Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Suppli
by Jason Thompson, Nov 8th 2012
Episode CXXVIII: Suppli
"Work is a part of who I am. It's a very large part of who I am. I don't know what to do when there isn't work."
Warning: the ending of this manga will probably never be translated. Tokyopop published five volumes of the ten-volume series (after a two-year gap between volume 3 and omnibus volume 4-5) and now that they're out of business, it seems unlikely that it will ever be completed, unless jmanga.com or someone puts it online. But I couldn't keep from reading it, to keep myself from sinking beneath those gorgeous green and blue watercolor covers, and if you don't mind being tantalized by the lack of an ending, I'm sure not going to stop you from sinking in too.
Fujii is a 27-year-old who works in creative at an advertising agency. She works long hours in a skyscraper designing ad campaigns, staying as late as necessary, sleeping on chairs. After dealing all day with her clients' unreasonable requests, she comes home late at night to an apartment stacked with dirty dishes and old magazines and her boyfriend of seven years. He's tired of competing with her schedule: "Which is more important to you—work or me?" he asks her, as he sits on the futon pouting like a child. It's obvious their relationship is going nowhere, but it still catches her off guard when he breaks up with her. It doesn't help when, four months later, she gets an invitation to his wedding with some women she's never seen before.
But breaking up has its upside; now she can have her own life again. She gets reacquainted with her coworkers, who immediately know she's had a breakup by the fact that she wants to hang out. They go to karaoke, they drink, she catches up on their personal lives. Mita is the gay guy who knows all the gossip. Yugi is having an affair with a married man. Ishida, the 25-year-old designer, surfs in his spare time and is considered difficult to work with. Ishida drunkenly kisses Fujii while they're at karaoke, and she suddenly realizes how good-looking he is.
Her head starts spinning with possibilities. But it's been so long since she dated anyone but her ex, she hesitates, thinking, "I feel like a middle-school virgin again." Then another man turns her eye: Ogiwara, a handsome executive who will be working with her on her next project. On an overnight trip to meet an actress to convince her to act in their commercial, she and Ogiwara drink beer and eat convenience store onigiri in their hotel room while they plan their strategy for the next day. After a few beers Ogiwara gets emotional and starts talking about personal stuff, and Fujii realizes that he, too, has just lost someone he loved. She tries to resist getting into another relationship, but she can't help being pulled closer. Ogiwara's vulnerability and beauty appeals much more than Ishida's straightforwardness. Since she doesn't have time to do anything but work, maybe dating a coworker makes sense…
It's hard to describe Suppli because it doesn't have an obvious gimmick, an "elevator pitch." "A 27-year-old advertising professional rediscovers love and dating after a breakup" is as good as I can come up with. It doesn't sound melodramatic or catchy the way I think of as being "manga-style" (although what if she was…an advertising professional with a SHINIGAMI FAMILIAR…!!!), but this isn't a very melodramatic manga. It's a slow read, full of dialogue and text and details, emotional as well as artistic. Mari Okazaki (whose only other translated work is Sweat and Honey, also published by the late Tokyopop) draws my second favorite josei art after Moyoco Anno, and although she doesn't have Anno's talent for caricature, she draws great backgrounds and beautiful, collage-like scenes. Her special focus is images of light and water, or both, like reflections on the shiny scales of fish: fish are everywhere in this manga, perhaps because of Fujii's daydream that, with the rain constantly pouring around the glass-walled office, they're all like fish in a fishbowl, "swimming in the ocean of work." The cool, impressionistic artwork suits the mood a story about cool professional folks.
