Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Flowers & Bees
Oct 4th 2012
Episode CXXIII: Flowers & Bees
"But what about kindness? Doesn't true love come from being considerate, not arrogant?"
"Oh, Komatsu. If a woman ever tells you 'you're so sweet!'…you might as well just go home and jerk off."
—Flowes & Bees
When you're a virgin, every love story is an instruction manual. (Or a cautionary tale.) This is especially true in manga, where so many stories either involve shy girls learning to come out of their shell and find love (and usually falling in love with their trainers) or shy boys trying to dress better to get chicks and reading those 'how to be popular' boys' magazines that were so popular in Japan in the 1980s. Sometimes it's played for comedy, like the boy who loves shojo manga in Otomen (as Piro in Megatokyo said, "Shojo manga has helped me with so many problems. All I need to do is read until I find a similar situation and it will tell me everything I need"). Other times it's played totally straight, which can be unfortunate when the advice isn't good. I find it disturbing that anyone would read a manga like, say, Suzuka or Pastel for relationship advice (from Pastel: "I guess that's just how girls are. They get bent out of shape over the tiniest things.").
Here's a better idea, boys: instead of getting your ideas about women from some shonen manga creator who is probably a virgin himself, ask actual women for your relationship advice! Perhaps even such a woman as Moyoco Anno, author of Happy Mania, Sugar Sugar Rune, Sakuran, Hataraki Man and scads of other great relationship manga! (She's even married to Hideaki Anno, another creative person who'd probably give interesting love advice, although based on Evangelion, it might be so depressing you'd shoot yourself.) Moyoco Anno started out as a shojo and josei mangaka, but in 2000, with Flowers & Bees, she branched out into men's manga. Drawn for Kodansha's Young Magazine, it's a take on the timeless Shakespearean theme of "guy who wants to get laid", a popular theme in Japanese "young" magazines, manga mags for 18-and-up guys that features gravure shots of bikini models and manga with lots of fanservice and casual sex.
Komatsu is a high school student who's never had a girlfriend. He's just about given up on ever getting close to any woman, let alone Noriko, the cute model he occasionally passes in the street. The girls in his class ignore him, or make fun of his awful parted-down-the-middle helmet-hair ("I was trying to look like that guy in that band, you know, Glay!") Komatsu's only consolation is his friend Yamada, who is much, much uglier than he is. However, Yamada has one advantage: he is "confidenter than a mofo," making him oblivious to his own ugliness. ("I'm here on serious business objectives. It's a straight-up chick-pick.") Yamada is always boasting about how he's having hot threesomes with college girls, while Komatsu, being sane, is forced to live with the knowledge that he's a loser.
Then one day, in the street, Komatsu sees a salon: a beauty salon named World of Beautiful Men. Could it be that all he needs is a better haircut, and maybe girls will like him? The salon turns out to be run by three flaming gay guys with John Waters mustaches. "It is our life's mission at World of Beautiful Men to make men—say it with me!—BEAUTIFUL!!" They take Komatsu under their wings and give him advice. "It's all within your mind! Confidence must rise from it—a gentle mist upon your scalp, holding one firm like gel!" Then they charge him 8,000 yen (about $80) for trimming his eyebrows and 10,000 yen (about $100) for a haircut.
At first he thinks he's been ripped off, but then Sakura Ota, one of the prettiest girls in his class, notices his new eyebrows. Komatsu pledges World of Beautiful Men his eternal gratitude ("Wow! And here I was, thinking you were just a couple of fags always trying to trick me into going broke!"). Pretty soon, he's reading magazines with names like "Hip Body", "Cool Boy" and "Stylin' Boy." He's buying new clothes, getting his legs waxed, his ears pierced, and his pores cleaned. (This is the point where you play "I Can Make You a Man" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack.) And the next time when he sees Noriko on the street, he's almost confident enough to say hi to her…but then he realizes "Wait a minute…if I want her to be into me…I've got to wait…she's got to be the one to make the approach!"
But the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" stereotypical metrosexual thing is only the beginning of Flowers & Bees. At the end of volume 1, the three gay guys leave the manga (Japanese readers must not have liked 'em, although I missed 'em a bit), leaving the salon in the care of the owner's sisters, Kiyoko and Harumi Sakurai. They are both hot, older women who seem happy to have Komatsu as a customer…or maybe something more? ("Well, sir—you've been selected as a test subject! You are eligible for free aesthetic improvements. Leave it to us. We will cover the entire spectrum—until your masculinity shines like a proud rainbow flag.") Unfortunately, they are actually total sadists, who really just want Komatsu so they can pick on him and make him scrub the floor wearing only his underwear. (Oh, and a women's hair ribbon.) But Komatsu endures the torture and toughs it out in the hopes of gleaning some crumbs of advice, some relationship tips he can use. ("First lesson: do not talk about yourself! No matter how stupid the girl sounds, you listen to her! Then you nod…and, after adding a comment or two, you probe further…") Can he actually become…POPULAR?? Dare he dream that he might some day date Sakura? Or Noriko? Or even just HAVE SEX WITH A REAL PERSON??
