Tokyo Tarareba Girls & the Fear of Feeling Unwanted

Just a couple weeks ago, I talked about how much I had been enjoying the Wotakoi manga, and how I yearned for more josei manga that centered around the relatable struggles of women’s everyday lives. I had forgotten that the print edition of Akiko Higashimura’s Tokyo Tarareba Girls would be coming out so soon, and it is another shining example of exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I want to preface the meat of my review by saying that I am very different from the story’s protagonist, Rinko. I am 28 years old, happily married, and while I’m still trying to figure out my career, I am at least heading in a direction that feels fruitful. And even if all that weren’t the case, I very strongly do not ascribe to societal ideas about appropriate ages to marry, have children, etc. But a lot of women do, and that external pressure can be suffocating.

Rinko, at 33, is an established screenwriter for various webseries dramas. She is not only unmarried, but has also not really been dating for quite some time. Our story starts with her 33rd birthday and the announcement that Tokyo will be hosting the 2020 Olympics. Suddenly, she feels that she doesn’t want to remain unwed once the Olympics start, so she’s given herself a deadline to find a husband.

The only problem is, she’s not working particularly hard to meet anyone new! She hopes that a man she works with who had shown interest in her ten years previously might be interested again, but he has moved on to her much younger, pink-haired coworker, leaving Rinko feeling old and unwanted. At the pub she and her friends frequent, they encounter a rude young man who tells them plainly that they’re wasting time getting drunk, and that their activities are less like a “girls’ night,” and more like an “old maids’ gossip circle.” He is the one who first calls them “”what-if” women, and while he’s extraordinarily rude, something about his words rings true for Rinko. When he shows up to audition for one of her dramas and complains about the script, she loses her position on that series and begins to truly feel that she is unwanted.

And this, for me, is what Tokyo Tarereba Girls is about: the fear of being unwanted once you are no longer young, pretty, and willing to please. There is an insidious idea that women are no longer interesting once they become — pardon my language — unfuckable. In fact, Rinko loses her position to a younger woman who she discovers is sleeping with the producer, causing Rinko to spiral into a deep depression. At the close of the first volume, the rude young model/actor, Key, offers her a way to get ahead.

Tokyo Tarereba Girls has been available in English digitally through Kodansha for some time now, so I’ve seen a fair amount of single panels or discussions of its message and meaning (without completely spoiling myself, of course). It is my feeling that the story will go on to redefine Rinko’s position that she needs to be married to one where she learns to focus on herself and her goals, without buckling to outside pressure. At least, that’s what I hope!

In many ways, Tokyo Tarereba Girls isn’t a happy story. So many women (and I’m sure folks of other genders, as well) feel adrift in a sea of societal expectation. There are so many thinkpieces out there on millennials “choosing” not to buy houses or have children; even if you have no interest in bending to the whims of society, it’s hard to avoid acknowledging that you don’t tick off certain boxes. And yet, Higashimura delivers this anxiety wrapped in the sense of humor that set Princess Jellyfish apart before; there is no attempt to show Rinko and her friends as beautiful paragons of virtue who are underserving of their fate. They are all normal women, with normal lives and normal stresses. They are crass and selfish, women who we might not want to be, but who we recognize in ourselves and in our friends and family.

It is tempting to claim that women like Rinko, who obsess over age, desirability, and the perceived expectations of others, are silly and shallow. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see this kind of criticism even coming from other women. So it was rather refreshing to see, at the back of this first volume, Higashimura’s own beliefs about marriage — essentially, that she fell into it by accident and that she doesn’t put too much weight on its merits. She has pushed back against her friends for their own fears, encouraging them to eschew their anxieties and just live their lives…but then she has also crafted this story highlighting those very real anxieties. She cannot relate to her friends in real life, but she can understand the concerns they have enough to show readers their value.

Since manga began legal English-language circulation, there have always been stories centered around adult men and their struggles and fantasies. It is gratifying to know that the girls and women who facilitated the huge manga boom of the late 90s and early aughts now have manga that have grown up with them, with protagonists their age who also may feel adrift, alone, and unwanted as they age and change. I believe that the manga market is ready for more josei and has been for a while now.

Because I’m terrible at keeping up with digital releases, I’m looking very forward to continuing Tokyo Tarareba Girls as it comes out in print. I know that she’s been acknowledged extensively in Japan, but I really hope to see Akiko Higashimura recognized for her genius in the North American market. To that end, I encourage everyone to try her work, whether it be this or Princess Jellyfish. She captures the struggle of being a woman from so many different perspectives and with such sensitivity, without sacrificing either wit or drama. She truly is a spectacular creator.

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