How can you not read at least one volume of a manga called Sexy Tanaka-san? If you are able to resist such an absurd title, I commend you for I have not your great restraint and self-control. This is the kind of book that I would snap up immediately if I were wandering through the aisles of one of my many favourite bookstores in Tokyo. And not only because of the title and the straight-up amazing cover image—which looks more like a woman playing pretend at being sexy than an actually sexy image of a woman—but also because it’s published by Flower Comics Alpha, which serializes shojo and josei manga, and you know I am always on the lookout for new comics for ladies.
But in these travel-restricted times, browsing the shelves of any bookstore anywhere is not in the cards for this book nerd, and for once, the algorithm was actually helpful. I’ve been using honto.jp for my J-book-buying needs for many, many years now, from back when it was still going by the name bk1, and yet its algorithm consistently recommends absolute garbage to me. That or books that I have already read because I purchased them from honto.jp, and you would think that the algorithm would maybe know that. But one fateful day, it suggested something that not only grabbed my attention, but seemed like it would be extremely my jam. Yes, Sexy Tanaka-san. Please, algorithm, remember this success and introduce other cool titles to me.
However great the title might be, though, we wouldn’t be here if the insides didn’t live up to it. So let’s talk story! Akari is a 23-year-old office lady doing the usual 23-year-old stuff, going on group dates, being cute, gossiping with her fellow office ladies. She realizes she won’t be able to make it on her own with the salary she’s making, so marriage is on her mind. But more than finding someone who will make her happy, she wants to snag a husband who won’t make her unhappy. The bar is low with this girl. She doesn’t want to end up in the group of office ladies who age out of marriage and keep working, earnestly saving up for retirement, never buying pretty things or going out for lunch.
Enter the titular Tanaka. Tall, bespectacled, dowdy Tanaka. But something about her draws Akari’s eye. Specifically, her body. Akari spends a full four pages giving Tanaka the once-over, and for a minute, I was hopeful for a potential unexpected yuri turn. But no, Akari merely senses something hiding behind this sombre version of Tanaka presented to the world.
She discovers what this is when she goes out to a Persian restaurant with some friends and stumbles upon a belly-dancing show. (Aside: this is a thing with Turkish/Persian places in Japan, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else. Do restaurants in other places have belly-dancing shows for diners?) Akari and her friends are frankly shocked by the shaking of the boobs, but very quickly get on board with the sexy style. One of the dancers shimmies her way over to Akari’s table as she dances around the room, and when Akari meets her eyes, she realizes she knows the face behind the thick makeup: Tanaka.
I never knew that I wanted to read a manga that discusses women’s roles in Japanese society through the art of belly dance, but here we are. It’s perfect in so many ways, and I don’t want to spoil any of them for you, so I will be vague about details. But characters are so human and real and fleshed out, as is the world they live in. The women in it are rediscovering their bodies and their sexuality on their own terms, instead of what has been dictated to them by the world around them, even as they encounter pushback from the men in that same world.
Naturally, this is a ladies manga, so there’s going to be some kind of romantic tie between a couple of the characters introduced in this volume. Ashihara, however, is making that road as rocky as possible with a pretty misogynistic male lead. I definitely wanted to punch him hard in the face at least twice in this first volume, but I’m hopeful that Ashihara will skillfully lead him down his redemptive road so that he is worthy of the love he is going to receive in some future volume. Because she has been so skillful in every aspect of the volume. The art is pretty standard shojo style—cute heroine, hot guys, unassumingly attractive friends—expressive with great pacing and some truly hilarious panels, like when the belly dancing women all swing their hair like wild pinwheels. But the character development and insight into their psyches is honestly top-notch. Both young cutie Akari and tired Old Tanaka felt painfully real to me, as someone who has been both young cutie and tired Old.
And this is the thing I love so much about manga. There is so much space. If you want to draw a manga about office ladies doing belly dancing for their own personal empowerment and as a force of change in the world around them, there is probably a magazine that will publish that. And an audience that not only will read it, but need it even though they had no idea that this was what they sought. If only Japan Post would start shipping to Canada again, I could get the next volumes of this series and find out if it is as good as this initial setup.