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 Melinda’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.

Absolutely Elsewhere

I’ve been doing a lot of extrablogular writing this month! First, there was the third installment of Breaking Down Banana Fish at Manga Bookshelf, in which we discuss volumes five and six of that series. Next, Melinda Beasi, Danielle Leigh and I talked NANA—the eleventh and twelfth volumes, specifically—in our latest NANA Project at Comics Should Be Good. Lastly, as part of Fumi Yoshinaga week at Manga Bookshelf, I took part in a roundtable focusing on her historical boys’ love series, Gerard & Jacques.

In addition to the roundtable action, I’ve contributed to two Off the Shelf features at Manga Bookshelf in July: on the 7th—when I discussed The Clique (Yen Press), Millennium Prime Minister 3 (DMP), and Okimono Kimono (Dark Horse)—and the 14th, when my picks were Fruits Basket: Banquet (TOKYOPOP), Dengeki Daisy 1 (VIZ), and Crimson Hero 13 (VIZ). During the third week of each month, Off the Shelf is replaced by BL Bookrack, and since this coincided with Fumi Yoshinaga week, I reviewed Solfege and Don’t Say Any More, Darling (both DMP).

I’ve also written two solo reviews at Comics Should Be Good so far this month: Saturn Apartments 1 and Afterschool Charisma 1 (both VIZ).

As you can see, it’s been a busy month, and it’s not over yet! Tune in next week for more, as the Paradise Kiss MMF begins!

Solfege by Fumi Yoshinaga: B+

I reviewed this one-shot BL story for the new BL Bookrack feature at Manga Bookshelf. It’s less of a romance than it is a character study of a really crappy person, and I liked it all the better for that!

You can find that review here.

Don’t Say Any More, Darling by Fumi Yoshinaga: B

I reviewed this collection of short stories, some BL and some not, for the inaugural edition of a new feature at Manga Bookshelf called BL Bookrack. A couple of the stories are really quite weird, but I truly loved the final story, “The Pianist,” about an aging musician who has convinced himself he’s a “debauched fallen genius” rather than someone who simply didn’t have the talent to succeed.

You can find that review here.

All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

allmydarling“A mother is an imperfect woman.”

So thinks Yukiko Kisaragi, the central hub around which the collection of stories in All My Darling Daughters revolves. As the story begins, Yukiko’s mother, Mari, has just undergone a successful cancer operation and decides that, from now on, she’s going to live her life the way she wants. To Yukiko’s dismay, this involves getting remarried to an aspiring actor and much younger man, Ken Ohashi, whom she met at a host club. At first, Yukiko is convinced it’s a con, and maintains a guarded demeanor around Ohashi, but once he proves his love for Mari really is genuine, she breaks down. “She’s always belonged entirely to me,” she sobs.

From there, stories focus on those Yukiko knows. The second chapter is about a strange student named Maiko who forces herself on Izumi, a lecturer friend of Ohashi’s; the third features Sayako, a pretty friend of Yukiko who has decided to investigate arranged marriage; the fourth is about middle school friends of Yukiko and how their career plans went awry; and the final chapter focuses on Yukiko’s grandmother and her relationship with Mari. Meanwhile, we catch glimpses of how Yukiko’s life is evolving through a series of revelations about what has occurred “off-camera.”

At first I had a hard time understanding how some of these stories related to each other. Sayako’s story, for example, is incredibly touching and sad, but her mother does not play much of a role. The story of the forceful student seemed entirely out of place. But then the common thread hit me: this book is not just about mothers and daughters. It’s about the relationship between any caregiver and a child, and how something that might seem inconsequential to one could affect the other for the rest of their lives.

Sayako is crippled in love because her well-meaning grandfather told her, “You mustn’t discriminate among people.” Maiko has a warped view of relationships because someone indoctrinated her with a servile disposition—even though Izumi repeatedly says, “Who told you that?” it’s a perception she is unable and even unwilling to shake. Yukiko’s middle school friend is unable to fulfill her lofty goal of being a trailblazer for women in the workplace because an abusive father forces her to leave home early and quit school. Even Mari’s not immune, since her mother’s denigrating comments (made with good intentions, we later learn) about her appearance gave her a lifetime complex about her looks.

By the end of the volume, it’s apparent that Yukiko really is living a charmed life. Mari may be an imperfect mother, but she’s honest about her foibles and the two share an incredible relationship. Yukiko even achieves a sense of peace about her new step-dad, realizing “this strange boy is necessary for my mom.” Yukiko’s husband, Jun, is sweet yet equally imperfect, and a casual remark near the end of the volume reveals they’ve made headway in conquering a problem of equality in their marriage. Career-wise, Yukiko is the most successful of her group of middle school friends, prompting former chum Saeki to think, “At least one of us fulfilled her modest dreams.” And who is it whose fierce yet loving care enabled Yukiko’s life to turn out so well? I’ll give you one guess.

