So as some of you know there’s this odd little sub-genre of manga called iyashikei or ‘healing’ manga, which I kind of stumbled across when I started reading the Flying Witch series by Chihiro Ishizuka about a year ago. This type of manga is characterised by an episodic structure, little to no drama or conflict and a general appreciation of the things in life that we often take for granted, like the natural world, good food and friendship. I can go on until the cows come home about how much I’m loving Flying Witch, but I have just finished reading another manga series in this vein called Girls’ Last Tour that I feel the need to gush about today.
And when I say I’ve finished it, I really have. It’s only six volumes long, (which is actually something of a relief; I haven’t got the stamina for, say, the seventy-four volumes of Bleach by Tite Kubo or even the thirty-two volumes of Shaman King by Hiroyuki Takei – although a deeply respectful bow is due here to Bookstooge for trudging through that series so I don’t have to! You can see his reviews for the whole series here). Every time I finished a volume of Girls’ Last Tour I wanted to post something about it, but in all honesty I could barely have typed more than a few words. It’s not that very little happens (although that is true), but more that I was still trying to work out where Tsukumizu was going with the story and what she was trying to convey. Now, having finished it, I can sort of see what colour and shape of story it has been.
Girls’ Last Tour is about as different to Flying Witch as I could get while still bumbling about in my little SFF bubble. Chito and Yuuri are travelling through an empty future world of mega-structures on their faithful Kettenkrad, always aiming to get to the topmost stratum of the giant city-world. There has been a war of some kind, or an apocalyptic event, and the girls have only dim memories of a time when they lived with their Grandpa in a town patrolled by soldiers and subjected to rationing. It was he who instructed them to travel upwards before encouraging them to flee the camp when things took a turn for the worse. Early on they do meet a couple of fellow survivors: first, Kanazawa the map-maker, and a little later, Ishii the pilot, but most of their journey is made only in each other’s company. They scrounge for food and water and anything that may be useful. They travel over, under and through factories and power plants; towers, bridges and old apartment buildings; a colossal graveyard and an AI-run fish-farm; a nuclear submarine and an art-gallery; tunnels, staircases and a space rocket launch station. They encounter robots and artificial intelligences, and a life-form they call Ket who eats bullets and communicates via radio-signals. And finally, finally, they get to the top.
As far as plot goes, that’s it, but that doesn’t quite capture what Girls’ Last Tour is about. Through Chi-chan and Yuu we enjoy the luxury of an unexpected hot bath and the music that falling rain makes, we experience wonder and curiosity over the massive remains of a past civilization, we appreciate well-made and useful tools. While there is a melancholy undertone throughout (in a near-empty world where nothing is able to grow, how long can these girls truly survive?) there is also a strong sense of … I don’t know quite how to put it … gratitude, I guess. In reading their appreciation for such rare and unlikely treasures as a chocolate bar or a bottle of beer, we are perhaps being encouraged to reflect on all the small treasures we are surrounded by. Certainly in this interview over at Japanese Translation creator Tsukumizu has said:
“To the fans, whilst going about your day, I would like you to notice the virtues in everyday life. If this work could aid in getting people to live happily, I’d be very glad.”
And Chi-chan and Yuu are delightful companions. Chito is the more serious of the two. She loves books, which she collects when she can, she is the driver of the Kettenkrad and she keeps them on track. Yuuri is the more buoyant character. She is almost permanently hungry, a little goofy, a little lazy and she can’t read as Chito can, but her good-natured observations keep things light. As the story unfolds the two girls (sisters, I think, but I don’t remember it ever being stated outright) come to appreciate the comfort and support they each provide the other. The humour is gentle and often comes from their very different reactions to the situations they find themselves in or the items they come across. There’s also a lot of indirect comment on what the future holds for humanity – Chi-chan and Yuu wonder why the people from long ago made so many weapons and not enough non-perishable foods for them to find while wandering through a massive wasteland of broken down tanks, for example – and reflecting on the roles of memory and history, art and knowledge, and what life means. It’s really not like anything I’ve read before and now that’s it’s over, I think I’d benefit from reading it through from the beginning again to see what I missed first time round. The impressions I’m left with though, are of a thoughtful, hopeful story, despite it all.
(Not that the internet appears to agree, of course. In doing a bit of wider reading before writing this up I came across a fair amount of disagreement over the ending and a lot of concern for the author’s mental state, (they were worried that she was suffering from depression). This was mostly on reddit, so I didn’t pay huge amounts of attention, but I do think that some people were missing the point: There’s a pretty solid appreciation for the ephemeral in Japan, perhaps most famously expressed in Hanami or ‘flower-viewing’ during cherry blossom season, and Girls’ Last Tour is just another expression of this concept. The knowledge that something will end, whether it be a journey, a life, or a story, is an integral part of our enjoyment of that thing. That’s surely why it’s so important to focus on the little things, which is what these iyashikei manga are all about, which is why I’m loving them, so far).