Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Breath of Flowers volume 1 - an original French (?) language "manga" (Manga-inspired Comic Review)

Breath of Flowers vol. 1 - 8/10

Whelp, that score really surprised me. I guess I really liked Breath of Flowers volume 1 (Tokyopop). It's not without its problems, but the truth is, it was cute and gave me lots of feels as I was reading it, and I think it's well deserving of that score. It did set itself apart a bit from the crowd.

Breath of Flowers is by Caly. I have no idea who this is, but reading the publishing page in the volume, it appears that this volume was first published in France. Given that it is not set in Japan or the US (from various context cues throughout) and that there are many western names, I imagine that it actually takes place in France as well. So my guess is that this is an Original French Language Manga (OFLM - a play on OELM, an older term for manga-style comics by American creators).

And the use of that term, "manga," is the first problem we need to address. Tokyopop clearly lists this as a manga, and even has an advertisement on a back page for other international "manga" creators. But can a comic, created by someone outside the Japanese publishing (or self-publishing) market, and who is not Japanese, be considered manga?

At first, I would have thought so. Being naive, I just assumed it was talking more about the art style, or comics influenced by Japanese comics. But I've since come to understand that the word "manga" should be reserved for those that are published by Japanese publishers (or Doujinshi or similar self-published works) and by Japanese creators. It is the name for their industry more than anything, not one particular art style.

Certainly creators around the world have taken stereotypical aspects of so-called manga style, some so well as to be indistinguishable, but that doesn't make it manga. Calling it manga would be a form of cultural appropriation that could lead to the erasure of the real thing. I want to thank the inimitable translator Rachel Thorn for helping me to better grasp this through several twitter threads on the subject. I couldn't find the exact ones of her's that I had read, but here are few to get you started:

You need to read this full thread:

And this one:

Those are just a few, and certainly Rachel, a scholar deeply embedded in Japanese culture, who lives permanently in Japan, is a professor there, and is a leading translator of manga, is in a prime position to help us in the west better understand what we do when we do things like call western comics "manga" and the negative impact is has. Over the past year, my understanding has really grown which is why I'm now calling out Tokyopop for labeling "Breath of Flowers" and all these other manga-inspired comics as manga. So from this point forward, I will refer to it as a manga-inspired comic.

On to the review!!!!!!

Azami (one of the few Japanese names in this comic - I'm guilty of using Japanese names in my fiction as well) always stares at the hot, and talented boy Gwyn during basketball games. One day, Azami accidentally walks in on Gwyn changing and realizes that "he" is a "she"! In her stunned state, Azami collapses and then angrily declares that she was in love with Gwyn when she comes to.

Gwyn, wanting to patch things up, asks to meet her again and shows up wearing a skirt instead of the boys uniform. Gwyn explains that this school didn't have a girls basketball team so she dressed as a boy to get on this one. Azami is angry but promises to keep her secret. Then Gwyn shares that she's noticed Azami staring at her and is in love with her too. But Gwyn also assumes that Azami couldn't possibly feel that way anymore, now that she knows Gwyn is a girl. Annoyed that Gwyn thinks her love is so simple as to end because of gender, Azami kisses Gwyn on the cheek and they start dating. The rest of the volume includes their early stages of getting to know each other, a rival that comes up, and spending the day together. (Gwyn by the way stands for Gwyndoline).

I got excited after the first chapter thinking that this wasn't going to be a yuri manga-inspired comic at all, but actually about a transgender guy. There was a clothes shopping scene early on where it appeared that Gwyn was uncomfortable with women's clothes. But unfortunately, as the volume progressed, she professes that she actually wants people to know she's really a girl, she's even going to transfer schools to one where she can play on the girl's team. So that was a let-down. I was excited for some true trans masc representation in comics.

So in fact, it might be closer to a yuri version of Hana-Kimi, I guess. I love Hana-Kimi, however, some of its humor didn't age well (homophobic). So one of the things that makes Breath of Flowers unique (at least when compared to much authentic commercial yuri manga) is that it dives (lightly) into the reality of LGBTQ teen lives, and actually slightly acknowledges them as a lesbian couple.

