Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Akiko Higashimura

A Tokyo version of Sex in the City is perhaps the best indicator of what you will find in this manga. Three women, all in their early 30s, realize they are getting old and may miss their chance to find love and happiness with a partner. These are their adventures as they reconsider their lives and life choices. The manga was a hit in Japan and even turned into a live action J-drama.

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Story: Rinko, Kaori, and Koyuki – three best friends who drink copious amounts of alcohol while commiserating over life, are forced to one day realize that they are in their 30s and yet none have found a lasting partnership. Rinko is attempting to create a career as a scriptwriter, Kaori has her own manicure salon, and Koyuki works in her father’s small restaurant – the hangout of the girls when they want to get drunk and complain about men. When a young man gets tired of their antics in the restaurant, he calls them ‘white if’ girls – women who have grown up but spend all their time thinking ‘what if’ rather than actually doing anything. Shocked and dismayed, the girls set out to change their lives.

Rounding out at 9 volumes, the heart of the story is each woman finding a guy who seems perfect for them but always has a fatal flaw. It is in this way that the appeal of Tarareba girls can be found: the author is unsparing in her portrayals of all three, showcasing their flaws and shortsightedness as easily as she does their charms. Indeed, most of the time they are being told just how silly, immature, clueless, and naive they can be. This isn’t the series you want to read if you want overidealized heroines; I love that josei manga (manga geared for women and not girls) can often eschew happily ever after endings in favor of more nuanced storylines with bittersweet denouements.

Those looking for a clean romance won’t find it through to the end. Instead, we have our flawed heroines and their flawed love interests flailing around trying to find their way in a complex world. But it is an entertaining read and grounded enough to keep readers invested to the end. The J-Drama made from this series doesn’t have the charm of the manga and so I encourage reading the manga first before seeing the live action adaptation.

The title of the story comes from a play on words: Rinko often has drunken episodes where a pair of talking food pieces (codfish milt and liver) scold her and torment her with reality. If you take the words in Japanese, the two food items sound like “tara reba” – what if. Hence, the theme of the story of the girls spending too much time getting drunk and giving what if stories.

Our heroines aren’t the brightest but they feel like real people; the author based the characters off her friends and it is an unflinching view of a society obsessed with youth. At heart is the idea that past the age of 27, a woman becomes a ‘fruitcake’ – something useless and tasteless that sits on a shelf forever because no one wants it. It’s an unflinchingly harsh view and perhaps Western readers won’t quite understand the seriousness with which these characters take the social norm of needing a man to be happy and fulfilled – to prove their worth as a woman.

In all, I enjoyed the series and the J Drama for it’s somewhat quirky but often harsh view of Tokyo women who have reached their 30s single. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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