In my recent visit to Kyoto, I discovered two interesting manifestations of Japan’s interest in anime and manga. The first I first came upon while taking public transit: posters featuring anime-style high school girls who act as mascots for the Kyoto Subway system’s “Ride the Subway” campaign. After being redesigned in 2015 to match a more contemporary anime aesthetic they’ve really caught on, and have even been featured in TV ads:
The second I had already planned to visit, which was the Kyoto International Manga Museum, an archive of countless manga from all decades that is open to the public. Like the girls of the Kyoto subway, the Manga Museum has its own mascot, Karasuma Miyu, to whom I was immediately drawn. I think it’s clear why, given her design:
Now aware of this Ogiue-esque character (though also clearly much more cheerful in comparison), I felt compelled to buy some kind, any kind, of Karasuma Miyu merchandise. This led me to the light novel known as Kyo Girls Days, written by Motoki and illustrated by Kamogawa. Featuring both the Kyoto Subway Girls and Karasuma Miyu, it not only celebrates the subway and the Manga Museum, but also Kyoto tourism in general.
Kyo Girls Days follows best friends Uzumasa Moe, Matsuga Saki, and Ono Misa as they decide what to do for Golden Week. With an initial plan to visit “power spots” all across Kyoto, they end up running into Karasuma Miyu, who works at the manga museum. Not only a manga enthusiast but also a Shinto miko, Miyu imbues the girls with supernatural sight, allowing them to see the various kami and other spirits that populate the old capital that is Kyoto, and transforming their vacation adventure in unforeseen ways.
Light novels can often follow certain trends. They’re frequently designed to be adapted into anime and manga as part of a media mix. They’ll feature young protagonists to whom an otaku audience can relate, with narratives that emphasize wish fulfillment fantasies or twists on well-worn tropes. Others get more creative, and fight against the reputation of light novels as trashy and lacking in substance. However, a promotional light novel, especially one that is an offshoot of a city government effort to encourage more frequent use of its public transportation, is a unique beast all its own. While this means that there’s a certain inevitable sheen of safeness in Kyo Girls Days, the result is actually kind of pleasant given that there’s less concern over whether the narrative is trying to go for cheap titillation, or objective exploitation of the girls beyond their roles as mascots.
If anything, the exploitation takes the form of the girls being a little too upstanding as people. Moe’s primary qualities are her love of helping others and her encyclopedic knowledge of the Kyoto Subway. Saki is sporty and tomboyish, and Misa is the otaku of the group, who even bought a guitar because of K-On! Another important character, Tokyo transplant, photographer, and Moe’s classmate Shirakawa Sumi, is shy and nervous about befriending Moe. None of them have any particular flaws, the closest being that Saki is somewhat impatient, while Misa is kind of lazy and can often be late to gatherings. In fact, there’s actually a scene where Misa arrives late and blames it on the trains, and Moe’s response is basically, “That’s silly, the trains in Kyoto are never late!” as a reminder that, yes, this is promoting public transit.
Nowhere is Kyo Girls Days do-it-all character roster more apparent than in Miyu. She’s a manga fan who has the entire museum memorized. She’s lived abroad, and is not only fluent in both French and English but has extensive knowledge of French and American comics. On top of that, she can communicate with spirits on a regular basis. Miyu is all-powerful and carries within her the view point that manga is indeed international just as it says in the name of the Manga Museum. One other interesting wrinkle to her character being that she’s actually a college student, possibly as a reference nearby Kyoto Seika University’s famous manga program, which supports the Manga Museum.
And yet, I can’t really begrudge Kyo Girls Days. I knew what I was getting into as soon as I picked it up. After all, it’s like going to an aquarium and getting a picture book about the aquarium; no one should be shocked when it talks about how great things are and how everyone should visit. Conscious of that promotional aspect, the story and narrative are actually very fun and engaging. Even though Moe and the rest of the cast’s personalities and characters are a little too perfect, the portrayal of their lifelong friendship feels solid and convincing. Even the introductions of various Kyoto landmarks are interesting because they taught me a lot about the city, and a clever insertion of a quiz towards the end of the manga is a clever wink and nod to see if the reader has been really paying attention.
Another quality I enjoyed about the light novel is that all three of the subway girls speak in Kyoto dialect. It can be hard to follow, but it positions them as true Kyoto natives, and gives their portrayal a more authentic feel.
It’s unlikely that Kyo Girls Days will ever be translated officially, just because its main focus is getting native Japanese people to pay more attention to Kyoto and its subway system. It’s not really something that translates too well to an audience that enjoys light novels (or light novel adaptations) in other countries. At the same time, I wonder if it could be released by a Japanese tourism agency for use in the US and around the world. While it wouldn’t be serving the exact same purpose, it could still motivate people to travel to Japan and check out the Kyoto area.