I just finished watching this totally lame Sarah Michelle Gellar/Alec Baldwin chick-flick romantic comedy thing, Suburban Girl, adapted from The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. You can’t blame the leads for the lameness–they were clearly trying–but despite the odd clever one-liner and a few scenes that were almost inspired, it generally bit. There was just nothing there–no spark, no chemistry, no insight. It’s about Brett, a 20-something associate editor (Gellar) with a New York publishing house, and her tepid romance with Archie, a 50-year-old legendary publishing veteran (Baldwin). Brett’s a suburban girl because her WASP-y family comes from some unnamed suburb of NYC, although this has very little bearing on the tepid NYC setting, depicted with tepid fashion and tepid personalities. Brett likes her job, but doubts her path, her abilities, her crazy new boss, yadda yadda yadda, meets Archie, they hook up, she dumps her present guy, Archie’s a diabetic alcoholic, Brett shops with her dad at Bed, Bath and Beyond, there is some tepid drama; I am introduced to the musical act Badly Drawn Boy, which is pretty awesome. The romance is, as I said, tepid, but I could swoon over Archie’s sweet townhouse, which is well-furnished and has long staircases.

Despite the fact that it was as thrilling as a warm glass of slightly off milk, I enjoyed Suburban Girl, in a mild sort of way, for the same reasons I dig josei manga . It was about a woman in my general age range, and it focused on her career as much as on her love life. In this case, it’s publishing. With Nana, it’s rock music, and punk music, and Hachi ping-ponging around, looking for purpose; with Walkin’ Butterfly and Paradise Kiss, it’s fashion and modeling, with Suppli, advertising, Tramps Like Us, journalism (Hataraki Man, ditto, although I think that’s technically seinen–but it’s by Moyoco Anno, and content-wise, it’s certainly in line with josei), Honey and Clover, the various professional uses of an art degree. With Happy Mania….god knows, but the romance, if it could possibly be so termed, is just as scattershot as the career arc; Happy Mania is an odd duck. Josei manga is all about the love and the sex, but it’s all about the career, too.

Historically, I’ve been all about science fiction and fantasy, so my chick-lit background is lacking, but the stuff I know–okay, here I was going to list all the chick-lit novels and movies I know, but all I could come up with was the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, which I honestly loved. (I think it was about 50/50 Hathaway and Streep / gorgeous clothing porn, there.) The romance subplot I admit to having snoozed through, but I felt married to a terrible job at the point when I went to see that movie, and I was all over the career dilemma part. So I guess the upshot of all this is that as far as I can tell, I like the parts of chick-lit that deal with jobs, careers, and the vocation/avocation tension.

I think there’s a particular kick to the career stuff in josei manga, because the women in manga who go for a career are swimming against the tide. Everything I know about women in the workplace in Japan is depressing and frustrating–sexism thrives in the Japanese workplace; unmarried women over the age of 25 are considered spinsters; working women typically retire from their jobs as soon as they marry or get pregnant. I don’t think it’s remotely a coincidence that so many of the working women in manga with contemporary Japanese settings are OLs (Office Ladies–menial positions that involve performing minor errands; it is my impression that to call them secretarial in nature would be to give them too much credit); the OLs that frequent the manga landscape are probably an accurate reflection of reality. So the women characters in manga who are pursuing serious careers in anything–including, yes, fashion–are formidable almost by default, and often admirable.

I wonder if there are men’s manga in translation that deal with careers the way that so many josei manga do? I went over to my bookshelves to jog my memory, and made a list of the manga that have as major component careers or functional equivalents. Some of my best contenders (Hikaru no Go, Iron Wok Jan, Yakitate Japan) owe a lot to what I always think of as shounen tournament manga. Regardless of the activity (fighting, cooking, playing a sport), the manga will follow certain patterns (someone starts out as a rank beginner, is inspired to improve, matches off against others, experiences personal growth. Lather, rinse, repeat as long as the sales stay good). I couldn’t come up with much outside of the shounen titles, though. There’s all the manga about creating manga, I suppose, although I always saw that more as generic creative navel-gazing than a mirror of any social struggle. Do men’s career manga not exist? Are they not in English? Have I just managed to select against them? I have no idea. I can believe that Japanese men don’t have to navigate the same tricky waters that Japanese women do when it comes to following a career path, and that the job-related frustrations for men take a different face in creative work, but I don’t really know.

Drifting back towards the subject of romance, some of my favorite romance-themed manga have a major a career focus (the shoujo titles Penguin Revolution and Pearl Pink, both about acting; One Pound Gospel, boxing), or a vocational interest that pleasantly surprised me–Suekichi’s improv troupe in Dance Till Tomorrow, Godai’s late-blooming career as a daycare center worker in Maison Ikkoku (speaking of Takahashi, Ranma 1/2 was at least as much concerned with personal betterment in martial arts as with romance. I don’t know if it’s a shounen tournament manga as such, but it shares some qualities). In every case, I was there for the romance, but appreciated the way that the vocational themes deepened the characterizations. Bland as it is, Suburban Girl certainly benefits from Brett’s dedication to her job, and from the natural conflict posed in having a romantic entanglement with an older, more experienced person who has already mastered everything she’s just encountering. All of the movie’s best moments pertain to Archie’s role in Brett’s career after she meets him–the status and experience he lends to her as she struggles with difficult assignments, and her ambivalence about accepting those things from him.

In the adult-oriented titles, at least, the dual focus on love and work really clicks for me–those are omnipresent concerns for most adults, and important to our sense of identity. What do I do? and Whom do I love? are pretty good questions to ask if you’re wondering who you are, and knowing yourself is crucial when pursuing success in either work or love. In fact, a dual love/work theme works better for me than either alone. I don’t really care that much about the minutia of publishing, journalism, or the music industry, except as they figure in a character’s life, and I rarely attach to a given love interest strongly enough to care if the protagonists ends up with them, or someone else, or no one at all–I care how it unfolds, less so how it ends.

Love and work are also a nice theme pair as they conflict so often, even if only in simple time allocation–and there’s a classic modern woman’s narrative for you. I think the relationship stress of a time-consuming job specifically comes up in Suppli, Hataraki Man, Tramps Like Us, and Nana. Nana also features a professional rivalry between two of its lovers, both of whom are too emotionally and creatively invested in their musical careers to be able to set it aside. Yazawa explores that one beautifully and with nuance, which is one of the many reasons why we all love Nana.

I wanted to make this all a little neater, tie it up with something, but I’ve been gnawing on this for a couple of days, and I’m sort of stuck here. Modern women’s themes, I dig them. I need to read more chick-lit in English and think about it. Can anybody recommend some to me with good prose? I’ll put up with a lot of flaws for good prose.