Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Flower of Lifeby Jason Thompson,
Episode CXV: Flower of Life
"I'm expressing in manga what I can't explain in words."
—Shota Mikuni, Flower of Life
The other day I picked up Jennifer Prough's book Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy and the Cultural Production of Shojo Manga. Prough spent some time in Japan talking to the editors of shojo manga magazines, and her book attempts to explain how shojo manga is made and how young artists become mangaka. Unfortunately, I can't recommend the book; it's full of empty academic-thesis jargon ("This chapter is framed around questions of structure and agency in the shojo manga world. Setting the stage for a discussion of how individual editors and artists negotiate human relations to produce shojo manga, I begin by outlining the structure of the manga divisions…") and lacking in the kind of specific examples and colorful anecdotes about manga that would have made it interesting. It's not nearly as good as Sharon Kinsella's older book Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, which is about seinen manga; Prough even quotes from Kinsella a lot, and apparently, Kinsella got to spend a lot more actual face time with manga artists than Prough did.
But one thing that was interesting in Prough's book was how it explained how shojo (and shonen) magazines recruit artists as young as they can, because artists who are teenagers have a better memory of high school. Also importantly for the publishers, younger artists are so grateful to get published, they tend not to stand up to their editors as much. So the catch is: (A) younger artists remember high school better, so they write better high school stories; (B) but the editors push them around and make their stories formulaic; (C) and frankly, a lot of artists do get better as they get older and get more life experience. If you're looking for a believable and well-written high school manga (and obviously 'believable' is not always high on the list of Things Manga is Good At), it's rare to find those perfect manga, where the author has reached their max skill level but they're not too old and crusty yet to remember what it was like to be 14.
Fumi Yoshinaga's Flower of Life is one of those perfect high school manga. At the time I read it, after Antique Bakery but before Ooku, I thought of Yoshinaga as a Boy's Love artist, and (like most of the readers, probably) I sort of expected it to turn BL. Just look at the title, Flower of Life…a high school story…I pictured "a flower garden of handsome men," that kind of thing, the shojo equivalent of those shonen fanservice manga about girls' schools and lesbian nuns and so on. But it's set in a coed high school, and it never goes the easy manservice route; although it does have lots of handsome men, and some BL in-jokes, like you'd expect from any manga published by Shinshokan, the original publishers of DMP's "Doki Doki" line. Like all of Yoshinaga's manga, it's a story with offbeat timing; lots of dialogue; simple art; and most of all, great characters.
Harutaro Hanazono gets the attention of all his classmates because he starts high school a month late. He's cheerful and sunny, like his dyed blonde hair—his very name has the kanji for flowers and spring. And he's not the kind of guy who keeps secrets, even the kind of awkward personal secrets that people tend to keep private in Japan. "I hope you'll all be my friends! As for the reason I'm enrolling late…I had leukemia!" he announces to the class on his first day. After missing a school year and undergoing months of chemotherapy, he was saved by a bone marrow transplant from his big sister, and now he's ready to pick up school life again.
Unlike the typical scenario where the new kid in school gets bullied, everyone falls all over themselves to be nice to Harutaro. ("You'll look reaaaally evil if you aren't friendly to him," the homeroom teacher guilts the students. "We will! We'll be nice to him!" they all think.) But Harutaro hits it off the best with Shota Mikuni, a short, overweight boy who's just so friendly and likable that they quickly become best buddies. ("So cute…like a stuffed animal or something!" ) Shota is one of the all-too-few sympathetic overweight characters I've ever seen in manga, where fat people are usually drawn like crude caricatures even when they're supposed to be good guys, like the girl in Ugly Duckling's Love Revolution. One of Shota's hobbies is manga, and so Harutaro joins the manga club with him. It turns out that Harutaro is a natural talent, and soon they're thinking of making a manga together.
