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Roundtable: Flower of Life

MELINDA: There’s a lot to love about Fumi Yoshinaga, from her expressive artwork to her rambling dialogue, and she’s one of those writers I consistently love, even for her weakest work. When I find myself searching for what really defines her, though, I always come back to Flower of Life. I’ve talked about this series on my own before, but there’s something about a story so warm and so driven by friendship that begs to be discussed with friends. To that end, I’ve begged asked my fellow bloggers to join me in this roundtable!

Every time I pick up this series, I’m struck again by just how odd it is. On one hand, it’s this meandering, slice-of-life manga filled with idiosyncratic characters, tangential dialogue, and no obvious central plotline. On the other, it’s eerily truthful and genuinely dramatic, often when I least expect it. For those of you re-reading the series or picking it up for the first time, how would you classify something like this? Or is there even any point to trying?

DAVID: I would categorize it as un-distilled Yoshinaga, to be honest, which is a category or genre all its own. Everything she does is really steeped in her own sensibility, and I think Flower of Life is possibly the best translated example of that. And it’s a little strange, but with this re-reading, I really noticed how sneakily structured the story is, at least in terms of its emotional arcs. They don’t really emerge as being as well-formed as they are when you read the series as it’s being published, but if you sit down with the whole series, you really get a lot of unexpected and resonant payoffs.

SEAN: I’ve only read one volume of the series so far, but I wasn’t particularly surprised by its idiosyncrasies, as I had researched it a bit and discovered it ran in Shinshokan’s ‘5th genre’ magazine Wings, which tends to be categorized as shoujo, has more of a josei audience, is predominately fantasy-oriented, and has a large contingent of what could be called ‘not quite BL’, including both Flower of Life and Antique Bakery. Actually, I was rather surprised to find that there wasn’t really any true BL in the volume of FOL I’d read at all, mostly as both that and AB are described as ‘gateway volumes’ for those who want a taste of the BL genre without any of that, y’know, actual GAY stuff. :) It’s just a slice-of-life school story starring a bunch of weirdos. I really enjoyed the volume I read, and will definitely seek out the others. If only for the bishie otaku.

KATE: One of the things that strikes me most about Flower of Life is how accurately it captures teenage experience. Yoshinaga clearly remembers her own adolescence, as she conveys the intensity and sincerity of her characters’ feelings with tenderness. Yet Flower of Life doesn’t behave like a typical young adult story, with characters striving toward a goal; Yoshinaga fiercely resists imposing an obvious dramatic arc on the material, even though her principal characters grow and change over time. I’d classify it as “slice of life,” but I hate that term because reviewers apply it indiscriminately to series as different as Azumanga Daioh and Saturn Apartments. Maybe “true to life”?

MICHELLE: “True to life” works for me! I’m not exactly sure how she does it, but there’s something so organic about the way that we’re introduced to the characters—a really sublime “show don’t tell” going on about their personalities—that, in time, one feels immersed in the class. Example: I am so weary of cultural festivals in manga I could scream, but the one in the second volume of Flower of Life is the best example of same I have EVER SEEN. And that’s because we’ve gotten to know the characters well enough to feel their excitement as they plan. Also, I think I could write 10,000 words about Majima (the aforementioned bishie otaku), but I assume we’re going to get to him later.

MELINDA: I’m happy to go with “true to life” as well, because that really is what it feels like. Also, Kate, I think your choice of words here is particularly apt. “Yoshinaga fiercely resists imposing an obvious dramatic arc on the material, even though her principal characters grow and change over time.” Yet, as David mentions, there really are some wonderful emotional arcs throughout the story. They just feel so natural, there’s never a sense that this is a result of “plot.” The characters simply live, and somehow it’s kind of a revelation when we realize what that really means.

Sean, it’s interesting that you mention BL here, because I wasn’t actually aware that Flower of Life was considered a “gateway” book, though I certainly spent much of the first volume under the same delusion as Harutaro.

And Michelle, I’m thrilled that you brought up the cultural festival, because I feel exactly the same way! And really, I think that’s where my 10,000 words on Majima would really get going.

DAVID: Can I take it back to how the characters really seem to breathe? Because I agree, and I do so even with the kind of heightened, commentary-rich dialogue. These people don’t just feel things and do things. They think and talk a whole lot, and while it’s not especially naturalistic dialogue, it’s very character-driven, and it actually makes the story barrel along rather than dragging it down.

SEAN: I had a lot of preconceptions before starting Book 1, and one of which was that it would be ‘sorta BL’, i.e. that it would feature gay characters but not gay relationships or something similar. You know, Wings-ish. The way that Tokyo Babylon is. This is probably why I was so amused at the revelation of the teacher’s gender, as having ‘him’ being a flaming gay man didn’t surprise me when I started the book. Which, of course, is exactly what Yoshinaga was going for, in order to get the payoff two chapters later. (There’s some great gags here – I loved the girl’s story about how to ‘properly’ sit on a toilet with a skirt – complete with visualization. Hilarious.)

