni, a gentle, smart, and adorable overweight boy whose main flaw is his timidity. Mikuni is also friends with Kai Majima, an arrogant otaku who is such a fascinating character that he’s going to get his own paragraph later. Harutaro and Majima don’t get along very well, but this doesn’t stop Harutaro from joining Mikuni and Majima in the manga club, where he collaborates with Mikuni and gradually develops the ambition to become a professional manga artist.

Meanwhile, readers become acquainted with the rest of the class in the same organic way any new student would. The homeroom teacher is Shigeru Saito, who at first appears to be an effeminate gay man but who is actually a woman. (Yoshinaga fooled me there, I must admit.) Other classmates include Yamane, a mature student with a love for books; Sakai, a perpetually tardy girl with a knack for English; Aizawa, a girl sensitive to the feelings of others; Jinnai and Isonishi, close friends and nice, normal girls; Ozaki, a rather boisterous fellow; and Tsuji, a guy who looks so much like Ono from Antique Bakery that it’s disconcerting to see him nurturing feelings for a woman.

Because Yoshinaga introduces the cast of students in such a natural-feeling way, I found myself caring about them much more than I ordinarily do in a series set in high school. For one thing, I’m not sure there is any other series where I could rattle off the names and personality traits of seven supporting classmates. It doesn’t matter that these characters may not get tons of page time; they’re still fully realized people with their own problems and passions. I’ve written before about my weariness regarding school cultural festivals, but in Yoshinaga’s hands, the festival in the second volume of the series is the best I have ever read, hands down. For the first time, I really engaged with the excitement the characters were experiencing. The same holds true for the Christmas party they hold in volume three. (Plus, that dinky tree was genuinely amusing.)

One of the major things I love about Flower of Life is how Yoshinaga works in some subtle lessons on friendship into the story. Sumiko Takeda is not in Harutaro’s class but becomes friendly with them when her original shoujo manga is circulated around and becomes a hit. Takeda doesn’t care about fashion or clothes, and she’s at a loss when her mother gives her some money to buy an outfit for herself. While shopping, she runs into Jinnai and Isonishi, who decide to come along as consultants. Their first shopping experience is kind of a drag, as Takeda is unenthused by the clothes shopping and Jinnai and Isonishi are bored when Takeda geeks out in an art supply store, but on a second attempt, they’re able to work out an arrangement where everyone can pursue their individual interests and yet still have a good time together. This seems to say “You can like different things and still be friends.” Other lessons that crop up later include “You don’t need to try to impress your friends,” “There can be one-sided feelings even in friendship,” and “You might think it’s nice to be coddled, but is it really good for you?”

Another lesson, “You can disagree and still be friends,” is vitally important to Mikuni. He begins the series a timid guy, unwilling to stand out by expressing his opinion. When he gets passionate enough about something, though—and it’s usually manga—he will speak out. The first time this happens with Harutaro, Mikuni is worried that he’s damaged their friendship, but Harutaro is actually thrilled that Mikuni was able to express himself so honestly and their friendship deepens as a result. By the end of the series, Mikuni has gained enough confidence to express his vision to Takayama, the manga editor who gives their work a harsh critique, and rebound from criticism with a zeal to improve.

I’ve talked quite a lot about the student characters, but the adults figure into the story in big ways, as well. The manga club members discover early on that Saito-sensei is carrying on an affair with the very married Koyanagi-sensei, who used to be her teacher when she was a student ten years ago. Their troubled relationship dominates her thoughts until she finally calls it off in volume three, saying that she loved him because he was such a good father, and it pains her to see him sneaking around and betraying his family. Koyanagi’s unexpected successor is Majima, whose solution to Saito’s woes is to give her something else to be “moeh” about.

