Well, here we are in 2019 all of a sudden. I spent my New Year holidays live-tweeting the annual Kohaku Utagassen, a tweetstorm furious enough to get my account locked, which was only really a problem because I have my Japanese SIM in my phone and Twitter kept sending an access code to my Canadian number. So I was stuck in a terrible Twitter void until I could find my Canadian SIM and stick it in my phone long enough to free myself from that dark prison. That was the entirety of my holiday drama. The rest of my time was squandered away on a temple visit in which I learned the history of the temple from the architect/restorer who happened to be in front of me in line for omikuji, eating mikan and mochi, and of course, laying around the house reading manga. I read a lot of manga.
Most of that manga was stuff that is still readily available at the bookstore, new volumes of ongoing series or new-to-me books published in the last few years. But I did dig into some classic shojo as well, thanks to the magic of Yahoo Auction. Which has only grown in power since I last used it a couple? few? years ago. So much classic manga on offer for so cheap! And the system is super streamlined, so there’s none of the back-and-forth emails that used to be the bane of my Yahoo existence. (I am a bad emailer. Do not email me. It will likely take me months to get back to you, and I’ll feel guilty about it the whole time.)
The reason for my deep dive into the classic manga section of Yahoo Auctions was because of the Yukari Ichijo show that was happening in town last month. Ichijo’s one of those foundational shojo artists I feel like I just haven’t read enough of. Part of that is just the sheer volume of work she released, given that she made her debut at seventeen in 1968 and then continued to work in manga until her formal retirement in 2010. But the other part of it is obviously that so much of that work is long out of print now because that is how publishing works. Can’t keep all the books in print forever. At the show, they were selling bunko versions of possibly her most popular series Yukan Club and her most recent series Pride, but I am an Old, and reading the bunko versions of manga—especially shojo manga with all its little flourishes—gives me headaches and eye strain.
Plus, after seeing the show, I was more interested in an older title, the first on which she was given free reign to write the story she wanted to write, according to the explanatory text that accompanied the original pages and cover art for the series. And I believe that text after reading Designer. It’s unrestrained in a way that’s almost frantic, like she’s trying to shove all the drama in her young heart into these two slim volumes. More than once while reading it, I thought of the Dynasty of my youth. So! Much! Drama! Betrayal! Passion! The rollercoaster from one high to the terrible ensuing low is part of the joy of something like Dynasty or Designer, so I will keep spoilers on that front to a minimum. But rest assured, you will be stunned by some serious twists and turns.
Before the shocking developments, though, our hero Ami is just your average drop-dead gorgeous super model. She’s at the top of her game and the envy of every hot lady in town, but her past is shrouded in mystery. She doesn’t even have a last name! She’s just Ami. We meet her preparing for a show by the biggest designer in town, Reika Otori, before she runs off for a photo shoot with top photographer Akira, who’s head over heels in love with her. But she can’t love anyone. Because of her Mysterious Past. She’s beautiful and untouchable, which only makes everyone love and hate her even more. But then she meets Aoishi, the new editor-in-chief of the top fashion magazine of the day, and a strange young man called Toki, and her whole life changes.
To say anything more about the story would rob you of the delighted gasps at every new reveal, so let’s just say Ichijo constructs a marvel of a drama that is only made better by the shojo format and its tropes and tricks. There are some truly amazing interior monologue style panels allowing us a window into the turbulent emotions of our hero and her entourage. And the faces! Everyone is so expressive, like they’re all starring in a silent movie. And naturally, there is more than one scene in which someone is prone on the floor, tears streaming down their face, arm outstretched.
The backgrounds and surrounding objects are also extremely detailed and realistic in a way that’s unusual for shojo manga. Apparently, Ichijo hated the non-specificity of shojo when it came to things like cars, so she went out of her way to add that element of realism, going so far as to draw specific makes and models, which lends an extra depth to her work. Plus, the fashion! In just two short books, Ichijo manages to bring us a number of fashion shows, plus the process of getting ready for those shows, making the clothes, sketching the designs. It’s all gloriously seventies, and everyone looks like a lady or David Bowie. Only two men wear what you’d think of as actual menswear, and they still look like they could be a lady or David Bowie. Magic!