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.

Wandering Son, Volume 8

Wandering Son, Volume 8Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606998311
Released: May 2015
Original release: 2008

Wandering Son by Takako Shimura is a manga series that is incredibly important to me on a very personal level. The series’ exploration of personal identity, especially in regards to gender and sexual identity, is beautifully done with great sensitivity. It’s a rare comic in which gender expression and other issues relating to gender are treated realistically and not as a joke. Wandering Son is an authentically meaningful series. Fantagraphics Books has been releasing the manga in English in a lovely hardcover edition; I only wish that the individual volumes were able to be released more frequently. Wandering Son, Volume 8 was first published in Japan in 2008 while the English translation was published in 2015. Wandering Son concluded in 2013 with its fifteenth volume, meaning that the eighth volume marks the beginning of the second half of the series. I am so incredibly grateful that Wandering Son is being translated and look forward to reading the remaining volumes.

Spring has come, which means a new school year is about to begin. Shuichi, Takatsuki, and their classmates are entering the eighth grade, but with a new year comes new class assignments. The students, whose often precarious friendships and relationships were at least temporarily stable, once more find themselves confronted with new and changing group dynamics. Some friends are separated while others are reunited. And of course, not-quite-friends and past bullies are included in the mix as well, creating some challenging and awkward situations for everyone involved. Springtime has come for some of the young people in a more figurative sort of way as well. Anna and Shuichi continue to date each other and enjoy being together despite Shuichi’s lingering affections for Takatsuki. Everyone has mostly come to terms with this development in their relationship, but more than one person has commented that Takatsuki and Shuichi would make an ideal couple.

Wandering Son, Volume 8, page 101I’ve come to really like Anna as a character. When she was first introduced in the series, she came across as aloof and perhaps even a bit mean-spirited, but as Wandering Son has progressed, more about Anna has been revealed. It’s not exactly that she’s bad-natured, she just doesn’t have a high tolerance for people who don’t approach their lives and work seriously. Anna can be surprisingly mature for her age—something that may probably be true for many of the younger characters in Wandering Son—but I still find her personality and character to be a believable. She is extraordinarily accepting and kind in her own fashion, seeming to lack the jealous tendencies that cause so many problems for her peers. But what I love most about Anna in Wandering Son, Volume 8 is her acceptance and support of Shuichi through their relationship as a couple. She is perfectly content to go on dates as two girls if that’s what Shuichi wants and she never denigrates Shuichi’s interests or feelings.

For the most part, Wandering Son tends to be a fairly quiet series, which is not to say there isn’t drama. And I certainly don’t intend to downplay the very real and intense emotions experienced by the characters as they struggle through their adolescence and personal turmoils. Those are central to Wandering Son. However, the eighth volume is the first volume that really ends with a dramatic turn of events that could be described as a cliffhanger. Throughout Wandering Son, Shuichi and Takatsuki have become more comfortable and increasingly bolder with how they express themselves in the clothes they wear, largely because they’ve received encouragement from their classmates and friends. But up until this volume, that outward expression has mostly been limited to their private lives; now they’ve begun to push the boundaries in how they dress at school, which has an explicit dress codes and uniforms based on gender. I am very glad to see the two of them developing a firmer understanding and acceptance of who they are, but I also worry for them because, as Wandering Son honestly portrays, the world can sometime be a very cruel place.

Guest Post: Sweet Blue Flowers, Vol. 1

Earlier this year my good friend Jocilyn Wagner contributed a review of Hiroki Ugawa’s Shrine of the Morning Mist, Volume 1 to Experiments in Manga. She was recently inspired to do so more manga blogging and to write another review, and so I’m happy to welcome Jocilyn back to Experiments in Manga! This time she’ll be taking a look at the Digital Manga Guild edition of Sweet Blue Flowers, Volume 1 by Takako Shimura.

