Intelligent people read Fumi Yoshinaga. No-but if you are like many manga readers-the name Fumi Yoshinaga doesn’t really ring a bell unless you are a.) a manga critic, or b.) an avid manga reader. Fumi Yoshinaga is not a mainstream mangaka, and unless you are specifically looking for her work, you may miss it altogether. She is also a major boys love artist, so many people may be inclined to think that she only does Boys Love. Which, is not the case, as I’ll explain. It’s also not a bad thing, as I shall explain. I received an advance copy of Ooku from a lovely friend over at Viz (but don’t worry, she gets books from me-so she got Flower of Life among others). So I’m going to start with Ooku, and then delve into some of Yoshinaga’s other titles.
Ooku is the latest title of Fumi Yoshinaga’s to be released here in the US, and without a doubt, probably her most ambitious and difficult title as well. Ooku is a mixture of historical drama, tinged with sci-fi, and Shakespearean dialogue. So-University students, be prepared to study this in class someday. Essentially, the title Ooku refers to the inner chambers of Edo castle, a place no normal human can lay their eyes upon, a place where the shogun’s “treasures” live. The twist in this story of Fumi Yoshinaga’s lies in the fact that a mysterious disease has wiped out a good chunk of the young male population, leaving men in Japan at 1/4 that of women. With men being so rare, virile young men are treasured and kept safe for breeding or high marriage prospects. In this scenario, women as the dominant population take on all the roles originally held by men, including the highest titles of the land: Shogun, Chancellor, Baron. The most powerful shogun has within her ooku more than fifty young men to choose from-and the young men take on the role of women concubines, serving tea, cleaning…and they have ranks from lowest to highest within the chamber itself.
Essentially, the book’s main story takes off 90 years after the plague had ended, so women and men have very little memory of a time where men ruled and women had their appointed gender-specific roles. The book is fascinating in this premise-and Viz has decided to go with a Shakespearean styled dialogue to capture the old court styled language of feudal Japan. I found it fascinating, though maybe the average casual reader may find it cumbersome. But it captures the divide between the classes, the way formalities must be exchanged between the shogun and her people, between a young man from the country who must learn the ways of the inner chambers. For those familiar with how Fumi Yoshinaga writes, she has a way of focusing on different characters-in different situations. She focuses on a beautiful young man, Mizuno, who leaves his home to enter the inner chambers to help sustain his family, the story then moves to the introduction of the Shogun Yoshimune-beautiful and strict. Fumi Yoshinaga is an artist that gets mixed reviews. Some feel her art is extremely weak. I think it’s lovely and sparse. But without a doubt, she has a simplicity in her art that may detract those who enjoy a lot of detail in the art. Honestly, it’s very difficult to draw the way she does. Simplicity is far more difficult than many think. I think her art has improved as well, from her earlier books-and that the general architectural simplicity of feudal Japan is pretty much right down her alley. In any event, be prepared to spend some time with this one. The women in feudal Japan, especially in the highest classes, were held in high regard. So generally, the switch from a high-class lady in waiting to shogun court appointee isn’t too much of a stretch. But the capturing of feudal Japan in a fictional scenario is truly an interesting one, and one definitely worth diving into. Ooku is available this month-and I think it’s going to be around 10 volumes or so. I can’t remember-in any event, it’s going to be one of her longest running series to date.
With that, I give you one of my favorite Fumi Yoshinaga titles, “Flower of Life“. Done by the company I work for, Digital Manga Publishing. Four volumes long, Flower of Life takes place in a high school in Japan, and weaves around the various stories of the students who attend it. The main protagonist is Harutaro, a young man who enters high school a year and a half late after having gone through treatment for leukemia. He immediately befriends a cute, chubby little guy named Shota, and together the two dream of becoming a successful manga creating team. Throw in the rather guyish teacher Shigeru, the incredible otaku nerd Majima, Harutaro’s shut-in sister, and a hoarde of other classmates-dealing with school and everything else that life throws at them. All while trying to get through school, mend and make friendships, and that all important transition period when you change from being a kid to becoming an adult.
