Sunday, October 19, 2014

manga review: Hana wa Saku ka (Does the flower bloom?)

This is the best yaoi I've come across in a while. I've read through it online in just a bit more than a day, then ordered all available volumes. I'll certainly check out other work by this artist.

by Hidaka Shōko
Rating: 4/5 
Volumes/episodes: 5
Mature content: yes, later on (volume 4)
Genre: slice of life, shōnen ai, yaoi

37-year-old Kazuaki Sakurai works long hours for an advertising company. He used to be a promising art director but lost his spark over the last few years. He just bought an apartment but lives alone in it since his last relationship broke up; something he's rather used to.
One day on his way home he bumps into a young man and a rare magazine of his gets damaged. Luckily the young man owns the same one and offers to swap. His home is not far away and Sakurai is amazed when it turns out to be a beautiful old mansion, a boarding house, surrounded by a big wild garden.
A few days later Sakurai collapses from high fever (according to anime and manga that seems to be very common in Japan...) at the subway station. He's seen by boarders of the boarding house who think he's friends with the owner Youichi and bring him home. From this day on, Sakurai visits more often and becomes acquainted with the residents.

Sakurai enjoys the boarding house and the surrounding gardens

Youichi Minagawa is nineteen, an arts student and the owner of the boarding house. He's usually quiet but if he says something he's rather blunt (by Japanese standards), especially towards Sakurai. He reminds me a little of Haru from Free!, they share the same Aspergerish tendencies. He's very reclusive, only has closer contact with very few friends. His father used to be a great painter and a very beloved member of the Minagawa family clan, so the wealthy family takes care of Youichi and he's living quite a sheltered life.

Youich's wondering about his social abilities

I can identify with both Youichi and Sakurai. Though I'm not as bad at communicating with people as Youichi, I often feel out of touch with the world and most of the people in it. I prefer to withdraw and occupy myself with the things I like. "You're friendly to everybody, but the truth is, you're not interested in anybody" - as much as this is true for both Youichi and Sakurai, it might also be true for me. And I'm not working Japanese hours but like Sakurai I feel like I work too much, don't get enough sleep and am always tired. I don't feel like what I do is great work, we're both just going through the motions, really. Plus, my plants always die on me, too.

At the beginning it seems like Sakurai and Youichi dislike each other. At least they're not on very friendly terms, Sakurai especially seems to be irritated by the younger man. But people around Youichi are surprised at his behaviour since he's usually not interacting this much with people at all and they try to bring the two of them closer together - in a platonic way, I guess.

This is one of the things I find strange with the story: it just seems a bit strange for Sakurai to form this kind of friendship with the boys from the boarding house. I mean, their age gap is unusual. Even the adults around Youichi don't seem to mind, on the contrary. Are they so desperate for a change in Youichis behaviour? What makes them think that Sakurai is the right person to be a mentor for Youichi? Did it never cross their minds that it's not platonic feelings of friendship that pull Youichi towards Sakurai? It's rather obvious to Fujimoto, a fellow student.
Or maybe this has a cultural aspect that I don't quite understand. Maybe with the history of wakashūdo, a kind of samurai mentorship that included sexual activity, it would be more accepted? (Though thankfully Youichi is of age.)

Fujimotos warning

Fujimoto knows what's going on between them the moment he sees the two of them together. He's fallen for Youichi, too - can't blame him, Youichi is both fascinating and beautiful - and he instantly recognizes Sakurai as a rival, so he tries his hardest to seperate them. He's also the one to point out the impossibility of a relationship.
It's also not long until Sakurai realises the nature of his feelings for Youichi. He had forgotten what it feels like to fall in love - and then this time it's with a man. And the age gap is a big problem, too. He knows he shouldn't even be starting a relationship, he tries to be sensible and stay away, but to no avail. Youichi goes into this with a kind of childish innocence, he blurts out the most suggestive things and seems unaware of  the effect it has on a confused Sakurai. And just as the older man comes to terms with his feelings and the fact that Youichi might be feeling similar and decides to start something - he's about to be transferred to another branch of the company for three years.

So, about the yaoi part...
Youichi seems to be perfectly fine with desiring another man. Maybe he's glad to have found the answer to why he's never been interested in any girls before. Sakurai has previously only had sexual relationships with women, but that's not his biggest problem - though this may change when their relationship becomes more obvious to their surroundings. Youichi is a lot younger than him (nearly 20 years!) and completely inexperienced. Plus Youichi seems like he's always just going along with whatever happens, so Sakurai doesn't know what he's feeling. With his close friends and acquaintances the young mans silence somehow works but it's a big problem in his relationship with Sakurai. Youichi is very young compared to Sakurai and Sakurai feels the weight of all the responsibility on his shoulders.

Sakurai is also unsure about what is expected from him

I thought the erotic scene was rather realistic. It wasn't "I like you - you like me - let's have buttsecks - yay" like it's often portrayed in yaoi. Though Sakurai is generally more experienced, he's also inexperienced when it comes to having sex with men. It's still obvious that he knows a lot more about what's going on, and I think that's a good thing for Youichi (I think it's better when at least one of the partners knows what he's doing). Sakurai worries about him, but is also turned on by his innocence. It's adorable how Sakurai tried to think things trough, even watched some gay porn and bought some "supplies". It's also cute how fast Youichi comes the first time (ah, young men...).
Actually I think of all the "first times" I've seen in manga, this was probably the best. Though, of course, I actually have no idea about gay intercourse...

Youichi's green but Sakurai seems to like it

Two things that bugged me a little: I'm aware that calling someone by their first name only is a bigger deal in Japan. But I think being seen during an orgasm is something very intimate and after they did what they did together, I think it's strange that Youichi still calls Sakurai by his last name. I'm really looking forward to when he'll finally call him by his first name.
And I don't need very explicit scenes in mangas, but I didn't quite like how the mature content scenes were drawn. I felt it was too heavily censored. It's not like I have to see all body parts in detail, but I sometimes was a little confused as to what exactly they were doing and it's distracting wondering about that.

More aspects that confused me were that the manga jumps a bit within the time span of several months in the beginning. And sometimes it's a bit hard to tell what the characters are only thinking and how much they're actually saying out loud.

But I like the workplace setting of Sakurais life. It's a nice change to read about office work again, haven't had that in a while. Overall Hana wa Saku ka reminds me of Tramps Like Us (one of my favourite josei mangas) which is about the unusual relationship between a hard-working woman and a younger artistic man, and Fruits Basket with the boys living alone but the main family still deciding on their lives (it seems a bit strange to me, this family clan business). Then there's a little Kuragehime in there, too, I guess.

I've only been talking about the relationship between Sakurai and Youichi, but there's other interesting characters in it, too. There's also more in it about the relationship of Youichi with his fathers legacy. But I already rambled on too much.

beautiful Youichi

It's mentioned at the end of the fourth volume that the author intends to finish this up in fife volumes. But I've read the first four and a few additional chapters now and I can't imagine how things could be wrapped up in just one more book. Especially since a new "problem" has been brought up in the last few chapters. The story's pacing was slow so far, and I liked that, so it seems weird to rush now. I really hope there'll be more. and the author doesn't ruin the story with a hurried ending.

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