Story & Art by Minami Q-ta
Cover Design by VJ
Translated by Dan Luffey
Lettered by Meg Argyriou
Project Manager: Matt Haasch
Nothing lasts forever; that’s just the nature of life. Readers who enjoyed Pop Life’s first volume for its heartwarming depiction of a harmonious communal family of two mothers cooperatively raising their children may be saddened that their time together comes to an end. Pop Life was a snapshot of the lives of the Kitanos and Chibas, but not the full picture. Their story is about the ephemerality of life and the transience of relationships. It celebrates the merits of community and companionship, while still encouraging its characters to embark on new journeys when they’re ready to enter a new phase in their lives, even if they must part ways.
A central throughline of Pop Life is the importance of living your best life happily by having an awareness of your health and capabilities. Sakura sprains her ankle and pulls a muscle while playing futsal because she wasn’t being considerate of how she was straining her body. Consequently, she has to take a break from playing despite investing so much time into learning and practicing. Similarly, Kaede’s tunnel vision moping over his shogi losses literally blinds him to his visual impairment, needlessly struggling through eyesight troubles that could’ve been remedied with a pair of glasses. In contrast, Akemi is the same age as Sakura but doesn’t suffer from any physical ailments. She lives a stress-free life in which she doesn’t do what she doesn’t want to, and is mindful of what she can. Knowing the limits of what you can do and getting help before you get hurt is an important part of living happily.
Sakura’s aunt Hiroko and her cat Tora serve as cautionary tales of health problems becoming exacerbated because they were identified too late to treat, causing them to suffer through a lot of pain late in life. Those who don’t take care of their health place the burden on other people to look out for and care for them, and while many friends and family will do so out of love, they run the risk of taking advantage of them and souring a relationship. Sakura realizes this after reflecting on how Akemi motherly nurtured her after her futsal injuries, worrying she hasn’t been kind enough to her. Later, both Sakura and Akemi confess their desire to not be a burden on their kids in their old age. They want to take care of themselves, comfortable living independently. Self-care is more than just taking care of your health; it’s about being mindful of the needs of other people as well.
That necessary self-awareness extends to the characters’ realization of their emotional needs and personal dreams as well. Kaede has devoted so much of himself to shogi, having once dreamt of becoming a professional player. However, repeated losses have left him feeling like he’s reached the limit of what he can do, deciding to quit. As Sakura consoles him, she points out that as one door closes, others open up. Kaede has the freedom to experiment with different things and explore different dreams. That reassurance not only encourages Kaede to pursue living independently after high school, but also remotivates him to keep up shogi; it’s not the only path forward in his life, so he can progress forward at his own pace. Kaede’s story is beautifully complemented by Ruru learning rock climbing. It’s hard, she falls, and she hurts herself, but she keeps at it. Even though she’s tired, she never stops trying, taking hold of each piece one step at a time and lifting herself higher towards the goal. It’s a poignant metaphor for how, even if your dreams feel out of reach right now, they’re not insurmountable. Even if you try and fail, hurting yourself and having to start all over again, if there’s something you really want to do in life you should never stop trying. Everyone moves forward at their own pace, and you should never be afraid to chase your dreams, no matter how out of reach they may seem.
Life’s possibilities are open to everyone, no matter their age, and Sakura realizes that it’s time for her too to make a change. Having spent three decades in the same town, Sakura feels disconnected from the familiar settings she’s accustomed to, and her affections for the city have dulled. There’s nothing particularly wrong with her life; sometimes you just need a change of scenery to rekindle your passion for life. We see Sakura futilely try to reinvigorate her creativity and draw a new manga, but she’s unmotivated and uninspired. After she decides to leave for Germany, however, she becomes excited about working again; the thrill of moving to a new place and having new experiences lights a fire under her that she’d been unable to reignite for a long time. Sakura’s decision to move to Germany mirrors that of Minami Q-ta’s, who writes in her afterword that she wanted to leave Tokyo because it became a hostile environment to live in. Q-ta felt that she was “losing parts of the humanity inside” or her; life had become too samey for her, and she wanted to have new experiences that rekindled strong emotions within her, and live in a way where she could freely express herself. In this way, Pop Life’s story truly embodies the Prince song it’s named after; “everybody needs a thrill,” because life “ain’t real funky unless it’s got that pop.”
Even though Sakura loved her life with Akemi, it’s precisely because she treasured their relationship that they have to part ways. Relationships aren’t static; they evolve and change over time. As mothers, Sakura and Akemi have had to come to grips with their own children outgrowing them. Kaede can make his own decisions and is ready to start living independently, while Ruru explicitly tells their mom that she’s at the age where she prefers hanging out with her friends over their mother. While Akemi frets over this at first, visiting her father reminds her of why she chose not to return home after getting divorced. While she loves her father, they wouldn’t be able to live together compatible, causing tension and conflict. Sometimes people outgrow the relationship they had, and it’s healthier for them to part ways or maintain it from a distance rather than continue living the same way unhappily.
