Thoughts on Shinkalion, the Robot Anime Designed to Promote Bullet Trains

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion is the most blatant advertisement in cartoon form that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so upfront with its true purpose—promoting Japan Railways’ shinkansen (aka bullet train) system—that it’s right in the title. But I actually don’t mind the extreme shilling of Shinkalion all that much, and it’s for one simple reason: the Japanese train system, including its shinkansen, is astoundingly good.

The hero of Shinkalion is a young boy named Hayasugi Hayato, a total train otaku. Hayato discovers that his dad, ostensible a Japan Railways (JR) employee, works for a secret division dedicated to fending off monsters attacking Earth. In an emergency, Hayato becomes the pilot of a Shinkalion, a super-advanced train that can transform into a giant robo, and helps his dad in their fight against the forces of evil. Naturally, all Shinkalions are based on actual, real-world shinkansen trains. Incidentally, one recurring gag among Japanese Shinkalion viewers is referring to the series as a reverse-Evangelion because it’s about a young pilot who can’t wait to support his dad on his mission to fight off monstrous invaders.

It’s not just the Shinkalions themselves that are selling Japanese trains to the audience, as nearly everything about the anime talks up the country’s rail service. Hayato’s family name, Hayasugi, is a homophone for “way too fast” in Japanese—a reference to the high speeds of the shinkansen. His catchphrase, “I’m Hayasugi Hayato, the guy who always makes it on time!”, is based on the fact that the Japan rail system is famously on-schedule. Whereas other train systems around the world might see a 10-minute delay as “reasonable,” a five-minute difference is considered “extreme” in Japan. This is part of why train otaku exist, as it’s not just the mechanical aspects of the trains themselves that hold appeal. The precision and complexity allows enthusiasts to imagine riding from one part of Japan to another while planning the most perfectly efficient route possible.

While Shinkalion is indeed mainly about high-speed trains, it also advertises for a few other things. There’s tourism, the natural extension for a show about trains, with the ending theme showing various famous landmarks across Japan. While I haven’t researched it, I’m confident that all locales presented are reachable by shinkansen. Then there’s the Google product placement. Not only is one of the characters a popular Youtuber, they even use the term Youtube and show it off. The strangest promotion is the fact that the Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku (or a convenient alternate version of her), is a pilot in the show—and she’s actually voiced by the Hatsune Miku software! In this instance, it might be JR that’s benefiting from the association instead of the other way around. The result is that Shinkalion is a kind of marketing black matter. The characters would have to be plastered with logos like NASCAR racers for it to go any further.

I’ve taken bullet trains, and they’re an amazingly comfortable experience. I’ve taken regular trains, and they’re so reliable it makes coming back to New York City’s subway system almost feel like culture shock. If this fairly generic giant robot cartoon wants to sell me on shinkansen, it can do that all day long. That said, I would be wary of Shinkalion becoming propaganda for JR as this perfect entity, because there’s evidence that it isn’t. Glancing at reviews on Glassdoor, there are multiple negative comments about the companies being extremely conservative businesses and thus stifling its own growth. Perhaps the efficiency of the system comes at a (human) price.

Still, I can enjoy Shinkalion for what it is. This 500-yen Shinkalion model kit I bought is a testament to that.

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Report: Retro Doujin Event Game Legend 28

On a recent trip to Japan, I attended a doujin event dedicated to retro games. It was an opportunity on my part to not only attend my first ever Japanese event dedicated solely to video games, but to see just what “retro” meant for a Japanese audience.

Held in the city of Kawaguchi, “Game Legend 28” saw a fairly packed attendance. I’m awful at estimating crowd sizes, but I’d say there was close to 200 people in attendance. The vendors there offered a diverse range of goods, even more than events I’d attended in the past, and it was primarily due to the subject matter. While the standard comics and essays were there in droves, one could also find CDs of video game music covered by amateur bands, entire archives of instruction manuals, people’s personally developed games, and even super-miniaturized (and playable!) versions of arcade and console titles. The last item seemed to be a trend, as more than one table offered them.

When it comes to trends one might not see at a US convention, I noticed that there was a great amount of love given to the PC-Engine (released in the US as the Turbo Grafx 16), and that certain popular Japanese meme characters such as Spelunker still held strong. I also met a woman who wore a Segata Sanshiro t-shirt and sold a photo journal of her time attending a Sonic fan event in Korea. Another dedicated herself to F-Zero, showing not only doujinshi but tiny F-Zero machine replicas as well.

