Hello again, friends! Another week has passed and I'm back with another Alleycat-Approved™ book recommendation. This time I'm going to try something a little different. Instead of talking about one book, I'm going to talk about one particular creator whose work I can't get enough of, Akiko Higashimura. Yeah, I know, I know, it's my second Manga review in a row. If you're not really into the manga thing, just bear with me and I'll write about WildC.A.T.s or Beetle Bailey or something next week.
Akiko Higashimura has become a big name in Japan over the last twenty years, known for both her autobiographical works and her shoujo manga (comics targeted at the teenage girl demographic). With several major award winning and hit manga serials under her belt, she's also very prolific: between ongoing serials and one-shot specials running in periodicals, she, along with an army of assistants, apparently churn out about a hundred pages of quality comics per month. To date, we've only seen a fraction of that work here in America, but it's all been wonderful.
Higashimura is probably best known in the United States as the creator of the series Princess Jellyfish, a romantic comedy about Tsukimi, a jellyfish-obsessed and socially anxious girl, and Kuranosuke, a brash, defiant crossdressing boy. When the No-Men-Allowed house she shares with a group of other awkward women is threatened by a developer, Tsukimi and Kuranosuke team up to form a jellyfish themed clothing brand to raise the money to buy the house outright. What sounds like your typical "We've got to throw a fundraiser to save the rec center!" trope is quickly subverted, though, as numerous complications arise. It turns out you can't just suddenly be a fashion designer or clothing manufacturer without any kind of design knowledge or business experience.
These subversions of shoujo and teen romance tropes are one of the things that distinguish Higashimura from the rest. Yes, it has all the love triangles and misunderstandings you want from the genre, but it also keeps one foot in the real world. The cast has to learn how to get into the clothing industry, which actually seems pretty meticulously researched. She's also adamant that her characters aren't going to suddenly and fundamentally change who they are for the sake of story convenience. There are no She's All That transformations, or if there are, they don't stick. Tsukimi and her friends aren't going to stop loving the nerdy things they love because it's not considered 'cool', and Kuranosuke isn't going to stop wearing dresses because he's in love with a girl. This leads to more believable character growth across the board.
Higashimura's subversive storytelling can seem downright progressive at times, especially coming from a characteristically conservative or buttoned-down culture like Japan. Her next series (at least in the order we received them), Tokyo Tarareba Girls, seems to be specifically thumbing its nose at some of the societal pressures women feel as they get older.
The story follows Rinko and her two friends, who are in their 30's and single, and like to meet up regularly at the bar to get hammered and complain about their plight. The three of them make a deal that they all will be married by the time the 2020 Olympics come to Japan (I guess they're getting an extension). What follows is a series of reckless decisions and bad judgment as they try to find their man so they can settle down and live the life that's expected of them. Along the way, Rinko is tormented by living bar foods, Tara and Reba, humorous representations of all of Rinko's regrets and doubts.
It's pretty clear that Higashimura doesn't buy into the marriage madness these women feel. There is a hilarious segment in the back of every volume called Tarare-Bar, where Tara and Reba give advice to actual readers in the same boat as the comic's leads. By advice, I mean they regularly berate them and tell them to stop whining, etc. Tough love.
The third, and as of this writing, final series by Akiko Higashimura to be released stateside shows an entirely different side of her storytelling career. Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey is an autobiographical comic charting Higashimura's beginnings as a teenager interested in art but not knowing where to begin and following her through her education and the beginnings of her career as a shoujo artist.
At the heart of Blank Canvas is her relationship with her after-school art teacher, a stern taskmaster who has been known to whack students with a sword, makes them draw the same boring box of Kleenex over and over again, and regularly sends them home crying. Higashimura weathers his abuse and earns his respect, but fears letting him down, keeping from him the fact that she was never very interested in the fine arts and really only ever wanted to draw shoujo manga.
The tone of Blank Canvas is very different from the frantic and vibrant romantic comedy of Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls. There's a sense of regret and melancholy in the narrative; things have been left unsaid that Higashimura is using this comic to get off her chest. Though there are no talking bar snacks or romantic misunderstandings, her sense of humor is still there. She's very self-deprecating and doesn't always paint her past self in the most positive light, often to a very funny extent. Sometimes she draws her present self into the story to express her exasperation at her own youthful missteps.
I know a lot of people who read American comics never really find that gateway into manga, but I think Akiko Higashimura's work could be that gateway for some people, especially those who are more interested in slice of life-type stories than superhero hijinx. And while a lot of manga can be imposing due to sheer volume, her stories are pretty comparatively short. You could fill an entire bookshelf with the collected works of Rumiko Takahashi, not to mention the 90-plus volumes of Eiichiro Oda's seemingly never-ending One Piece series. But Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba girls come in at a gloriously finite nine volumes each, and Blank Canvas clocks in at five (the fifth and final volume is still forthcoming).
And finally, as luck would have it, we carry all of these series at Alleycat Comics, so if any of my rambling has piqued your interest, give us a call! Thanks for reading! See you next time.