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Flower of Life: A Love Story

Flower of Life, Vols. 1-4 | By Fumi Yoshinaga | Published by Digital Manga Publishing | Rated YA (Young Adults 16+)

“A love story?”

Yes, I know. This is what you’re all thinking. But “a love story” is truly the way I view this series, though perhaps not in the usual way. It’s not a tale of romance (though there is a bit to be found) or even a story of deep friendship (though it’s got that, too).

The thing is, this love story is not between any of the story’s characters at all, but rather between its author, Fumi Yoshinaga, and humanity itself. Though there are many distinctive elements to Yoshinaga’s work—her character designs, her rambling dialogue, her mild fujoshi sensibility—what is most consistently recognizable in her work is her deep and abiding love for this world and its inhabitants. And nowhere is this quality more prominently displayed than in Flower of Life.

This article is not a critique of Flower of Life, nor even an in-depth discussion of its characters and themes. Perhaps it could be most accurately described as a love letter from me, the reader, to Yoshinaga and her body of work. Just as she uses this series as a means of expressing her overwhelming love of humanity, so do I use it to express such love for her. It is, without doubt, my favorite of her works—with all its oddities and idiosyncrasies included.

Though he’s just beginning his freshman year of high school, Harutaro Hanazono is a year older than the others in his class, thanks to a year-long battle against lukemia. Furthermore, he’s enrolling a month late. Fortunately, he finds a fast friend in Shota Mikuni, a quiet, chubby boy who shares Harutaro’s love of manga. Together, Harutaro and Shota get to know each other and all the students in their class, as they endure the usual trials (and enjoy the small victories) of high school life.

Flower of Life has very little in the way of traditional story structure or even plot. It follows Harutaro and friends (along with their romantically tormented teacher, Shigeru, and Haru’s shut-in sister, Sakura) through their first year of high school. Though each of their lives are filled with the small failures and triumphs of everyday life, there is no overarching drama or major climax in this series. Though this may make Flower of Life sound terribly unexciting, it is actually a significant contributor to its charm.

Take, for instance, the series’ opening scene. Harutaro is introduced in the first panel—a typical new student, seeking out the teacher in charge of his new class. While you’d expect the next couple of pages to be dominated by his feelings, he’s actually not the centerpiece at all to start with. Instead, we’re introduced to some of the class’ other students as they chatter away the last precious moments before the bell.

Though several are brought to our attention, the primary conversation takes place between two girls, one of whom is returning a book she borrowed from the other. Their conversation wanders to their junior high reading habits, when they were embarrassed to be seen reading in front of other students.

“I could never just sit alone and read a book when I was in junior high, you know?” says one of the girls.

“Yeah, when you’re in junior high, you’re at that self-conscious age. Whenever I saw someone alone during recess with their nose buried in a book, I’d admire how brave they were,” says the other.

“Me too!” replies the first.

“But by the end of third year, I finally just stopped caring and started reading, though,” the other girl admits, while the first girl points out a boy reading a manga art book.

“Even so, I don’t think I could ever be like that.”

This is Flower of Life. A new student joins the class. The students face social pressures and exams. There’s even the ever-present school cultural festival, but none of that is remotely the point. The real heart of this series is in the dialogue.

Through all their daily joys and heartbreaks, what these students do most of all is talk. They talk to each other and about each other. They make grand plans and bad jokes. They tease each other and feel sorry for it later. They struggle awkwardly through romance and friendship alike, talking and talking all the while.

Not that talk is Yoshinaga’s only powerful tool. She also reveals much through her artwork, both of characterization and pacing. Take these three pages from volume two, featuring Harutaro and his sister.

Images ©Fumi Yoshinaga/Shinshokan, English translation © Digital Manga, Inc.

It’s the smallest gestures and expressions that make the relationship so clear—the sister’s feet on his back, his soft laugh, her fond smile. There’s a lot in the dialogue too, here, but what’s most important is what remains unsaid. In just a few short pages, Yoshinaga’s expressive style provides a pathway into her characters’ hearts and minds rare in any type of manga.

Just a few years ago, before I quite suddenly became a manga fan, I wrote a heartfelt declaration in my blog about how I could never really love comics or animation. I claimed at the time that there was a level of nuance in the face of a live, human actor that couldn’t be replicated by an artist, no matter how talented. Since then, I’ve been proven wrong time and time again, perhaps most profoundly by Fumi Yoshinaga.

Not only is she able to bring the full range of human expression into the faces of her characters, but her visual storytelling is as powerful as film, television, or stage director’s. Through her pacing and panel choices, she reveals what’s most important, great or small.

