Brain Vs. Book

Sokuseki Bijin no Tsukurikata: Akiko Higashimura

It’s still Women in Translation month! So many women, so much translation! Where to find the time to read all the great books people are suggesting?? I probably never will, given that the shelf of unread books at my house has spread like some terrible fungus out onto an end table, which is now stacked dangerously high with books that I have acquired for my brain to battle one of these days. I love the fact that I get to read books for a living, but sometimes, I look at the spreading encroachment of paper crawling out of the bookshelf and across my apartment, and I despair. There will never be enough time to read them all. This is how I face the fact of my own mortality: by slowly coming to truly understand that I will never read all the books, that there will always be unread books on that shelf/end table/floor/everywhere.

But for the time being at least, my brain and I are very much alive! And that means we continue to beat back the tide of unread books, undaunted! And in keeping with the “women who have been translated into English, but I am reading a nontranslated book” theme we started last week with Sakuraba’s Jigokuyuki, my brain thought it might be nice to take a look at shojo/josei manga star Akiko Higashimura, author of the hilarious and beautiful Princess Jellyfish and Tokyo Tarareba Girls. Those series are both being translated into English, and you should definitely pick them up. You will laugh, you will cry, you will feel some major feels. You could also watch the drama they made of Tokyo Tarareba Girls earlier this year. It’s pretty great!

But Sokuseki Bijin no Tsukurikata is in a different vein from either of those two works, in that it is non-fiction, a collection of the “report” manga that she did for the fashion magazine Voce from 2015 to 2016. The basic premise of the series is that Higashimura is hella lazy and a total slob, but as she approaches her fortieth birthday, she realizes she is a disaster in terms of lady style. She’s spent her whole life eating doughnuts and lying around playing video games, and now she is paying the price. She wants to up her lady game now, but also: lazy. So she and the editors at Voce come up with the idea of “instant beauty”, tricks and treatments to make her lose weight and get more beautiful without any annoying effort like exercising or changing her diet in any way. Each chapter is a different treatment, like fixing her knees so the fat doesn’t collect there and make them look like human faces or getting acupuncture to tighten up her droopy cheeks. And each chapter follows the same general structure: Higashimura frowns about some part of her body she hates, her editors take her to some treatment place, the treatments are weird and the practitioners are skinny and hot, and then success! Her knee faces are gone! Her jawline is so sharp! Pretty much all of these treatments seem like a lot of snake oil, and while I tried to read without my science cap on too tightly, I still couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows painfully high at the ridiculousness of it all. Each treatment is declared a resounding success, and unlike her other work, these report essays are a mix of manga and photos, with before and after included in each one. And I could not see the difference in those befores and afters. Not that I expected to when they are using a machine to “break up fat cells.” What interests me about this book is not the ridiculous beauty treatments and the exorbitant amounts of money spent on them, but the style of the book itself. Report manga like this are so common in Japan; it’s a genre unto itself. And it’s a testament to the ubiquity of manga in Japanese society. Manga is used like any other media: to report, to entertain, to instruct, and more. And reading Sokuseki, I realized that I never really see comics used in such a wide variety of ways in English. You don’t see fashion magazines using comics to teach readers how to wear this season’s trend pieces. Or homemaker magazines offering recipes in comics form. I’d love to see comics reach this kind of mainstream use in North America too. I would never have read a series of text-only essays about getting ridiculous beauty treatments, but in manga form, it’s an interesting peek at a world I know nothing about.

And now I know so much! Things I learned from this book: There is a “right” way for a woman to walk! There are people willing to pay over two thousand dollars to attack their love handles with high-frequency waves! People worry about things on their bodies I didn’t even know were things to worry about, like knee faces! And this was my general takeaway: the beauty industry is a sad-making machine. I had no idea so many things were “wrong” with me. Although I am a woman does not wear makeup or do anything with her hair (because like Higashimura, I am super lazy, but unlike Higashimura, I like myself just fine without those things), I have a fairly solid understanding that the world is pretty adamant about what women “should” look like and am pretty strong in my belief that that is total garbage. But I wasn’t really aware of the lengths women are pushed to in order to achieve that “perfect” look. Even though this book is full of Higashimura’s signature humour—lots of over-the-top freakouts plus a sloth mascot who constantly points out how damned lazy she is—I was pretty bummed out by the time I finished it.

In her other work, Higashimura has tackled these impossible standards women are held to, but her viewpoint is critical. She’s often highlighting the ridiculousness of it, even as she has characters longing to be that perfect woman. In Princess Jellyfish, she gives us a variety of versions of womanhood, women who are happy with the way they are, even if they don’t meet society’s view of what a woman should be. And in Tokyo Tarareba Girls, her thirty-something characters struggle to reach the “finish line” of marriage, even when it’s clear that this is not the thing that will make them happy. But in Sokuseki, she is completely uncritical of these standards of womanhood, totally accepting of the idea that she needs to “fix” herself. I’m sure part of that is because this is reportage, and the whole idea behind the series is no doubt to sell women on the idea of doing these treatments themselves. That doesn’t mean it’s not still depressing to see these harmful ideas laid out on the page without any effort at engaging with them. 

So maybe just stick with the stuff she has in translation right now. It’s really great! Or maybe go read some of her Japanese-only work, like the series Yukibana no Tora she’s been doing for Hibana, which is so beautiful. Or read this one, but be aware going in that you’ll laugh and enjoy a lot of it, but then you will feel pretty gloomy about the state of the world afterwards.