I also don't want to imply that there was no good josei either. Kodansha took up the mantle there too, albeit mostly digitally. The obvious choice would be Akiko Higashimura's Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but since that's getting a print release next year I'm going to hold off on that. Instead I want to talk about another great josei series that mostly slipped under everyone's radar.
THE FULL TIME ESCAPIST'S WIFE (Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu), by Tsunami Umino. First published in 2012 and first published in North America in 2017.
Mikuri spent her twenties working on a graduate degree in psychology, only to find herself unable to find work in both her field and through temp agencies. To support herself, she takes up a housekeeping job for Tsukazi, a standoffish salaryman, but this job is put into peril when Mikuri's parents decide to retire to the countryside. That's when she and Tsukazi come up with a bold plan: the two will go through with a common-law marriage to keep up appearances, but otherwise continue with the same professional arrangement they had before. Things seem to go smoothly at first, but can these two fake being married without feelings ever coming into the picture or anyone learning the truth?
The Full-Time Wife Escapist won me over from its first scene, where Mikuru delivers her backstory in the form of a talk-show-style daydream that gets increasingly accusatory with each question. From that moment on, I know I was in store for a story that was willing to explore some very modern, adult anxieties with an unconventional and somewhat self-aware tone that is all too rare in josei.
Mikuri was an extremely relatable character for me. If anything, she might be a bit too relatable, considering my own experience with earning a degree in a social science only to find it difficult to hold down steady work either in my field of choice or just in general...but I digress. Still, she's got a very matter-of-fact manner that's balanced out by her high emotional intelligence (thanks to her psychology background) and her more whimsical moments of imagination. Her daydreams are some of the best parts of the manga, as they allow Umino to explore Mikuri's thoughts and personality more deeply while inserting a bit of humor and getting away from straightforward monologues.
Tsuzaki is also a very interesting and unconventional sort of love interest. He's no dashing CEO or handsome jackass, but instead a mild-mannered IT guy who is very particular about emotional boundaries and isn't all that interested in relationships in general. I would be very curious as how readers who identify as ace would regard him, as I don't think it's too out there to interpret him as some degree of asexual. Of course, this being a josei romance that disinterest isn't going to hold out forever, as we see in his own inner monologues that Tsukazi has plenty of insecurities of his own. Still, it's sweet to see that their arrangement is one that's based on healthy communication and respect for one another's personal boundaries both before and after they marry. Yes, they are still approaching it as employer and employee, but you'd be hard pressed to find an actual working relationship that's so mindful.
Umino is clearly taking her time with these two, as they slowly ease their way into domestic life and sort out their own feelings. She also provides some alternate perspectives through Mikuri's middle-aged maiden aunt Yuri and Tsuzaki's cynical, serial bachelor coworker Hino, who not only allow the two to voice some of their concerns separate from one another but also serve as the biggest threats to their faux marriage. Honestly,the only downside to this are a couple of brief moments of casual homophobia towards one of Tsuzaki's other coworkers. Otherwise The Full-Time Wife Escapist takes its odd and somewhat contrived premise and turns it into something gentle, introspective, and weirdly endearing.
It's a good thing that Umino's writing is so strong because her artwork is far from it. The character designs are perfectly fine, but they're all drawn in a flat, stiff sort of way. Her backgrounds aren't much better, as the details are fine but she uses virtually no shading and very shallow perspectives. The most creative she gets visually is during Mikuri's daydreams, and then it's nothing more than stage-like lighting and use of black space to imply narration.
I was incredibly charmed by The Full-Time Wife Escapist, so much so that I was willing to overlook her artistic shortcomings. It's hard to say if that will be true for others, but it's still one of the stand-out josei titles of the year.
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