Flower of Life is one god-damned strange little book, let me tell you that. I picked it up based on the strength of Shaenon Gaerity's review, but by the time I'd gotten my hands on a copy I'd long forgotten nearly every particular of that fine review. In the store, looking at the cover, which features tousled-hair young men behind a foreground of brightly colored sunflowers, I was positive I was about to cross the border into Yaoiville, a hamlet that only a few years previous was little known but had now become a popular destination spot for peripatetic manga readers. Not only had I never read yaoi, I had read next to nothing about yaoi, and so my depth of knowledge was little bit like that panel in Scott Pilgrim where everything Scott knows about Rome has a question mark next to it. If pressed to guess, I'd have said that yaoi is a bit like slash fanfic? But without the licensed characters? Which means it's all about the rich characterization? And the, uh, sex? So as I sat down and began to read Fumi Yoshinaga's story of a young man attending a new school after surviving a bout of leukemia, I was expecting, at any page turn, for some kind of groping to happen, or awkward crushes to be developed and tremblingly confessed, or....I don't know? Hazing? Spanking? Characterization-rich scat play? All I know is, for the next 170+ pages, absolutely none of that proceeded to happen.
In fact, reading Flower of Life, I got the impression Yoshinaga was deliberately playing with audience expectations (which I assume are more knowledgeable, and thus realistic and measured, than my own): when hot-headed blond Harutaro Hanazono (the leukemia recoverer) meets and clashes with reserved dark-haired Kai Majima, I figured it a done deal these two would be involved in a passionate embrace by the end of Vol. 1, but the characters barely have an ounce more respect for each other at the end than at the beginning; when it turns out two teachers are shown kissing, I expected a Brokeback Mountainy poignant "love that dare not speak its name" subplot to develop but Yoshinaga turns that on its head as well. Instead, the events of the first volume are all about Hanazono becoming friends with a chubby little dude named Shota Mikuni who is such the embodiment of good-natured kawaii he looks a bit like a baby seal with a backpack--a friendship about which Hanazono is so passionate, possessive and consumed by, I again assume Yoshinaga is teasing her audience. (On the other hand, again, I know bupkis about this topic, and maybe Super Chubby Boy Love Weekly is a hugely successful magazine in Japan or something.) Like Shota himself, this relationship is very cute, good-natured and--as far as I can tell--innocent, and pretty god-damned charming to read.
The other theme, plot, whatever you want to call it (I just thought of it as "more guys not getting it on in a book I assumed was about guys getting it on") in Flower of Life is about manga and otaku: Shota, Harutaro and Kai are in manga club together, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Yoshinaga follows each scene of the boys sussing out how to draw manga with scenes of the teachers passionately groping each other. I couldn't tell you why precisely, but considering the twists the teachers' relationship takes, I think Yoshinaga is trying to make a point about manga and its rules. (Once you know them, you can break them, maybe?) Additionally, Yoshinaga's Kai Majima is a mercilessly dead-on (and yet affectionate) portrait of a particular type of socially clueless fanboy--he's a manga otaku, but I've heard that exact blend of blathering obsessiveness and quasi-Asbergerian obliviousness from gamers who will not shut up about their fifteenth level Paladin, from comic fanboys who have to tell you why Hulk is stronger than Thor, and from videogamers who will not rest until they recount why Sony screwed up this generation of video game consoles for everyone. (Don't get me started, but trust me--they did.)
Of course, Shaenon's review sums all this up (and more) so I have absolutely no excuse for being as pleasantly surprised by Flower of Life as I was. (After all, it was her write-up that made me order it.) And yet, my hope is someone might read this review, pick the book up, and also be pleasantly surprised: it's quite possible that Yoshinaga is so talented, and Flower of Life so charmingly light and good-natured that, no matter how prepared you are going in and how good your short term memory is, you'll still be delighted by it. If you come to it with an open heart, I think you'll also find it Very Good stuff.