It’s common to presume that doujinshi means “porn,” but I actually saw very few tables dedicated to 18+ material. Even then, one was selling a comic featuring a popular heroine from Tokimeki Memorial. In other words, even the smut was frequently retro.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Game Legend 28, and even bought a few things, including a Sega Smash Bros. parody doujinshi starring Alex Kidd. But the event also inadvertently curried favor with me when a small live brass band played a song from one of my favorite video game soundtracks ever. Following performances of the boss theme from R-Type and the ending theme to Chrono Trigger, they went straight into “Back to the Fire,” the Hydra stage music from Thunder Force III.

At that point, Game Legend 28 could do no wrong in my mind.

“Mogusa-san Fights Against Appetite” Concludes on a Body-Positive Note

Whether she’s a high school student discovering love or a college student striking it out on her own, the gluttonous Mogusa Minori is among my all-time favorite manga characters. Earlier this year, the story of a girl whose fondness for food transcends human limits had concluded in the fifth and final volume of Mogusa-san Fights Against Appetite. I’m not going to retread a lot of ground because my previous review still holds up, but I do want to elaborate upon the final message of the series and its overall positivity.

The main premise of Mogusa-san Fights Against Appetite is that Mogusa, whose appetite is virtually endless, is trying to transition into a more normal eating schedule. Where once she could be found snacking throughout the entire day, now she wants to limit herself to “only” three meals—albeit, every individual meal is itself more like three meals to the average person. Part of the comedy of this series is that, inevitably, Mogusa succumbs to her hunger pangs and has a rapturous encounter with whatever food’s in front of her. In the final volume of Mogusa-san Fights Against Appetite, however, this begins to increasingly weigh on her mind.

Seeing everyone, including her boyfriend Koguchi Torao, working hard to achieve their dreams and win their personal battles makes Mogusa very self-conscious about the fact that her own challenge—eating somewhat like a “normal” person—seems so frivolous compared to others’. But a trip back home and some advice from her mom helps Mogusa to see differently. She has matured, and in fact her gluttony has been of great benefit to her. She’s made great friends, met a wonderful boy who’s grown into a splendid man, and given her a wealth of experiences. Mogusa ultimately decides to embrace her food lust and aim to become a gourmet writer, sharing her passion for cuisines great and small with the world.

This conclusion resonates with me greatly, and not merely because I love to eat everything as well. When it comes to food shaming and body shaming, we live in a culture where outward physical appearance and behavior are often prioritized over one’s psychological well-being. The guilt Mogusa feels over eating is not uncommon, even if it’s exaggerated in her instance. Every so often, I see someone mention that a guy or a girl are disgustingly fat and that they need to get in shape, not taking into account the inner emotions of the person they’re speaking about. Some people are better off exercising and experiencing dramatic weight gain/loss because it can lead them to greater personal satisfaction and overall happiness. For others, however, the constant pressure to match a certain beauty standard means that being more physically fit can lead to mental turmoil. There’s no universal solution, even if at least some exercise is undoubtedly beneficial in e end.

This lesson isn’t limited to food. For as long as I’ve been a part of online communities, I’ve seen people twist themselves trying to hide what they deemed to be shameful hobbies or activities. They get so desperate in their desire to not be judged by their peers that it eats them up inside (Mogusa-san pun not intended), and I’ve tried to live my own life in defiance of that. Even if there might be problems that arise from one’s own interests, it shouldn’t be repressed to the point that it crushes people from within.

While Mogusa has an impossibly petite body given how much she eats, and she’s perpetually “anime-girl cute,” even she has to fight an image in her mind that she fails to live up to. In her case, it’s the yamato nadeshiko-style ideal Japanese woman archetype. She constantly imagines Koguchi, who’s living in the old Japanese capital of Kyoto, breaking up with Mogusa because she’s not traditionally beautiful enough. This also ties into how one of Mogusa’s greatest shames is the thunderous roar of her belly when she’s hungry. In Japan, many women find a growling stomach to be embarrassing, and Mogusa’s is capable of waking up sleeping animals. To see her overcome all that and be in a happier place fills me with joy.

That Distant Roar: Hashikko Ensemble, Chapter 4

As I continue to read this manga, I continue to find it hard to predict. That’s all part of the fun, though. There’s also much to be admired about the characters, especially Jin—even if he’s a bit lacking in social tact.

By the way, I was lucky enough to be in Japan when this new issue of Monthly Afternoon came out! That’s why the images are photos this month, instead of digital screenshots.

