by Fumi Yoshinaga; adapted by John Werry
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Fumi Yoshinaga is well-known in manga circles for her yaoi and yaoi-like titles. (Some are still arguing about what to call Antique Bakery, about a group of men who sell dessert, one of whom is gay.) Her more recently translated Ooku: The Inner Chambers, again featuring a society of men, was on many best-of-2009 lists.
She’s done some creative female character studies before, especially in Flower of Life Book 3 and Book 4, but I’ve never seen her cover mostly women, as she does in this volume, a stand-alone collection of interlocking short stories. Unsurprisingly, she does an outstanding job.
A daughter is shocked that her widowed mother has remarried a much younger man, an aspiring actor. Since he formerly worked at a host club, the daughter is concerned that he’s exploiting his new wife. That demonstrates her caring but also reflects how little she knows about what her mother wants or needs. She’s also jealous that her mother and her husband have much more in common than she does with her mother.
It can be difficult learning to deal with a parent or child as a person in their own right. In my experience, something has to happen for that transition to take place — either a distinctive event, like this marriage, or some time apart, which this pair haven’t had. Until the daughter chooses to move in with a co-worker in order to get away.
The situations here are presented to create certain expectations, only for the author to demonstrate that there’s a lot more to them than one would immediately assume. For instance, the daughter’s boyfriend at first seems to be just a matter of convenience, but a later story demonstrates that they’re surprisingly well-suited for each other and do care deeply. Part of the enjoyment of the series is seeing one’s assumptions turned around as more is revealed about the characters.
Another story is told by a dinner guest of the family. He’s a teacher, and one of his students keeps propositioning him. She’s clearly got some self-esteem issues, seeing herself only in terms of what boys like. They wind up having quick sex in his office, but when he wants to date, she leaves him for someone who will treat her more like she believes she deserves. Although it’s disappointing to see her think so little of herself, she’s happy, in her own fashion, and she’s in control in a strange way. That’s a subtle theme throughout the stories, finding a way to make your own decisions within a series of constraints created by the expectations of others.
The daughter also has a friend seeking an arranged marriage, in the most traditional and yet unexpected of the book’s stories. Another friend from school had deep insight about relationships but her big plans never quite worked out as intended. The last story returns to the mother, showing why she became the person she did due to her relationship with her mother. It keeps going back, turtles all the way down.
It’s unusual to see family and relationship conflicts of this type in comics, especially portrayed in such a raw fashion with such insight. There are plenty of father/son struggles (especially in American comics), but few that tackle the frustrations and unique constraints of being a mature woman. I was shocked to see such emotion on the page — so many women feel the same ways but don’t know how to express it.
The story in which a casual remark by a mother shapes her daughter’s entire life is so true and so powerful, I suspect the author had to have lived it to portray it. Yoshinaga’s characters are beautiful, as always, drawn with care and concern. They’re people first, before they are their assigned roles of “mother” or “daughter” or “wife”. None of them are typical — their choices can be unusual, and their personalities are unique — but the reader can easily relate to all.
This is a very readable comic, with entertaining portrayals of conversation and interaction, but with immensely powerful emotions underneath, all the more potent for not being sledgehammmered at the reader. As a result, it’s my favorite of Yoshinaga’s works.
David Welsh’s review includes some sample art panels. The publisher provided a review copy.