March 6, 2010

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Flower of Life Volume 4

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga
DMP

As happy as I am to be reading more Fumi Yoshinaga, I'm equally as sad to be finishing off this wonderful series from Digital Manga.

In their final months together, our vast cast must start to look seriously at their lives and what they want out of it. Do Hanazono and Mikuni really want to be manga artists? Does Majima want to be with his teacher, the ever conflicted Saito--and furthermore, does she want to be with him? Other classmates wrangle with their own relationship issues, just like in real life.

But what happens when Hanazono's mother comes back, full of success and pressure? Will the children crack under the strain? It would be horrible to be broken during the flower of life.

In the end of the series we get the reason for the title. These characters are living the best part of their lives *right now* and may or may not realize this. The biggest conflict comes when Hanazono comes to understand that as a leukemia survivor, every moment that he has is precious. The invincibility of youth is gone for him, and he can never come back. What he does with this knowledge helps to bring the series to a satisfying conclusion.

It's not easy to tie up so many stories in one volume, but Yoshinaga manages this very well. She spends the most time with our main characters, but we are given an ending (or new beginning) for everyone. Even small ideas get finished up and any ambiguities are intentional. Some characters only get a panel or two to have their last say, but I appreciate that Yoshinaga didn't exclude anyone from the finale yet still managed to give us a story that didn't feel shoe-horned or rushed to wrap up before she ran out of pages.

The other main feature of this volume is a sizable amount of meta commentary about working in the manga industry. Most of the middle of the book is spent on Hanazono and Mikuni's desire to break into the manga industry, and almost breaking their hearts in the process. We see a slew of different editorial types, the demands of a publisher, and even the complications of trying to be a creator in a very competitive field.

I think it's pretty clear that Yoshinaga is putting out some of her own thoughts about her industry in these pages, especially when they talk about trying to be the manga talent that only comes around once a decade and dealing with rejection. Did she ever consider giving up, as the boys do? If so, I'm glad she didn't, or we'd miss out on some lovely comics.

As with all of the other Yoshinaga pieces I've read, dialog is the key to this series. While the first three volumes were driven more by their humor, this trade has more serious conversation at its heart, right from the beginning when Hanazono's mother steps in and sets down rules. The manga scenes, the relationship antics of Saito and others, and the conflict between Hanazono and his sister all share a strong emotional charge that forces the characters involved to think seriously in a way that they didn't need to before. Endings force reflection, and Yoshinaga changes gears accordingly.

That doesn't mean the stories lack humor. Yoshinaga keeps things light enough to offset the dramatic passages, such as giving omniscient commentary on Hanazono's odd moral code or using Majima to make fun of dramatic pauses in comics. The one manga editor is such an exaggeration as to be amusing, as is Takeda's quiet storing of ideas for future manga. (I can't help but think of Takeda as something of a stand in for Yoshinaga, especially in this regard.)

The focus, however, is on the dramatic, and Yoshinaga's art changes just a bit to reflect this. We still don't get much in the way of background art--in fact, I think we get less--but characters are posed more dramatically, we get more closeups, and there's even a use of lines for effect. You can see that she's trying for a different feel. The weight of each character's troubles are on their shoulders, and Yoshinaga draws them accordingly.

Flower of Life is a slice of life comic about one year in its character's ongoing struggles in the world. They laugh and cry together, trying to keep things together as best as they can in a world that often throws you a curve. But if they stick together with their friends and family, I think they can all make it--as long as they don't rely on Majima, the only one of the cast who steadfastly refused to change. This is Fumi Yoshinaga's best work that I've read so far, and I highly recommend it to anyone!

Flower of Life V1 Flower of Life V2 Flower of Life V3