東京ラブストーリー is the name of the manga. It's a bold title, promising that the love story it tells will somehow encapsulate the city of Tokyo, at least at that particular moment. I don't know enough about Saimon Fumi 柴門ふみ's career to know if she had any right to be that ambitious in 1988. Any right, that is, other than the fact that her manga succeeds perfectly. If I had to pick one manga to be Exhibit A for the argument that manga can be Literature with that capital L, it might be this one. If I had to pick one work of literature to represent Japan in the bubble years, it might be this one.
Generically, it's a romantic comedy. It follows the conventions of this genre right down to the meet-cutes and the best-friends and the unexpected reversals, etc. It's also a seishun monogatari, in this case the very end of youth, that moment in your early 20s when you're done with college, you're working, you're out on your own with disposable income and a driver's license that says you can drink legally and there's nobody to tell you not to sleep with person X and you're wondering if all this means you should start settling down but you're having too much fun in the big city... (Mrs. Sgt. T notes that this manga is St. Elmo's Fire, and by God she's right. But it's a little more than that.)
It centers around four main characters. Nagao Kanji and his friend Mikami, who grew up together in Ehime and have now wound up in Tokyo, Nagao as a salaryman and Mikami as a med student; their friend Sekiguchi Satomi, a fellow classmate from Ehime who's now working at a kindergarten in Tokyo; and Akana Rika, an OL in Nagao's office. Nagao is a painfully sincere, good-hearted guy who's a country boy at heart, lost in the big city, and he's been in love with Sekiguchi for years but she only thinks of him as a friend. Mikami is a playboy, a dissolute son of wealthy parents, but he has, of course, a heart of gold, and he's been in love with Sekiguchi for years, too. Rika is an overseas returnee - she spent her childhood in Africa - and this is held up as emblematic of her approach to life: she has a freedom, an impatience with rules and customs, and a self-directedness that her countrymen (the manga sez) lack. She sets her sights on Nagao.
From here we get the expected love triangles in their various permutations. As a love story, what makes it work is the fact that it never feels like Saimon is extending it needlessly. It's not a very long manga as these things go, and given its popularity at the time it must have been a temptation to spin it out endlessly, but she didn't. Each development feels like it was planned from the start, adding new depth and complexity to each character and their relationships. And so it succeeds as a romantic comedy. You really root for each of these people - if you're open to this genre at all - and you laugh and cry along with them as they fall in and out of love.
But what makes it work as literature (and what is literature? whatever you want it to be; in this case what I want it to be is something that makes me think, something that says something, something that somehow transcends itself) is how elegantly each of the characters represents this particular moment. She's writing during the later bubble years, just before things went to hell, and so her characters are effortlessly affluent and enjoy the best of everything. (There's more than a little Gatsby in here, too.) And it's not just unprecedented material freedom that this manga captures: it's the utter freedom from tradition.
Sex is a fact in this manga; it's not particularly explicit, but it portrays characters thinking about sex with an openness, a matter-of-factness, that feels quite fresh. Of course it's not precisely new, and it's not universal either: part of the subtlety of the book is how it brings out a tension between the sexual fastness of Tokyo and the perceived conservatism of the countryside. And of course Tokyo in literature has been sexually fast for decades - it's something each new generation discovers to its delight and shock, at least since Tanizaki's day. (But then, every generation thinks it was the one to discover sex.)
Rika is held up as the exemplar of all of this fast Tokyo-osity. At one point Nagao even says she's Tokyo itself. Which means that of course she's yet another take on the age-old theme of the moga. But it's the specificity of the character that is so powerful: the details of her position in the company, the work she's expected to do, how she does it; her ease with fashion, international travel, communication in English; the way she represents for the men in the company a kind of consumption-based sexually-inflected freedom that both fascinates and threatens them. All of this makes her a compelling new character, and simultaneously a perfect expression of the place of Tokyo in the cultural imagination in the late '80s. There was, and is, a dynamic in Japanese culture that sees Tokyo as somehow un-Japanese (despite the metro area being home to something like a quarter of the population), something to be shunned, even as it's plainly something that attracts vast numbers of people. Rika is all that.
Which is why it's so wonderful that this manga doesn't punish her. This manga doesn't look at Tokyo with horror. Rika isn't an aberration to be contained. Saimon's vision of contemporary Japan is big enough to have room for Rika just as she is - just as Saimon accepts (depicts with loving surehandedness) Nagao's awkwardness as a common reaction to the newness of someone like Rika.
I could go on. This manga is rich in theme, character psychology, dramatic detail. And it's something to behold visually, as well: Saimon's art is just light enough to deliver the comedy, while being just detailed enough to sustain the seriousness. And on top of it all she has a great eye for fashion. This is exactly how people dressed in Tokyo offices in 1989. That reaching for a '20s kind of elegance - the scarves, the corduroy, the culottes and baggy suits. It not only captures the era, but it resonates nicely with the characters' desire to be grown up.