Summary

Jin’s found the perfect place for Akira to practice projecting his voice, and it’s an open stairwell at school with plenty of foot traffic. Acoustically, the location is ideal, and Jin does his best to break down how singing works. But Akira’s easily embarrassed, so they only get so far.

Jin’s still got his eye on the prize, though, and needs at least three more members to make the Ensemble Club a reality. To that end, he has his sights on two classmates: Hanyama (that jokester son of a Buddhist priest), and the burly, delinquent-looking Orihara. Meanwhile, Orihara himself is getting into fights after getting accosted by a classmate. During this incident, Orihara’s heard uttering something cryptic: “I can’t hear it, but I can.”

Jin might be intrigued by Orihara’s statement, but it seems the rugby club also has their eyes set on him. Can the nascent Ensemble Club get to Orihara before they can?

What’s in a Name?

Up to this point, I didn’t quite realize why the series is called Hashikko Ensemble. Turns out it was pretty much staring at me in the face the whole time! Much like how Genshiken is short for Gendai Shikaku Bunka Kenkyuukai (“The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture”), the full title of this manga is Hashikko Ensemble: Hashimoto Kougyou Koukou Gasshuubu, or “Hashimoto Technical High School Ensemble Club.” So that clears up one mystery!

Another interesting tidbit I noticed is that the kanji for “Hashimoto” (端本) can also be pronounced as hahen, which means “incomplete.” Given how the characters are currently without a full club, I wonder if this is intentional.

Arts and Sciences

While I mentioned the technical high school setting of Hashikko Ensemble as an interesting backdrop for this manga’s narrative, it’s with this chapter that the juxtaposition of arts (music) and science (technical engineering) comes into the forefront. I think this is what makes Jin such a fascinating character. He takes a scientific approach to art, but his passion is anything but robotic.

Jin gives two different explanations for how voices work: a human one, and a technical one. The first one is “breath, vibration, and resonance.” The second one is “compression, oscillation, reverberation.” Akira seems to find something of an answer, but it’s not clear what did the trick.

A few years ago, I took some classes to help with speaking in public, and one of the lessons I learned was making “SHHH” sounds like I’m trying to shoot something down with my breath. In this chapter, Jin advises something similar to Akira as a way to train projecting his voice. I knew already that Kio does research for this series—it’s evident in the content—but it’s nice on a personal level seeing it line up with my own life experiences.

Orihara’s Secret

Orihara’s line has me curious too, but I’m just as curious as to why Jin responded to it so positively. Just what is it that Jin sees in him?

With only a layman’s understanding of sound and music, I can only guess at what the answer is. Perhaps Orihara has excellent hearing, and can detect sounds that most cannot. The beginning of the chapter features a lesson on how lower sounds remain longer, so maybe Orihara can hear those really low tones—the kind that Akira can produce.

What About the Girls?

Two female characters are featured in this chapter. Interestingly, both are in the same woodworking class as Orihara, and have scenes that involve him either directly or indirectly.

Kurata was introduced in the previous chapter, using more strength than necessary to saw through some wood, and we see in Chapter 4 that this is a persistent characteristic. She’s like a bull in a china shop, lacking in grace and trying to make up for it with energy and power. She’s shown right before Orihara, who’s much more in control even with his enormous strength, making a comparison between what Orihara does right and Kurata does wrong all the more noticeable.

The other girl is Hasegawa, who nonchalantly asks Orihara how she can complete the woodworking assignment in class more smoothly. As the other characters note, her lack of fear is impressive. I have to wonder if either of them will join the Ensemble Club, especially given their proximity to the main cast at this point.

Songs

No songs again this month, only a lot of shouting, “AH!”

[Insert Akira Tozawa chants here]

Final Thoughts

Kurata’s only appeared twice, but I’m already enjoying her character. There’s something about a spaz who gets way too pumped that speaks to me. Both her and Orihara bring a lot of facial expressions that weren’t common in Genshiken, so it’s nice to see Kio’s expressive range in his artwork.

Gamblers’ Paradise: “Uma Musume: Pretty Derby”

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic may be the most prominent cartoon about horse girls, but Uma Musume: Pretty Derby is bringing a different angle. Instead of wide-eyed ponies, it’s human-horse hybrids in the vein of anime catgirls. Instead of a children’s show reminiscent of magical girl shows, it’s a strange hybrid sports/idol anime focused on racing and dancing. As a result, Uma Musume: Pretty Derby veers closer to Girls und Panzer than Twilight Sparkle and friends.

