Aoi Ikebe seems to be challenging herself to ever more difficult topics for the manga she writes. “I wonder if I could write a manga about sewing,” she mused to herself one day, and then turned the idea into six books of Tsukuroitatsu Hito. “That was too easy,” she said later, tapping her pen against her chin. “Now a manga about buying condos, that’s going to be a tough sell.” And then fast forward a year to me, picking up Princess Maison with a raised eyebrow. “A manga about house hunting? I don’t know.” Naturally, I devoured it and can’t wait for the next volume. Ikebe has a gift. I look forward to the day she writes a manga about the person who has to clean all the hair out of the drains at a salon.
Ikebe’s gift is really in seeing what’s going on at home, pulling back the curtains on the mundane to show us that there is a story in everything. That man behind the counter at the convenience store? He rescued a cat from the shelter, but she stalks him between the hours of nine and eleven at night, sometimes attacking him and leaving scars when he does not notice the malevolent light in her eyes soon enough. That woman you always see working at the izakaya by your house? She’s always there because she’s taking any hours she can get to save enough money to buy a place of her own. In this case, her name is Numagoe, and she insists that hers is not a big dream. She doesn’t need anyone but herself to make buying a house happen, after all.
Each chapter is titled with a different property. So we have “the property for single women” or “the property you can never go back to”. And the story grows outward with the property (sometimes an apartment, sometimes a condo, sometimes the building itself) as the central pillar. Often, Numagoe is going to look at the property, at first on her own and then later in the company of estate agents she befriends, but occasionally, the chapter has Numagoe as a side character and zooms in on someone related to her in some way and their relationship with their own apartment. As you can imagine from that, it is quiet as hell. Pages and pages of no one saying anything, just looking out of different windows, up at different buildings, in quiet contemplation of their life, their desire, their place in this world.
But that quiet is exactly where the story is. The unspoken longing for a place of one’s own, the desire to carve out a space where you can be you. And the encounters we have along the way in our search for that place. The unexpected friendships, the surprising moments of human kindness. Ikebe brings the same minimalist, expressive lines to the everyday interactions of Princess Maison and manages to infuse the pages with such restrained emotion that I was tearing up from the simple beauty of it.
It’s published by Big Spirits, which is a bit of a surprise to me, since Spirits is a seinen magazine, and Princess Maison feels very much like a josei manga. Numagoe is a woman approaching thirty who goes and looks at condos being built or as they come on the market, frequenting one estate agent and becoming a regular at their condo presentations, to the point where she eventually befriends the women that work there. We get to see general lady troubles, along with a secret, almost subversive feminism, like when the head of the estate agency (also a woman) notes how difficult it is for single women to get a mortgage. As in Tsukuroitatsu Hito, the focus here is very much the world of women, with a nod to the fact that men exist in the form of the hypercompetent Date, an estate agent at the condo company who clearly sympathizes with Numagoe even as he keeps a professional distance between them, and Okuda, who is still learning the ropes. But the men are definitely side characters in this story. (Interestingly, the live-in boyfriend of one character is never even seen.) The spotlight belongs to Numagoe and the other women in this world who just want somewhere they can take a deep breath and relax away from the pressures of their lives.
Surprisingly, there are other house-hunting manga (thank you, generous Japanese publishing industry, for making this possible), but none of the others seems to have quite the same focus on the underlying emotional journey of the house hunt. Not to mention the same focus on people looking out windows dreamily. Princess Maison has made me realize that I am not getting enough dreamy-eyed people looking out windows in my life. It also made me think about buying a house as a good thing and a possibility for the first time in my life. And I’m certain I’m not the only woman of a certain age reading this manga and noodling over the idea of buying a condo. The estate industry of North America should get together and publish this themselves as stealth advertising.