If you loved Bitch Planet for reasons that seem obvious but also, more deeply, for reasons you’re not quite sure of, I have a mission for you. I want you to go to a manga scanlation site (Mangahere, Mangafox, MangaReader…) and type “josei” in the search box. Then, follow your nose to the art you like best. Read right to left.
Josei manga means “woman manga,” i.e. manga for ladies, like shonen, shoujo, and seinen manga are targeted at and made for boys, girls, and young men. It’s perfectly common–in fact you would reasonably expect–for a josei title to be created by a woman (or more rarely, by women) as well as sold to her. Comics, by women, to be shared with other women, as well as anyone who might take a fancy to them. Genres vary; basically josei manga covers topics you might discuss at a sleepover. So, anything. But there’s a lot of emotional vulnerability, and the weird strength found in shouting “I HAVEN’T GOT A SINGLE CLUE ABOUT HOW TO LIVE??! OKAY??” is a common theme.
At least, it is in my favourites. Today I’m going to introduce you to Nakahara Aya’s series from You magazine (Shueisha): Dame na Watashi ni Koishite Kudasai (请与废柴的我谈恋爱 and/orダメな私に恋してください), which translates to “Please Love the Useless Me.” Adorable. I am enthralled by this comic. It’s wonderful.
Our heroine Shibata Michiko is twenty nine, and failing. She was a put-upon, low-level office worker until her company folded overnight; she’s not found a job since. She’s involved in a chaste and bank-draining entaglement with a beautiful but mercenary university student (Michiko refuses to realise that he is a gold digging cad), so she’s living on cabbage. All of her younger friends, to whom she’s supposed to be an inspiration, are getting married–Michiko spent her twenties deep in boy band fandom, has never been on a date, never been kissed. The only person to notice how much trouble she’s in is her horrible boss from her former job, who takes her to dinner when he finds her dizzy on the street after another useless job interview and weeks, as I said, of cabbage. This is where it gets good: there’s no romantic tension.
Our hero, whom she calls Shunin, listens to her problems, calls her an idiot for repeatedly making terrible decisions, and pays for her to eat steak. He’s not the bad-tempered boss she remembers, and after they’ve eaten they part ways with no expectation of ever meeting again. Unlike your stock romantic hero, Shunin arrives in the story as a compassionate acquaintance, doing the right thing: feeding someone he slightly knows who is hungry, because that’s what you do. His completely unremarkable “basically handsome, I guess?” face and style of dress confused me for a while, as Michiko is so cute (the artist, Nakahara Aya, can clearly draw actively attractive hair, body language and clothing, so why didn’t she?) but talking it out with my sweetie, trying to describe the characters and their relationships to him, led me to something interesting–Shunin’s dead-basic appearance leaves the connection between this eventual love interest and our protagonist to rely entirely on their behaviour, and treatment of each other. She is not blown away by his sparkly gorgeousness, because he doesn’t have any. He is good looking enough. The reader isn’t sitting there all “ew, why??” but they’re not distracted by “oh man, would I ever” either. The emotional focus is entirely on kindness, humility, and the ability of a man to treat a woman like a person, colleague, friend, individual. Michiko’s initial infatuation with her butthole non-boyfriend is based in his cute beauty, so Useless Me achieves a pretty subtle execution of a timeless message. Don’t throw your life away on physical admiration. Build a relationship with somebody whom you can thoroughly value.
But it’s not a preachy comic. More than anything this story is about acceptance, and how being decent to people on terms you can both agree on — not making them feel indebted to you, for example, letting the hapless loser who you’re cooking up a free meal for deal with the awkwardness of their situation by calling everything, literally everything, about your cafe “gross” — how just helping people out can be so easy, or simple, and how it can do so much for them.
And, and, it is about loving meat, and being intimidated by how expensive lingerie is, and the basic humiliations of grunt work, and blunt weirdo woman/woman friendship, and how long it can take to learn to trust that people like you.
As well as love and kissing, obviously.
I think that you should read this comic, and I think that it should be licensed for an English release, and that we should all buy it. I also think that it should be adapted into a drama starring Kikuchi Mika, immediately subtitled, and beamed right into my house. It’s just about the chillest story about financial instability (I’m saying “about” a lot, I know, but that’s because it packs so much in) and how it’s hard to do feminine without a budget and a mentor. And it’s so good to see a woman with the “I think I’ll stay in bed today” personality shared with my favourite Sanrio character: Gudetama. I love it. I love iiiit.