And now we come to Majima. I love that in painting this portrait of an otaku, Yoshinaga didn’t just give us a heavy-breathing perv with a penchant for maid costumes, but really shows us how he thinks and attempts to process the world. He is arrogant and a little creepy, with a large quantity of disdain for his fellow students. He seems to prefer 2-D representations of women with specific physical qualities over real women, whom he appears to resent. And yet… although initially detached and unfeeling in his relationship with Saito, he eventually comes a bit unhinged when her behavior—saying she loves him yet sleeping with Koyanagi—does not follow logical patterns. I don’t think he loves her, or is capable of really loving anyone, but he expected her feelings for him to stay the same—the only thing he knows about relationships he’s learned from manga and dating sims, where you win the girl and then she loves you always—and is completely thrown when this doesn’t turn out to be the case. I think the experience makes him a tiny bit more empathetic to others, and maybe it’ll be what he needs to become a better person, but man, how thoroughly unfair of Saito to embroil this poor kid in an adult love triangle that he was not remotely equipped to participate in. My opinion of her suffered a great deal as a result.

The plight of Harutaro’s homebound sister, Sakura, also plays a major role in the story, furnishing some surprisingly dark moments and eventually culminating in the revelation that Harutaro is not, as he had believed, fully cured. He takes the news hard, but once he’s had the chance to process it, he returns to school for his second year a changed man. For, you see, he has learned to lie. He has learned to consider the feelings of others before he speaks. Gone is the Harutaro that can’t abide secrets. Now we see that he has learned discretion—he might want to tell Mikuni the truth, but he will wait for a time when his friend is ready to hear it. He can keep it to himself for as long as it takes. He has grown up.

Lastly, I wanted to touch upon the art in the story, especially the nonverbal storytelling that Yoshinaga employs with such aplomb. The page below is from volume three, when Harutaro has gone to the hospital for his monthly exam. He speaks with the nurse about a fellow patient who has since died, and when he emerges from the hospital, he pauses to look up at the sky for a moment then continues on his way. He doesn’t say a thing, but it his thoughts are absolutely clear: “She will never see this sky again.”

Another trait of Yoshinaga’s art is the repetition of similar panels to highlight the evolution of a facial expression (see MJ’s example from Antique Bakery in a Let’s Get Visual column from last October) or situation. In the example below, from volume four, she not only uses this technique to show Majima as someone not fully invested in the drama of the moment, but also for simple humorous effect.

Flower of Life is really an extraordinary series. When Harutaro and Mikuni are working on their manga, they express the desire to include some universal truths about friendship and growing up in their story, and that is precisely what Fumi Yoshinaga has done. It’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s a classic. Go read it.

Flower of Life was published in English by Digital Manga Publishing and is complete in four volumes. I reviewed it as part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast, the archive of which can be found here.

Review copy for volume four provided by the publisher.

The Color of Love by Kiyo Ueda

For this month’s BL Bookrack, I decided to check out The Color of Love, which was among the BL titles Amazon recently removed from its store for (theoretically) violating its content requirements.

Did it deserve this fate? Not in my opinion! Check out my review for the details.

Your Story I’ve Known by Tsuta Suzuki

While I’d stop short of calling myself an actual fan of A Strange and Mystifying Story, it was at least interesting and I found Tsuta Suzuki’s distinct art style very appealing. When the opportunity to read another work from her arose, therefore, I was eager to seize it.

You can find my review for Manga Bookshelf’s BL Bookrack column here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Right Here, Right Now! 1-2 by Souya Himawari

This time travel historical romance is actually a lot more rational than one would expect. Unfortunately, the romance is the least successful element of the story.

You can find my review for BL Bookrack here.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

My Bad! by Rize Shinba

I didn’t think I was interested in reading My Bad! at first, since I typically don’t enjoy BL comedies, but after reading Shinba’s Intriguing Secrets, I changed my mind.

I’m glad I did, because the stories in this collection are quirky and often genuinely funny. “Stamp Please!,” the story of a guy who falls in love with his amiable postman, is a particular favorite.

You can find my review—as part of this month’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf—here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Honey Colored Pancakes by Keiko Kinoshita

Who could resist a cover this cute? Certainly not me.

I reviewed this collection for this month’s BL Bookrack at Manga Bookshelf. I liked the title story very much, but had mixed feelings about the others. You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

No Touching At All by Kou Yoneda: A-

No Touching At All depicts an office fling between two coworkers in their late twenties that grows into something more. Even though formerly straight Togawa declares his love for Shima, Shima just can’t believe that Togawa’s desire for a family won’t eventually tear them apart. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Future Lovers, so if you liked that (and who wouldn’t?!) you’d probably enjoy this, too.

