Tramps Like Us
Sumire Iwaya is a highly educated, accomplished, beautiful woman who puts most of herself into her newspaper job. Her fiancé dumped her because he’s uncomfortable with her — she makes more money than he does and is smarter than he is — and she was demoted from breaking foreign news to the lifestyle section after she forcibly rejected her boss’ advances.
She has no friends at work, only people who gossip about her out of jealousy, while other women play dumb and manipulate coworkers to make their jobs easier. In short, she faces the challenges many independent working women face, with no outlet for her anxieties and no one to keep her company.
Until the night she finds a runaway teenage boy sleeping in a box in front of her condo. She adopts him as a pet, naming him “Momo” after the dog she had when she was younger. He needs a place to stay, and she needs someone she can talk to without worrying what they’ll think of her. That’s the odd couple pairing behind Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa.
For all her accomplishments, Sumire is still insecure, changing her behavior to try and satisfy others. The original Momo was the only being she could honestly share her thoughts with as a teen; now, the new Momo serves the same purpose, someone who won’t use her feelings against her. Sumire’s got a lot stacked against her that she can do little about, so Momo’s unquestioning loyalty is her only source of release. He appreciates other of her skills, like cooking, and he’s the only one who sees the real, undefended her.
His tousled hair and loose-limbed agility suits both his career as a modern dancer and the way he sometimes acts like an animal. His background in dance makes it plausible that he’d enjoy the game of mimicking a dog, as some kind of movement exercise. The two have in common their advanced studies abroad and the way height has affected their lives. Momo was too short to continue in ballet, and Sumire’s too tall for a “proper” woman.
Sumire’s slim face and huge eyes are alternately vulnerable and closed off. Her look reminds me that she’s still relatively young, for all her adult concerns. The faces are distinctive and unusual with a touch of the exotic, representing the individuals within, each unique and in pain because of it.
In the second volume, the two of them have Christmas Eve together. In Japan, the holiday is more romantic than religious, so there are all kinds of expectations and subtext to manage. After that, Sumire has to stop smoking at work, which almost drives her crazy. She’s dealing with the nail-biting questions of when to sleep with her boyfriend, how to say goodbye to her ex-fiancé, and whether to tell people about her pet. She and Momo are learning to depend on each other, and he can be more mature than she suspects. If their relationship works for them, even if it is awfully hard to explain to anyone else, who can say it’s wrong?
Book three introduces competition for her boyfriend, which complicates her ambivalence. She’s still acting, trying to be the person she’s supposed to be instead of who she really is, but her rival knows what she wants and competes without scruples. Sumire senses that a relationship should be relaxing and welcoming, but her boyfriend is another source of pressure for her because of her discomfort with herself. A family dinner and a company beach trip are additional struggles, although they also provide opportunity for reflecting on the difference between lustful attraction and comfortable companionship as bases for relationships.
Sumire’s stress causes her to hallucinate seeing Momo as a real dog as volume four begins. She’s afraid of appearing less than perfect, and when everyone tells her that all that matters to society is whether she has a man, her fear is understandable. It takes a lot of strength to ignore such powerful and widespread voices. Momo is her quiet rebellion.
Then her work sends Sumire to write about being an amusement park mascot. Although there’s an obvious opportunity for humor, there’s also further character development. She has to ask herself how far she’ll go for a job where she’s under-appreciated. Best friend Yuri tries to help, and Yuri’s daughter Ran-chan is an adorable distraction, drawn like a real little kid.
In volume five, Momo is kidnapped, requiring Sumire and her boyfriend to go undercover at a sleazy club in a story that’s marvelously funny when it’s not threatening rape. The next episode introduces the boyfriend’s younger brother, who points out that after a year of dating, the two of them still speak formally to each other instead of calling nicknames.
The need to choose between Momo and her more appropriate boyfriend becomes more prominent in a chapter called “What You Want Vs. What You Need”, and the pressure of hiding her true self becomes more of a struggle. She doesn’t know how to be honest with herself, let alone with someone who wants to marry her, even though he doesn’t know the real her. Then work complications ensue when someone very much like her joins the firm. It’s Single White Female in a job situation, but the story ultimately demonstrates Sumire’s skills and value.
Volume six opens with a reversal. Momo’s under pressure due to working with a famous, demanding choreographer. Sumire finds out about his struggles thirdhand and then has to determine how best to support him. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to leave alone someone you care about. Then Sumire and Momo visit an inn located by a lake with an underwater village, submerged in a flood. They find themselves investigating folktales of mermaids, symbols of grief, spurred on by two strange kids.
That’s just an interlude from Sumire’s real concern — her boyfriend is about to get promoted to Hong Kong, creating a long-distance relationship and an emotional gulf. Sumire, meanwhile, has been transferred to the English-language department, where one of her co-workers fancies himself a ladies’ man and begins hitting on her. Together, they go to report on one of Momo’s performances, where the leading lady has been receiving disturbing notes.
In volume seven, Sumire discovers that absence makes the heart grow fonder. She’s missing her boyfriend, and her emotions make her more attractive to those around her. That includes her co-worker, who takes the opportunity to hit on her. He’s always found women easy to get, so her refusals only make him more interested. Later, Yuri moves in temporarily. She’s going on an exercise program to make herself more attractive to her husband, but there’s more behind her mid-life makeover than nostalgia.
The boyfriend is able to make a trip back to see Sumire, and the chapter that focuses on him is full of touching devotion underneath a layer of unfortunate coincidences that keep them apart temporarily. Knowing how much he cares for her makes later events, when she visits him, even more uncomfortable. There’s a surprising event in his past that’s a secret to both of them, and in book eight, it starts causing trouble.