Flower of Life is pretty Japanese-centric, so for casual manga readers-some of the in-jokes and references may be a little difficult to understand. In fact, even working in manga, Majima’s otaku (”otaku” is the Japanese word for nerd-but in a anime/manga related manner. Kind of like how we would refer to someone as a comic book nerd.) freakouts can be hard to understand. But in general, the story is very character based, and very much built around the interactions of the students with each other, and with their teacher Shigeru who pretty much exemplifies those of us who reach adulthood that many times we still don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re just as clueless as anyone else. Harutaro is one of my favorite Fumi Yoshinaga characters. He has no walls-he’s blunt and forthright. His bluntness is his attempt to make people feel comfortable around him, but at the same time, it makes people more uncomfortable around him. He expresses how much he doesn’t want people to treat him specially, but at the same time he overcompensates by standing out. Shota is also just a darling character-I mean, how often are there cute chubby little characters in manga? He becomes Harutaro’s sidekick, and he gets pulled into Harutaro’s machinations and showiness. But Shota is one of those guys who can only be prodded so much, so when he lets it out, he does so in spades. His gentle demeanor and kindness, and general maturity is such a nice foil for Harutaro’s brashness. I could go on, but you have to read it to understand the friendship between the two. Fumi Yoshinaga has this ability to write realistic characters. It’s kind of the trademark of her work. So there is always a bit of humor, a bit of sadness, a general understanding that this is life as it is at the moment, so make it worth it. Flower of Life is always tinged with a bit of the bittersweet-high school is such a short period of time, but it’s a period where some memories are made that last forever, for good or bad. In that sense, Flower of Life is really a lovely title. (And I’ll tell you where to get it cheap. Go to www.yaoiclub.com-they have Flower Of Life 1-3 for $10. Vol. 4 is brand new, and you can get that for $12.)
Antique Bakery is the quintessential Fumi Yoshinaga title. It really is. It’s humorous, it’s sweet (literally, it’s all about a bakery), it’s dark, it’s intelligent. Antique Bakery is also one of the first Fumi Yoshinaga titles to come to the US-courtesy of DMP. So what is Antique Bakery? Antique is a dessert shop run by Tachibana, a bit of a womanizer and son of wealthy parents. Tachibana decides to open up a lovely dessert shop for reasons (that are a major spoiler, so I won’t mention them here) that unravel throughout the series. In his quest to hire the best pastry chef, he ironically ends up with Ono, a former classmate of his, who is also openly gay. Ono has a fear of women, and so he hides in the kitchen, and tramples on Tachibana’s desire for cute girls working at the bakery. This leads to the hiring of Eiji, a former boxer and ruffian who ends up idolizing Ono, and eventually the addition of the clumsy, sunglasses wearing Chikage. The four together are the mainstay in the series as other stories and lives of people who interact with the food and the four men of the bakery flitter in and out.
Antique Bakery is an award winning title, and it’s really not hard to see why. The characters all have their good sides and their dark sides, and each has a secret past that they hide from the world. The one thing they all share is a love of beautiful desserts, and a desire to make the best. And honestly, you may not want to read this on an empty stomach, because the food just looks so beautiful. All those lovely pastries…um, oh right. In an interesting way of unraveling the lives of the four workers, Fumi Yoshinaga also unravels the secret desires and lives of the customers of Antique, often giving a little bit of a peek into lives of people who seem normal and everyday at the outset, but have something deeper inside. How she manages to do this without disrupting the main narrative flow is really a talent of hers. I also recommend paying close attention to some of the random customers of the restaurant, because sometimes…they aren’t so random. In any event, the inner workings of Tachibana who has no taste for sweets and his attempt to manage the genius of Ono who is a gay man of such demonic charm that men fall at his feet, as well as Eiji who is a punk boxer kid with no respect for anyone but Ono, is really a delight. Chikage is also so clueless, it’s hilarious. Antique Bakery takes a dark turn in the fourth volume, but when the secrets are revealed, you’ll be surprised by them. Volume one can be a toughie to find nowadays, but search online and you shall succeed. Then everyone write us emails at DMP so we can reprint it. It was also just made into a Korean live action film, the trailer of which is HERE.