Having watched the first two episodes, Uma Musume: Pretty Derby succeeds in being a sports show. It’s got an underdog main heroine with untapped potential, plenty of characters (perhaps too many) with a variety of personalities and competitive styles, and a sense of forward progress while keeping intrigue strong. For example, just what is up with protagonist Special Week’s adopted mother? She gives me a “mom from Aikatsu!” vibe; maybe that’s not a coincidence given the idol aspect of Uma Musume.

Taken on its own, the anime seems like a reliably strong show. However, much like Girls und Panzer, the point of potential concern is what happens when one looks beyond the cartoon itself and into what it’s supposed to advertise and accomplish. For Girls und Panzer, it’s possible glorification of the military. For Uma Musume, it’s gambling.

Uma Musume is a moefied version of horseracing, a popular betting sport. But it’s also part of a multimedia franchise from mobile games juggernaut Cygames, makers of Granblue Fantasy. When it comes to lootbox/gacha systems that drive players to empty their pockets, Granblue Fantasy is one of the grandmasters, and the chase for those slim 1% chances for ultra-rares is especially enticing for those vulnerable to gambling addiction. And yes, there’s an Uma Musume: Pretty Derby mobile game on the way.

So essentially, there’s a dangerous final form of Uma Musume that could become a reality someday. This monstrous version would involve going to the racetrack to watch and bet on the ponies while also playing Uma Musume and trying to get the right gacha gifts for your favorite horse girls. To use an ancient internet joke, they put a slot machine into your betting, so you can gamble while you gamble. It’s not gotten to this stage as of yet, but I have my eye out to see where Uma Musume will go.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

Darling in the Franxx and Choice in a Sexual Dystopia

Amidst shipping wars and attention given to its fanservice, hearing about the anime Darling in the Franxx secondhand gives the impression that it’s light on substance at best and alarmingly conservative in its sexual values at worst. Yet the more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that these descriptions do not accurately convey what the show has to offer. Instead, what I see is an anime that explores political discourse on what it means to be in a relationship, focusing on questions of equality, agency, and defiance.

WARNING: Spoilers for Darling in the Franx

Darling in the Franxx takes place in a science fictional world where kids are artificially created and trained to use giant robots called “Franxx” in order to fight massive monsters known as Klaxosaurs. They live in a world that separates adults from children, has those same adults revered like virtual gods, and sexual energy is directed towards combat. Those teens are put into not-so-subtle male-female pairings called “stamens and pistils,” who then enter a cockpit that has them basically pantomiming doggy-style sex without even knowing what it means to kiss. While these arrangements can seem like an excuse for some highly suggestive imagery, it’s implied throughout the series (if not stated outright) that this is an intentionally explosive design within the context of their world.

The fact that their society is partly based on adults exploiting children, stunting and controlling their hormones, and making it seem like a favor is already a kind of political message. However, plenty of anime both deep and shallow have done the same. “Kids vs. adults” is a classic trope, and even the biggest names in mecha (e.g. Evangelion and Gundam) feature them to some extent.

This might appear to be an admonishment of “frivolous” romance. However, it’s quite the opposite. I find that the romances are of central importance to the complexity of Darling in the Franxx. The relationships, how they’re presented and what they represent, are a direct window into the shows’ political themes and messages. Those themes and messages, in turn, are actually supportive of more liberal views on gender and sexuality than assumed at first glance.

Futoshi and Kokoro: Relationship Betrayal or Relationship Freedom?

One of the more controversial episodes sees the character Futoshi pledge his devotion to Kokoro. After weakly promising to go along with Futoshi’s pledge to be his “partner [i.e. co-pilot] forever,” Kokoro later decides to try and switch partners to Mitsuru when the option becomes available—an implicit rejection Futoshi. This was the cause of a great deal of consternation, with speculation that the show was trying to cheaply indulge in the NTR [cuckolding] fetish found in Japanese otaku culture.

However, what I think frames the importance of Kokoro’s actions is the fact that the stamen-pistil pairings are assigned. Yes, Futoshi was absolutely infatuated and Kokoro agreed to his pledge, but it was also established that Kokoro’s natural tendency is to oblige others and not speak her mind. This is what attracts her to the surly Mitsuru in the first place. He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and isn’t afraid to let it be known—something Kokoro finds incredibly difficult. Rather than this being some “betrayal” of Futoshi, I find it better viewed as Kokoro finally taking initiative in her life and finding someone in Mitsuru who complements her flaws and benefits from her strengths. Kokoro breaks down the walls Mitsuru has established to hide his vulnerability, while Mitsuru’s attitude inspires Kokoro to prioritize her own feelings.

