Recently, Moyoco Anno’s manga have come into my radar in a big way, both through Sakuran and Insufficient Direction (available from Vertical). While perusing the treasures of a comic store’s forgotten manga section I stumbled across a title I remembered seeing on the shelf what seems like ages ago, something me from 10 years ago would have, and did completely overlook. But the name on the spine jumped out at me, my eyes halted their speed browsing scan of the shelf, and into my stack went Flowers and Bees, an early 2000s manga by Moyoco Anno. Not knowing what to expect, I dove head first into yet another world of sharp tongued honesty and wit, the likes of which Anno is so deliciously capable of.
Flowers and Bees follows sad sack high schooler Masao Komatsu on his quest to A) become popular, B) attract the ladies (specifically high school model Noriko), and C) be stylish. Of course at the beginning he is none of the above, and utterly incapable of achieving his goals under his own power. As fate would have it Komatsu follows a “stylish” guy into the World of Beautiful Men Salon and his life is changed forever.
The core of Komatsu’s conflict relentlessly pushes him towards some fascinating commentary on confidence. From the very first chapter the unwitting protagonist is told it’s not important what the look is, it’s how you sell it to those around you. This advice is administered after receiving a truly horrendous shearing, but it continues to ring true for Komatsu during the rest of the series. While the bumbling high schooler struggles with this sage advice we are able to watch and laugh as he flails about, grasping at straws to understand why his idols and those around them are so successfully cool.
While Komatsu’s dilemmas provide comedic tension, a considerable amount of situational irony is placed around him. We really only learn of the high schooler’s obsession with model Noriko, and his desire to achieve his goals. Beyond those two points Komatsu becomes a hollow shell: a character with no motivations, interests, desires, likes, hobbies, or anything that makes him something more than a mindless drone. He’s even given advice by the Devil Sisters to talk about his hobbies, or anything that would make him unique. Certainly, attributing his individuality to a quest of social perfection wouldn’t exactly be the best way to talk about himself, but at least it would be something. But even this detail is beyond the reach of Anno’s tragic protagonist, and to a fault he’s never able to come up with a single individual opinion.
Meanwhile every single major character who pops up around Komatsu manages to achieve some level of development, sometimes right in Komatsu’s face. Sakura is into martial arts; Yamada is a history buff; Hiromi is into cute animal characters. Each player has something beyond just their primary motivations which subsequently allows them means to disconnect from dramatic tensions in the story. Anno enables her side characters to enter and exit Komatsu’s affairs through their underlying interests, and in doing so allows them to evolve.
It’s not just the presence of hobbies or interests that enables side characters to flourish, it’s the confidence they place in themselves. Yamada is a particularly interesting case in that he actually incorporates his interest, history, into a date. On the other side, Komatsu, the confidence lacking skeptic, is left in a bewildered state that such an “uncool” date actually turns out favorable for Yamada. Again, Komatsu lacks the ability to have confidence in himself to try something similar. He agonizes constantly at being unable to get a proper date together, and even when the opportunity presents itself he never thinks to incorporate his (albeit superficial) interests in fashion into the date.
While comedically sharp and excellently short, Flowers and Bees is a sadistically endearing read. Komatsu is equally fun to pity, laugh at, and have remorse for. His blunders never manage to get stale, and consistently tackle different aspects of what it means to find confidence. If Nick from 10 years ago had the taste in comics as present day Nick, this series would have easily found its way onto the shelf. Anno’s unforgiving storytelling is a breath of fresh air among stale, predictable romance stories, and makes Komatsu’s comedy almost feel like a tragedy. It’s a rare treat to enjoy so much depth in a tried and true romance story format.
Flowers and Bees is complete in 7 volumes, and available (from used book sellers) for mature readers from Viz.