A whole year since I’ve wandered the narrow aisles of my favourite Tokyo bookstores! Twelve whole months since I’ve picked up a book I’ve never heard of because it had a cool cover! Three hundred and sixty-five days since I took a brand-new read to a bar for happy hour! I know we’re all sad and I am so fortunate in so many ways, but let me throw this pity party. After all, it’s my brain duking it out on these pages for your entertainment. I think we can all let the poor thing have a moment for all the books it has missed over this past Year of Plague.
There is a tiny silver lining to one corner of this dark cloud, however. Being trapped on this side of the ocean means I don’t have to struggle with overstuffed suitcases. I can order those books straight to my house! Of course, as I have mentioned before, with the postal disruptions, this has been a bit tricky, but I’ve more or less worked it out, allowing me to have the back catalogues of artists I love brought right to my front door, books I have avoided buying in the past because there were so many new things on the shelves and my suitcases can only hold so many books before exploding (okay, that’s unlikely) or being subjected to overweight charges at the airport (this happens all the time).
Ever since I encountered her work a few years back, I’ve been a huge fan of Torikai’s intense and very feminist explorations of relationships, society, and trauma. She holds a candle to some of the uglier parts of the world we live in, and she doesn’t shy away from revealing it in all of its terrible horror. Which means her work can be difficult to read, and I always have Thoughts after finishing anything by her. And not a little sadness. So Jigoku was actually a refreshing change and made me want to dig further back into Torikai’s archives. She’s still looking at women and the positions they are forced into in society, giving the stink eye to the patriarchy whenever she can, but the story is much more light-hearted than something like Sensei no Shiroi Uso, to the point where it was even made into a drama, the ultimate proof of its non-traumatic nature.
The titular girlfriends start out as strangers, each confronting their own life upheaval. Kana is a single mother of a pre-schooler, recently divorced and looking for a new living situation. Yuri is an office worker approaching thirty when she is suddenly evicted from the apartment where she’s lived for years because the owner’s tearing the place down. And Nao is the hot mess, her house such a disaster that even Kondo Marie would despair at ever getting it into any kind of order. Plus, she has just walked in on her hot boyfriend with another woman, which has shaken her entire worldview. She’s always been able to have whatever guy she wants and is generally on the other side of that equation. Her friend/employee/personal mascot Shikatani suggests she get some roommates. She owns a whole house and if she makes the rent cheap enough, she can get the roommates to take care of the housework and cooking that she finds impossible. And thus, three women who self-identify as friendless are thrown together and find new friends in each other.
None of them are “cool girls”, though; they are not friendless because they are “not like other girls.” They are friendless because of where the world has positioned them because of sexism. Kana keenly feels the pain of being called “mother” at every turn instead of her name, which is a whole thing in Japan. When you get married, you become “wife” and when you have a kid, you are suddenly “mother”. And I don’t just mean those roles. These words literally become your name. I will never stop being weirded out by a group of women calling each other “[kid’s name] mama” as if they don’t exist outside of their relationship to [kid]. And apparently, Torikai feels the same way since she very deliberately has Kana bark “Don’t call me mom!” at Shikatani when they first meet.
The series is filled with little moments like this, little sexist slights that women in Japan run up against on a daily basis. Yuri grits her teeth when a male colleague foists overtime work on her simply because she isn’t married and thus must have all the time in the world to do his bidding. Nao feels the pain of her stock plummeting because she is closer to forty than thirty, not acceptable in a world which values youth in women. This is feminist slice-of-life. Which isn’t to say that it’s all railing against the patriarchy, although I would obviously be into that. The series is surprisingly funny, in a way that most of her other work isn’t, like the slice-of-life style allows her the freedom to crack jokes. She does a lot more visual gags in this one, too, with characters giving up the ghost in sheer embarrassment, and there’s some excellent story-within-a-storytelling, complete with the best reaction shots from the listeners. After the first introductory chapters, the narrative settles into a girls having a drink around the kitchen table kind of pattern, even as they venture out into the world and find love and new opportunities.
This one’s complete in three volumes, with a satisfying conclusion that ties together all the threads in these ladies’ lives. Sexism still has a boot on their necks, but at least they have each other now, and we all know how valuable a comrade in the trenches can be in getting through this bullshit. Sometimes, you just need a lady friend to get outraged about your sexist boss on your behalf. Torikai’s got your back.