Certain elements of the series, such as the male-dominant sexual imagery of the cockpits, and the fact that other Franxx pilots outside of the core group tend to be emotionless, imply a world that thrives on power imbalances and sex without joy. While this could be considered the message of the show, romantic developments based on the need to find a true equal says otherwise.

Hiro and Zero Two: Equal Partners Against the World

Nowhere is the emphasis on equality more evident than in the main love triangle between protagonist Hiro, his childhood friend Ichigo, and the part-Klaxosaur pilot Zero Two. At first, it comes across as harem-esque wish fulfillment starring a guy who seems like he stepped out of every generic light novel ever. There’s a vague sense that the girls are in love with him because he’s ambiguously “nice,” in the most boring way possible. So why is Hiro so much more attracted to Zero Two?

It can seem like mere exoticism, or the series deciding that one girl has to win, but there are moments throughout the series that suggest a vital difference between how the two girls relate to Hiro. Ichigo worships Hiro, and places him on a pedestal. Zero Two, however, inspires Hiro to push forward and to try and overcome his limits. When we find out their lost history in Episode 14—that the two actually met when they were children and had their memories altered by the adults as a result—it’s not just about Zero Two being “another childhood friend.” Instead, Hiro’s attempt to rescue her and escape together is the ultimate act of a child who constantly questions the status quo of a rigid society. Similarly, Hiro is the catalyst that allows Zero Two to experience the outside world, and to see herself as more than a monster. There is a sense of equality and a constant desire to push one another forward that is present when Hiro and Zero Two are together—one that doesn’t exist with Hiro and Ichigo.

Surprisingly, Hiro himself becomes an increasingly fascinating character as the series continues, being revealed as not really the goody two-shoes his initial impression conveys. That childhood flashback to meeting Zero Two highlights the fact that he was actually a problem child for a society that encourages kids to stay ignorant and obedient. A young Hiro refuses to take “you’re not supposed to know” as an answer, and is punished for it by having his memories erased and being forced into a more complacent personality. When he meets Zero Two again for the first time years later (in Episode 1), that puts him on the path towards his naturally inquisitive self that dares to challenge society’s assumptions.

Gender Conformity or Gender Rebellion?

Accepting that the romances are more than skin-deep, the question then becomes: what exactly is the message conveyed through these relationships? A recent episode has garnered some backlash because it’s being seen as reinforcing gender conformity and a heteronormative worldview. However, based on other information about the world in Darling in the Franxx, I feel that it’s not so simple.

In Episode 17, Papa’s personal elite squadron, the Nines, move in with the main characters. Once there, they discover that Kokoro has discovered information on pregnancy and childbirth, which is forbidden in their world. The leader of the Nines, named Nine Alpha, talks about how traditional pregnancy and childbirth are unnecessary because humans have evolved past it, and that to go back to the old ways would be to restore rigid gender roles and identities.

An antagonistic character is making that point, which potentially makes it look like it’s being presented as the “wrong choice.” But if anything, Darling in the Franxx features a world where all sexuality regardless of gender, sex, or sexual orientation is taboo, so it’s not simply a matter of “proper gender roles” being enforced in the narrative.

Consider the fact that only one of the characters, Kokoro, is expressing any desire for a traditional pregnancy. Consider also that the characters literally have no idea how they came into the world, believing that the “Big Brother”-esque Papa “made them” in some mysterious fashion. It’s one thing if they knew how they were birthed, but they’re not even allowed to know in the first place. Moreover, a previous episode features one of the other pilots, Zorome, meeting an adult who is heavily implied to be his biological mother—which means the talk about having evolved past the need for traditional childbirth might very well be a lie. To me, it looks like the issue isn’t that Papa is cruel for preventing humans from being able to have sex and reproduce and fulfill established gender roles, but that he’s suppressed all education about the topic.

Adults have their organs removed and their puberty somehow controlled or skipped over. Franxx pilots are allowed to keep their reproductive organs solely because they’re the key to piloting their robots, and they die early as a result. Sex and sexual desire are made a tool of the government regardless of the people and who they’re attracted to.

