I talk a lot about the lack of josei translated into English, manga about and largely by women. I don’t have any hard numbers, but just going by licensing announcements and what I see on the bookstore shelves, josei is probably the least published genre of manga in English. As Ed Chavez noted in the excellent Comic Con Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable, josei is a hard sell. (But thank you, Ed, for continuing to try and spread the josei gospel!) And while we’ve gotten some stealth josei recently (like Kodansha licensing Sensei no Shiroi Uso by Akane Torikai), straight-up josei is still a unicorn in the English publishing world.
And if that’s the case for modern josei, then how much worse must the situation be for anything published in the last century? Has any classic josei been published in English? Is Paradise Kiss about as classic as it gets in English? It’s not just the English publishing industry, sadly. Older josei artists don’t really get the royal treatment in Japan either, with most books from before 2000 out of print and next to impossible to get a copy of. Of course, the history of josei is shorter than that of shojo or shonen, so there’s less of a base to build on and it’s easier for these artists to slip through the cracks. Or so it would seem. I am no manga scholar. (Feel free to school me on the history of josei manga, actual manga scholars.)
Which is why it is a real treat to see a book like Onna Tomodachi by Saimon Fumi get a fancy new edition! (Not to be confused with Ichijo Yukari’s shojo series of the same title.) This is thanks to a new drama adaptation, but I’ll take the josei wins wherever I can get them. I have no idea how this book got onto my list, though! I hadn’t heard about the drama and it’s not like I was digging through the bookshop sites looking for new Saimon work. It just showed up in a box of books that arrived chez moi a couple months ago. Did someone recommend it to me? Did I just click the buy button because I saw a happy yellow cover with some ladies on it? To be honest, that latter option sounds plenty possible. I am a sucker for a bright yellow cover. (Have you seen my most recent literary translation baby? So yellow!)
Rather than being three hundred pages of a single story, Onna is a collection of shorts about modern women and the lives they live, with one longer story that could almost have been a standalone book. “Coming Around Again” is like a manga novella and is a welcome deeper dive into the themes and ideas Saimon hints at in the shorter stories leading up to it. My one complaint about the editing for this book is that there is one last short placed after “Coming Around Again”, making the end of the volume feel awkward and abrupt after the slow burn of the longer story.
“Coming Around Again” focusses on Chisato as she becomes increasingly unhappy in her marriage to Mitsuru, who she is certain is cheating on her again. She feels like this woman is different and she’s sick of taking care of their two kids and welcoming her husband home in the morning when he wanders in after “working” all night. The way she handles the situation is in many ways a reflection of the status of women in the eighties when the story was written—her options for leaving him are limited, and the social stigma she would face for doing so are much worse than anything he would have to deal with—but sadly, not so much has changed. The idea that a woman’s happiness is marriage is still painfully prevalent in Japan (and elsewhere), and that resigned acceptance, settling for the man in front of you instead of the life you really want still happens far too often.
Saimon takes up this idea in several of the shorter stories, as well, like in “Saikai” where Namiko waits around in vain for a truly garbage man to propose to her or in “Kajin” where Sano devotes herself to an entire career to make another garbage man notice her. Which is not to say that the whole book is full of garbage men, but there are enough of them in these pages to make it a frustrating read sometimes. So many times, I wanted to shake the protagonist by the shoulders and tell her she deserved better than this garbage man she was obsessing over.
But we also get to explore other aspects of love and relationships. The first story “Tomadoi” features the other woman as the protagonist and has some truly frank conversations and modern ideas about abortion. I know the thinking about abortion is different in Japan, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a manga where it’s discussed so openly and matter-of-factly. But when Setsu discovers she is pregnant with the child of her married lover, she considers her options and talks them over with both her lover and a close male friend. Setsu came out of a bad marriage determined not to get seriously involved with another man, so having an affair with someone who is “taken” suits her just fine. Until things get complicated, of course. Because life is never that easy.
You can almost see Saimon arguing with society and maybe even herself as she has characters insist that marriage is a sham. Or that a career-changing move to Italy is more important than some garbage man. She pushes back in small ways against societal norms and gives her protagonists the backbone to question their lot in life and reach for something better, someone who treats them better. I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to call it a feminist manifesto, but Onna Tomodachi does explore womanhood with surprising nuance.
Saimon notes in the afterword written for this edition that when she was approached to do this series, the editor told her to draw what she wanted without considering the readers and their expectations, so this might very well be her most personal work. And I feel like that shows in the honest and thoughtful way she approaches each story. The whole book is almost shockingly modern, and I’m not surprised they decided to adapt it into a drama thirty years after the fact. The big tell that the book takes place in a different time is the many characters pointing so obviously to their own noses when they speak of themselves. I haven’t seen anyone do that in years.