In addition to all of this thoughtful, integrated writing, Yoshinaga also employs her distinctive artistic style in the service of the story. True, the bulk of the panels contain talking heads in white space, but sometimes these headshots are exactly what one needs to get the point across. The most effective example of this occurs in the third chapter, when a two-page spread of close-ups is used to convey how Sayako and a prospective husband, Mr. Fuwa, have instantly achieved a content companionship. And if you don’t get sniffly when this technique is used again in the final two pages, you might just be a robot.

Review originally published at Manga Recon. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Antique Bakery 1-4 by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

antiquebakery1Last month, I debuted the Manga Marching Orders feature, in which I invite readers to help me decide what to read next. The results were very close, but, in the end, Antique Bakery came out on top.

On the surface, Antique Bakery is the story of four men who work together at a bakery, providing delicious cakes for their customers. What that simplified summary fails to mention, however, is that the characters are subtlely changed by working together and that their growth is the real focus of the series. They’re nuanced and multi-layered and each has something he needs to overcome.

Keiichiro Tachibana is the stubbly 32-year-old owner of the bakery, “Antique.” He comes from a rich family and there’s nothing he can’t do, except manage to convince a woman his feelings are sincere. A consummate salesman, he’ll be in the midst of showing his real personality to his staff, but will seamlessly slip into a smilingly attentive persona as soon as a customer enters the shop. Fumi Yoshinaga shows this trait of Tachibana’s from the start, but it’s only at the end of volume two that we learn the shocking reason he acquired this skill, and that it’s a deeply ingrained habit that, while it might prove useful in some circumstances, is really hurting him when it comes to forming close personal relationships.

antiquebakery2Yusuke Ono was a former classmate of Tachibana’s and confessed his love to him on graduation day. After being cruelly rejected, he contemplated suicide, but decided that he first wanted to act on the homosexual desires he’d been harboring. This leads him into a life of reckless promiscuity, and he’s known as a “gay of demonic charm” for his ability to seduce any man, gay or straight, who catches his eye. He’s an excellent pastry chef, though he’s in it for the money rather than from true love of pastries, and has been fired from several establishments for the romantic turmoil his presence stirs up. Ono has issues being around women, stemming from his hatred of his adulterous mother, but gradually begins to conquer this fear, especially after his sister imparts some information that reveals his father is not entirely blameless, either. Too, towards the end of the series, he seems to be resolved to take better care of himself and look for something more than a fleeting sexual encounter.

Eiji Kanda is the youngest of the crew. A former street thug and boxer with a sweet tooth, he has the most colorful past of the group. Detached retinas forced him to give up his preferred career, and while pastry-making starts off as his second choice, he shows a lot of talent and dedicates himself to training under Ono, to whom he becomes very attached. Eiji was abandoned as a child and, though Ono and Tachibana believe it’s a good thing when they mention he might be able to branch out on his own one day, the prospect terrifies Eiji, who’s found a warm and welcoming home at last. Though he appears tough on the outside, and has no compunction with using violence, Eiji is really loyal and protective and more affected by the opportunity he’s been given than one would assume.

antiquebakery3Chikage Kobayakawa, age 34, is the last to join the group. The son of the Tachibana family housekeeper, he’s known Tachibana since childhood and has been sent by the family to keep an eye on him. Upon his arrival, Tachibana puts him to work at “Antique.” Though he looks rather like a yakuza, tall and intimidating in his sunglasses, Chikage is actually incredibly pure and sweet, though lamentably slow on the uptake. He falls victim to Ono’s demonic charm, but the latter refuses to take advantage of someone so wholly good. While he doesn’t have as many personal problems to battle as the others, he has his own challenges. Small victories are what Chikage achieves, like moving out on his own and becoming more useful around the shop.

I love each of these characters, but more than that I love how skillfully and carefully Yoshinaga develops them. Instead of dumping all of the above information on us at once, we receive it in bits and pieces, with later revelations causing the significance of earlier moments to suddenly become clear. The best example of this is probably Ono’s confession to Tachibana. The first scene in the series, it remains an important moment hanging between them, and it’s not until the end of volume four that we truly understand what experiences and thoughts made Tachibana react so cruelly. And although a few chapters seem to focus more on the customers than the staff, there’s always a reason for it. Chapter four, for example, purports to be about a failed boxer and his pregnant girlfriend, but Yoshinaga uses it to elicit a confession from Eiji that he’d do anything to go back to being a boxer if he could.

