FLOWER OF LIFE (Fuwaru obu Raifu), by Fumi Yoshinaga. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.
PLOT: Harutaro Hanazono is the new kid in class. He had to start the school year late because he's spent the last two years in treatment for leukemia, but now he's eager to get back to school and make some friends. Soon enough, he meets up with cute and cuddly Shota Mikuni and the stern, antisocial otaku Kai Majima. Harutaro ends up joining them as part of the school manga club, where his drawing skills end up impressing both boys. Over time, we begin to learn more about our main trio, their everyday struggles, and even some of the strangely hilarious moments of their lives.
STORY: This might just be me, but I found this manga shockingly unfocused for a Yoshinaga work. Before this, I was mostly familiar with her work through the previously reviewed Antique Bakery and Ooku. The latter has a very tightly focused plot, and while the former is a little looser in structure, it does have the common plot thread of the titular shop. This is much more of a classic slice-of-life story. Indeed, if the cast were composed of girls this would have fit in perfectly alongside a lot of popular moe franchises (or even the fictional ones that Majima prefers to read and discuss. Oh excuse me, his favorite "moeh" shows, if we go by the translation here).
Now, Yoshinaga is a talented writer with a knack for strong characterization, so our three leads and many of the others around them have strong, distinct personalities. It's really easy to get invested in Harutaro's blunt optimism or Shota's quiet sweetness. The problem is that without some sort of plot thread to follow, it all seems a bit aimless. I guess you could view the progression of Harutaro's and Shota's friendship as that plot thread, but there are a few diversions along the way, especially where Majima is concerned. Now, Antique Bakery could be guilty of this at times as well, but again everything there came back to the shop and the four characters within it. Here, the only common theme is friendship, I guess, and that's just not quite enough of an anchor for me.
Flower of Life is a pleasing diversion with an appealing cast, but its lack of focus where plot is concerned hurts it some. You could argue that the lack of plot is simply a signature of the slice-of-life genre itself, but even those need a common element to which it can anchor its storylines, and without it the focus can be lost.
ART: The art is up to Yoshinaga's usual high standards. Her line work is fine and delicate, and the cast tends to feature those same handsome, angular, and expressive faces she loves to draw (well, outside of chipmunk-cheeked Shota). She still draws lovely and well detailed hair and clothing, and there are a lot of backgrounds for her panels, for once. She still tends to favor larger-than-average panels for her page composition, but here that space is used less to communicate subtext and tension and more for simply showing off her work. I'd say that normally this would be something of a detriment - that white space was almost something of a visual signature for her, and she tends to use it brilliantly - but this is a far more lighthearted story than most of her works, so there is simply less need for it. Flower of Life might have disappointed me story-wise, but it met my expectations for its art.
PRESENTATION: There are no story extras, but like most older Digital Manga Press works, this is printed in a larger format with a color bookjacket. The actual cover features a pale orange copy of the same image from the bookjacket.
I wouldn't call it one of Yoshinaga's best, but her skill for characterization and her fine artwork make this slice-of-life story a cut above the rest.
This was published in the USA by Digital Manga Press. All 4 volumes were released, and all are out of print.
You can purchase this volume and more manga like it through RightStuf.com!