I reviewed No Touching At All for this month’s BL Bookrack at Manga Bookshelf. You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

A Place in the Sun by Lala Takemiya: B+

I reviewed this collection of quirky, bittersweet tales for this week’s BL Bookrack and enjoyed it quite a bit. One story even involves a hapless guy’s romance with a garbageman!

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Object of My Affection by Nanao Okuda: B+

I judged this book by its cover and was not disappointed! Wakamiya has managed to join the college basketball team his idol plays for, only to learn said idol is injured and cannot play. A very nice love story ensues, though it would have been even nicer if all the stories in the volume had been about these two.

You can find my full review at Manga Bookshelf.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Kizuna Deluxe Edition 1 by Kazuma Kodaka: B-

Book description:
Beautiful Ranmaru and sweet, serene Kei fell in love at first sight when they were just boys, and now that they’re finally old enough, they’re moving in together! College should be all about new experiences and freedom… but what will the couple do when their home-sweet-home is invaded by the brash and spoiled Kai, Kei’s half-brother? Is their relationship strong enough to weather a sudden storm of sibling rivalry?

Even though I’ve never read the Kizuna manga before, I’ve still got a nostalgic feeling towards it. I vividly remember venturing into the adult section of the dealers’ room at my very first convention and coming away with a DVD of the OVA. It didn’t rock my socks or anything, but still, I never forgot about it. Now that the series is in print again, thanks to DMP, I figured I’d give it a look.

Kei Enjouji and Ranmaru Samejima first met in middle school, when they shared a chaste kiss. They then apparently go three years without speaking and reunite in high school where a real relationship develops between them. Upon the death of his mother, Kei learns that his father is the head of a yakuza group, and pretty quickly someone is out to kill him. Ranmaru, a promising kendo champion, pushes Kei out of the way of the car barreling towards him and gets hit himself. The doctors say he’ll never use his right arm and leg again.

Ranmaru is devastated, but once Kei takes it as a given that he’ll love Ranmaru no matter what, Ranmaru marshals the determination to work hard at his rehabilitation and eventually regains the ability to walk. The two live together happily, attending the same college, until Kai, Kei’s younger brother and the legitimate son of the yakuza boss, enters their lives. He’s a real pest who has set his sights on his kendo hero, Ranmaru.

That all might sound pretty decent, but the problem is the material in this volume does not present the story chronologically at all. I’m sure this is mostly to do with the fact that Kizuna evidently began as a doujin. The first chapter depicts a romantic encounter between Kei and Ranmaru as high schoolers, at which point Ranmaru is still tops in the kendo world. The college chapters with the irritating Kai come next (this is the story line I’m familiar with from the OVA), followed by another college-age chapter, then one in which Kai is in second grade, then the story of Kei and Ranmaru’s first meeting… You get the idea.

It’s not that the story is impossible to follow in this fashion—flashbacks are a pretty common narrative device, after all, particularly when the lead characters have been together for a long time—but these chapters feel disconnected from each other. The difference in art style only adds to the choppy reading experience. I found myself thinking, “Just settle down already! Pick the story you want to tell and the way that you want to draw, and just get on with it!”

Despite my complaints about the flow of the chapters, within each chapter Kodaka crafts some compelling stories. I liked the story of Ranmaru’s injury and rehabilitation the best, but there’s also an enjoyably smutty tale where he is given an aphrodisiac by a creepy professor and Kai’s the only one around to relieve his… tensions. My dislike of Kai must be evident by now, but I do like Kei and Ranmaru, especially the fact that the latter, the uke in the relationship, is prized for his strength. Kei can be crass at times, but the depth of his love for Ranmaru is abundantly obvious.

I definitely plan to keep reading Kizuna. It may be a vain hope, but now that the background has been established, I’d like to see the next volume pick up with the guys in college and go forward from there. Stay tuned to see whether my wish comes true!

Kizuna Deluxe Edition is released in English by Digital Manga Publishing. The series was previously licensed by the now-defunct CPM, but was never completed. DMP is releasing the series in five omnibus editions.

Review copy provided by the publisher.