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Flowers and Bees
is one of manga artist Moyoco Anno's early modest proposals: what if a teen boy went to as great a length, if not greater, as some teen girls do in his attempt to live up to an unrealizable standard of beauty? High school student Masao Komatsu gets a crush on a teen model; he begins going to The World of Beautiful Men salon, where he eventually indentures himself (and endures much abuse and humiliation) to pay for beauty treatments and crash courses in how to attract the opposite sex. Along the way, he learns how to interact with women and enters into several mentor/mentee relationships with men. Flowers and Bees
is one part schadenfreude, one part cautionary tale, two parts barbed social commentary and one part coming of age story.
Reason 1. Flowers and Bees was ahead of its time.
It came out in Japan in a young men's magazine in 2000 and was published by Viz in English in 2003, around the time Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
made its debut. In 2011, the U.S. beauty industry is facing the age-old dilemma: the market is saturated and hard-hit by the economy, so they're attempting to break into new ones, but they're facing resistance. To generalize, to sell to men, the product has to be rebranded, the language changed
(the old doll/action figure hat trick; remember, men's beauty aids are kept in an entirely different aisle in drugstores than women's). I don't have any solid data as to whether this rebranding is effective at changing attitudes, much less prying dollars out of wallets; I've just recently noticed ads from stores that traditionally target women targeting men, such as The Body Shop and Weight Watchers (the latter has a special "just for men" website
), because men's brains can't handle the point system, and their delicate bodies need special workouts. I kid, I kid.
As a female reader who's weathered the beauty/fashion industrial complex, a lot of the humor in Flowers and Bees
, especially in the earlier volumes, comes from Masao's botched beauty treatment and his dawning realization of the sheer amount of time, money and effort that goes into something that no one else sees ($500 pants when he has to wear a school uniform, waxing). Anno's female characters have big eyes, big hair, big mouths and tiny waists; it is the males in this comic who are obsessed with their perceived physical flaws ("I have short legs!" replaces breast-size anxiety). Anno, who is also a fashion writer, uses BDSM as an apt organizing metaphor for the proprietors of the salon, two sisters, and what they represent. Just the slightest notice by one of Masao's classmates sends him back into their clutches; it's clear they need young, impressionable victims just as much as he needs to be victimized.
Reason 2. No cartoonist satirizes gender politics like Anno.
Both Anno's untranslated Hataraki Man
and Flowers and Bees
feature protagonists renegotiating gender norms. In Hataraki Man
, the main character, Hiroko Matsukata, transforms into a "salary man," i.e. works hard and with a direct demeanor; however, her aims are often thwarted because others just can't deal with a woman who doesn't act how she's supposed to. In Flowers and Bees
, Masao's obsession with girls leads him to study and more or less emulate them; at one point he runs to a sort-of girlfriend for eyebrow tweezing. Sakura, a beautiful-but-hard classmate who takes a special interest in Masao, is more adept at fighting than he is.
In fact, the title Flowers and Bees
itself invokes a gender role reversal; Masao is told, and believes for a time, that men must cultivate themselves like flowers, while women, easily bored and elusive, flit among them like bees (Anno populates the manga with many pin-up images of women with wings or in bee costumes). It is this cultivation —his effort to better understand women — that keeps Masao from being more than just a self-involved jerk (Yamada, an ugly guy who undergoes a transformation more extreme than Masao's, represents the pursuit of beauty as pure narcissism.)
Reason 3. Anno is subversive.
Superficially and aesthetically, Anno's stories very much resemble the genres she dismantles, and often can be enjoyed on that level — except that she often exaggerates the genre tropes, exploring their underpinnings in the process. In Flowers and Bees
, which appeared in a magazine aimed at 20- to 30- something men, in scenario after scenario, Anno proves that in the battle of the sexes, no one is particularly well-served by objectifying or being objectified. (For a manga about a guy trying to get laid, with lots of sexy drawings of women, most of the sex scenes are undercut by sadness or desperation.) The subtext of her magical girl shoujo
manga, Sugar Sugar Rune
, is that it isn't all hearts and flowers; love can screw you up. Her josei
manga, Happy Mania
, shows the kind of crappy, real-life consequences a character that "lives for love" would face. By the conclusion of her works, there's usually been some change the status quo.
Reason 4. Heroes aren't always heroes, and villains aren't always villains.
Anno is unsentimental; her characters operate in strict social pecking orders, openly competing with one another. Her flawed characters can be unlikeable (I didn't like Flowers and Bees
the first time I read it), but they are sympathetic; they often behave in messy, perverse, believable ways. Hataraki Man
's Hiroko and Flowers and Bees
' Masao are somewhat redeemed by the fact that they want to step out of themselves and learn about others; they are making the effort to change, even if they're not terribly adept at it.
Reason 5. Anno cartoons great sex scenes, or rather, she cartoons sex scenes that are hilarious and sex scenes that are sad.
There's a lot of frank, funny talk about sex in Flowers and Bees
(translated by Yuji Oniki and adapted by Carl Horn); the inexperienced Masao realistically fumbles several opportunities to have sex because the timing/situation/partner isn't right. One of the best sequences in the series is when Masao is confronted by his would-be girlfriend Hiromi naked in a love hotel; she's so focused on making Masao obsessed with her that she's completely thrown off when he asks her if she
Reason 6. Anno's "extras."
In her off-the-cuff, first person comics section ("omake") at the end of each volume, for some reason, Anno draws herself like a demented baby, torturing the likewise-infantile Afterward Boy. She also complains quite entertainingly about not being married (by the end of the series, she sheepishly mentions that she has, in fact, wedded) and not getting paid for the omake.
Reason 7. Anno can draw pretty girls, subtle differences in grooming and clothes.
This is a fairly useful skill in a comic about pretty girls, subtle differences in grooming and clothes.
Reason 8. Anno has cut down on her cartooning for health reasons.
Anno has unfortunately had to suspend her serial Hataraki Man
for this reason. Her body of work is relatively small; it's best to read as much of it as one can.
Images ©Moyoco Anno text ©Viz
Kristy Valenti currently works for The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
Uncharted Territory is © Kristy Valenti, 2010