Unfortunately for Harutaro, the only other member of the manga club is Majima. Majima is an otaku; not the secretly-sensitive, just-wants-to-have-friends Genshiken kind of otaku, but an extreme example of the cold, aloof, doesn't-give-a-crap-about-anyone otaku. When they first meet, Majima is in the middle of a long lecture about character designs. ("It bothers me that the chin-line of the female characters are drawn way too sharp lately, killing that artist's particular "plushy" quality in the work.…The school uniforms are good. The 'poro poro' type in red check and frills is nice, but if you're gonna go with the check, the best has got to be the 'Haikara-san' type they wear in the new Japanese restaurants. The outfit is an arrangement of the traditional turn-of-the-era Japanese girl student in a hakama and lace-up boots, and it's surprisingly good. I have to say that waitress's uniforms for a family restaurant are much more moeh for me when they leave something to the imagination.") Watching Majima bully Shota just by arrogantly dominating the conversation, Harutaro gets mad, reveals his manly side, and tells Majima to shut the hell up. From that moment on, they are bitter enemies ("Ruffian!" "Insensitive jerk!"), and they only see each other at all because Shota likes them both. Shota sympathizes with Majima because Shota, too, is picked on (because of his weight, not because he's an otaku); the difference is that Majima is so antisocial, he doesn't actually care if anyone likes him. Most school manga have love triangles, but Flower of Life is the only manga I've read that has a "friend triangle".
The fourth main character is the homeroom teacher, Shigeru-sensei, tall and lanky and effeminate, the obvious Boy's Love fanservice for fans of Yoshinaga's previous works. Except, BL-loving Yoshinaga fans, Yoshinaga's actually just screwing with your expectations; Shigeru's problem is that everyone thinks he's a gay man, when actually, despite her Caster Semenya-esque looks, she is a perfectly straight (well, maybe), but androgynous, woman. (Harutaro's not homophobic, so he's totally fine with having a gay teacher, but he's a little embarrassed later when he figures out he was wrong: "No matter how I look at it, she still seems like a flaming gay man…" he thinks guiltily.) Alas, although in typical shojo manga everyone loves the Rose of Versailles -style macho girl, Shigeru isn't happy about her body image. "I consigned myself to my role as an androgynous metrosexual…a sad woman who had to accept Valentine's Day chocolates from other girls with a smile." With her low self-esteem, she falls into an affair with Koyanagi-sensei, a handsome guy about seven years older than her (and a few inches shorter than her) who was her favorite teacher when she was a girl…the only problem is, Koyanagi has a wife and child, and Shigeru knows that, no matter how much he says he loves her, he'll never leave them.
When Harutaro finds out about their secret affair, he's shocked. Harutaro, unusually for a manga hero, has very pure morals: when his classmates find out that he can draw and ask him to draw pr0n, he draws the line at stuff he thinks is wrong. ("Hey, so can you draw, like, hentai then?" "Sure. What kind of thing do you want?" "Sibling love!! Older brother, little sister!" "NO INCEST!! By order of the Hanazono Ethics Committee!") Maybe he disapproves specifically of the incest because he has a very strong relationship with his own older sister, Sakura, who donated the bone marrow that saved his life. Sakura is an attractive woman in her mid-twenties; unfortunately, she's also a hikikomori, who had a quarter-life crisis and hasn't worked a job in years. She tries to justify her unemployment by helping out around the house with cooking and cleaning: "I'm not a shut-in…I'm…I'm a lovely, magical fairy! While everyone in the house is asleep, I'm the magical sprite who cooks, adds water to the pot and cleans the stove…yes, a fairy!!" When Harutaro's friends come over to his house, one of them falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Harutaro's father is the world's toughest-looking chicken-sexer. ("Yeah, I examine baby chicks to determine whether they're male or female--that's my job. Japan leads the world in this skill of chicken-sexing…this skill is worthy of national pride!") Lastly, Harutaro's mother is the indisputed man of the house. Although Sakura has some issues, they're a loving family, although one of the things that binds them is their concern about Harutaro's health.