Let’s talk about clothes. (Sleepover!)
Michiko wears office clothes and highstreet fashion over the course of the story. She has a wardrobe with a limited number of items, and various pieces are repeated. Nakahara Aya made the decision to draw her protagonist wearing that bag “again,” those trousers “again.” This is satisfying realism (“manga stars! They’re just like me!”). It’s also thematic, as somebody in debt cannot afford to buy a whole new outfit for a new day.
Here’s how Michiko is first seen by her audience, in her story:
Just about as basic as Shunin’s jeans/hoodie uniform. This outfit tells us as little as possible–a woman wearing this outfit could come from any area or level of society. It’s effectively timeless, because it would take a highly educated fashion detective to pin down exact differences in cut, puff, etc, of “hoodie, leggings, scrunchie” to anywhere between 1980 and 2015. We look at her and know nothing. She looks at her life and sees nothing. Very effective.
You’ve already seen that this is not her usual mode of dress. Michiko wears loose tops and slim-cut trousers or skirts (not tight, but not baggy). She layers pieces, and has an eye for boat necks, interesting hemlines (cropped jumpers over tunic-length shirts, cropped trousers with an elbow-length batwing top) and patterns that stand out as patterns, rather than flatter. Bold stripes, floral scatters, compact bows on the shoulders, things that just “are.” They aren’t arranged to emphasis, or hide, or suggest. Nothing clings to her body, and the only parts of her shape that are revealed are her collarbones, wrists and ankles–elegant, but also workmanlike, and plain instead of suggestive or mysterious. They look very nice, she looks very nice, but her clothes simply clothe her. They don’t frame her. Similarly her statement necklaces do make her look a well dressed, cute person, but the statement they make is “I am an attractive and interesting necklace, and this person chose to wear me.” Michiko benefits aesthetically from wearing nice outfits and eye-catching jewellery but she is not made regal, or eroticised, or startling. She’s not “empowered.” She is gently stylish, and well put together, and despite there being great subplots about the trials of lingerie purchase and dealing with perverts whilst at work, nothing about her outfits suggest that they ever come off. Comfort comes first, and comfortable is the remit within which cuteness is aspired to.
(There’s a lot of Michiko that I relate to.)
There’s a certain timelessness to these outfits too, but they have far more personality to them than the everywoman sportswear. There’s nothing audacious or aggressive about Michiko’s aesthetic, and there’s nothing audacious about her, either. She’s a relaxed person whose main goal in life is to be comfortable. No dreams of stardom, riches, suitors, authority. She’s described most kindly as “devoted”–somebody who will put herself out, every time, to make those around her feel special and free–but all that she yearns for is for people to be nice to her, and to be be able to eat the foods she likes. It’s a childlike simplicity, reflected in her block-shaped, toddler-proportioned clothes. (Both of these juvenile aspects, which would usually freak me out on a woman in comics, are tempered by the complexity the narrative treats them with: Michiko isn’t doing well at life because she has such simple desires, and her outfit proportions are reflective of legitimate adult fashion). Her perpetually asymmetrical necklaces would drive me round the bend to wear, and her ability to be unbothered by a confusingly weighted, probably rotationally-mobile accessory tells the visual, non-verbal part of my brain the same thing that the rest of the story tells the rest of the brain: this woman is cool. She doesn’t know it, but she is. Michiko’s stamina and ability to tough out hassle are her core strengths.
Within the first few pages, Michiko’s relationship with gorgeous student Junta is introduced, through specifically on-trend material objects. Again: don’t be dazzled by fast fashion. Find the wardrobe that is “you.” Find things to wear that can endure, as you endure.
— Clownhunter (@illusClaire) January 26, 2015
Junta is a total bastard who compares Michiko to his pet dog to her face, somehow achieving this cutely. He takes her presents and he asks her for vast sums of money, with the story that his mother is ill. She takes out a loan. Junta is nothing but a negative influence on her life, and his fashionable good looks (intimidating!) and take-take attitude regress Michiko every time.
In fact, most of Michiko’s outfits are sub-standard and covered by text or other characters until she meets our hero. What could it meeeean.