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Easily Shimura Takako’s most well-known manga endeavour, Sweet Blue Flowers is an unforgettable bildungsroman of the classic Japanese girl’s school (minus the dorm boarding). The story focuses on two heroines: Manjoume Fumi and Okudaira Akira. Childhood friends who were separated for elementary and junior high and by coincidence have moved into the same neighborhood together for high school. The girls, who don’t at first recognize each other, are reintroduced when Akira (called “Aki” in this version) saves the timid Fumi from train molestation. Although the two attend different schools, their close friendship and shared interest in acting cause Fumi to find excuses to attend theatre club at Aki’s much more wealthy/prestigious school.

The setting of two close-knit girls’ schools often lends itself to a Yuri manga and Sweet Blue Flowers positively embraces the plot line. As the story opens, Fumi (tall and bashful) is recovering from her separation with Chizu, Fumi’s first love, a cousin who’s getting married. Enter in the dashing heartbreaker Sugimoto Yasuko who’s been recently cast against her will as the swoon-worthy Heathcliff. Yasuko is immediately smitten of Fumi and Fumi is quick to return her feelings (…perhaps too quick?). Despite being easily embarrassed and a worrier, Fumi manages to confide the relationship and her sexuality in Aki. The level-headed Aki doesn’t really understand why this would be a problem but ponders the issue while Fumi, who’s assumed it will come between them slips into fear-induced avoidance of her. When Aki’s finally able to snag Fumi aside she asks her, “What can I do to support you?”

Sweet Blue Flowers is as wonderful and poignant in English as it is in Japanese. The story is moving and rapturous. I’m really hopeful DMP can publish Sweet Blue Flowers in print…

But now I think I have a better understanding of why they might not. Compared to Fantagraphics’ Wandering Son, this version of Aoihana is frankly an embarrassment that in no way lives up to the beauty of the original and really shouldn’t be printed as is. It’s in desperate need of an English adapter and some real copy editing. As a Shimura fangirl, I really want to see Aoihana in print, so just in case the project leader is listening, the following is a substantial critique. The optimist should stop reading here. :)

The biggest problem in my mind is that bizarrely, instead of how it’s always been rendered “Ah-chan” in both the original manga AND the anime near and dear by now to the hearts of North Americans, this version replaces all the Ah-chans with “Aki.” To be fair, Aki is more of a fleshed out name than Ah-chan, but it’s really a boy’s name and it doesn’t suit Akira’s character, besides which it’s not a name Shimura-sensei chose. Part of what makes Aoihana so cute is that the Okudaira siblings have their names reversed: that is to say, Akira is usually though not always a boy’s name and Shinobu is similarly a girl’s name occasionally used for boys. Perhaps the idea here with “Aki” was to emphasize that her name doesn’t fit the image? Yet I think Shimura-sensei would argue that’s exactly why she’s always been called Ah-chan (to make up for/ignore the more masculine Akira). Put simply, Akira is always called Ah-chan because she’s ridiculously cute and her role in the story is to be the best friend and onee-chan from Fumi’s childhood, thus someone you’d want to give a cute nickname to like “Ah-chan.” Perhaps because she’s given a bit more wisdom than other characters or because of her future role in the story, the DMG team chose to call her Aki. At any rate, it feels like an awkward and unnecessary change that will stick out painfully to most fans of the work.

Additionally, there’s just too much left untranslated in terms of signage with parenthetical notes given instead that really detract from the flow of the reading. As far as I can tell, all the signs and documents are left untranslated (even ones that couldn’t possibly be hurt by replacement with English such as the heading card in the photo album scrapbook that reads “Christmas Party” or the words on the cake for Chizu’s party) which comes off looking like the typesetter just couldn’t be bothered/too inexperienced to handle the job. For the none-Japanese reader it’s too much work to constantly be hunting for marginalia. Shimura’s penmanship isn’t all that legible anyway (most were drawn with marker), so if you can read Japanese, leaving the signs as is doesn’t necessarily help things—except in the case of one of her school gateway engravings, it doesn’t exactly have a “Shoudo” quality. Perhaps the concept here is to give the English reader a sense that they’re really in Kamakura, but that’s actually doing Shimura-sensei a disservice as the gorgeous well-researched setting she’s drawn is more stark and striking than most mangaka can muster.

sweet blue flowers snippita

Add to this a lot of really tiring typographical errors such as “Pap” for “Pat” and “Beautiful is Youth” “Hasegawwa” and “Fajisawa”, really detract from the reading experience. The emanga version of Sweet Blue Flowers is very welcome and we love you for it, but please consider further editing before sending it to the printer.