In its plot outline, Flowers & Bees is a pretty standard men's "young" manga: to quote Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, it's a "revolving sushi boat" manga where the horny hero gets to taste the nigiri of various different types of sexy women. It's even got a video-game-style structure with Komatsu leveling up and unlocking different types of women, like Noriko, who were out of his league earlier. But Moyoco Anno herself is a bit of a sadist. In her first hit manga Happy Mania she told the story of a clueless, irresponsible twentysomething woman whose obsession with true love (and good sex) gets her in all kinds of trouble. Flowers & Bees is basically a younger, gender-switched version of the same thing, about a clueless high school kid whose obsession with true love (and any sex) gets him in all kinds of trouble. In Moyoco Anno's manga, you don't wish that you were the main character; you thank God that you're not the main character. She doesn't give her readers a straight-up sex fantasy like most male mangaka drawing young men's manga; instead, she teases and tortures them. But she draws hot girls, so the readers forgive her.
Hopefully it's not too a spoiler to reveal that Komatsu does, eventually, meet some women. Sort of. There's the awkward older woman who unexpectedly hits on him in the street, takes him to a love hotel, gets drunk and cries about her problems. ("I know I'm not pretty! I don't dress well!…At work, my superiors totally spoil the cute college girls, but they treat me like some crap stuck to their shoe!") There's Mako, a married woman looking for an affair, who invites Komatsu to her bed and talks…and talks…and TALKS…and then just when he kisses her, she pushes him away, saying "If we have sex, you won't listen to me anymore." (As he walks home alone, Komatsu thinks "What'd she mean? I would of listened to get more…") There's Hiromi from his high school class, a "mid-range girl" who's cute on the outside (well, passably) and secretly ruthless on the inside. There's Minako, a beautiful and mysterious woman who he meets at the post office, follows home, and ends up doing her cooking, cleaning and errands while she sits around and watches TV. There's Miki, an adult actress with sunken eyes, low self-esteem, and probably a forged birth certificate saying she's old enough to be in movies. Of course, although Komatsu is hetero, not all the important characters are women. While working a construction job to make money, he mets Mr. Kohashi, a scrawny, mild-mannered 42-year-old guy who turns out to, somehow, have three ex-wives, a wife, and a girlfriend. Why are women fascinated by Mr. Kohashi? "The fact that so many women have wanted to marry a guy who looks like that and has no money can have only one possible interpretation…once on the site, he's a man at work." Komatsu basks in the light of Kohashi's secret studliness and thinks, "C-could he be the hidden master? I vow to observe his ways!"
This is a very unique love-com manga, but there is one way that Komatsu is like other love-com manga protagonists: he's such a dork that almost any reader will be grateful they're not like him. His dates end disastrously. (Or begin disastrously, like when he goes out wearing a hat his mother picked out for.) He wanders the streets at night in his pajamas, trying to hit on women. He asks women out, then realizes he's broke and she has to pay for the meal. He chickens out, decides he doesn't want to sleep with a girl, and gets beaten up by her ("You expect me to walk away from this with nothing?!"). The wise reader, using Flowers & Bees as an instruction manual, will basically do the exact opposite of what Komatsu does. For instance: if you're on a date with a girl you like, and the girl you like even more than your date shows up, DON'T INVITE HER TO JOIN YOU AND HANG OUT WITH YOU. If you're anxious about your sexual performance compared to a girl's past boyfriends, DON'T TELL HER THAT WHEN YOU'RE ABOUT TO HAVE SEX. Another lesson: there are appropriate and inappropriate times to say things like "You're so cute." Sometimes, your date will answer, "You say one more stupid thing to me and I'm gonna fucking dump you."
The English edition of Flowers & Bees was rewritten by Carl Gustav Horn, one of my favorite manga editors/rewriters (he's dual-class!). He works at Dark Horse, but he used to work at Viz, and Flowers & Bees, like Eagle, is one of his masterpieces. Unlike most rewriters, he has some knowledge of Japanese, and whenever he works on a manga, he polishes each line like a jeweller. In Flowers & Bees he followed what I think is the cardinal rule of manga rewriting: just (1) stay in the spirit of the original and (2) if it's supposed to be funny in Japanese, make it funny in English. These are some of my favorite lines:
* "You seek trim, Komatsu…but it is you who shall be trimmed…"
* "Damn! She's surrounded! A seething mass of dudes! If only I could fly! If only I could leap and gambol to the heart of the sweaty tattooed storm!"
* "I must test my new confidence immediately! Can I pick up the next cute girl to cross the street?"
* "There's something I've always wondered about you, Komatsu…do you have any idea where the clitoris is located?" "No, but that's beside the point right now!"
* "I believe that is vulgarly known as a hoe-slap! That attitude gets you nowhere if you want to be gorgeous!'
* "FEAR THE BROWS!! FEAR THEM!!"
Some people would complain that these translations go too far, adding jokes and double entendres that weren't in the original: but IMHO, the end justifies the means, and I laughed all the way to the end of this manga. (Well…not quite to the end, since the last volume isn't the best, but close enough.) Flowers & Bees has great art (whether you're into the cute girls, the bizarre facial expressions, or both), great dialogue, romance, sex, and lots of scenes where the main character learns, the hard way, how not to hit on women and what not do in a relationship. It's a must-read for anyone who's been, or gone out with, a teenage boy.