Sorry for the absence, the holidays are a difficult time of year for me at work, and I also had to contend with switching jobs this year. But I now have my free time back, and I’m going to be trying new things with this column. Admittedly, one of the other problems I was having was that I was running out of topics.
This week, I’m going to be looking at the work of Fumi Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga is one of the few artists who does work aimed at adult women who is still being translated in the current English language manga market. Part of the reason is her popularity, I think, as she has many English-language fans already. But her appeal lies in the stories she writes, where she has a knack for capturing the mundane in entertaining ways. Her early work, in both Japanese and English, was mostly boy’s love one-shots and short series (which, for the uninitiated, are romance stories with gay male characters aimed at women). Even these, her earliest works, still had their touching, quiet moments. Yoshinaga is great at writing sympathetic characters, which makes her sometimes mundane subject matter that much better. Her art is also spare most of the time, but she does great character facial expressions, and the detail in Ooku and her food art is quite impressive.
Here’s the Essential Fumi Yoshinaga, along with some summaries of her other work. Also worth mentioning is the fact that her other current long-running series, What Did You Eat Yesterday, will be released by Vertical starting in March. The story of a gay couple and the dinners they share should prove to be a delightful slice-of-life story, despite what sounds like an unexciting premise.
Ooku: The Inner Chambers – (10+ volumes)
I’ve talked about Ooku before, and I’ll probably do a full article on it sometime in the future. It’s her best work though, and I’d be remiss not mentioning it. Read about it here, as I’ve got enough to talk about in this article. Volume nine comes out this month.
Flower of Life – 4 volumes
Again, Yoshinaga’s greatest gift as a storyteller is her sympathetic characters that make a story out of the mundane. Flower of Life is the best example of how great she really is at this, as it’s just a story about characters in high school. No romances, no great life goals, just a year in the life of these students. The main character, Harutaru, starts the school year late after he recovered from a proceedure to treat his leukemia. He happens to be a great artist, and classmate Shota (an overweight boy, something not often seen) convinces him to do a manga with him. The two are helped out by Shota’s friend Kai, an extremely bossy and rude super-fan who “advises.” Haru doesn’t get along with Kai, but puts up with him for Shota’s sake. And… that’s about it. Sometimes they talk about their story, sometimes they go over to each other’s houses and meet family members. There’s a weird thing between Kai and one of the teachers, and a subplot about a girl who writes erotic boy’s love stories that are extremely popular. Sometimes they have parties with their other classmates. The series ends with an amateur comic market that coincides with the end of the school year. There’s not really a big conclusion or anything like that (although Haru has a scary conversation with his family about his illness). It’s funny and quirky all the way through, and feels like an authentic retelling of what being in high school is actually like, which makes it different from most other romance/action manga about the same thing. It really isn’t about anything, but watching the characters interact and go through their lives for the four volumes makes for an excellent read. Unfortunately, this DMP series is long out of print. Due to a later release and smaller print run, volume four is hilariously expensive used, one of the most expensive volumes of English-language manga. It really is that good, though.
Antique Bakery – 4 volumes
Antique Bakery is the series that most people are familiar with. It was an early hit in the US, and also has an anime adaptation. It also has an undeserved reputation for being a boy’s love series. It’s not, as it isn’t really a romance, and only one of the characters is gay (although later, there is a second character, and admittedly, that character is very gay). Main character Keisuke decides to start a bakery with his family’s money, and he wants to make it a success. He hires on expert baker Ono, who is an unparalleled patissier, and happens to be an old classmate of Keisuke’s. Ono confessed his feelings to Keisuke in high school, and was rejected harshly for being gay. Keisuke doesn’t remember any of this, and Ono considers it ancient history. The two hire on Eiji, a young out-of-work boxer, as a baking assistant. Keisuke does all the sales himself. And… they run the bakery. There’s plenty of food porn when Ono unveils a new creation, and lots of talk of what cake matches what. Later, a fourth character, Chikage, joins the crew at the behest of Keisuke’s family as a kind of bodyguard. Eiji’s cooking skills improve throughout the 4-volume run, and we occasionally get glimpses into the pasts and personal lives of the main characters. The series concludes with a heavy, somewhat mismatched storyline about why Keisuke opened the bakery, and that’s actually the part that sticks with me more than Yoshinaga’s still-excellent characters and eye for the art of the mundane. This series is a bit funnier and more of a story than Flower of Life is, and is much easier to obtain, despite being out of print. Look for the scratch-and-sniff covers!
All My Darling Daughters – 1 volume
A good example of Yoshinaga’s excellent one-shot work, this volume was drawn later in her career and is more accessible than her boy’s love work. A series of short stories tangentially about the relationships between mothers and daughters, this volume blew me away when I realized after starting the fourth story that all were connected, and most were about the same family (a semi-unrelated third story threw me off). The third story is one I’ll remember for some time, as it features a friend of the main family and her quest for a husband of her own, and has quite an unexpected ending. The last story is quite good as well. It looks at the relationship between the mother in the first story and her mother, and what makes the roots of a mother-daughter relationship. This story suddenly made the volume all serious and touching, and is what makes it an excellent book instead of a great one. That last story is so incredibly touching, such a sincere look at how family members react to one another and how those relationships form, that it had me in tears. This is by no means a monumental work, but it’s also not one that many will read by Yoshinaga, and I feel like that’s an oversight. It’s recent, and should still be in print and available.
There is one other volume of more mainstream stories by Yoshinaga that has been translated into English. Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! is a semi-autobiographical work about Y-Naga the mangaka’s love affair with food (which would explain Antique Bakery and What Did You Eat Yesterday?), and each chapter features a review of a restaurant in Tokyo along with some details about Y-naga’s private life. I’ve heard people say they would watch their favorite actor read the phone book, and that’s what this book was like for me, as I had no interest in Tokyo restaurants or their cuisine, and not even the cute tidbits about Yoshinaga’s life could save it. The rest of her stories are boy’s love books, but some of the best are Ichigenme and Gerard and Jacques. Both are two volume series. Ichigenme is a contemporary story that looks at a few different characters in college/law school and their relationships. Gerard & Jacques is a nice period piece that takes place during the French Revolution, but be warned that it’s fairly graphic and opens with some disturbing non-con. Truly Kindly, Lovers in the Night, and Don’t Say Anymore Darling are good short story collections. Garden Dreams and Solfege are very rough and early work, and The Moon and Sandals is her first, for the curious, and while it’s a decent first work, it’s not one you’ll want to pick up until later. Most of these are out of print, but almost all of them should be available cheaply.