Franxx piloting becomes the closest thing people have to being able to have physical relationships, and even that is not so cut and dry. One of the other pilots, Ikuno, is clearly a lesbian or at the very least bisexual, but the world doesn’t even acknowledge her state as a possibility. When she suggests an attempt at a pistil-pistil combination for piloting, it doesn’t work—as if the state-ordained sex substitute known as the Franxx cannot allow it. Even then, she comes to Kokoro’s aid, slapping Nine Alpha for verbally attacking Kokoro’s newfound values. Prior to this, Ikuno can be seen bristling at the idea that gender distinctions could become more dominant if society reverted back to ancient times, but she still comes to Kokoro’s defense. I believe this is derived from the commonality between Kokoro’s wish for heterosexual procreation and Ikuno’s own emotional defiance of heteronormativity, which is that both wish to be free of a world that denies their feelings.

Even the main couple itself, Hiro and Zero Two, is a subtle rebellion against rigid gender roles. If the ability to have children is what defines women according to the story, then that would invalidate Zero Two, who mentions in Episode 17 that it is physically impossible for her. Yet her romance is the paramount love story of Darling in the Franxx. While she expresses envy at the fact that the humans can potentially have children, it’s more to do with them having a choice in the first place.

More Questions

One curiosity the series has yet to address is why the Nines seem to be capable of piloting in formations counter to the stamen-pistil pairing. Nine Alpha, for example, reads as male, but takes the bent-over position in the cockpit normally reserved for girls. Are the Nines, in part or in whole, actually outside of the male-female dichotomy in terms of sex and/or gender? Are their Franxx units somehow different from the rest? These unanswered questions further deepen the story and its potential avenues.

Conclusion: Emotional Depth and Political Rebellion

Darling in the Franxx starts off with many signs that it’s a shallow endeavor centered around boring wish fulfillment, shock value, and an excuse for sex and violence. But the show carries a lot of themes I would dare say are important to where we currently are in society. Its characters are extremely emotional teenagers, the classic archetype of anime, but their actions within the context of their world and the restrictions that world places on their bodies and minds gives renewed importance to everything they do. The romance of Darling in the Franxx is both a window into the politics of society and the importance of equality in emotional and loving relationships that transcend the strict hierarchies and roles given to them by a world of adults that seeks to mercilessly exploit its children. Rather than fighting for sexual conformity, the characters in Darling in the Franxx fight for sexual freedom and the freedom to choose their bodies’ futures, whether they know it or not.

Given that the series is yet to conclude, there’s a definite chance my interpretation is off the mark. If that time comes, I will be happy to reassess my analysis, and to see what I got right and what I got wrong.

Tokyo Tarareba Girls

Looking at oneself in the mirror can garner different experiences. For some, it’s a chance to reaffirm their self-confidence. For others, it’s an opportunity to make sure one is presentable to the outside world. But for many, staring at one’s reflection can be the hardest thing in the world, as it means confronting one’s fears and doubts, deeply buried in the psyche and surfacing through the eyes. To this effect, Tokyo Tarareba Girls by Higashimura Akiko (Princess Jellyfish) acts as a magical mirror. Its narrative, about 30-something women dealing with Japanese societal expectations, can be both compassionate and unforgiving in the same breath. It highlights the successes and failures of love while asking, “Which ones are which?”

Tokyo Tarareba Girls is about three female friends who moved to Tokyo as college students ready to take on the world, only to one day find themselves 33 and still single. Where once they were were seen as youthful and energetic, they can’t but help feel old. In a collective panic over their waning chances for finding love, they make a pledge to get married by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The core characters—TV writer Rinko, stylist Kaori, and restaurant chef Koyuki—are all beautifully complex and flawed characters. Their regrets are many, particularly when it comes to men they once rejected, only to see them turn into hunks over the years. They fear sitting on the sidelines, but they also fear messing up everything good in their lives, unsure of whether their actions should reflect youthful indiscretion or the wisdom of maturity. And throughout all this, the manga keeps asking the readers to interpret those decisions through the lens of their own experiences. There’s rarely a preaching of right or wrong, except for maybe the idea that women shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking they “need” to get married.

While single, 30-something women are the target audience for Tokyo Tarareba Girls, I believe that anyone who’s had to deal with pressure about when certain things “should” happen in life can connect with this story. You were “supposed” to lose your virginity by this point. You were “supposed” to have a career by this age. You were “supposed” to grow out of your childish hobbies at this age. What Tokyo Tarareba Girls does is encourage readers to consider those statements more thoroughly, think about how or why those expectations exist. And like the mirror it is, each person can come away from Tokyo Tarareba Girls with different ideas of both the manga and life in general.