February 5, 2010

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Flower of Life Volume 3

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga
DMP

It seems like I can't go a month without reading at least one title by Fumi Yoshinaga, and that's certainly not a bad thing by any means. I'd read the first two volumes of this manga awhile back but wasn't able to get back to it until recently.

Flower of Life follows the story of a set of first year high school students, each of which have a particular quirk that makes them stand out. One is a Leukemia survivor. Another is a jerk with a perfect body and a knowledge of manga that knows no equal. Even the teachers are a bit odd, such as the manly-looking Shigeru who can't seem to get into the right relationship and is constantly mistaken for a gay man. They all share the same insecurities, relationship awkwardness, and lack of confidence that makes high school such a trying time for anyone.

In different hands, these characters would be dramatic figures whose angst would move you. However, this is Fumi Yoshinaga, Queen of Banter, Manga Edition we're talking about, and so instead we get a lot of wisecracks and snappy patter that turns even difficult situations into comedic pieces.

This volume follows up on the fallout from Saito's questionable interactions of the prior volumes, the ongoing manga creations of several characters, and the deepening of friendships of the cast. This culminates in a Christmas party that could be a disaster for all involved if things don't go just right. It's mid-year, and everything is in full swing. The concept of the manga and the title of the work could not combine better than they do here.

None of the stories in Flower of Life are particularly long. While there are some overarching plots (such as the teacher's), the focus is more on character studies. So we get a focus on a quiet young manga artist who isn't into clothes like the other girls but tries to fit in. Another girl deals with the fact that's not the cleanest person in the world (I can relate!), while our two main male protagonists spar over creative differences. Because this is a lighthearted book, things always work out in the end, but Yoshinaga's amazing ability to make her characters feel real is on display in page after page of this series.

The Christmas Party arc is the longest, and features all of the cast coming together and putting their insecurities on display. They try entirely too hard to impress each other, just like we all do. If only things could end as well for us in the real world as they do in Yoshinaga's hands! We could all do well to remember the lesson that getting together is about being with those you care about, not about how good we can look in front of them. While this may be a comedy, there's still a message in the text. In fact, "Be yourself!" might be a common them in Yoshinaga's work. Perhaps when I've read more of it, I'll return to that idea.

If you're familiar at all with Yoshinaga's work, this is very typical artwork for her. The scenes feature a lot of people talking to each other, with eyes and mouths doing a lot of the support work for the extensive dialog. There seems to be a bit more of the exaggerated face pose than usual, possibly because of the setting. Backgrounds exist, but only just barely. As I've said before, you don't really read Yoshinaga for her art.

There is one notable artistic pastiche, however, when Yoshinaga parodies the style of a shonen comic. It's just one of the many inside jokes about manga that show up in Flower of Life, right down to Saito complaining to the reader that she's never allowed to look like a beautiful woman, referencing another manga in the process. (Side note for those who also read capes comics--how cool would a Yoshinaga She-Hulk mini-series be, even if she was just the writer? I'd probably even break down and buy it in single issues!) In other hands, the nods and winks to the reader about manga might not work, but Yoshinaga slips them in well. I wonder if the comments of one character about working alone reflect a creative issue she once had in real life?

Flower of Life continues to be a strong series that, like Antique Bakery, I am sad to be nearing the end at only four volumes. Yoshinaga's ear for dialog is in fine display, as are her comedic talents as she playfully looks at high school life and makes it a bit better for her characters than it would be in real life. This is definitely one of her best works, at least that I've read so far.