Flower of Life, Vol. 1

By Fumi Yoshinaga. Released in Japan by Shinshokan, serialized in the magazine Wings. Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.

This has been on my to-read list for some time. I found a copy at World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto this May and picked it up, mostly as it’s quite hard to find these days. I had both this title and Antique Bakery in the back of my head, as they had been the subject of a debate regarding the casual use of the word ‘yaoi’ in fandom to refer to anything with the suggestion of gay men in it, even titles that did not necessarily have any romance or sex in them. So I had a certain set of expectations about the content going in. I wasn’t too worried about the quality – this is a Yoshinaga manga, I knew it would be enjoyable.

after the first few pages, which deal with a new pretty boy transfer student running into his flamboyantly swishy teacher, I remained unsurprised. After all, this is a series that ran in Wings, a magazine that seems to specialize in the very debate I mentioned earlier. It rarely has explicit BL, but its shoujo fantasy content skirts the edges a lot. Wings is not a magazine for your typical hot-blooded heterosexual Love Hina reader. So I sat back and enjoyed the otherwise amusing slice-of-life school comedy. This is why the payoff of the teacher’s real gender was possibly my favorite moment of the series. I love a good fakeout, and Yoshinaga handles it perfectly.

The characters in the series are, in fact, the main reason to get it. This is a lot of fun. It doesn’t have much of an actual plot, to be sure. Essentially it’s about Harutaro, a young man returning to school after a long battle with leukemia, and his trying to fit in among a close-knit class of eccentrics. He seemingly does very well, but much of the series examines how people treat others when they know what’s expected of them, and Harutaro finds that everything doesn’t quite go as easily as it would in your typical shoujo manga.

Harutaro bonds immediately with the boy sitting next to him, Shota. Shota’s another example of Yoshinaga writing a seemingly ‘typical’ school comedy, but adding her own eccentricities. He’s not your typical pretty boy, being short and rather portly – several characters call him cute/adorable, and one of the chapters deals with the other classmates casually calling him fat, and how upset that gets Harutaro. If there’s any hitn of BL in the series, it would be here, and clearly it can be read as such, but doesn’t have to be – it’s the perfect Wings-style plausible deniability. These two read just as well if they’re merely a budding friendship.

And then there’s Majima, who was the character in the end I think I found the most fascinating. It’s entirely possible that in later volumes he will open up to someone and show a hidden, vulnerable side, but I hope not, because my god, he’s such an amazingly appalling asshole. And he’s so good at it! He hits all those buttons that would make anyone back away – he’s a giant otaku who unashamedly reads artbooks in the middle of class, and will talk your ear off about it with no thought to whether you care. He’s brusque and rude when you try to interject your own problems and issues. And he gets angry at slights, even when the intent is clearly to apologize to him. He’s a horrible person, and I love that the two leads try to deal with him ANYWAY. His presence enriches the book.

There’s a lot of discussion of manga here, and it gets fairly metatextual. Harutaro has a definite talent for art – he was holed up in his recovery room with only manga and drawing paper, so is mostly self-taught – and once the class finds out about it, they’re quick to ask him to create something for them. This is also a great scene in the book, as everyone asks for their own fetishes, and Harutaro is quick to reject any that offend his sensibilities (incest, intergenerational yaoi), while still showing he’s a pervy guy at heart (yuri is OK). Later volumes apparently take the drawing aspect of this further, which is good to hear.

Also, his parents are chicken sexers. Words can’t describe how awesome that is.

There’s a lot of Yoshinaga out there, ranging from the more explicit yaoi titles that DMP has released to the currently running alternate universe political drama Ooku. But if you’re new to Yoshinaga, and have access to a copy, the first volume of Flower of Life is a good place to start. It has fun characters, a relaxed pace, and lots of humor. It proved to be quite refreshing.