Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1Creator: Takako Shimura
Translator: John Werry
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421592985
Released: September 2017
Original release: 2005-2006

Takako Shimura is probably best known for two manga series. The first, and my introduction to her work, is Wandering Son, a series which sympathetically explores some of the challenges faced by transgender and gender non-conforming youth. (Wandering Son is an incredibly important manga to me personally and I will forever lament the fact that it will likely never be released in English in its entirety.) The second manga is Sweet Blue Flowers, another series with queer themes, this time focusing on bisexual young woman and lesbian teenagers. While the anime adaptation of Sweet Blue Flowers has been readily available in English for years, the publication history of Shimura’s original manga has been more fraught. Originally translated in 2012 as part of the failed JManga digital initiative, the first volume was subsequently released by Digital Manga in a less than stellar ebook version after which the series languished unfinished. Surprisingly, Sweet Blue Flowers would be rescued by Viz Media, making it one of the first yuri manga to ever be released by the publisher. The first print omnibus of the Viz Signature edition of Sweet Blue Flowers, collecting the first and second volumes of the series originally published in Japan in 2005 and 2006, was easily one of my most anticipated debuts of 2017.

Fumi Manjome and Akira Okudaira were very close as children but the two girls fell out of touch after Fumi’s family moved away. Many years later they meet again by chance while commuting by train on the way to their first day of high school. They don’t actually realize who the other one is at first, but soon Fumi and Akira’s friendship is rekindled and their relationship blossoms once more. Since they attend different all-girls schools they don’t get a chance to see each other as much as they might like, though. Even so, both Akira and Fumi are faced with some similar trials which bring them together–making friends at their new schools and finding an extracurricular club to join that interests them among other things–but not everything is the same for them. Although complimentary, the two young women have strikingly different personalities, resulting in drastically different experiences and interactions. And while Akira doesn’t seem to have put much thought into romance, Fumi has recently had her heart broken. But now Fumi has fallen for an older student at her school, Yasuko Sugimoto, a young woman who is interested in Fumi but who is also dealing with an unrequited love of her own.

Sweet Blue Flowers, Omnibus 1, page 92Shimura’s artwork in Sweet Blue Flowers is simple and refined, but is still able to carry the emotional weight and expressiveness of the story. The focus of the manga’s illustrations is almost entirely on the characters themselves. Except for when the actual setting is intended to make an impact, such as the hallowed halls of a prestigious school or the imposing home of a distinguished family, backgrounds are minimalistic and sometimes even non-existent. Just enough is implied to give readers an impression of place and location. This technique, along with Shimura’s use of light and shadow, is reminiscent of intentionally minimal set design used in some theatrical performances which in turn nicely echoes the high school stage production of Wuthering Heights featured prominently in the first omnibus of Sweet Blue Flowers. The characters’ involvement with the play is an important part of the series both aesthetically and thematically. The connections to theater and creative performance arts present in Sweet Blue Flowers can also be found in Shimura’s other work, including but not limited to Wandering Son.

Sweet Blue Flowers is a wonderful series. The manga is emotionally resonate, with a realistic portrayal of the experiences of young women who love other young women. The characterizations and character development in Sweet Blue Flowers in particular are marvelous. Shimura effectively captures the nuances of a multitude of personalities and how they interact with one another, showing both individuals and their relationships as believably layered and convincingly complex. Sweet Blue Flowers is a relatively quiet story, but the emotional drama is powerful and the manga conveys a compelling sense of authenticity and honesty. I am loving the series and find that I am completely invested in the lives and well-being of Fumi, Akira, and the other characters as they navigate their adolescence. Life and relationships can be challenging and messy, something that Shimura does not shy away from in the manga. The young women in Sweet Blue Flowers grow and change, gaining maturity through their mistakes and missteps as well as personal clarity as they slowly discover their own identities. Sweet Blue Flowers is a worthwhile and lovely work; I’m so glad that it’s finally receiving a proper release in English.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of RiceAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521442
Released: November 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

At well over one hundred volumes, Oishinbo is one of the most successful and long-running food manga in Japan, winning the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, Oishinbo first began serialization in 1983 and is still ongoing although currently the manga is on indefinite hiatus following a controversy of its depiction of the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster. Between 2009 and 2010, Viz Media released seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte under its Signature imprint, becoming the first food manga that I ever read. Oishinbo, A la Carte is a series of thematic anthologies collecting chapters from throughout the main Oishinbo manga. Oishinbo, a la Carte: The Joy of Rice was the sixth collection to be released in English in 2009. However, The Joy of Rice was actually the thirteenth volume of Oishinbo, A la Carte to be published in Japan in 2005.