As the manga goes on, we find out a lot about Fujii's coworkers; some chapters are even told from their perspective, making sort of an ensemble cast. Suppli is full of interesting characters. Kouda Kouetsu is an eccentric advertising genius who looks suspiciously like a grown-up version of L from Death Note (he even sits on his feet!!). "He's trouble," people warn Fujii, but "trouble" doesn't mean what you think it means. There's Sahara the super-tall, sexual-harrassy cameraman ("Nice ass! How about we date?") who looks like Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords, although in his case maybe I'm imagining it. Sahara is a man so confident that, while he's flirting with a woman, he can ask her to pick up condoms from the convenience store for him. The female characters are arguably more normal and sympathetic than the male ones. Watanabe is a secretary trapped in her dead-end job, watching people younger than her get better pay and better jobs, and burdened with a shiftless musician boytfriend. Tanaka is a beautiful and seemingly flawless ad exec who ends up working with Fujii on a project. When Fujii notices a wedding ring on Tanaka's finger and asks her about it, Tanaka says she'd forgotten the ring was there. "So I'm married. So what? That doesn't mean your life changes." All the excitement in Tanaka's life nowadays is in her extramarital affairs: "A man on the side is a good man to have. That's how it is when you're a working woman. Since we don't have time for other commitments, it's important to have men who are convenient!"
Suppli is as much an office manga as it is a romance manga, and readers waiting for a translation of Moyoco Anno's Hatakiri Man may enjoy this, another tale of a working woman. The advertising setting reminded me a little of Mad Men, although Okazaki doesn't go nearly as deep into the creative process and the details of the projects. Instead, Suppli is more about office politics and work exhaustion and the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated working environment. (That makes it sound more like Mad Men than it is.) "It's the professional's job to keep motivated. It's a woman's job to be cute," Fujii thinks annoyedly as she reapplies her makeup in the bathroom before a big presentation. "I've got an arsenal of weapons, but the one that I don't have is cuteness." "Confidence is what's really attractive," Tanaka says.
Thankfully, Suppli doesn't boil down to a stereotypical conflict of "career vs. love" or "career vs. marriage", or at least, when it does flirt with those themes, it doesn't rub it in the reader's face. Its attitude might be, yes, those goals can clash sometimes, but so what? Mari Okazaki, like the 27-year-old heroine, is past the usual stupid jokes about how "women are like Christmas cake". Sure, a 60-hour workweek doesn't leave much time for relationships, obviously, and yes, it's nice to have someone to fall back on, but this doesn't mean it's time to abandon all responsibility and run back to the kitchen. One of Fujii's coworkers is Hirano, a single woman in her late 40s. Watching Hirano buy a houseplant from the garden shop, Fujii imagines her lonely life and worries that's how she'll end up if she keeps working for another 20 years. But later, she discovers that Hirano is a talented director who used to win awards when she was younger, and Fujii realizes that Hirano is a role model, not someone to pity. (Hirano cynically downplays her own hard work: "If you worked under me, it would have inconvenienced you. A unit with a female leader is always going to play second fiddle. In fact, we'd probably get a lot of little jobs like tampon commercials.") Later on, Fujii has to help with the orientation of Kanon, a young woman just out of college. As the new girl balks at Fujii's work habits, Fujii has the disturbing realization that Kanon is thinking about her just the way she used to think about Hirano: "I don't want to become her." But is being Fujii, or Hirano, really so bad?
Suppli is about: (1) becoming really good at your job (2) hard work (3) friendship (4) romance. (As for sex, there's not much, but quality is better than quantity, right?) In Japan, it was adapted into an 11-episode live-action drama, although based on online descriptions it sounds like the plot was changed a bit, making it more obviously romantic. Your heart may pound, but the true uniqueness of Suppli is the way it captures the lives of white-collar people in their 20s and 30s; I've never seen a manga so full of office gossip and back pain and late nights, or where two people have sex and then immediately have to get out of bed afterwards and work remotely on their laptops. This will not be everyone's cup of tea, especially since Tokyopop will never finish it. But even if the translated version ends on a cliffhanger, Okazaki's images of Tokyo business life as an aquatic floating world make it totally worth reading. Sometimes, true love is just touching fingers at sunrise after you're both totally exhausted…from staying all night in the office doing Keynote presentations. All that stuff you think you know about Japanese business manga, like hostess bars and expense accounts and wine tasting, is so totally '80s. This is an office manga for the recession.
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