Manga Village

Fumi Yoshinaga was first introduced to US audiences through her BL titles. But this versatile writer has also created stories for young adults and adult audiences that both men and women can enjoy. She is also the featured creator of this month’s Manga Movable Feast. So here are the Villagers talking up their favorite Yoshinaga titles.

Katherine Farmar: I think the first Yoshinaga title I read was Gerard & Jacques, which is great and I still love it, and yet it’s far from my favourite. (I had the misfortune that after reading Gerard & Jacques, I went on to read Truly Kindly and Garden Dreams, which are both relatively weak for Yoshinaga, so I was kind of wondering what all the fuss was about. Fortunately, I did investigate her better-known works and quickly realised why Yoshinaga was considered a big deal.) Oddly, even though I think her BL is fantastic, and I am enormously fond of BL as a genre, I think my favourite Yoshinaga is the non-BL title Flower of Life. It’s incredibly funny, for starters, and I found it deeply moving in a way that kind of snuck up on me. A lot of the time, manga that set out to tug on my heartstrings do it in such an obvious, sad-violins-on-the-soundtrack way that I feel manipulated and it ends up not working — and if it works anyway, it’s almost worse. (I’m looking at you, In the Walnut.) But when Flower of Life gets serious, it happens in a way that completely makes sense in the light of the story so far, but also comes as a surprise. This is a characteristic of Yoshinaga’s other manga, too — there are some shock revelations in Antique Bakery that work the same way — but the turn in Flower of Life had the most impact on me. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

Another thing I love about Flower of Life — and again, this is a recurring theme of Yoshinaga’s manga — is how down-to-earth and ordinary it is. There’s a certain amount of sitcom-like wackiness, but the characters are very three-dimensional and real, and both their triumphs and disasters take place on a human scale. I think the Christmas party sequence shows this off particularly well: everyone has their own task to perform, and they all get incredibly stressed about not being able to do as well as they want, fearing that their friends will have a bad time or think less of them. And it turns out that none of it really matters; what really matters is that they’re spending time with the people they care about. And they all have a moment of thinking “wow, I sure did make a huge fuss over nothing! Oh, well.” Which, to me, was enormously refreshing when you compare it to all the high-school-set manga where some party or festival or tournament is genuinely set up as The Most Important Thing Ever! Yoshinaga’s got too much irony in her to let that kind of thing stand, and too mature a sensibility. In a way, the message of Flower of Life is: it’ll all pass, so don’t sweat the small stuff, and enjoy it while it lasts. That’s a message I can get behind.

Alex Hoffman: My first Yoshinaga was All My Darling Daughters, which was a fabulous piece of work to be introduced to a writer with. It has all the very powerful storytelling and “ordinary-ness” that Katherine loves about Yoshinaga, but it also has a breadth and intensity that really made me appreciate Yoshinaga’s skills as a writer.

While Katherine likes Yoshinaga for  “It’ll all pass, so don’t sweat the small stuff, and enjoy it while it lasts,” I love her for one of her more controversial works in the USA, Ooku – controversial not because of its subject matter, which is absolutely stunningly portrayed gender politics and historical Japan drama, but because of its translation, which some reviewers have tended to call “Fakespeare.” This series focuses not on the ordinary, but the extraordinary, and has strong themes of family, loss, and the place of men and women in society.

While the translation is a little irritating at times, I find myself more and more going back to Ooku. This is one series where, every year, when a volume comes out, I go back and read all the volumes before it. This is a rare occurrence – I don’t have enough time to read all the manga I have, let alone re-read it! But I think this is an attestation to how wonderful of a writer Yoshinaga truly is – her work is strong, sometimes critical, but also poignant and relevant.

Justin Colussy-Estes: For me, the mark of Yoshinaga’s genius is her obvious investment in whatever she does, whether it is a work she is obviously passionate about, like Antique Bakery, a work of epic scale, like Ooku, or even something as light and fluffy as Not Love But Delicious Foods. These are probably my three favorites– in part because cooking manga is my favorite genre, and Bakery and Not Love both demonstrate her love of food– most of all because they demonstrate her greatest strength – letting the characters live and breathe on the page, letting them unfold like fully realized persons, centering her narratives around the choices the characters make rather than what feels like forced actions and drive of plot or genre or the like. This allows for lots of subtlety in her characters, something that really shines through with their sexuality. Look at how she handles the BL and yaoi elements of Ooku, in particular, but all her works. They feel less like “meet cute,” Hollywood arrangements and instead are situations arising from the choices of people who have specific wants and desires, who live and breathe in concrete worlds with complex situations and mores.

Plus, she can be damn funny, and I could stare at her pages, particularly Antique Bakery (my favorite work of hers by far), for days– I love her figures, the way she crafts facial gestures, and the way she draws food. And that lightly inked line of hers is eminently adaptable to the needs of whatever she is working on.

Connie: My first Yoshinaga title was also Gerard & Jacques, and it was a little shocking at the time since I was new to the BL genre.  Still, there was a lot of romance there, and I went on to the well-reviewed Antique Bakery.  Antique Bakery pretty much made me a fan of Yoshinaga for life, but at the time, I was a little confused by the storytelling technique in it.  Still, I loved it to pieces, so I was really surprised when I wound up liking Flower of Life so much better.

Flower of Life will likely always be my favorite Yoshinaga work.  The sense of humor, the cast of likable characters, and even the occasional disagreements and moments of tension make it a really enjoyable read.  But the last volume was wonderful.  There are two scenes there that I will never forget.

All My Darling Daughters is probably my second favorite, though.  I remember ending that volume in tears, wanting to call my mother in the middle of the night to talk to her.  She does a really good job of examining the relationship in one family, then looking at how that reflects on the others in their life, and even some of the outside factors that contribute to the kind of relationship the mother and daughter have.  Some of the short stories are only tangentially related, but I couldn’t get over just how wonderful this volume was.

And, admittedly, Ooku is probably her best work.  Many others praise it far better than I could, and I prefer the less meatier and dense of her stories, but it’s clear that all her skills as a writer go into Ooku 100% or more.

Lori: My first Yoshinaga title was Antique Bakery. And while I liked it, I wasn’t blown away by it as I thought I would be from the way so many reviewers and critics talked about her and the book. I’m not a foodie, and found her emphasis on all the food distracting from what I thought was what really mattered; the characters. I read Flower of Life for this feast and found I enjoyed it much more. I was really impressed the way she really showed slices of life of the characters, and found all of their quirks really fun to read. I find I like Yoshinaga when the food is a supporting cast member and not the star.

I was fortunate enough to get my hands on the first three voumes of Ooku: The Inner Chamber, and while I found the “Fakespeare” very annoying at first, so much so that it knocked me out of the title several times, I still read all three volumes obsessively. For, despite the poor choice in localization, Yoshinaga has created a compelling drama in her alternate history as well as a fascinating look at the part gender roles play in a society and how easy they can be switched. I really didn’t want it to be, but Ooku is started to be come my favorite Yoshinaga title. The historical context and the way she weaves fact into her fiction is just fantastic.

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