The Joy of Rice collects eight stories and one essay in which rice, an important staple of Japanese diet and cuisine, is featured. In “A Remarkable Mediocrity,” the wrath of a wealthy businessman and gourmand who made his fortune dealing in rice is able to be appeased by the simplest of dishes. “Brown Rice Versus White Rice” examines how people can be mislead even when they make an effort to eat healthily. The structure of rice and how proper storage can make a difference when it comes to cooking it are the focus of “Live Rice.” Yamaoka, Oishinbo‘s protagonist, makes a case against the importation of foreign rice into Japan in “Companions of Rice.” In “The Matsutake Rice of the Sea,” a wager between friends over a rice dish becomes more important than they realize. Kariya opines about the eating manners of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans in his essay “The Most Delicious Way to Eat Rice.” A debate on the proper way to eat rice is central to “No Mixing” as well. Rice takes a supporting role in “The Season for Oysters,” but once again takes the spotlight in the three-part “Rice Ball Match.”

Oishinbo, A la Carte: The Joy of Rice, page 215Because Oishinbo, A la Carte compiles various stories together by theme rather than by chronology, the series can feel somewhat disjointed. Having read nearly all of the Oishinbo, A la Carte collections available in English, for the most part I’ve gotten used to and even expect this, but it seemed to be particularly glaring in The Joy of Rice. From story to story it’s often difficult to anticipate the status of the characters’ relationships with one another and those relationships are often very important to understand. For example, “A Remarkable Mediocrity” is one of the earliest episodes to be found in Oishinbo proper—it’s a little awkward to have the chapter that originally introduced several of the established recurring characters appear so late in A la Carte. Admittedly, the point of Oishinbo, Al la Carte is to highlight specific foods or themes; only a basic understanding of the underlying premise of Oishinbo and of its characters is absolutely necessary. The translation notes help greatly, but it can still make for an odd reading experience.

The Joy of Rice examines the place of rice within Japanese culture and cuisine, addressing both social and scientific aspects of the grain. Like the other volumes in Oishinbo, A la Carte, The Joy of Rice places a huge emphasis on organically and locally produced food, railing against pesticides, herbicides, and the use of antibiotics in agriculture. The series is not at all subtle about the stance it takes, and Yamaoka can frankly be a jerk about it at times. Initially I was hoping that The Joy of Rice would explore the different varieties of rice found and used in Japan, but the volume instead focuses on the significance of rice in the lives of the country’s people—the nostalgia and memories associated with it and the pure enjoyment and complete satisfaction that it can bring—which was ultimately very gratifying. However, my favorite story in The Joy of Rice, “Rice Ball Match,” uses rice to delve into Japanese culinary culture and history as a whole, which was an excellent way to round out the volume, bringing all of the manga’s themes together in one place.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables

Oishinbo, A la Carte: VegetablesAuthor: Tetsu Kariya
Illustrator: Akira Hanasaki

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421521435
Released: September 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Shogakukan Manga Award

When it comes to food manga, the long-running and sometimes controversial Oishinbo is one of the most successful series in Japan. Written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki, the popular Oishinbo is well over a hundred volumes long and earned its creators a Shogakukan Manga Award in 1987. I don’t expect Oishinbo to ever be released in English in its entirety, but Viz Media did license seven volumes of Oishinbo, A la Carte–thematic collections of stories selected from throughout the series. Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables is technically the nineteenth A la Carte volume, published in Japan in 2006, but in 2009 it became the fifth collection to be released in English under Viz Media’s Signature imprint. If I recall correctly, Oishinbo, A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine was the very first food manga that I ever read. Since then, I have enjoyed slowly making my way through the other A la Carte collections available in English, and so was looking forward to a serving of Vegetables.

While Vegetables collects Oishinbo stories from different points the series, it also includes some of the earliest arcs. One of the primary, ongoing plotlines of the manga is the competition between Yamaoka, a newspaper journalist heading the “Ultimate Menu” project, and his estranged father Kaibara, who is developing the “Supreme Menu” for a rival paper. The three-part “Vegetable Showdown!” that opens the volume is only their second official battle for culinary dominance. Appropriately for a volume about vegetables (since getting kids to eat them is apparently a worldwide struggle), many of the stories feature children discovering that produce like eggplants, bean sprouts, and carrots might not be so bad after all. At least when they’re prepared well. Adults preconceived notions are challenged in the manga as well, not just about how vegetables are prepared and taste but also about how they are grown and produced. The stories in Vegetables often follow produce from the field to the table.

