Women’s History Month: Akiko Higashimura by Carrie McClain

Akiko Higashimaru’s work came about when I was at a serious crossroads with my relationship to manga. I loved shojo manga, loved stories about girls and women yet I was always reaching for subject matter that catered more to older women. I was looking for manga to ‘grow with me’ and my introduction to Higashumra was a defining moment in my relationship to manga and the characters I saw myself in on the pages.

I remember where I was when Kodansha announced that it was bringing us an English translation of  the Princess Jellyfish manga–I was scrolling my phone in one hand while loading the washer machine in the other one–I almost dropped my phone in with the colors in my shock and utter joy! As someone who has been reading manga since being Cardcaptor Sakura’s age, I was elated–Kodansha picking up this series was a rare occurrence–this manga had gained a huge fanbase here in the States even before receiving an official English translation. The hype was just that big.

The Princess Jellyfish manga was a crossover hit for many reasons, and the biggest reason I’d throw all my money at is the blending of the genre lines: this series about otaku girls taking on the world and the power of friendship is Shojo but with BIG Josei vibes throughout–especially in the humor. The main characters of this story are fangirls, they are otaku, they are the unsung heroes that get inspired to save their home, their way of life and their friendships. Bespectacled, jellyfish loving and hopelessly unfashionable Tsukimi meets a almost too beautiful person by chance who throws her entire world on its side and becomes the inciting incident that gets the ball rolling on the drama to come: first loves, found family, stepping out of your comfort zone and evil mega corporations that want to turn your neighborhoods into trendy new apartment complexes.

In an interview with Kodansha after the release of volume two of the manga translated in English, Higashimaru answered the question of how she came up with the story:  “I loved shojo manga since I was little. So when I started to get serious about making my own shojo manga, I put together all the aspects that I loved, like the theme of boy meets girl, “gap-moe” (being in love with unexpected side of a person,) and friendship between girls.”

It is a series that is great to introduce to new readers of manga and is a manga with a terrific translation. Princess Jellyfish is one of my favorite reminders in comics of young women with agency, fighting like hell with all the shojo beats in line. It is very much coming of age in the shojo way with the blossoming of 18 year old Tsukimi and the transformation one has to become the person you need to be to protect who and what is important to you. There’s the simple grand importance of female companionship and accepting who you are–even if you are a little, or a whole lot of weird. This is comforting–as the girls never truly have to change who they are as their worlds open up and get bigger as the narrative continues and they are befriended by more people. One of the biggest messages that I took away from reading was that girls (and women) can be whatever the hell they want to be. A princess? Sure. A collector of model trains? Yep. Someone who finds love and family? That too. A confident woman who is also a fujoshi? Reach for the stars, my friend! You can achieve that too!

Josei Manga That Keeps Asking Me All The Right Questions While I’m On The Struggle Bus.

When the news about an English translation of Higashimaru’s Tokyo Tarareba Girls hit the internet, we, the fans, were READY. Kodansha went on to publish an English translation of three thirty-something women navigating love and friendship. Following the hilariously tragic adventures of 33 year-old Rinko who has done everything right in life–she’s made herself a career but she’s still painfully single, and she spends most of her nights drinking with her two besties at their favorite pub, lamenting about their lack of love lives. One night, a drunk Rinko swears to get married by the time the Tokyo Olympics roll around in 2020. The manga series follows the pitfalls and triumphs of Rinko, Kaori and Koyuki as they fail, fail and, yup–fail, again to get to where they need to be to find a slice of happiness for themselves.

TTG exploded on the scene as another fan favorite, this time, with less rose tinted glasses as more grown woman problems kept our main characters on their toes. This time, at closer to thirty years old than to twenty, I was battling a lot of the same thoughts brave Rinko was having. What was I doing with my career? Did I even want to get married? What to tell nosy family members who keep asking when I’m having children? The plans that I made for myself after a while, started to look uncertain and needed revising. I did a LOT of screaming (internal and external) while reading the series and seeing all the romantic mishaps Rinko and friends get themselves into. It made me want to mindwipe-Men in Black style- some of my own less great adventures with the opposite sex while cringing hard from second hand embarrassment from theirs. I was chastising them in my head while also wanting to offer them a shoulder to cry on with hang-over cures.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a career woman working in an industry I hoped to work in before when I was still a college student: Rinko was a screenwriter. Impressively, she hustled all throughout her twenties to get where the manga opens: she’s renting her own office in a trendy Tokyo neighborhood with an assistant, even! She’s done everything right…everything should have gone according to plan. Yet, at 33, she realizes time has gotten away from her. She’s a workaholic who…is still single while everyone is carrying on with their lives. She’s a romantic at heart though, and wants to be in love. She wants to find love and move past the insecurities and “what-if’s” that plague her. I loved how this manga series has a narrative that digs into work for women and how it can save and harm us at the same time. In the tradition of some of my favorite Josei gems of yesteryear: Suppli and Tramps Like UsTokyo Tarareba Girls fits right in with messages of the working woman and just how hard she has to work, backwards in high heels, sometimes.

In the back pages of volume one of the first manga translated in English, she answered the question of how she came up with the story:  “The inspiration for this comic struck me during the whole ‘hospitality fever’ that, I’m sure you all recall, was going on when Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 20202 Olympic games…Inspiration struck me  sounds cool but…honestly…ALL I DID WAS DECIDE TO MAKE AN AWFUL COMIC ABOUT MY 30- AND 40-SOMETHING FRIENDS WHO WERE STILL IN SHOCK AT THE ANNOUNCEMENT.”

In this series, the quips, the puns and the laughs are all on the page making their appearances just as much as the heartbreak. Tokyo Tarareba Girls certainly pushes the envelope of tackling the desires, hopes and dreams of women using the medium of manga and questions every reader as to what’s most important in the grand scheme of things.  This series explores the never tired quest of women who are looking for love and how societal expectations can force women to learn to settle and lose parts of themselves. All this and throw in a narrative that emphasizes the sacred communion of female friendships that are timeless and deserve to shine. 

This remains one of my favorite series that demonstrates the need for more stories about womenfolk who aren’t fresh-faced teenagers anymore. Women who are still very much deserving of love, companionship, and feeling fulfilled by work and the lives they lead despite all the wrong paths and dead ends they come across. It has been an absolute joy (AND NIGHTMARE) to immerse myself in the hijinks of Rinko, Kaori and Koyuki and know that the manga has aged with me, that my current problems are reflected in the newer manga that I read and that the stories of girls and women are very much in good hands: the mangaka known as Akiko Higashimura.

Akiko Higashimura’s work is sharp, oftentimes comedic and always ambitious. Her manga shows her flair as a storyteller and her dedication to the stories of women, young and old. Her work covers such important themes as maturity and finding and keeping the people who help make you whole. She pours out parts of her own life experiences into the narratives of her work and her artwork is always, always eye-catching with gorgeous attention to detail. As more and more of her work is translated, I hope to see her elevated to a status where she’s more of a household name here in the States, just like all your faves. I look forward to the days where more and more stories about girls and women are cherished, awarded and talked about in the same conversations about the greats of manga. Thank you Akiko Higashimura for recognizing that need in the work you do and creating for all of us who still want to see ourselves on the pages we read.

[Photo credit: © Weekly Bunshun]