I first encountered Renaissance Yoshida in the late, great Erotics f. While I admired the way she stepped out of the typical manga mould with her shaky lines and awkward sex scenes, I never quite managed to get into that serialization. Her line work was almost too shaky, to the point of being uncontrolled, verging on scribbles at times, and she never quite sucked me in. In retrospect, I wonder if this wasn’t because I was reading a chapter every other month in the magazine, which didn’t really allow me to sink into the story. And now that I’ve read Himotoku Hana, I’m pretty sure Yoshida is the kind of artist you have to submerge yourself in, drown along with her.
Unsurprisingly, drowning with her hurts. The subtitle of Himotoku hidden under the jacket is “Songs of Self-Abuse”, and yes, that’s basically what the entire book is. So consider yourself warned. What happens in these pages is painful to watch and often R-rated, although not in a rape-y way, so rest assured on that front. But you might not want to click through if watching someone destroy themselves through sex is a little too real-world painful.
Manga artist Natsumi tells us as she painstakingly draws flower after flower that people can lie by telling the truth, and they can also tell the truth by lying. She then prefaces the story that follows with a disclaimer: it’s not about her. It’s about a girl who could be anyone. It’s the kind of story you see all the time. And, sadly, it is. We go back to high school when Natsumi had sex with another girl’s boyfriend in a storage room at school, not because she was into him or sex, but because she doesn’t want to lose. But even she is not clear to whom or at what. She hates herself, and liking people who don’t like her is her way of dealing with that. When a boy at school tells her he has a crush on her and asks her to go out with him, she feels the ground under her feet give way. This boy is seeing her. Which means that someday he will abandon her. The fear is so deeply ingrained in her that the first time he touches her—so innocently, holding her hand after he asks so politely—she literally vomits. Best to hurt him first, keep herself safe. So when he catches her having sex with the other girl’s boyfriend on the roof, it’s a relief. She doesn’t have to worry about him leaving her now.
This is the pattern repeated over and over throughout her life. And Yoshida doesn’t she away from showing the ugly bits of this pattern of self-destruction. She unflinchingly depicts Natsumi’s self-hatred, her life as a sex worker in the soaplands of Tokyo. (And it should be noted here that obviously, not all sex workers or even the majority of them hate themselves. But it’s clear that Natsumi chooses sex work as a form of self-flagellation.) She plays the part well, cheerful and submissive, always looking to please the men who pay to see her, but the second they’re gone, the smiling mask drops from her face, and she is contemptuous of them. She hates regulars, the ones who ask for her by name; it ruins her image of the whole thing as a conveyor belt of men as parts sliding by, passing through.
Even after she leaves sex work and starts working as a manga artist, she can’t shake this hatred of a sexual gaze turned on her, the contempt that inevitably rises up to hide the fear of being abandoned so deeply ingrained in her. She does everything she can to sabotage a relationship she truly wants with a woman she actually probably loves. Natsumi doesn’t know how to leave this part of herself behind, and she eventually returns to the soaplands to have the sex she doesn’t like with men she hates.
This was a hard read and so painfully realistic that more than once I wondered if it wasn’t the story of Yoshida herself (not that a person can’t write convincingly about something other than their own life, but it’s easy to project with something so personal). She writes about Natsumi’s internal struggle so persuasively, with such conviction that it’s easy to think she has personally gone through everything in these pages. And it resonated with me—not because I’ve secretly been supplementing my income with soapland work, but because I was a high school girl once too. All these conflicting messages young women are given—be sexy, don’t have sex, you’re too fat, your boobs are too small—drags so many of us into a place where we feel like we have to have sex in order to be loved, like we are nothing but an object for male sexuality to act on. It’s hard to feel like you’re a complete person with anything to offer when the whole world around you is telling you that actually, you’re not and you don’t.
And the almost scribbly lines Yoshida uses are too perfect for this story of a young woman just barely keeping it together. The tension in them, the threat of unravelling is ever present. She makes other interesting choices too, like partially blotting out the faces of many of the men Natsumi has sex with, reminding us that they are not the important part of this equation. And she often lets the sound effects cover the text, or the text cover the images to the point of erasing both, dragging us further into Natsumi’s internal world by functionally deleting her external world.
Naturally, Yoshida came up through the world of Boys Love after making her debut in Opera and has now graduated to the world of more mainstream manga. I feel like all the really interesting manga is being made by former BL artists. But that training in complicated sexual situations really serves her in this work. I could even see this as a BL manga, making Natsumi a man, but it wouldn’t weigh on the reader so heavily that way. It’s because Natsumi can’t escape from the framework of womanhood and all the expectations that rest heavy on her shoulders that Himotoku is as uncomfortable and painful as it is.