Oishinbo, A la Carte: Vegetables, page 90Oishinbo frequently delves into the politics of food and the series’ characters (and I would assume by extension its creators) have very strong opinions about the matter. Vegetables joins the previous two A la Carte collections in English–Fish, Sushi & Sashimi and Ramen & Gyōza–in particularly stressing the importance of quality ingredients and in arguing very strongly for food that has been safely, responsibly, sustainably, and often locally produced. So far, however, Vegetables seems to be the volume that is most blatant in its activism, villainizing the use of herbicides and pesticides. Opposing viewpoints are briefly entertained, but it is very clear which side of the debate Oishinbo supports. The environmentalist message in Vegetables can be very heavy-handed. Organic produce is often ideal for a number of the reason explained in Vegetables, but the reality is perhaps much more complicated and nuanced than the manga might lead readers to believe.

Overall, I think that Vegetables may actually be one of the weaker A la Carte volumes to have been released in English, but I still enjoyed it. Oishinbo is a series that is educational as well as entertaining and Vegetables is no exception. Although not particularly subtle about its politics, the manga is informative, the individual stories exploring different aspects of produce from how they are grown to what a chef should keep in mind when preparing them. When it comes to vegetables, Oishinbo would seem to argue for simplicity. Produce grown in ideal conditions and in their native environments require very little to enhance their natural goodness and flavor. A dish may be refined, but if the ingredients are of high quality to begin with it does not need to be overly complex. Sometimes only a bit of salt is all that is called for. Food is a major source of the drama in Oishinbo and is often what drives the manga’s plot. And even when it’s not, food–and in this particular volume vegetables–always plays a significant supporting role.

Battle Royale: Angels’ Border

Battle Royale: Angels' BorderAuthor: Koushun Takami and N-Cake
Illustrator: Mioko Ohnishi and Youhei Oguma

U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421571683
Released: June 2014
Original release: 2012

In 1999 Koushun Takami’s controversial cult classic Battle Royale was released upon the world, the novel soon after spawning a fifteen-volume manga adaptation illustrated by Masayuki Taguchi and inspiring two live-action films. I became a fan of the original novel after reading the 2009 English translation, and so was very interested to learn that Takami (with the assistance of N-Cake) had returned to Battle Royale with the manga Angels’ Border. Released in Japan in 2012, the collected volume includes two related episodes about the young women whose efforts to survive a brutal government sponsored death match by grouping together end in tragedy. The first story is illustrated by Mioko Ohnishi while the second is illustrated by Youhei Oguma. I was happy that Viz Media licensed Battle Royale: Angels’ Border, releasing the manga under its Signature imprint in 2014. Angels’ Border makes a nice addition to Viz’s other recent Battle Royale releases: The Battle Royale Slam Book, and a new English translation of Takumi’s original novel.

Every year a class of ninth grade students from the Republic of Greater East Asia is selected to participate in the Program. The students are given a small survival pack, a random weapon, and forced into a situation where they must either kill or be killed. In the end, only one person will survive. This year’s Program pits the forty-two students of Shiroiwa Junior High’s ninth grade, Class B against each other. Under the leadership of Yukie Utsumi, six of the girls band together, taking shelter in the lighthouse on the island serving as the Program’s arena. There they hope to avoid and wait out most of the violence. The group includes her best friend Haruka Tanizawa, who has recently come to the realization that she is in love with Yukie, though she hasn’t been able to confess those feelings. Another girl at the lighthouse, Chisato Matsui, has her own secret—she shares a special connection with Shinji Mimura, a star basketball player with smarts, good looks, and dangerous anti-government tendencies. But because she has joined up with the other young women for safety, it is unlikely that she will ever see him again.

People who have read the original Battle Royale, or who have experienced its adaptations, know very well how the incident at the lighthouse plays out; those who haven’t can probably very easily guess. Most (but not all) of the violence occurs off-page in Angels’ Border, but the characters still have to deal with its aftermath. The atmosphere at the lighthouse is strained but relatively quiet; the tension, fear, and despair is present even as the young women are resigning themselves to their fates. They witness the deaths of their fellow students and try to come up with excuses for the classmates who have resorted to killing one another, partly because they are in denial about what is happening and partly because the entire situation is incomprehensible to them. For a time they are safe, but every decision that they make for their own survival has an impact on the survival of everyone else forced to participate in the Program. The alliance formed by the six young women and their trust in one another are extraordinarily fragile things. None of them want to kill, but none of them want to die either, even though they know it will be impossible for all of them so survive. The result is a highly stressful and volatile scenario.

