There is a scene in Tokyo Girl (2016), a Japanese limited series directed by Yuki Tanada, in which Aya (Asami Mizukawa) is going through her husband’s wardrobe. She comes across an instruction manual. It contains the do’s and don'ts of seeming like a modern partner. Translated to English, a line stands out specifically: “I am supportive of my wife’s ambition”. It is the exact same line he had used on her when they had met through a matchmaking outlet. The marriage had been on the brink of collapse for a while — he was possibly cheating on her with someone he felt was more inclined towards domestic duties, and felt resentful of her success. The discovery that the sentence is adopted from a particular script, and not an expression of genuine feeling, doesn’t pull the ground out from her feet, but registers with a gentle thud.
A man feeling emasculated by his career-oriented wife and choosing a woman who feels less threatening is a cliché and Tokyo Girl is full of such moments that could have easily seemed banal. But this show’s preoccupation is not to contend with clichés or add an extra layer of edge. It is to preserve and dignify them.
In the beginning, we have Aya, swept with awe in Tokyo, infatuated with the dream of moving to a big city. A fantasy contextualises this: Her, walking out of a towering corporate building, clad in designer clothes. There is a youthful abandon and cockiness in the way she feels she has a right to this life. Through 11 episodes, Tokyo Girl delves into her life in the city as she flits from one neighbourhood to another, indicating her socio-economic mobility within the city as well as her relationship to her past selves.
Aya starts at a clothing company as an entry-level employee in the city, paying careful attention to gossip, but careful of not indulging in it too much. She doesn’t want to be one of “them”; she wants to be the one whose gaze they hide from as they apply their lip gloss and talk about how their female superior is sleeping with the married founder of the company.
She starts dating a man who belongs to the same town as her, and lives at a walking distance from her apartment building — a budget-friendly rented place, all she could afford on her entry-level salary. For five years, the two are in a stable and uneventful relationship. In a city, where the details of where you come from are sometimes supposed to recede to the background, Aya ponders upon the familiarity her partner offers and the source of the comfort he offers. Yet there is an itch against this contentedness. When she has a meet-cute with a man — clearly rich, and additionally, extremely attractive — she is ruthless in discarding her half-a-decade-long relationship for him and what he signifies, guising the decision as a rightful pursuit of growth and redirection.
Aya gets promoted at her organisation, and casually remarks how the women who used to gossip about her superior, now talk behind closed doors about who Aya is seeing and sleeping with, ostensibly in a bid for power etc etc. She discloses this with a smirk, and a sense of pride. With the man she left her long-term partner for, the relationship unravels like poorly-played tetris: she cannot manage to fold into his expectations, he doesn't find her matching his ambitious strides. Their initial moments of lust dissolve into a cesspool of misery and uncertainty. He ends up getting engaged to someone else, a woman hailing from more economic privilege than Aya commands.
As the series continues, Aya is not undone by her economic mobility as much as confused about its complications and consequences. Tokyo Girl is an illustration of that myth of anonymity in cities, the assumption that where you come from will be rendered inconsequential in favour of what you could become in a city. Yet Aya finds she is always scrutinised as the person from the small town of Akita, who manoeuvred her way into the upper echelons of Tokyo. She will always be too much for men who are both less successful or more economically comfortable; for her female friends with whom she sips tea and meets for brunches. She will never belong to the “older families” that have generational wealth and the casual privilege that comes with it. Even if the trajectory of her financial success is linear, there is a series of rejections cutting her access to that sense of belonging.
Clichés don’t exist to bore, they exist to humble. Aya, initially cocky and prideful, is left with lingering memories of a man she had spent five years with and the relationship she derided because it was too comfortable. Could she go back?
In the end, Aya is seen married to someone with a slightly similar background to hers, in a neighbourhood that has a heterogenous economic composition. Is this her happily ever after, Aya asks on behalf of the viewer. She thinks it is. From following a script provided to her as an outsider to realise her fantasy, she has switched to and acted on first-hand information, drawing on what she has learned about the city and how to slot herself in it.
In one of the last scenes, you see her cast a fond eye toward the women who move past her in the city, feeling a sense of solidarity with their bubbles of anonymity, convinced of their significance, and the implications of the identities they had conveniently left behind. As Aya fantasises about the women she sees, gently imagining professions for them, she’s accommodating perhaps the version of what they’re trying to become as well as the reality of who they are.