In terms of the digital file, it’s definitely topknotch. Emanga allows you to choose from among seven or eight major formats as well as offering you the option of reading your books through their proprietary online reader. I was really happy to be able to get Sweet Blue Flowers in PDF since it looks and functions the best on the iPad. It’s not always the most annotation friendly, but since manga is an artistic medium it makes sense to use an Adobe format to access it. Unfortunately, once you’ve chosen to download the file in one format, you’re stuck with only that single file type and you’d need to repurchase it from emanga to get it in a different format (DRM is kinda evil like that). I had no trouble downloading the file and it opens great on all my devices. Given their many options for downloading, their pricing system that’s free from points and rentals and their interface with Amazon, I’d highly recommend emanga over some other digital manga sites I’ve tried (except when it comes to editing).

Wandering Son, Volume 7

Wandering Son, Volume 7Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606997505
Released: August 2014
Original release: 2007

The wait between the release of each new volume of the English-language edition of Takako Shimura’s manga series Wandering Son can seem torturous, but without fail I’m exceptionally glad when the next installment is finally available. Wandering Son is a manga that is personally very meaningful to me, so I’m always a little worried that Fantagraphics won’t be able to complete the series, which would be a shame. Fantagraphics’ edition of Wandering Son is beautiful, complete with color pages and hardcover binding. Wandering Son, Volume 7 was originally published in Japan in 2007 while Fantagraphics’ English translation by Matt Thorn was released in 2014. The series concluded in Japan with the fifteenth volume, which means that the English-language release has just about reached the midway point of Wandering Son. I sincerely hope the rest of the series will be able to be published, too.

The seventh graders’ production of a gender-swapped Romeo & Juliet for their school’s cultural festival is over, but there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the drama unfolding in the classroom. Although a few of the students were dissatisfied with their own parts and performances, the play was generally well received, resulting in the theater club attempting to scout some of the best talent. This does cause some tension as the members of the various school clubs shift around to follow their personal interests, leaving friends behind in the process. Some friendships are being severely tested while other, more antagonistic, relationships appear to be on the mend. As Shuichi, Takatsuki, and the others grow and mature, their connections to one another change and evolve, too. Puberty continues to progress as well, bringing with it unwanted changes, anxieties over developing bodies, and concerns over physical appearances. What to wear, what not to wear, acne, and skin problems are all legitimate worries, providing opportunities for both teasing and bonding.

Wandering Son is told in a somewhat non-linear, almost fragmented sort of way. Shimura takes individual moments and memories, often from different points in the characters’ lives, and then layers them together, drawing connections between the separate pieces that would not necessarily have been obvious otherwise. This makes it easier for readers to see that the characters, though they all have their own unique perspectives and individual experiences, are dealing with some very similar issues. Their approaches to those issues and how they deal them are often quite different, though. This layering and revealing of parallels, as well as the other narrative and storytelling techniques that Shimura uses, are very effective in building on some of the themes that Wandering Son explores—namely personal identity—by exhibiting the depth and nuance of the series’ sensitive portrayal of the characters as individuals. The realism and authenticity of the characterization in Wandering Son is one of the manga’s greatest strengths.

