March Favorites

It’s finally starting to feel like spring, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s so much easier to motivate myself to work when the sun is shining, especially after months and months of frigid winds and gray skies. March is always an odd month, sitting right at the edge of winter and spring, and it often makes me feel unsettled.

After over a month since my sweet kitty Mia’s passing, my husband and I decided we would start the process of looking for new feline companions, specifically hoping to adopt a bonded pair. We absolutely did not expect to adopt on the day we went to the local MSPCA shelter, but of course…the cats had other plans. On March 17th (Saint Gertrude’s Day, the patron saint of cats!), we brought home Zelda and Hilda, a mother-daughter pair of little black cats. They are charming in the extreme, so expect me to gush about them even more as time passes.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m going to be having my wisdom teeth removed this coming Friday. It’s long overdue, and I’ll be glad once it’s done, but I’m definitely dreading what I’ve heard is a rather painful healing process. But who knows, maybe it’ll afford me more time to read….

Which brings me to the point of this post! Last month I did a round up of my favorite comics reads, and I’m going to go for it again. If I do it twice, it’s a monthly column, right? I actually didn’t read a ton of comics this month, instead favoring some truly indulgent murder mystery audiobooks. But of what I did read, there are a few certain gems that I want to share.

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Star Light Woman, by Rie Kanou — available through Crunchyroll

At the start of the month, I decided to sift through the various reading-oriented apps on my tablet to find something new, and I came upon Star Light Woman on Crunchyroll. I was drawn by the image of protagonist Hoshi, rendered in what I think of as an 80s manga style, all puffy hair and cut-off shorts. I’m not sure what I was expecting — maybe a silly, slightly sexy sci-fi romp? And that’s more or less what it is, but somehow I really, really loved it. Hoshi just wants to lead a normal life, but she is the product of an experiment by an alien race to create the perfect weapon to save them from their enemies. She continually has to thwart these aliens while encountering other humans who have undergone similar transformations at their hands. It’s a short little series without much depth, but it’s truly funny and the artwork is stunning. I’m usually very critical of “sexy lady protagonist whose clothes don’t fit properly,” but Hoshi even gets my blood pumping, and I think that her strong, solid frame coupled with her highly moral principles lends a lot to her appeal. She’s like an embodiment of righteous female anger — a subject I’m always eager to see in my fiction!

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Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen, by Moyoco Anno — available through Crunchyroll

I love Moyoco Anno’s work, though I have to admit that this was only the second thing of hers I had ever read. Sakuran was a gorgeous and deeply provocative manga, so when I was scrolling through options on Crunchyroll’s manga app after finishing Star Light Woman, I remembered that I had been meaning to read Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen for quite some time. I was not at all disappointed, and in fact I read Buffalo 5 Gals immediately afterward, just to get more of Anno’s sassy sex working heroines. But Amorous Gentlemen is special, probably my favorite of Anno’s works thus far. She is incredibly sensitive with sex work while also not over-glamorizing it; Colette and all her co-workers go about their day-to-day business like at any other job, and in many cases care very deeply about their clients. But they also are in close quarters, so they fight and disagree, and sometimes they are all too aware of how they are doomed to this life. The sex scenes are sometimes clinical and sometimes genuinely sexy, and I think that knowing when to evoke which mood in a reader is an incredible skill on Anno’s part. I’m also always going to be a sucker for her very stylized artwork, all angles and frills and fashion.

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Candy Color Paradox, Volume 1, by Isaku Natsume — published by VIZ Media

The only manga on this month’s list that’s actually new this month, and the only one that has male protagonists! I was able to snag a galley copy of this right before it came out, and I honestly didn’t think it would be anything special. I’ll usually try to read new BL when it comes out, but I’ve been burned so many times with cliched plots or harmful tropes that it’s more a desire to keep up-to-date than an expectation that I’ll find something great. But VIZ’s SuBLime imprint has been knocking it out of the park lately, and I really liked this first volume. Protagonist Satoshi Onoe is a reporter who is proud of his body of work, but one day he is thrown onto a stakeout team with Motoharu Kaburagi, a photographer with a bad attitude whom Onoe believes stole his girlfriend away. The two start off on rough terms, but soon find that they work well together — and they begin to “catch feelings.” You know, that old gem. Honestly, it was cute and fluffy, and I feel like it’s been a long time since I read some straightforward “loathe to like to love” BL manga. The artwork is clean and appealing, with good sense of movement.

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Nana, by Ai Yazawa — published by VIZ Media

This month, I decided to embark on a reread of Nana, and I’ve gotten up through volume 7 so far. I honestly don’t remember how much if it I’ve read in the past, so I wanted to make sure I got the full experience. I had watched the anime with my husband many years ago, and it wrecked us both, so coming back to it now, as a woman approaching my thirties instead of a woman barely out of her early 20s, is kind of a weird sensation. I’m farther away from any chance of making rash young adult decisions, but also in a place where I can envy the energy and passion that the characters portray as they lead a dramatic, punk-poverty-chic lifestyle. The series is old now, at least in the timeline of manga, so I don’t feel the need to summarize it, though I may one day write a whole piece about its meaningfulness to me, personally. I remember it didn’t sell great at Comicopia, but it was one of those series that I was adamant about keeping around. Yazawa’s artwork is so strange, with leggy, large-eyed Blythe-doll-esque characters and gorgeous renderings of haute couture of the 2000s, and I’m always enthralled by it. And I genuinely wish there was more work like Nana, work that explored the fraught relationships between female friends who love each other so passionately but don’t have the outlet to express it — an experience that will surely be familiar to many who squashed down their feelings throughout their teenage years for fear of judgment, or just because they didn’t have the tools to recognize those feelings. Society fucks women over, and Yazawa does an incredible job of balancing that message with a lot of genuine sensitivity for two very different women who are desperately reaching for an unobtainable happiness.

So, fluffy BL aside, it seems like I’ve read a bunch of manga about women who are dealing with too many external pressures getting in the way of their desires. That sounds like an appropriate way to have spent Women’s History Month! Honestly, though, my favorite works are often those by women representing the trials of womanhood — not because womanhood is terrible! But because it is cathartic to see your own worries magnified and projected in media sometimes, to see those fears getting played out somewhere safe, allowing you to recognize their validity but also release them in order to achieve your own goals, always knowing that you’re not alone.

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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.