>> Friday, January 25, 2013
You may have all noticed that my posts often talk about a particular mangaka's body of work rather than just a single work. This may be more true in yaoi than other fields since yaoi is frequently (though not always) a one or two volume endeavor per story (if not a one-shot). Plus, it's been my experience that, when I stumble across a really good mangaka, it's worth my time to check our her (or his) other work. I frequently find other gems...and not always just in yaoi.
Which is how I stumbled across Yoshinaga Fumi. Actually, I'd read (but didn't consider a keeper at the time) a period yaoi set in Europe called Gerard & Jacques as it started pretty dark and I almost didn't continue. Even so, I was a bit intrigued (I love history) and, when I stumbled across something else later, I started to explore and then became entranced. I've since reread Gerard & Jacques many times and it's now one of my favorites. She still isn't my favorite yaoi author (probably), though she's on my short list of real favorites. She is, however, something really special in more than one way, first and foremost because she's one of the most superlative storytellers I've ever come across in any medium. When I say medium, I mean music, movies, anime, novels, short stories, manga, you name it. I read a single chapter (all that's available) on-line from Garden of Dreams and was struck speechless. It was a masterful example of evocative story telling and character building, as well having all the pathos of the best poetry. It was, in fact, much like a poem in manga form.
Garden of Dreams isn't yaoi. It wasn't explicit or offensive and it wasn't trying to make some societal point (as far as I know). It was set during the Crusades but involved relatively normal people who were incredibly complex, imperfect while being entirely easy to empathize with. They felt incredibly real, and touched me to an unprecedented degree. Based on the one short story, I bought the book (readily available at Amazon). I hadn't read the first thirty pages before I was compelled to buy a second copy and send it to my sister, wiping away my tears.
Although she writes some unabashed yaoi, she has also written many other manga that is not yaoi. All of it is amazingly grown up, even if it isn't R-rated, if you understand the distinction. Though some of it is that, too. In this part 1, I'm going to mostly talk about her non-yaoi work.
I'm convinced Yoshinaga's work would be suited for nearly any English class as an example of show vs. tell. Using her not inconsiderable artistic talent, she weaves complex plots in environments that seem almost static because the real drama is the exposition and interaction of her characters who are brilliantly revealed in tiny, seemingly unrelated vignettes until, before you know it, she's made a cohesive whole of brilliantly fleshed out characters that are so much more than two dimensional.
Her crafting is such that she frequently creates characters doing all manner of thoughtless, destructive, sometimes horrific things, but, as you learn more about them and where they came from you (or at least I) find myself understanding even when I can't entirely accept what they do. Some of her characters are unshakably noble and admirable. Some are thoughtless and selfish. Most are a combination of all of that, just like the rest of us. And, by showing us these people and actions as seen through the eyes of one party or the next, we have the opportunity to learn and appreciate these people to depths I have rarely seen elsewhere.
I have quite a collection of her works despite another trait I admire but don't necessarily care for myself: she is not afraid to leave the reader unfulfilled. There are, of course, happy endings in her books, but there are as many sad ones, wonderful characters who never find (or keep) their true loves, people who fail, people who can't overcome their own failings. Some of it isn't entertaining. Much of it is dark and sad and fraught with people making mistakes they can never recover from, or receiving scars they can't erase from their own hearts.
And example in point is Oooku, her award-winning manga, in this case, an alternate history story sent early in the Edo era (for those who are Japanese history buffs, well, you don't need me to explain, but its after Tokugawa took over the shogunate and his family kept power until the Emperor took it back the last century or so). Normally I despise alternate histories because they are frequently done by people who don't know jack about history or are done in such a slipshod manner with characters completely out of keeping with people of the day that it sends me up the wall. Not the case here. Yoshinaga spins a what-if tale of a plague that, over several generations, wipes out the majority of men in Japan. Instead of changing historical events as a result, she uses this idea to explain many of Japan's policies during that time including its isolationism and increasing feudalism, forcing people to be tied to the land. Real events are woven through but given impetus by this key change rather than happening despite. It's fascinating. No, really.
Historical Japan is a brutal and unforgiving world and Yoshinaga does not pull punches. In many ways, it's harsh and unfeeling and filled with callous actions, elitism, brutality, and downright unfairness. Truly wonderful and fantastic characters are misused, abused, tormented by fate, left to fend for themselves or live their lives bereft. Other people do cruel and inhumane things (by our standards) from their own torment, mistaken priorities, and, in many cases, necessity. It's brilliant. It's fascinating. It's sometimes depressing as hell.
I own all the Oooku books available in English and I've read it twice and I still don't enjoy reading it. Some time while reading the second volume, I usually ask myself why I haven't stopped reading because obviously I don't like it, but, once I start, I absolutely can't stop. It's compelling. And, even after I've read it, no matter how tired I am, I can't sleep the next night - so much is wandering through my brain.
The artwork is gorgeous and evocative. Actually, I'm impressed by anyone making a tonsured man look attractive. And, as much as I don't read it for entertainment, I'm glad I have read it and believe it to be genius.
Not everything non-yaoi is dark or lacking in entertainment. If most of her work has some level of pathos, she has a real gift for ribald and subtle humors she sprinkles about most of her work, even the darkest. Flower of Life is a school slice of life with the straight-forward main character, who'd missed a year of school due to leukemia, and quite the eclectic mix of other characters. All My Darling Daughters focuses mainly on female relationships (not homosexual), but familial. Kodomo No Taion is also about family, but from a man's perspective.
Yoshinaga Fumi also seems to have a fascination with food. Two other mangas are unabashedly focused on food: Not Love but Delicious Food Makes Me So Happy (restaurant hopping and life from a woman's perspective) and What Did You Eat Yesterday? which is non-yaoi other than the two main characters are a gay couple with the emphasis on the lawyer who goes shopping daily (with frugality in mind as much as taste) before coming home and whipping up a five course meal of authentic Japanese fair for his companion, who's main job is to exult over the flavor and texture of the meal. The latter is effectively a cooking show in manga form. Since I'm not a gourmand, I didn't really care for either of these manga, but I can see how a food nut could really get excited.
If I admire but don't enjoy all her books, there are some that I definitely admire and enjoy, so, if we're talking about non-yaoi genius, I can't forgo mentioning another award winner, Antique Bakery, which, if described, sounds as dull as dishwater but in reality is anything but. If we are hit over the head with more food (and we are, of the French style pastry variety) and we find a very gay character without being yaoi (which we do), none of that precludes that this as another brilliant piece of work about four very unlikely and complex men (OK, one not so complex man) who happen to run a bakery, the journey that brought them there, the non-romantic bonds that tie them together. I have not found Antique Bakery on line but it can be bought (all four volumes) in licensed book form (and, yes I have them and bought those for my sister as well). Don't let the description fool you, this is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, frequently thought-provoking stuff.
Actually, unlike most mangakas, because so much of her work is licensed, only smatterings of most of her work is available on line. That's the bad news. The good news is you can buy several of her works in book form most readily. In English and everything. Antique Bakery is just one example of that.
Speaking of Antique Bakery you can find on-line, one thing you can find (but not in book form) is the doujinshi (special extra mangas written by fans or authors to pass out at conventions) by the author of Antique Bakery which takes the story forward. But, if Antique Bakery isn't yaoi (and it isn't), the Antique Bakery doujinshi definitely is hardcore yaoi. So I'll save talking about it for part 2.