Relationships (family and otherwise) is what this manga is made of. There's too many minor characters, who all have their own little stories, for me to list them all. Harutaro is the good guy, but Maijima gets almost as much panel time. Majima is a bit like those arrogant love interests found in manga like Hot Gimmick and Itazura na Kiss, but unlike the typical genius character, his grades are actually terrible. ("I've always liked reading difficult books ever since I was young, so I was always at the top of my class in elementary school. However, during my years in junior high, I discovered something more important than my studies…MANGA AND ANIME! GALGE! "BIG SISTER" FETISH! DOUJINSHI!!"). I felt some sympathy with him when I found this out, since I've always been a humanities nerd myself, rather than one of those science/I.T. nerds. But it also turns out that, to make money to buy otaku goods, he's been working manual labor at night, so beneath his pearly white skin are rippling six-pack abs!!! Yes, Yoshinaga throws in some manservice by making Maijima (1) good-looking (2) really tall and (3) totally ripped…and he's still a total a**hole! His casual misogyny (apparently acquired from too much porno galge and dojin) is matched only by his otaku arrogance: in one chapter which only a former BL artist like Yoshinaga could have written, Maijima discovers that one of his classmates, Sumiko, is a closet manga artist, and he pressures her into drawing a yaoi because he knows the yaoi formulas that will sell. ("If you make one manly (the picher), you've got to make the other one (the catcher) pretty enough so as to be barely distinguishable from a woman! That's the iron rule of yaoi!!") Will Sumiko turn out to be the only girl who can stand Maijima? Thankfully, no. She's got much too much self-esteem. But, in the strangest twist in the manga, Maijima does have a heart, and he does end up falling in love, albeit with another character who's almost as screwed up as he is.
Maijima's tainted love sort of steals the show, but the main focus of the manga is friendship: Harutaro's friendship with the guys (except Majima), his development into a manga artist, his ambitions and, well, his love of life. A lot of school manga include speeches about the characters being "in the flower of their youth" or "when you're young, you gotta do this and that" or whatever, but in Flower of Life it actually feels sincere. All the scenes of trivial conversations, the school plays, the Christmas party (including Yoshinaga's own four-page recipe for pumpkin cake!) really shine. The feeling of 'enjoying life' is so strong because, of course, Harutaro almost died. And yet there's a sadness underneath it all, for various reasons…among them, the fact that Harutaro's chemotherapy made him sterile, so he'll never be able to have an 'ordinary life'. In one scene, Harutaro's father cries: "He hasn't yet realized the full impact of what it really means for him to never be able to have kids of his own! Being able to have children, but choosing not to…and never being able to…they're completely different things!" Harutaro's sister retorts "You dummy! There have always been and always will be tons of happy couples without kids!" It's a school manga about teens, but Yoshinaga also includes these adult concerns. In another scene, Harutaro has a rare moment of anger and yells "What's wrong with ordinary…? I like ordinary! I want to be an ordinary student! I want to fall in ordinary love, get my ordinary heart broken, be made an ordinary fool of, and have the ordinary wish to not be ordinary—like everyone else!!!"
If another manga artist handled these themes, it might seem cheesy, but with Yoshinaga, it works. Her dialogue is just so good, and she dodges all the shojo and shonen manga clichés like Revy from Black Lagoon dodging bullets. She goes out of her way to break the rules, whether it's Maijima uttering forbidden censored swearwords (just because he can), or the scene when the characters drink big mugs of 'juice,' because in shojo and shonen manga it's forbidden to have underage heroes drinking. (The narrator says: "No matter who much this bitter 'juice' may taste like beer…it isn't, I tell you! Cuz they're minors!")
But Yoshinaga also gets inside her characters' hearts and captures feelings that you might have forgotten. One student is so ashamed by something that happens at school that she goes home, crawls into bed and hopes to die rather than see her classmates again: "I hate this! I don't want to go to school tomorrow. Oh, God…I hope I've stopped breathing by the time morning comes…" There are no obvious villains or bullies in Flower of Life; life is hard enough without them. Even Maijima, possibly the most unlikable all the characters, turns out to have a sort of heart-like organ in his chest. This is a happy-sad story with marvelous characters and lots of humor and a side dish of insights into the manga industry. The first time I read it, I wasn't sure what to think about it, but I like it more each time I reread it.
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