antiquebakery4Yoshinaga’s spare, expressive artwork is also an integral part of what makes the series work. Backgrounds are minimal, putting the focus squarely on the characters, though the cakes themselves are rendered in loving detail. I especially love the way changes in character expression are depicted, devoting a few successive panels to Eiji’s face as it cycles from challenging to relaxed to amused, for example. It’s easy for the reader to tell what the character has been thinking by the way his face changes, but it’s also easy for other characters to tell, as well. Again, the issue of Ono’s love confession is an excellent example. Near the end of the series, Ono mentions that he has a much clearer impression of Tachibana now than he did in high school. Tachibana replies, “Is that right? I’ve always remembered you… since graduation day.” And simply because of the way Tachibana turns away after saying this, Ono is able to recognize how much Tachibana truly regrets what happened. He looks surprised at first, then smiles faintly. “I see,” he says, and makes sure Tachibana knows he has brought a lot of good into his life, too.

Antique Bakery is poignant, surprising, well-paced, well-written, funny, and excellent. In short, it’s required reading for manga fans. I can’t believe it took me so long!

Ōoku: The Inner Chambers 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga: A

From the back cover:
In Edo Period Japan, a strange new disease called the Redface Pox has begun to prey on the country’s men. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by seventy-five percent. Women have taken on all the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the shogun. The men, precious providers of life, are carefully protected. And the most beautiful of the men are sent to serve in the shogun’s Inner Chamber…

After a mysterious illness wipes out most of the young men in Edo Period Japan, women step up to take over the roles traditionally filled by men, becoming laborers, merchants, heads of families, and even shogun. Over time, the illness grows less virulent, but remains a common threat, resulting in a population made up of four times as many females as males. Healthy men are prized—families use them as pawns to negotiate alliances, and it’s tough for the average woman to secure a husband, requiring her to visit a brothel if she wishes to have a child.

It’s into this world that Mizuno Yunoshin (name order left intact!) is born, the son of an impoverished family of the samurai class. He’s in love with his childhood friend, Nobu, but because she is of the merchant class, they are not considered a good marital match. Rather than assent to marry someone else, Mizuno instead goes into service in the Ōoku, the Inner Chambers of the shogun’s palace—where many men are kept either for the purpose of becoming concubine to the shogun or for serving those who have been deemed worthy for that honor—which will award his family enough money to perhaps attract a suitable husband for his sister. The majority of the volume focuses on Mizuno learning of the Inner Chambers’ elaborate customs as well as his unexpected rise in rank when he happens to catch the eye of the senior chamberlain.

If I had to pick one word to describe Ōoku, that word would be “intrigue.” In the noun sense of the word, Ōoku delivers abundantly, as jockeying for position within the Inner Chambers is the favorite past-time. There’s some fairly elaborate scheming going on that takes the plot in unexpected and interesting directions. And, of course, in the verb sense of the word, Ōoku intrigues readers by not being easily classified as a simple gender reversal tale.

Instead, it emphasizes the fluidity of the notion of gender, showing how males in a certain situation can exhibit traditionally feminine attributes while females can possess qualities that are generally regarded as masculine. The new shogun, Yoshimune, is an absolutely fascinating example. In this world, where women reign, Yoshimune’s intelligence and political savvy have flourished, and she is a very effective ruler, making unorthodox decisions and sidestepping the ploys of her underlings, all while frequently sating her robust sexual appetite. Her advisor, Hisamichi, is also wonderful, with a mild-mannered countenance that conceals the full extent of her cleverness. Towards the end of the volume, Yoshimune begins to question why it is that women in power are required to adopt manly names, so that it appears in historical records as though they have been men all along. I’m eager to see what will happen next!

Artistically, Yoshinaga’s distinctive style is deceptively simple; one might think that without elaborate designs to distinguish so many dark-haired, similarly garbed men, keeping them straight would be a problem, but it actually never is. Also, I’m particularly fond of the way Yoshimune is drawn; her haughty expressions manage to simultaneously capture her senses of humor and of self-importance. My one complaint here is that though Mizuno is often described by other characters as being handsome, he really doesn’t look it.

Published under the VIZ Signature line, Ōoku has the beautiful packaging generally afforded titles in that imprint, with French flaps, color pages, and a gorgeous vellum title page. Even the “You’re reading the wrong way!” page has been given a classy facelift. I applaud the adaptation for retaining the proper order of names, but am less enamored of the choice to render the dialogue in a very formal sort of English. I get that VIZ must’ve been trying to recreate the feel of the original, but it’s a bit distracting at first. Thankfully, I did get used to it eventually. It’d be a shame to let something so trivial mar one’s enjoyment of so excellent a work.

Review copy provided by the publisher.