Another related aspect of the manga that is handled particularly well is the natural changes in the characters’ relationships with one another. Wandering Son has a large cast of both primary and important secondary characters and it’s a close-knit group. When something happens between two of the members, the social dynamics of the entire circle is influenced. Major developments occur when Shuichi and Anna begin dating, helping to trigger some unexpected changes in Chiba and Takatsuki’s relationship which were particularly interesting to see. Chiba is incredibly self-centered and at times exceptionally unlikeable, but she’s also perceptive and seems to be very sure of herself and who she is. Takatsuki, on the other hand, is still working all of that out but is fiercely determined in other ways. It’s because of Takatsuki’s persistence, despite Chiba’s prickliness, that their friendship has a chance of improving—something that everyone would be happy about. It won’t be an easy process, though, and will take some time. Wandering Son excels in capturing the real-life messiness of relationships.

Wandering Son, Volume 6

Wandering Son, Volume 6Creator: Takako Shimura
U.S. publisher: Fantagraphics Books
ISBN: 9781606997079
Released: January 2014
Original release: 2007

Wandering Son is currently the only manga by Takako Shimura to have been released in print in English. Although I would love to see more of her work translated and published, I am particularly grateful that it is Wandering Son that has been licensed for print release. (Fantagraphics’ large format hardcover edition is simply lovely, too.) Wandering Son is a beautiful series that explores the young protagonists’ search for personal identity and addresses issues of gender and sexuality in a very sincere, sensitive, and accessible way. Wandering Son often hits incredibly close to home for me which is one of the reasons that I personally hold the series so dear. I’m not sure how popular the series is in general, but it has been well-received by critics both inside and outside of Japan. The sixth volume of Wandering Son was initially published in Japan in 2007. Fantagraphics’ English-language edition of Wandering Son, Volume 6 was released in 2014.

As the school’s cultural festival approaches, the students are hard at work preparing for their classes’ projects. Chiba and Shuichi are trying to put the final touches on their script for a gender-swapped version of Romeo and Juliet despite some of their classmates’ well-intentioned interference. To Chiba and Shuichi the play is much more than a simple seventh-grade class production. It’s also a very personal expression of their desires: Chiba wants to see Shuichi in the role of Juliet and Shuichi wants to be seen as a girl. In some ways their version of Romeo and Juliet is a reflection of Shuichi and Takatsuki as the two of them are faced with challenging society’s established gender roles and expectations. Shuichi and Takatsuki’s bonding over the play is a source of immense frustration for Chiba. She’s in love with Shuichi, and Shuichi has feelings for Takatsuki, but Takatsuki isn’t interested in pursuing those feelings. The result is that there’s quite a bit of drama both on and off the stage.

For my part, I’m glad to see Shuichi and Takatsuki becoming close again after their relationship was disrupted by Shuichi’s confession of love. Thankfully, they were able to work through that and are once again able to lean and rely on each other as friends. This is particularly important for the two of them since they share so much in common. The additional support is something that Shuichi especially needs. At the beginning of Wandering Son, Shuichi was a very meek and hesitant person. However, as the series has progressed, Shuichi has grown, becoming much more assertive and confident and is now able to begin to express in words needs and desires. In a very touching scene with Takatsuki, Shuichi sums it up quite nicely, “It’s my wish. You as a boy…me as a girl…a happy ending for everybody.” It’s really the first time that Shuichi has been able to be so clear and forthright about the their situation. Happily, it’s not the last time that it happens, but it is a very formative and noteworthy moment.

One of the things that Shimura captures remarkably well in Wandering Son is the natural development of the characters and their relationships with one another. Wandering Son is a story about growing up and determining not only who you are as an individual but who you are in relation to other people; how people see themselves in addition to how others see them. Life itself could be said to be a performance. It’s particularly interesting then that in Wandering Son, Volume 6 so many parallels are made between Shuichi and Takatsuki’s real life and the very deliberately crafted Romeo and Juliet production. Through it they are able to reveal a part of themselves for everyone to see. It may not be a particularly subtle narrative technique on Shimura’s part, but it is a very effective one. The play echos their experiences, emphasizing specific aspects of their lives and relationships not only for the characters, but for the readers as well. Wandering Son continues to be an absolutely wonderful series. As always, I am very much looking forward to the next volume.