MICHELLE: I had a similar experience, not because of Wings but just because of what I’ve read of Yoshinaga so far. Of course she’d have a gay couple in her story! I was actually kind of impressed she managed to fool me so thoroughly—as a hardened manga veteran I thought I was pretty savvy in regards to such tricks! It certainly puts all of Saito-sensei’s conversations with the students in a new light—often still inappropriate, but less potentially actionable than they first appeared.

I love, too, how Yoshinaga balances relatively lighthearted day-to-day stories for the students with some pretty serious dramatic issues for the adults, like Saito and Koyanagi’s relationship and the plight of Harutaro’s homebound sister, Sakura.

KATE: I’m really glad you mentioned the adults, Michelle, because Yoshinaga doesn’t reduce them to cartoons — evil principals, hot teachers, overbearing parents — but portrays them as real people struggling with real problems: maintaining authority in the classroom, establishing appropriate boundaries with colleagues and students. That’s one of the reasons I love this series so much: the conversations in the teacher’s lounge have the same ring of truth as the discussions at the manga club’s meetings.

MICHELLE: The presence of so many parents makes me very happy, actually. I especially love how helpful some are with the Christmas party the kids plan, and how the kids then come home and thank them, or tell them about how things went. Very few actual teens are super-powered orphans, after all.

DAVID: It’s reflective of one of the things I like most about Yoshinaga, no matter what category she’s visiting. Her characters tend to have rounded lives. They have friends or lovers, sure, but there are other people who populate their worlds. She’s open to the kinds of digressions that make stories richer for me.

MELINDA: Speaking of the Christmas party, I think it stands as a great example of why the story’s universe feels so real. The kids are initially over-optimistic in their planning, only to realize as the party actually approaches that they’re all under-prepared on some level. At this point, I’d expect a typical shoujo manga to go in one of two directions. Either the kids would pull together at the last minute and make their spectacular party dreams come true, or everything would be a spectacular failure, but somehow they’d have fun anyway, learning a lesson about what’s really important. Yoshinaga goes in neither of these directions. Instead, some things work out, some don’t, and the stuff that gets pulled together is for the most part not quite what they dreamed of, but adequate for reality. The real story is in the fun they have with each other and not any of the organizational close calls, just as in real life.

So, getting around to some of Michelle’s 10,000 words on Majima, one of the things Yoshinaga seems to specialize in is taking common manga tropes I generally find distasteful, and making them really interesting instead. I’m not a fan, for instance, of student-teacher romances, especially when the student is underage, but I have to admit that the obviously problematic relationship that develops here between emotionally-stunted Majima and his lonely teacher Saito is completely fascinating to me, in all its messed-up glory. Is it just me?

MICHELLE: It isn’t just you! I loved the scene where Saito finally breaks it off with Koyanagi-sensei, wanting him to remain the good father she always loved him for being, and runs into dispassionate Majima’s arms. But then I felt kind of bad for loving it so much. I shouldn’t be rooting for the teacher to choose her sixteen-year-old student!

MICHELLE: The message I got from this is “you don’t have to try to impress your friends, just be yourself.” That same idea comes through when Mikuni is allowed to see the true messiness of Harutaro’s room and they bond as a result. Really, Yoshinaga doles out quite a few lessons about friendship, like, “you don’t always have to like the same things in order to be friends” (Takeda, Isonishi, and Jinnai) or “you don’t always have to agree about everything” (Mikuni and Harutaro)” or “there are one-sided feelings even in friendships” (Yamane and Sakai). I feel like I should hand this out to teenagers as some kind of handbook.

MELINDA: Michelle, I’m totally with you. Also, I will point out that Yamane/Sakai is one of three questionably-canon “‘ships” I once begged for from fandom. I love their little book-borrowing story just that much.

DAVID: I don’t think I’d go quite so far as to say I liked the relationship, but I certainly understood it. It was a very credible part of the spectrum of imperfect connections that Yoshinaga portrays throughout the series. And I absolutely admire Yoshinaga’s ability to make me invested in a character like Majima without having to like him even a little bit. That’s a tough bit of acrobatics.

MELINDA: That’s exactly the thing, isn’t it? Yoshinaga doesn’t necessarily make us like everyone in Flower of Life or everything that happens in the story, but she makes it all so compelling, we dismiss the desire to reject it. As little as I like Majima, his character’s journey is one of the most interesting to me, because Yoshinaga never takes the easy way out with him.

