Welcome to the quiet, evocative urban dramas of Masahiko Matsumoto, one of the leading lights of the Japanese alternative-comics movement known as "gekiga." Originally published in 1974, these eleven stories now form the first English-language collection of Matsumoto's mature work. His shy, uncertain heroes face broken hearts, changing families, money troubles, sexual anxiety, and the pressures of tradition, but with a whimsy and lightness of touch that is Matsumoto's trademark.
I have always loved to read, and as such, I find myself predisposed to selecting books seemingly at random, with little to no prior knowledge. That was certainly the case with Cigarette Girl, a manga which, to this day, I have only ever seen in a bookstore once - and that happened to be the day that I visited.
I had never heard of Cigarette Girl before. Matsumoto-sensei's name rang a bell, though, and the moment I picked up the book, I knew I had to own it. Aesthetically, it's small, beige and pink, and it's an undeniably tactile volume, one that I feel the
need to retrieve from my bookshelf and fondle every now and again. But what about what's on the inside?
Cigarette Girl is a collection of rather similar stories, but each one feels fresh and different. To name but a few: we learn about a man who buys cigarettes from the same girl every day, even though he doesn't smoke; we are invited into the world of a young couple who purchase two tickets 'to somewhere'; and we are allowed a glimpse into the world of a man, a woman and their new dog.
The stories (save one) are short, fleeting. They are not full, rounded tales, but rather offer snapshots of people's lives, coming and going with no sense of closure. And it works beautifully.
The longest tale, Happy-chan, is a brilliantly realistic story of a single woman trying to get through each day, from selling condoms to match-making. It's excellent and compelling, and it manages to feel full and complete without a conclusion or a clear sense of the passage of time.
Each of the characters feels, to some extent, unfulfilled. They wander through life, and sometimes they are given glimpses of a brighter future, but often, when they pursue these hopes, they fall short of realising their dreams, and they regress to how they once were - perhaps how they will always be. I am sure that, for some readers, this manga will be dreary, maybe even depressing; but for me it felt achingly true, and while certain moments are sad, I always surmised that Matsumoto-sensei was not attempting to upset his readers, but rather present to them stories that do not embellish or glamourise real life.
Cigarette Girl is an excellent manga - and everyone should read it.