“I spent all my time wondering “what if”, then one day, I woke up and I was 33”. Rinko wants to get married by the time that the Tokyo Olympics arrive in six years, but that might be easier said than done in a world stacked against her.
Rinko Kamata was 23 when she declined Mr. Hayasaka's invitation to go out, but the next decade went by in a flash as she established herself as a successful screenwriter and spent time drinking with her friends, Koyuki and Kaori. Now, Rinko is feeling pressured – she’s 33, and the Tokyo Olympics are coming up in 6 years, but what’s she really worrying about is whether life, and the chance to find someone to fall in love with, is slowly passing her by with little changing among her or her friends. When Mr. Hayasaka asks her out to dinner again Rinko puts her best foot forward to try to assuage her lingering worries that she is out of time, but is instead wrapped up with a blunt, young, blonde model who is insufferable and deems her and her friends “what-if women”.
How Was It?
My first experience reading Akiko Higashimura’s work was in reading her earlier series, Princess Jellyfish, and I had high expectations coming into Tokyo Tarareba Girls based on the heart, empathy, and humour that she imbues her stories with. Put simply, Tokyo Tarareba Girls Vol. 1 more than met these expectations because of the way delivers a sharply funny, well-plotted, and empathic approach to portraying Rinko’s life experience, and the result is an utterly readable manga that grabbed me right off the bat. I approach this manga with the keen sense that I, as a younger dude, am not the target demographic by any means (this series runs in Kodansha’s Kiss magazine, which is targeted at college aged and adult women, or the josei demographic), but this wasn’t a barrier to me enjoying this volume by any means because of the way the story brings Rinko’s worries and emotions to life in a way that is compelling and understandable. Rinko’s core frustrations and worries are not something that I can relate to on an experiential level, but the way that this story speeds along in vividly getting her emotions across is a wild success in my eyes. Put simply, this made for a profoundly enjoyable read.
Higashimura-sensei wastes no time getting this story underway, and the first chapter is a punchy whirlwind of emotion and humour as Rinko’s situation is established in the context of the question “what if” pertaining to her worrying about her life passing by. It is here that we first see the major conventions of this story introduced - we get a brief introduction to Rinko’s situation at work as well as that of her friends as they meet up at a local bar to drink and discuss their love-lives. The catalyst for this is Rinko beginning to build up her hopes after being asked out by Mr. Hayasaka again, and these nights out with her friends are a frequent occurrence over the course of the volume. Rinko ends up going on this date only to have her expectations brutally dashed before returning to the bar with her friends to ruminate further.
The way that Rinko’s date is portrayed is an excellent early example of the type of humour and dramaticism that Higashimura-sensei imbues this story with. The specific moment when her date implodes shown with the type of symbolically absurd illustration that will be familiar to those who have read Princess Jellyfish: the building roof Rinko is standing on is shown exploding to mirror her emotions in this moment. This exaggerated representation of Rinko’s thoughts becomes a frequent device used in several other situations in this volume – a particularly memorable example shows her and her friends attending a dating mixer only to have it turn into a World War II-styled battlefield when they discover that the other girls attending are all young and cute. I found these metaphorical depictions enjoyable because they simultaneously added humour to the story while also portraying the potency of Rinko’s emotions in a sharply affective manner, and these also helped the more somber accompanying moments of introspection for Rinko carry even more emotional weight because of the serious contrast in tone.
The camaraderie between Rinko and her friends is established wonderfully in this early going as both humourous and sympathetic here as she reports the results of her date to her friends, and her relationship with them is a major driver of the plot beyond this first chapter. This is quickly built up to be an endearing relationship because of the sharp banter which occurs here, and this helps provide another avenue to explore more about the issues these women face. This complements the strong depiction of Rinko’s feelings well – we get both narration from Rinko about her emotions, including her fears, self-doubt, and frustrations, but another funny device used is that of the talking pieces codfish milt and liver that visit Rinko when she gets drunk. These pieces of food are funny, but also quite poignant in illustrating the slow creep of Rinko’s anxiousness about her situation. Overall, Rinko’s interactions with her friends as her support system help to elucidate her situation in a way that complements the other devices used to put forward her feelings – this story is about the constant march of Rinko’s emotional process more than anything else, and Higashimura-sensei nails this opening depiction.
The chapter ends on an appropriately jarring note when the three are loudly told off by stylish young man for being “what-if women” wasting their time drinking and complaining about the “what-ifs” of their lives without trying to fulfill them. This brought Rinko’s core frustration of feeling left-behind to the fore in a strong way, and I particularly liked the use of metaphorical devices, such as one where Rinko relates the situation of her and her friend to that of baseball players sitting out of a game, to help illustrate her feelings from multiple angles. Much of the rest of this volume revolves around her constant interactions with this man, and I thought it was fascinating to see the way their unpleasant interactions triggered further introspection from Rinko in unexpected ways. I’m interested to see how this relationship develops in the future, and this was a promising opening in terms of intersecting their meeting with that striking moment of bluntness and realization.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the first chapter of this volume, but I think it bears the most discussion because the rest of this volume extends outward from the plot points, frustrations, and story conventions which are introduced in this early going. Much of this concerns the intersection between Rinko’s personal situation and her worklife, and specific attention is given to the barriers and frustrations that Rinko faces in her professional life. This volume does a great job illustrating the ways that her work life and personal life are both held back by similar types of problems, and we get to see this from a couple of different angles when she is spurned professionally in favour of a younger woman. As I noted above, the blonde man factors quite heavily into this – he’s a jerk to Rinko, but he also helps to explicate to readers the implicit attitudes that Rinko faces in a more overt way that made the issues at hand quite clear. This is balanced by Higashimura-sensei’s exaggerated depiction of Rinko’s responses to situations that arise such as being faced with disagreement over her script, and I liked that these kept things moving along at a good speed while getting the Rinko's feelings across. There’s plenty of humour here, but this is balanced with a continually empathetic depiction of Rinko that illustrates her personal journey with regard to the barriers she faces well.
Tokyo Tarareba Girls Vol. 1 is a fantastic read, and if you are a fan of Princess Jellyfish you should be reading this immediately (if you are not already). Reflecting on this volume, the thing I’m the most impressed by is the skill by which this volume really made me think about and want to engage with Rinko’s emotions, and this was accomplished in several different ways. Rinko’s situation is illustrated through poignant metaphorical depictions along with strong and sharp banter between her and her friends, but this is punctuated by moments of emotionally affective narration which bring her feelings to the fore in a clear way. This volume is funny, and moves at a perfect pace in laying out and then exploring different facets of Rinko’s emotional experience. I worry that I am preaching to the choir here of people who are already fans of Higashimura-sensei’s work, or josei more generally, who are more attuned to and aware of this body of work. My response is this for people who might otherwise assume that this series is “not for you” is this : if you are at all interested in funny, well-told stories generally that touch upon aspects of the human experience you may not be familiar with humour and heart, please give this a try - you will probably enjoy it.
Tokyo Tarareba Girls Vol. 1 was translated by Steven LeCroy and published by Kodansha Comics digitally on February 14th, 2017. Authored by Akiko Higashimura, the series is ongoing in Kodansha’s Kiss magazine.
Date of Publication: February 14th, 2017
Author: Akiko Higashimura
Translator: Steven LeCroy
Editor: Sarah Tilson
Publisher: Kodansha Comics