“You won’t last one step on that catwalk. And do you know why? Because you can’t see your true self.”
Of the four key manga demographics — shoujo for girls, shounen for boys, seinen for men, and josei for women — josei is the least well represented in the English-language market. You could fit the titles of all the josei manga available in English on one side of a postcard, and still have plenty of room for the address — so every new addition to the list is worth a look, and Walkin’ Butterfly is worth a lot more than that.
The heroine of Walkin’ Butterfly is more of a scorpion than a butterfly, at least at first. High school dropout Michiko Torayasu has always been tall, and at 19 she’s 6’0″ and sick to death of being stared at and teased. She’s so tall that no boy will go out with her, and all the rejection and mockery has given her a fiery temper and a desperate sense of being freakish and outside everything, “like a monster built by a mad scientist”. One day, by chance, she stumbles into the dressing room for a fashion show. Mesmerised by the sight of all those women as tall as she is, she’s too flustered to object when one of the make-up artists mistakes her for a model — but Mihara, the designer for the show, spots her and calls her bluff, saying “You’re just an ordinary Amazon. I feel sorry for my clothes!” Incensed, Michiko storms out onto the catwalk… and freezes. It turns out there’s more to being a model than just walking around in haute couture clothes, and Michiko is stunned and humiliated by her failure — but after having a major freakout, Michiko turns that humiliation into her motive for aiming at her new goal: to become a top model and show Mihara that she does have what it takes.
Walkin’ Butterfly is tremendously well written, with a fresh and distinctive art style that bristles with energy; Michiko is a vivid character both to look at and to read about, and her plight is so well portrayed it brought tears to my eyes. There are echoes of the standard shounen manga boy-who-wants-to-be-the-best about the plot, but the storytelling and characters are so down to earth and realistic that it doesn’t feel like the same kind of thing at all. This is a story as much about Michiko learning to know and appreciate herself as it is about her becoming a model, and there are no shortcuts or power-ups or dei ex machina for Michiko, only the slow, difficult work of learning to be true to herself.
Funny and moving from beginning to end, Walkin’ Butterfly is a wonderful read. Highly recommended.