While Sumire’s been in Hong Kong, Momo’s developed a new dedication to his dance career and made a new friend, an older woman with a similar history to Sumire’s. Her story, parallel to Sumire and Momo’s in some ways, is a thoughtful reflection on the benefits of caring for others. That’s one of the plusses of a long-running series such as this: familiarity with the existing characters means they can be used as a frame to illustrate the stories of others, different in mood and tone. It’s a temporary change of pace that sheds new light on Momo and Sumire.
In volume nine, Momo’s gone to the US for a week on a performance tour, and although Sumire tells herself she appreciates the free time, she finds herself at loose ends. Her loneliness leads to her pondering just what she and Momo are to each other. Meanwhile, her boyfriend finds himself in the clutches of a predatory woman who’s not above cruel schemes to create a relationship with him.
Sumire’s also facing issues at work. The department she’s supposed to manage has a lack of teamwork, and everything she tries to improve the situation backfires. With more thought and determination, at least that problem has a happy ending. Everything else, though … this volume ends with lots of cliffhangers, as just about everyone reaches a significant decision point.
Book ten shows the choices made, complicated by Momo falling ill. He needs Sumire in order to get better, but she’s accepted her boyfriend’s proposal, so Momo has to face the idea that their relationship will be ending. He’s forced to contemplate growing up, a situation other characters find themselves in as well.
Sumire’s dealing with her own challenges, practicing motherhood with a friend’s child and trying to explain her feelings to her forbidding older sister. She’s willing to stand by her decision, but she’s still unsure about it, trying to make the most of her time left with her pet. She’s also torn between her career and her potential marriage. How will one affect the other?
Momo’s on a dance tour in volume eleven, where he discovers Sumire’s fiance’s secret — a “pet” of his own. Sumire’s uncertainty continues to make her uncomfortable, a concern she attempts to deal with by rushing things in contrast to the warnings her friends are trying to sound.
Momo’s trying to figure out how to protect her without annoying her or making her think the wrong things about his motivations. At the same time, much as he dislikes the idea, he’s preparing to return to a life of his own. He has his own decisions to make about his career.
Book twelve continues the focus on Momo. He’s realizing, whether he likes it or not, that adult life is a set of connections with relatives, co-workers, and others. They’ve been there for him, so he needs to be willing to have the strength to support them when they need him.
Material so emotional runs the risk of seeming clichéd or maudlin, but here, his realization, accompanied by pictures of memories and those whom he loves, is inspiring. Sumire has a similar revelation, spurred by a blackout while she’s visiting a foreign country.
The two have reached turning points in their lives where they can no longer rely on the comfort they receive from each other. That relationship may be preventing them from moving on — if they want to maintain it, it has to be an active choice, with all the attendant consequences, instead of something they fell into. As a result, this volume is a major turning point for the characters and the series.
While they decide, the author uses a new geek character to provide an amusing alternate viewpoint on the situation. He views himself as a lead character, destined to get the girl, but he’s wrong. He’s just a supporting role who will disappear once his function, to spark Sumire into moving forward, is satisfied.
He’s a co-worker infatuated with Sumire, and his vision of her paints her as more of a traditional manga girl: baby face, bigger chest, and gravity-defying hair. As a reader, I found the contrast shocking in its sudden reminder of how distinctively different this series is from the stereotypical manga style with its thin lines and elegant figures.
Fans have been waiting a long time for a volume as satisfying as volume thirteen. Sumire’s made an important decision, although she’s still stumbling through the implications of her choice. And just because she’s resolved, that doesn’t mean that all the people around her are ready to make changes in their lives. Ramifications cascade, and there are still romantic rivals.
She wouldn’t be Sumire if she didn’t sometimes obsess over the wrong things. Her self-esteem isn’t magically fixed by her decision, although she’s growing to trust herself and her feelings more. The biggest change in her over the run of the series deals with decision-making. She’s come to terms with making choices for herself based on what she wants instead of accepting whatever comes her way or relying on others to make decisions for her.
Book fourteen, in contrast, is something of an epilogue. Sumire’s visiting Momo in Brussels, and he’s anxious about her meeting his family (all sisters). Since it’s the last book in the series, it checks in with the cast before concluding. Instead of focusing on the main two, it’s a wide-ranging overview.
Each of the major characters gets some focus: Sumire’s ex-boyfriend thinks back to their days together in college. Momo’s ex-girlfriend Rumi copes with homesickness as she studies abroad. There’s a flashback to Sumire and her best friend as kids together in school, establishing how they became confidantes and lifelong friends, and a flash-forward. There’s even a ridiculous action movie sequence reframing Momo meeting Sumire’s family as a kind of video game.
With the foreign setting and all the mixed emotions of saying goodbye to these characters, it’s a pleasure to see how much detail is included in the art. It grounds the location and brings home the feelings. The last story, a time travel dream, serves as a series summary, covering all the main parts in a lovely wrapup.
Throughout the series, Momo truly serves the purpose of a pet, accepting Sumire unconditionally. He’s teaching her how to care for someone else, even in a non-traditional way, and not to take others for granted. Being responsible for another living being is often a first step in growing up and preparing for a adult relationship. Pets are practice for sharing one’s life with someone else, practice that comes in handy when Momo finds another runaway who needs help.
It appears as though the first chapter of the first book could have been a stand-alone story, a kind of pilot for the series. The focus later moves from a woman’s struggles in the workplace to a more traditional exploration of the search for a romantic partner. It’s a classic structure revolving around people not recognizing the potential in someone who’s right in front of them.
The theme is that of understanding what is really important about relationships. It’s not whether other people think you’re well-suited or whether you look good together or whether you’re supposed to choose someone like that. The best ones are internal, based around being with someone who loves you unconditionally. Their support makes you a better person to everyone around you.
Yayoi Ogawa’s website is in Japanese, of course.