Are you breathlessly awaiting the next installment of Princess Jellyfish? Still fuming over Tokyopop’s cancellation of Suppli? Eagerly searching for a manga romance whose heroine is old enough to drink? Then I have the cure for what ails you: Akiko Higashimura’s Tokyo Tarareba Girls, which makes its digital debut tomorrow (2/14) courtesy of Kodansha Comics. This fizzy, fast-paced comedy is every bit as good as Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish, deftly mixing wacky misunderstandings and witty banter with moments of genuine rue and self-reflection.
The first chapter begins with the narrator declaring, “I spent all my time wondering ‘What if,’ and then one day I woke up and was 33.” As Rinko fills us in on her career, female readers will feel an immediate sense of identification with her — she’s smart, capable, and constantly imagining her future instead of being fully invested in the present, something many of us are guilty of doing in our twenties and early thirties. Though Rinko has forged her own career path, she frets over being single. Rinko isn’t alone in her frustration, since Kaori and Kayuki — her gal pals and drinking buddies — are in the same boat.
The plot is set in motion by a cryptic message from Rinko’s co-worker Hayasaka. In a brief flashback to 2004, we see Rinko and Hayasaka on an uncomfortable date: she focuses on his shyness, his clothing, and his fumbling efforts to be suave, while he ignores her squirming and tries to give her an unwanted gift. Ten years later, both still work for the same company, although there’s a lingering note of tension — or is that romantic frisson? — between them. When Hayasaka sends Rinko a text asking, “I would like to discuss something with you. Could I trouble you for some time later this week?” Rinko immediately declares a “four-alarm” emergency and reaches out to her girls for counsel: after all this time, is Mr. Hayasaka planning to propose? And if so, should she say yes?
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, I feel you; in a post-Sex in the City world, it seems as if this particular narrative well has run dry. But hear me out: Tarareba Girls’ characters may drink too much, love too foolishly, and give each other bad dating advice — just like their HBO counterparts — but Higashimura’s humor and skill as a storyteller make this familiar set-up seem fresh again.
Consider Higashimura’s strategy for getting inside Rinko’s head. Though Rinko often functions as Tarareba Girls’ narrator, Higashimura looks for more imaginative ways to dramatize Rinko’s emotional life than simply letting Rinko tell us how she feels. In one scene, for example, Rinko’s food — yes, you read that right — cheerfully engages her in a conversation about her romantic dilemma:
Coming from one of her gal pals, this exchange would sound too on-the-nose, a bald statement of the manga’s main thesis. But coming from an izakaya dish? That’s genius! It allows us a window into Rinko’s state of mind (and her state of intoxication) without falling back on such shop-worn devices as the “Dear Diary” entry or the “Little did I know then…” voice-over.
Elsewhere in chapter one, Higashimura uses a similar technique of transposing Rinko’s inner thoughts onto the outer world, using the visual language of action movies — explosions, falling debris — to evoke the intensity of Rinko’s embarrassment over misunderstanding a friendly overture:
This sequence, too, is genius: anyone who’s ever read too much into an email, a voice mail, a text, or a friendly conversation knows exactly how Rinko feels in that moment and can laugh — or cringe — in self-recognition. At the same time, however, the reader can also see that Rinko’s romantic delusions are blinding her to the real lesson of turning 33: that she should learn what — or who — she really wants instead of settling for Mr. Not Quite Right.
The first chapter ends with the introduction of a prickly, truth-telling character whose appearance adds a welcome jolt of energy to the story; his barroom sermon about self-defeating female behavior is a show-stopper, both for its blunt honesty and for the impact it has on Rinko and her pals. Whether he becomes Rinko’s enemy or love interest, his memorable exit leaves the reader wanting to know what happens next — further proof of Higashimura’s storytelling mojo.
TOKYO TARAREBA GIRLS, VOL. 1 • BY AKIKI HIGASHIMURA • KODANSHA COMICS • RATED OT, FOR OLDER TEENS (16+)