I feel a little guilty, leaving Sean behind here when he’s just finished volume one. But Sean, I’m actually really interested in your comments earlier, because it sounds like Majima is actually the character you’re most interested in at this point.

SEAN: Yes, sorry for being so silent. I did only read Vol. 1, and am planning to review it tomorrow, so want to avoid repeating myself too much. :) And yes, Majima fascinated me, if only as there’s no glossing over his otaku-ness. He actually reminded me a bit of Naoto in Itazura Na Kiss, who is early, retro shoujo jerk, so doesn’t have the ‘soft edges’ or occasional pet the dog moments that our modern shoujo jerks get in order to make them appealing. Majima’s otaku creepiness is unapologetic and a little scary, especially to the Japanese who have a definite view of this sort of obsession. The joke, of course, is that he’s an older-looking handsome young man, who would no doubt have friends and potential lovers falling all over him were it not for… well, everything he says and does. Even when people THINK they understand him… witness the chapter where they think he’s offended by their teasing him and try to apologize… but he’s still upset as they go about it the wrong way. I’ll definitely be looking forward to Vols. 2-4, as I’m hoping that, while I’m sure he will gain some depth and kindness in there, he retains his basic creepy unlikeability that makes him so interesting.

MICHELLE: I find him fascinating for much the same reason: he doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities. Readers want to like him, but time and again, he gives us reasons not to. I think it’s a pretty stunning portrait of the fixated otaku, personally, with the arrogance and obsession coupled with a preference for 2-D girls (of a very specific forehead-showing, glasses-wearing type) and a lot of hostility towards real women (witness the top three things he has wanted to say to one).

I actually found myself wondering what Tohru Honda would make of him, someone whom her warmth could not penetrate and help to heal. I think she’d find him pretty terrifying.

KATE: I appreciate the fact that Yoshinaga doesn’t try to sand away Majima’s edges; I have a deep loathing for authors who give their curmudgeons and eccentrics falsely redeeming qualities. (It’s one of the reasons I can’t sit through an episode of House!)

Switching gears a bit, one of things I find most fascinating about Flower of Life is that it’s the least mean-spirited satire I’ve ever read. Yoshinaga is clearly having a ball poking fun at series like Genshinken — not to mention every shojo manga that involved a school play — yet at the same time, she isn’t mocking her characters for their passion; their let’s-make-a-manga enthusiasm is contagious. That kind of balance is very hard to pull off, since the story can easily tilt towards snark or flat-out hokum. The results remind me a little of Shaun of the Dead: it works equally well as a zombie-movie parody and a straight-ahead horror flick with comic elements.

DAVID: I think the Shaun of the Dead comparison is really apt, because the characters aren’t only reacting to each other as characters, they’re responding to the ways they fill certain genre tropes. Funny and great as the long set pieces are, like the school festival and Christmas party and study session, there are lots of little moments. A particular favorite is when Sumiko, the female otaku, tucks her hair behind her ear and reveals herself to be unexpectedly beautiful. That’s perfectly executed, especially for the reaction of the onlookers. They all recognize the moment, and it resonates with them, even beyond the actual surprise of the reveal. And I also love how Harutaro and Sakura totally geek out over how adorable Shota is. That’s like a Twitter conversation about favorite characters between enthusiastic fans. But really, that’ one of the great things about this series: that all of the characters are essentially fans of one another, finding those recognizable pop-culture resonances in the everyday people around each other, and celebrating them in these odd, quirky way.

MELINDA: That’s such a great way of describing it, David! And I think you and Kate have put your finger on one of the reasons the series’ warm feel really works for me. There’s no saccharine quality in it at all. The characters genuinely like each other (mostly) but so much of what holds them together as a group is a common point of reference. It’s odd that this should feel extraordinary, but when I’m reading Flower of Life I become aware of just how rare it is for a writer to really capture that sense of shared pop culture between characters.

MICHELLE: Another thing that prevents that saccharine feeling is that we’re not told over and over that they like each other. Yoshinaga simply shows it, over and over, in marvelous ways. Even the episode that comes closest to bullying—when several classmates gather around Shota and proclaim him a “good fatty”—seems to be born more of ignorance than genuine malice. And, of course, characters argue or disappoint one another. They’re not perfect sunshiney friends 100% of the time, but that doesn’t prevent them from being friends and may, in fact, bring them closer as they recognize their own faults in others.

MELINDA: As our time runs out, I guess we’d better wind this down. But honestly, I could talk about this manga forever. It’s a favorite that surprises me with its warmth and freshness every time I reread.

Thanks, all of you, for joining me here during such a busy week!

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  1. I really enjoyed your squee about the goodness of Flower of Life, everyone – and you articulate the many qualities so much better than I could, heh. I would love to see a doujinshi of Tohru Honda having Majima in her class, heh ^^.


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