Monday, April 6, 2020

Missed it Monday - Tokyo Tarareba Girls Volume 2 (Manga Review)

Three 30-something women ready for battle
"Missed it Monday" is the ongoing column where I review manga/anime that I didn't get to read/watch when they first came out.

Tokyo Tarareba Girls vol. 2 - 8/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

Tokyo Tarareba Girls is like "Sex in the City" if the characters were actually working on recognizing and self-reflecting on what not great people they were. This is taken up a notch in volume 2 (Kodansha Comics) where we learn more about Koyuki and Kaori than we did in volume 1, and all three women get themselves into some uncomfortable and complex romantic messes.

In volume 1 we were introduced to three thirty-something and single young women, Rinko, Kaori, and Koyuki. In volume 2, Rinko has just slept with Key, the younger male model, and she's not sure what this means. Key is also seen visiting a grave repeatedly.

We also learn about the one who "got away" (or should we say, was let go) by Kaori. Ryo was an aspiring musician whom she thought wouldn't make it big. Naturally, Key is the model in the videos for Ryo's new, fast rising, band. When they meet again, Ryo is very friendly towards Kaori despite having a girlfriend, and things lead where they lead.

Koyuki meets a man at the restaurant her family owns. As they begin to hit it off, he reveals that he is married, and she consents to an affair anyway.


First, it is really refreshing to have a josei series translated and published in English. It's also really refreshing to have a series that is willing to have characters that are less than likable but also completely relatable. They are fundamentally kind and good people who have made some not-great decisions but also reflect some of their not-great values, at least earlier in their lives. They are living the consequences of those decisions and their values and coming to terms with the impact on their adult lives. The question will become how much self-reflection they do, what they learn from it, and do they take control of their own happiness? These are messy people, just like everyone.

One remarkable thing about this, is that it manages to critically examine these three women, who are quite imperfect, without being misogynistic at all. A strong female writer makes this possible. It is insightful and realistic, presenting them as far from ideal and less than angelic, but doesn't demonize them or their choices either. These are women's lives, told by a woman, and it creates a safe space for critical examination. All this, within a comedic framework!

The conversations about what Key and Rinko sleeping together means are revealing. Kaori asks if they are an item now, Rinko seems to get excited by that possibility, but her hallucinations (don't ask) remind her that he might have just given in to temptation. The two didn't communicate before or after, so she's left hanging. Is that problem on him or are the heightened, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations on her? As a consenting adult who chose to sleep with him with no prior communication, what role does she play in this lack of clarity or commitment?

On the other side, Koari reflects on how she couldn't imagine marrying a broke musician like Ryo. Seeing him in a new band, now famous, is she only regretting cheating on him and leaving him because of that fame, because she's still single, or because she actually really liked him and realized that the money didn't matter? She cheated on him when they were young, broke his heart, and the real question is what part of that is she now truly regretting? That's still open for debate, and her subsequent hook-ups with him, despite his having a girlfriend, show that she is far from resolving this or understanding herself.

As I've said in many other reviews, I'm not against characters making bad choices, or the stories focusing on problematic themes so long as the author either directly, or through a character, critically looks at those events. So it has been nice to see, again and again, that Higashimura-sensei is not passing off her characters' poor choices (affairs, etc...) as good entertainment. She is passing judgment on them, often quite explicitly, but still not demonizing the women.

An example of this is when Koyuki has her first sexual encounter with the man she knows is married. It is clearly indicated through the "hallucinations" (again, don't ask) that what she is doing is not right, even if the characters within the story are not quite as pointed in their criticism (although Rinko is pretty clear that she's not okay with it either). We get to experience the foibles of real people, but there is a clear moral and ethical center to the work as a whole. So rather than being a story about an affair where everything works out in the end and we're supposed to root for the two to get together, Higashimura-sensei is telling a much more nuanced and realistic story that positions the affair as a terrible idea that will have real consequences to a range of people.

There are many other great things in volume 2 as well:

  • Great quote: "No matter how many 'betters' I count up, it doesn't make me any more content." ie - no matter how many things I compare myself to in others, and come out ahead, those aren't the things that really matter.
  • Key continues to be both emotionally sensitive and insightful to what is really going on but in a completely ass-holey way. We, and the women, know he is often right, but his righteousness makes them have to disagree. He is complex, and we're only just getting to know him. We don't like him, but he is part of the "Greek Chorus" that helps the women self-reflect, even if it is reluctantly.
  • This volume uses the theme of the sushi conveyor belt to highlight Kaori's poor decision making and questionable values in her past. The metaphor is that "oh, if I don't take the sushi this time around, I'll just get it the next time it comes around" but then you realize that someone else has taken that dish already and there isn't going to be a next time. It works perfectly for helping her begin thinking about what really matters and maybe what doesn't, especially as she lets a favorite dish go by in order to try something she doesn't really like.
  • It's a minor moment, but Koyuki admits to herself that there have been times she's been attracted to both men and women. For a pretty hetero story, I'll take even a hint of LGBTQ+ representation!
Higashimura-sensei's art is a blast. It is loose and energetic overall. However, there are times of detail and precision, especially fantasy moments of the women in army uniforms in battle that are a recurring metaphor across the volumes. But the range of expressions and emotions works so well with the underlying comedy and are brought to life by her distinctive art style. It isn't my personal favorite art style, but it is absolutely perfectly matched to this series and really enhances it.

All told, Tokyo Tarareba Girls volume 2 was a delight with great insight into real complex women's lives and thoughts but with a strong underlying moral and ethical framework that does not legitimize or glamorize some poor judgement by the characters. These are flawed and messy people as we all are, and their struggles are sensitively told and the drama is well balanced with comedy. It keeps the tone light while addressing situations with deep emotional stakes. Tokyo Tarareba Girls volume 2 gets a strong 8/10!


*SCORING RUBRIC
BASIC SCORE:
  • Story interesting (0-10): 7.5 - all three women are tackling their lives in very different and messy ways.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6.5 - Rinko and Koyuki are pretty well established by the end of this volume. I'm not sure about Kaori yet. She seems much more shallow than the other two.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 8 - highly insightful, articulate, and cutting.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 8 - yup, with the exception of why Key sticks around Rinko, and why he feels the ability to speak so bluntly, all three of our leads absolutely are real people.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7.5/10

BONUS POINTS:
  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 3 - so many wonderful moments of insight, absolute truths to consider.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): .5 - at least one character admits to being attracted to both men and women, at least a little.
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - is this agency, or setting up the need for agency? As I see it, they haven't yet taken control of their lives, but I think that's the end goal of the series.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 0 - not yet, these women are just starting their journey.
  • Quality art (0-5): 2 - not my favorite style, but works so well for this series.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

PENALTY POINTS:
  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0 - in less capable hands, these three women would be highly unlikable, but Higashimua-sensei nails it and we resonate with them and find some mirrors of ourselves in them, and she's never harsh even as she lets them stumble.
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

🚺

Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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