Most yuri comics exist in a fantasy world where there isn't the dangerous social pressures or outright hostility against lesbians (think Sakura Trick, Girl Friends, or even Maria Watches Over Us [my fav]). Here, we get a coming out scene (played for humor by an accepting family - the mom's safe-sex quote is hilarious) and a few other cursory mentions. That was a pleasant surprise. I would love to see this series and others more openly acknowledge their characters as lesbians and not just reside in the insular yuri fantasy world.

The writing is pretty good throughout, although there were a few clunker lines (which might be from translation, although I couldn't say, so not placing any blame here). The characters are both likable, with Azami having some flaws which is good (we're still waiting to get to know Gwyn more as a person, she seems a little bit too perfect so far). The story is largely predictable, but told well and with some great feels. More than anything, that's what I liked about this volume. It kept making me feel things, even though it was just blushing high-schoolers. Each kiss or hug really hit me, so...YAY!

Problem: as I mentioned earlier, Gwyn enters school as a boy. Anytime there is a gender presentation swap that is not accompanied by actual gender non-conformity or trans identities I get a little worried. I fear that use of this narrative device adds to the distrust and disbelief in what actual transgender people (like myself) say about ourselves: that trans women ARE women and that trans men ARE men.

I don't know of anyone, anywhere, who has presented as another gender for the sake of getting on a sports team (this comic) or getting into an all-boys school to chase after a one-sided love (Hana Kimi) or similar ridiculous purposes. I don't personally mind those setups because I know that it is totally distinct from the trans experience, but I'm concerned that others don't. I'm worried it fuels the fire that anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ activists (and many in the public) believe that men will dress as women to get access to "women only spaces" (whatever those are) and harm them (which is illegal anyway).

I don't want to limit creators, but I do wish they would consider whether a "gender swap" story really needs to be told without true gender non-conformity or transgender identity representation. I care about these two characters and want to see them together, we didn't need a gender swap setup to make that happen. Unless, of course, this isn't the end of Gwyn's gender exploration...there's no hint of that, but I can hope, right?

The art is very good. I love how some of the shading looks more like watercolor wash. Some of the lines look more like pencil lines than ink lines, and that also adds to the depth of the drawing. There is a lot of confidence in the art and a richness to the use of varied materials and lines that makes each page visually interesting. It's also important to note that the backgrounds look vaguely western and that many of the students' faces also look more European/Western.

I want to acknowledge the stereotypes I just participated in with that last sentence. I remember my mom asking me why no one in manga or anime "looks" Japanese. My reply was that when you saw how those artists typically drew someone of European descent it would be obvious that the other characters do look Japanese to the Japanese. They aren't depicting themselves with harsh western-derived stereotypical Asian features which is why they didn't "look" Japanese to my white/European-descent mother. Manga/anime artists were depicting themselves as they see themselves which means  stereotypes are instead turned outward onto the depiction of foreigners (so things like lighter fluffier hair, bigger noses, unsubtle features, hulking body language, etc...). So what I mean to say about "Breath of Flowers" is that the facial features of the students often reminded me more of a depiction of someone of European background which is as it should be for this comic set in France. To have fully appropriated a "manga" style but failed to modify it to visually represent the background of the characters would not have been good, so I'm glad there were some differences.

So I really liked the characters, story, and art, but have two big problems: 1) it's NOT manga despite how it's marketed (and I have no idea what the creator, Caly, calls it). And so the art's heavy reliance on manga conventions needs to be viewed as just that, borrowing tropes and styles the artist likes. Fine. I also think the art did a somewhat adequate job of situation this story in France (which I'm assuming from both the publishing location, the character's mentioning going to the US, the look of the buildings, and the look of the other students and their names). 2) The use of a gender-swap as a set-up to introduce the characters without any true gender non-conformity of transgender identity.

On the plus side, there was some hints at true LGBTQ experiences and an acknowledgment that this relationship was happening in a more complex world than most yuri comics. So if you can put the two problems (being manga-inspired and the gender-swap cliche) aside, the story and art is well done. It was cute and loving and emotional. So even with the problems, I found myself really really liking it and wanting more. I'm giving it a hopeful 8/10 that it will continue to differentiate itself from the legitimate manga it copies so closely (it's even published right to left!) and include more LGTBQ representation and maybe even some more true gender non-conformity and exploration.


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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