Still on the josei train, apparently. Maybe I will never get off it? Is this where I live now? All josei all the time? I wonder if the train will stop in Shojo Town or Seinen Village. Because I do like that stuff, too, but it seems my brain is particularly concerned with women and whatever the heck they’re writing about these days. Life circumstances? The man-hating feminist deep in my heart feeling free to finally stand in the sun? Who can say!
Whether it’s man-hating feminism or plain curiosity about books I haven’t read, I’ve had my eye on Sanju Mariko for some time now. Not just because it’s been on all the lists of amazing manga since it started running in Be Love a few years ago—although when a manga is on everyone’s list, it does make you curious—but because the protagonist of this series is an 80-year-old woman and when was the last time you saw that happen? Not the protagonist’s mom or the lady at the grocery store yelling at the cashier for messing up her order or the elderly woman the doctor just couldn’t save dammit who becomes the jumping off point for the doctor’s new life as a unicyclist, but the hero of the story, the one we care about and follow eagerly through the many events and obstacles. Seriously. If you know of a manga or movie or TV show from recent years that stars an elderly lady, please tell me about it, because I am entirely here for this.
The titular Mariko lives in the house she and her now-deceased husband bought, with her son and his wife, and their son and his wife, and their son. It is a pretty tight squeeze, as you might imagine, but Mariko has her room and her life as a writer, so she doesn’t think too much about it until she overhears the family having a secret meeting about rebuilding the house. This comes hot on the heels of attending the funeral of a writer friend whose body was not found for several days after she died, despite the fact that she lived with her daughter and her family. Mariko feels like she’s overstayed her welcome in life and decides to run away from home. She has nowhere to go, but she can’t stay in this house that views her as a burden and an obstacle to what they really want.
This is a pretty bleak start, so it’s surprising how relentlessly optimistic and positive the series ends up being. This is entirely due to the character of Mariko herself. Even though the world at large seems to no longer have any use for her, she is not done with the world. She pushes ahead and takes a place for herself. At first, she clings to the fact that she has the column she writes for a literary magazine to keep her going. And she finds new joy in writing after leaving her family. Her editor is stunned by a piece she pens not longer after striking out on her own. It’s still her, but new and fresh. She also finds a reason to live and try in Kuro, the cat she first mistakes for a pile of trash because of how neglected the poor thing is. They’re a fitting pair in that sense, both of them cast aside by the world and left to fend for themselves.
And without Mariko’s bottomless passion and positivity, the series would no doubt sink into the darkest depths. Because Ozawa does not shy away from presenting the darker sides of just about everything. It’s as if she feels emboldened to tackle the bigger issues facing Japanese society with the shelter of Mariko’s sunniness and gumption. So while Mariko herself is in excellent health both body and mind, the other older people who come into her life are not necessarily. And the families around these elderly come in all flavours from the (horrible) daughter who refuses to let her father enjoy a romantic relationship, choosing instead to send him to a home, to the single daughter who welcomes her mother into her home after a medical incident, but just can’t seem to incorporate her into the rhythm of her Tokyo life. Ozawa also tackles the desertification of neighbourhoods, hoarding, and the changing publishing landscape, among other things.
This can be a little facile at times, like during the launch of a new literary web magazine where somehow there is money for this venture and famous authors are willing to be a part of it, but there is such sincerity, such heart in every panel that I was more than willing to buy into these fantasies. And it’s not as though obstacles are simply pushed off to the side. It’s more like Ozawa’s Mariko chooses to believe in the good in people, so the people start to be good. There are a lot of awful people in the series, though, and they tend to help ground the story in reality and keep it from floating off into the land of Everything’s Perfect for the Elderly.
Ozawa makes sure not to gloss too much over the physicality of being old in her art, which is also a great help. Mariko and her fellow Ultra Olds have wrinkles and jowls and saggy arms and a whole ton of other physical baggage. Sometimes, they fall asleep during a night out, because they just don’t have the stamina anymore. I am only an Old and not an Ultra Old, so I don’t know for sure, but her portrayal of these people in both story and art feels genuine and sincere. I’m also very into her loose lines and cinematic panelling that really pulls the reader through the story. I devoured the series easily, from volume one to the most recent volume eight, in a flash, and now I’m just waiting for March when volume nine comes out.
Above all else, the series makes me want to create and do and try new things, which is quite an achievement for any work of art. It makes me want to be a better person and also to be truer to myself. It’s easy to say Mariko is so brave and leave it at that, but she’s really not. She just doesn’t know any other way to be. She is the sort of character who needs to keep soldiering on and the perfect reminder to the rest of us that we need to do the same. There’s a world out there that only we can create.