Now, explicit boys love can be very light on plot, heavy on the sex. However, Ichigenme kind of transcends the light on plot, and is really a very good book about two men who meet in school, and it follows their relationship even after school. Ichigenme begins at Teinou University, where the serious but smart law student Tamiya is unexpectedly kissed by rich party boy Tohdou, who is openly gay. Tamiya doesn’t believe he’s gay, but he begins to start reevaluating his relationships (or lack thereof) with women in his life. Tohdou is pretty relentless in his pursuit of Tamiya, and his apathy for school pushes him to go into video game development. Essentially, the series follows the two as Tamiya flips back and forth with his unstable feelings about his own sexuality, while Tohdou, who is flippant by nature, maintains a steadfast and rather admirable friendship with the serious Tamiya, and exhibits a patience even when Tamiya tramples on his feelings at times. It’s Tohdou’s confidence and maturity in his own sexuality even when he’s immature about his own life plans that helps balance Tamiya’s insecurities about himself, while he follows his career path in a straight-forward, almost bull-headed manner. Plus, Tohdou’s gentle attempts to make Tamiya see him as more than just a friend, to make Tamiya be more honest with his feelings, is really the lynchpin in the series. Ichigenme stretches two volumes, the first volume chronicling the two at University, the second following the two afterwards as career working adults. Volume one isn’t terribly explicit, but volume two is. It’s an interesting read, definitely requiring maturity (well, you can’t buy this book if you’re under 18, so there). But watching the two attempt to turn a friendship into a relationship, while dealing with career and social stigmas, is really the key to this book. This is also via DMP, but under the 801 Media label.
Finally, I give you a lovely Fumi Yoshinaga book that isn’t available in English yet. It’s called “What Did You Eat Yesterday?” I went to Japan last year, and I was working at Comitia (a large comic convention in Tokyo), and I was working with this awesome Japanese girl. She didn’t speak any English, my Japanese is still eh-but the one thing we shared in common was our love of this book. We both adore it. In any event, the story revolves around a lawyer, Shiro, who lives with his boyfriend Kenji, a hairdresser. Both are in their late adulthoods, (past forty!), living together in Japan. Shiro is very serious, and never tells anyone that he’s gay. Kenji, is more open and wants to share with the whole world how much he adores Shiro. Despite Shiro’s seriousness, and general cold and cheapskate attitude, he spends everyday thinking about what to make Kenji for dinner. So Fumi Yoshinaga puts recipes for traditional Japanese dishes and how to cook them into the manga as Shiro makes them himself. From preparation to final servings, she shows how to take sardines and use them in another dish, or puts instructions for how to properly cook wakame, and things like that. It’s really a testament to how much Shiro cares for Kenji in that he is never outright expressive about his feelings like Kenji, but puts it into everything he cooks for Kenji. In that sense, cooking a meal for the person you care most about and putting so much thought into it, is truly the culmination of love itself, isn’t it? The other interesting thing about the manga, is of course, we’re talking about two adult males, living as a gay couple, in Japan. Dealing with the pressures of work, how society perceives them, the parents…In any event, this is a title under Kodansha-which maybe will come over through them with their English publishing attempts here in the US? We’ll have to see. Until then, I’ll just have to rave about how lovely it is, and how I can’t wait for it to come to the US.
Anyways! That’s my round-up of Fumi Yoshinaga titles. There is a little bit of something for whatever you love. If you like historical drama-go for Ooku. If you want comedy and yummy desserts? Go for Antique Bakery. If you want high school love and drama, go for Flower Of Life. If you want a grown up relationship about men, go for Ichigenme. Manga isn’t always for kids, and honestly, it takes a mature and open-mind to read Fumi Yoshinaga. I can assure you, you will remember her books and her characters a lot longer than you may think-it’s her ability to make characters that are so true to life that really cements her titles. I hope you give them a try!