What is refreshingly absent from Yoshinaga’s work is any trace of the absolute. People are changeable and not terribly insightful, even into their own minds. They make decisions that they later go back on. Their intentions in one moment may seem foreign to them in the next. They tell each other lies–sometimes for the better, sometimes not. And they are often just plain wrong.

There’s a scene near the end of volume four of Flower of Life in which Harutaro and Shota find out that their entry for a publisher’s manga competition (one they worked all night to finish before the deadline) has lost to a couple of much stronger manga.

“So this is what manga you see once every ten years looks like…?” Shota says. “Wow… I guess mine isn’t like that… I see now.”

At this point, Harutaro is shown with a panel of narration reading, “At that moment, I knew we’d probably never create another manga together again.”

In most stories, that would be that. We’d accept our hero’s Voice of Omniscient Truth and move on wistfully with him to the next stage of his life. Not so in Flower of Life.

Just a few pages later, Harutaro realizes he was completely wrong, as Shota starts talking to him about an idea for their next manga. “What?! You want to do another one… after you were so bummed out?” Haru exclaims.

“Of course I want to do another manga,” Shota responds. “It’d be a waste to give up now … After all, I’m not trying to become a superstar… just a professional!”

Will Shota and Haru become manga artists? Who knows? Yoshinaga provides no such certainty in her work.

What she does provide, however, is a deep sense of affection for these uncertain, unpredictable people. She embraces her characters and everything about them—their best points, their worst points, and everything in between.

That’s Flower of Life. And that’s Fumi Yoshinaga.

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  1. I guess you could call the style slice-of-life . . . but it’s interesting that you think of it in terms of the author’s love for humanity. Going by that metric, I wonder how a lot of other mangaka would do. After all, aren’t supernatural manga partly born of the desire to escape reality and the human world?

    • For me, Yoshinaga goes beyond “slice-of-life.” Her affection for her characters is deeper (or at least inspires more detail) than what I’m accustomed to in that vein. This story in particular seems to me to be a real celebration of these people, both in their best and worst moments. To me, her particular style is unique. The time she takes with each of them is not something I’ve encountered in anyone else’s work.

      I’d hadn’t considered drawing an opposite conclusion about mangaka writing other types of work, because I don’t really think that’s the case. My assessment of Flower of Life is not due to its genre. It is its author’s voice that draws me to that conclusion. I feel the same way about all her work, which spans several genres.

  2. Danielle Leigh says:

    Just a few years ago, before I quite suddenly became a manga fan, I wrote a heartfelt declaration in my blog about how I could never really love comics or animation. .

    heh. You clearly are not a “half-way” kind of gal.

    Lovely essay….I think using the phrase “love story” is probably accurate and yet I think I resist that interpretation personally. People are messed up, fascinating and sometimes beautiful creatures and that is what Yoshinaga captures so well. I mean, I think it’s a kind of love, sure, but man….it’s complicated, I guess.

    I think I love how intensely personal and yet universal her vision as a creator feels to me as a reader. Those two things shouldn’t mesh but she’s so talented it works.

    Anyway, what a great essay to start off the week!

    • heh. You clearly are not a “half-way” kind of gal.

      No, I really am not. :D

      People are messed up, fascinating and sometimes beautiful creatures and that is what Yoshinaga captures so well. I mean, I think it’s a kind of love, sure, but man….it’s complicated, I guess.

      Don’t you think that’s part of what she loves about them, though? I do.

      I think I love how intensely personal and yet universal her vision as a creator feels to me as a reader. Those two things shouldn’t mesh but she’s so talented it works.

      I completely agree.

      Thank you so much!

  3. Not that it takes any amount of effort to sell me on a Yoshinaga title, but this has doubly convinced me that I need to get a hold of this one, too.

    What I love about her is pretty evident here in your write up – the honesty that is there in her characters and in their emotions. It’s not superficial, vain, or forced. It’s simple, and it’s believable.

  4. Ruby_Alexandrine says:

    I have read Flower of Life and I truly enjoy it. The storytelling is impeccable, and Fumi maintains her signature, minimalistic art style. At times, when I do read manga with detailed art, its distracting. With Fumi’s artwork, I see more of the characters’ emotions and facial expressions.

  5. Gotta say that Flower of Life is my favorite of her works. Picked up 1-3 at a used book store and immediately got 4, it’s a beautiful work plain and simple but I really wish there was more. It was so good I didn’t want it to end :(
    I also feel like it’s her gift to complete manga nerds like me at times too, lots of manga jokes and overall genre references (even a few direct refs with a Banana Fish reference with Ichigo Fish!)

  6. Superb site you have here but I was curious if you knew of any message boards that cover the same topics discussed
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