Generally, Angels’ Border can be read on its own, but it will probably appeal most to those who are at least familiar with Battle Royale. I hadn’t anticipated it when I began reading Angels’ Border, but both of the manga’s episodes are actually love stories. Granted, because they occur within the context of Battle Royale, they are both dramatic romantic tragedies. The first story is told by Haruka as she deals with what she sees as the futility of her feelings for Yukie as well as with the futility of the situation in which they find themselves. She reflects briefly on their past friendship, but generally the episode’s focus is on their unfortunate present and bleak future. The second story is seen from Chisato’s perspective. Much of it is devoted to a single encounter between her and Shinji six months before the start of the Program. Both episodes are more about the characters’ interpersonal relationships than they are about death and violence, although those are certainly a constant concern and bring those relationships into sharper focus. Both stories also talk about “forever,” which is heart-wrenching; “forever” for these young people will be a tragically short period of time.

Real, Volume 5

Real, Volume 5Creator: Takehiko Inoue
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421519937
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2005
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award

When I first started reading Takehiko Inoue’s prize-winning manga series Real, I didn’t expect to appreciate it as much as I do. Real has actually become one of my favorite series. I wasn’t particularly interested in wheelchair basketball, one of the main subjects of Real, although that has since changed. Instead, I was initially drawn to the manga because it was created by Inoue, whose artwork I greatly admire. I also am very impressed by his storytelling skills, especially in Real, but also in his other manga available in English, Slam Dunk and Vagabond. As much as I enjoy those two series, in the end it’s Real that I find to be the most compelling. It is a very powerful work. I’ve said it many times before, but it is still true—I honestly believe Real to be one of the best comics that is currently being released in English. The fifth volume of Real was originally collected in Japan in 2005 while the English-language edition, released under Viz Media’s Signature imprint, was published in 2009.

Ever since his motorcycle accident, Nomiya’s life has been falling apart. Although he has tried to earn his drivers’ license, it has taken him quite some time since he is terrified to be on the road. Nomiya is even more terrified of facing Natsumi, the young woman who was in the accident with him. While Nomiya was barely injured, Natsumi has lost the ability to walk and must now use a wheelchair. Nomiya blames himself for the accident and Natsumi’s current condition. The guilt has nearly brought his life to a standstill. He wants to do all that he can to move forward, but this means confronting his fears and confronting Natsumi. Unsurprisingly, she’s not particularly interested in seeing Nomiya, either—she blames him for the accident, too. Her rehabilitation is going well, but Natsumi’s life has been changed forever. Takahashi’s rehabilitation has actually taken a turn for the better, too, after a visit from Nomiya that ends rather badly. It’s been about six months since Takahashi’s own accident which cost him the use of his legs, but he has recently shown enough improvement that he will soon be able to leave the hospital.

Whereas the previous volumes of Real thoroughly introduced the lead characters—Nomiya, Togawa, and Takahashi— and explored their personal, internal struggles, the fifth volume addresses some of the more practical problems and challenges experienced by those who are disabled in an world and environment designed for the able-bodied. This can particularly be seen when Takahashi is considering returning to Nishi High to finish school. Not only is he not yet in a position where he can take of himself, the school itself isn’t at all accessible to someone in a wheelchair and the needed accommodations are prohibitively expensive. These external issues and concerns are inexorably tied to how Takahashi and the others view themselves and and see themselves as people of worth. Takahashi in particular is obsessed with ranking people and assigning them value. He used to consider himself one of the elite, but now his self-worth has been severely compromised. It’s understandable that this is something that he continues to struggle with, especially as he no longer feels that there is a place for him.

Takahashi isn’t the only one suffering from a crisis of self-worth in the series. A major theme in Real deals with what it means to be a good person and a decent human being. Takahashi’s attitude and efforts to be the best in whatever he does comes across as extremely arrogant, but people are beginning to see through his facade of perfection. Nomiya has made, and continues to make, plenty of mistakes in his life, but his honest desire to improve himself and the care and acceptance that he offers others show that he is a much better person than he recognizes. This search for self-worth isn’t limited only to the series’ leads, either. All of their friends and family members are struggling with it as well. In a particularly heart-wrenching development, Togawa’s close friend Yama, who has always been vibrant and maintained an admirably positive outlook, is frightened of who is becoming now that his disease is overtaking his body and mind. Inoue’s characterizations in Real are fantastic. The series is compelling because it is so easy for anyone to identify with the personal struggles being portrayed in the manga even if the characters’ particular situations are unique.