Cigarette Girl

Masahiko Matsumoto’s work is one of Japanese manga’s hidden treasures. This collection, from the early 70s, is a timeless collection of stories of everyday love and life.

Cigarette GirlMasahiko Matsumoto’s work is a hidden treasure of Japanese manga. The stories in this wonderful collection were originally published in magazines between 1972 and 1974, and fall under the ‘gekiga’ genre of manga. Translated as ‘dramatic pictures’, gekiga differentiates itself from traditional manga with more sophisticated stories. Matsumoto also minimised dialogue, using his characters’ changing expressions to carry the emotional tide of the story. He followed this path as a deliberate reaction against the style of Osamu Tezuka, who during this period was pulling influences from Western culture like Disney’s films. Most interesting of all is that, by this period, Matsumoto was already 20 years into a successful career in comics.

Cigarette GirlThe slice-of-life stories in this collection feel incredibly modern, with a timelessness that comes from the raw human emotion that Matsumoto navigates through. The stories are bursting with clumsy relationships, from the first (Naruko Tsurmaki’s Love, in which a woman tries to win the attention of her fiancé, who seems more infatuated with a stray puppy he finds in the street) to the last (To Somewhere…, where a hostess leaves her job to seek out one of her customers, who doesn’t seem entirely sure that he wants her moving in with him).

Between these there’s a range of stories with similar themes, all about love and often unrequited. The book is punctuated in the middle with a longer, 100-page story, though still split into episodic chapters. Called Happy-Chan, it follows a kind-hearted young woman as she embarks on a career selling condoms door-to-door. Her instinct is to help everyone she meets, leading to a series of awkward situations that she eventually wins through with her quiet charm.

The pace of these stories is inherently gentle and peaceful, like the tide lapping gently against a beach. Sometimes it washes up a little heartache, other times the world turns out just right. But the powerful message that seems to swell up through all the stories is that lives and relationships are transient, shifting things. It’s not just about fate and sometimes you can be the master of your own destiny, but at other times you’ve just got to roll with whatever life puts in your way.

Heart warming and tragic in equal measure, Matsumoto’s dramas are as sophisticated as you could want, keeping their themes and scope simple, but managing to create poignant portraits of his characters that will sit with you, like old friends, long after you’ve closed the pages of the book.

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