Fumi Yoshinaga is probably the most critically acclaimed female manga artist among the pool of creators that have had their works translated in the US. She’s won many awards in Japan for her work and has been nominated for Eisner Awards. Her series frequently end up on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists. She got her start in shonen ai and yaoi manga, but her best works transcend the limitations and storytelling conventions usually found in these genres.
Today we’ll take a look at her most accessible work. There’s something in her work for almost everyone, if you are the type of person who enjoys insightful portrayals of family relationships, intricately detailed alternative history, yummy cake, or touching slice of life high school stories.
As a bonus, I’m also going to giving away a copy of Yoshinaga’s All My Darling Daughters. Just leave a comment at the end of this post and I’ll select a random winner next week.
All My Darling Daughters
This single volume would be a great first pick for anyone interested in sampling Fumi Yoshinaga’s work. Some manga anthology collections are just collections of back-up stories that are only loosely linked thematically, but this manga is extremely cohesive. All My Darling Daughters focuses on the lives of women at varying stages of their lives, and it is one of those works that I can see myself rereading for years to come.
The first story introduces Yukiko, a career woman who still lives with her mother. Yukiko’s life takes a dramatic turn when her mother Mari decides that she’s going to live her life the way she wants to after recovering from cancer. Mari marries an actor three years younger than her daughter and brings him home. Yukiko views her new “dad” with an incredible amount of suspicion, and the situation increases the tension between Yukiko and Mari. Yukiko ends up moving out to live with her boyfriend and starts a new chapter in her own life. The relationship between Yukiko and Mari is sometimes sarcastic and acerbic but there is obviously a lot of caring between them.
The middle story in the collection is about Sayako, a woman who takes her grandfather’s advice “not to discriminate among people” to an extreme. Sayako is unselfish to a degree that might not be normal. She decides to go on arranged marriage meetings in order to find a husband, and the person who might be perfect for her is totally unexpected. Yukiko is a framing device for an additional story as she thinks about some of her old friends from school and their agreement to go to work in order to advance the cause of women’s rights. Some of their lives didn’t turn out the way they predicted in high school. The final story in the collection returns to Yukiko and Mari, as Yukiko learns some of the ways her grandmother influenced her mother.
I enjoyed the ways Yoshinaga portrayed her characters’ lives. While there is humor present, her women firmly live in the real world. Endings aren’t always happy and there is sometimes a sense of loss that lingers even when to all outward appearances everything looks fine. I always like Yoshinaga’s art because she has a such a distinct style. She uses a thin line in her drawings that is deceptively loose, giving some of her illustrations the immediacy of a sketchbook.
Ooku: The Inner Chambers
Ooku takes place in an alternate universe during the Edo period, where a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the male population. Gender roles have reversed with women taking on men’s work, while the remaining men are protected, pampered, and cosseted due to their increasingly rare and important sperm. A new shogun takes over and a young man enters service in her harem, aka The Inner Chambers.
Yunoshin is from an impoverished samurai family, and he’s been educated in the art of fencing. He announces his intention to enter the Ooku, saying that he’ll send his allowance home so his sister can use the money to find a husband. Yunoshin gives up on his love for his childhood friend and enters the small world of the Inner Chambers, a society comprised of men devoted to decadence and an elaborate social hierarchy that proves to be complex for a newcomer to navigate.
When the new shogun takes command the pampered men of the inner chamber are shocked by her radically different ideas. Yoshimune is the third child of a noble family that lived in a far province. She regards the Ooku as an irresponsible drain on the country’s treasury. When a lady-in-waiting dresses her in an elaborate gown Yoshimune fires her, saying “At a time when the shogunate’s coffers are near empty, it strikes me as sheer folly for one who is charged with ruling the nation and rebuilding its finances to pad around dressed in such opulence. ‘Tis something only a lunatic would do.”
Some of the nicest moments in Ooku occur when Yoshimune and her right hand woman Kano meet to talk about strategy and share some laughter in the gilded palace. Yoshimune has the self awareness and curiosity to regard some of the customs of the shogun’s office with suspicion. Why must she meet foreign visitors by wearing male clothing and sitting behind a screen? While the plot of Ooku might seem to be inching forward at a leisurely pace, Yoshinaga’s fascinating alternate world and facility with character development ensures that the series is entertaining while it explores Japan and gender roles.
Antique Bakery is a little shop run by the resolutely heterosexual Tachibana, the “fatally charming” gay pastry chef Ono, and a retired boxer turned apprentice baker named Eiji. Tachibana is aided by his clumsy sidekick Chikage. The four men each have their own reasons for taking refuge in a world filled with pastries and antique china teacups. The scruffy Tachibana has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cakes he serves and a repressed childhood tragedy in his past. When Ono and Tachibana were in high school together, Ono confessed his love for Tachibana and was promptly rejected. Years later they work together.
This is probably my favorite series by Yoshinaga as it was the first work of hers that I read. The four volumes meander a bit, alternating between portraying the lives of the people that work at Antique Bakery and the customers, but the power of dessert draws the lives of different people together, ranging from joyful episodes to the tragic. Yoshinaga plays with genre conventions in the stories she tells. Sometimes childhood friends will reconnect over a slice of cake, but these simple stories are contrasted with the darker episodes that flash back to Tachibana’s past. It is very difficult to read this manga without feeling hungry, because Yoshinaga lovingly illustrates each variety of cake the bakery serves. Sometimes I felt there was a story hidden in a single panel showing customers of the shop, just because of the way Yoshinaga captures a moment as an elderly couple orders cream puffs, or a man orders cake with a girl standing silently in the background. And as a bonus some of the earlier editions of the manga feature scratch-n-sniff covers!
Flower of Life
Flower of Life uses a series of vignettes to showcase different aspects of friendship in high school. Hanazono is enrolling in school a month late, and he’s a year older than his new classmates. He spent the past year recovering from leukemia. Hanazono quickly makes friends with the roly-poly Mikuni but he’s annoyed by Mikuni’s other friend, an otaku named Majima who delights in lecturing people about his favorite anime and manga characters.
Yoshinaga is great at portraying the little details that define character. Mikuni notices Majima slamming manga down at his desk, Hanazono’s lunches evolve as his sister tries to fix him just the right meal, and his observation of an exchange between teachers leads to the revelation that they are having an affair. Hanazono’s boisterous outspoken personality meshes well with Mikuni’s more retiring nature, and it is nice to see their friendship develop as they bond over the idea of creating their own manga. Hanazono’s family life is entertaining, as his sister reminds him that she’s his savior for giving him her bone marrow and he calls her an old hag when she’s trying to coerce him into running errands for her. So many manga series set in high school end up incorporating story lines where there’s bullying taking place or a sub group of students is really mean. It is refreshing to read a manga set in high school where everyone is generally nice, working through the typical misunderstandings of teenagers while being supportive of each other.
Many of the students are in a manga club, so Flower of Life sometimes takes a detour into the metatextual, where the characters comment about manga conventions and some of the stereotypical storylines found in different types of manga. Yoshinaga’s art will sometimes parody these genres, slipping into an overdone shoujo or shonen style as her characters imagine their own stories. These detours usually feel like fun in-jokes due to Yoshinaga’s sense of humor and the way she portrays Majima’s rants, but this aspect of the series isn’t as accessible to a new reader of manga. While most of the series is light and happy, there’s a shift in tone in the fourth volume as the characters approach the end of their school year. Overall, Flower of Life is Yoshinaga’s most cheerful and whimsical series, and will be fun to read for anyone who can catch its references.