We see the consequences of overstayed, dysfunctional relationships in Sakura, Akemi, and Sakura’s aunt Hiroko’s fraught marriages with their ex-husbands. In Hiroko’s case, not only did her toxic relationship make her miserable, but it caused her to inflict pain and trauma on her daughter Tsubaki too, eventually creating a rift between them that led her to leave the house. It’s implied that the unstable relationship of Sakura’s parents also resulted in Tsubaki being given away by them to Hiroko to raise instead, creating a rift between Sakura and Tsubaki as sisters. Essentially, the Kitano family became fractured and dysfunctional because of relationships that outgrew their welcome, to the point they affected the happiness and well-being of people outside of them.
This isn’t to say a fraught relationship can’t also improve for the better. The Kitano family story is poignant because it’s a story about how both Sakura and Tsubaki have learned from the examples of their parents to form stronger family bonds. Sakura has a great relationship with her son and an incredible co-parent and friend in Akemi, and likewise, Tsubaki has a loving family with a considerate husband and happy children. Moreover, Tsubaki did reconcile with her mother in her later years, and as painful as dealing with her dementia was, she knew how much her mother loved her and was reassured that seeing her daughter and grandkids meant the world to her. After the funeral, she sleeps beside her mother’s ashes, and decides to make an hourglass with her bones as a memento. Her mother is not an unhappy memory, but a person she’s symbolically going to carry with her for the rest of time. What’s more, Sakura and Tsubaki’s relationship has only grown stronger over the years, both of them now proudly referring to each other as sisters to their companions. While there’ll always be some bad memories and traumas associated with their childhoods, they’ve broken the dysfunctional cycle of their parents and have built up healthier family bonds. In their case, holding on to and repairing their relationship has made them happier than completely cutting themselves off would have.
That said, there are painful consequences to clinging onto a relationship past its expiration date, which is best reflected in the story of Sakura’s cat Tora. Tora had been Sakura’s cat for nearly two decades, but towards the end of his life he developed a painful tumor on his face that affected his ability to eat. Despite the doctor’s advice, Sakura hesitated to give up on Tora, and continued to take care of him even as his health degraded to the point where he developed dementia, couldn’t eat on his own, and could barely walk without hurting himself. Even though Sakura cared for him out of love, in the end, he died suddenly and painfully, not even able to see Sakura as she felt his pulse dim in her hands. It’s a tragic story about how trying to preserve a relationship past its natural end can lead to more pain than simply letting go at the right time, and that enduring life isn’t the same as truly living it.
The cycle of life and death, and the fear of a lonely end, hangs over the entire story. Like Tora, Hiroko suffered from illness and dementia for nearly 15 years before she passed away, barely even recognizing her own grandkids when they visited her. Sakura’s father stayed by her mother’s bedside as she took ill in the final years of her life. Akemi muses that since both her mom and grandma died at 70 she will also die at that age, and worries about his dad in his old age. She contemplates her childless coworker, who frets that there’ll be no one to take care of her in her old age. In some ways, that sense of loneliness is even more frightening than death itself. However, while death is the inevitable fate of the living, trying to stave it off like Tora only makes it more painful, it’s still possible to live a fulfilling life on your own terms. Hiroko fell apart in part because of her loneliness over Akemi leaving her, serving as a cautionary tale warning against being too codependent and reliant on other people. That’s why even though Sakura and Akemi may one day live alone, they resolve to never be lonely. They will live in a way in which they’re not only independent, but fulfilled. Rather than miss out on the sights of life while running away from death, they’ll confidently stride forward and take in all of life’s pleasures on the road towards it.
That said, it can be hard to take those big life-changing steps forward. If there’s any true conflict in the manga, it’s Akemi’s reluctance to let go of the life she has contrasted with Sakura’s eagerness to try new things. Akemi is protective of her relationship with Sakura, which manifested in a few possessive moments in the previous volume, like being jealous of her other friendships with fellow volunteers at the children’s cafeteria and telling her she didn’t need a driver’s license because she would just drive her anywhere. She also takes her children outgrowing her hard, lamenting how distant they’ve become. Unlike Sakura, who isn’t afraid to wholeheartedly push herself into something new, Akemi takes longer to completely move on from the people and places she’s used to. While she earnestly supports Sakura’s decision to move, she herself only moves to a new house still in the area and takes care of Sakura’s killifish after she leaves. While one of the sparks that convinces Sakura it’s time to leave is witnessing Akemi hang out with a man, Akemi herself doesn’t believe she’s capable of forging new relationships, especially another friend like Sakura. Ultimately, while Akemi is able to let go of Sakura, she isn’t ready to move forward in her life in the same way she has. Which is okay! It takes longer for some people to feel comfortable leaving the safety of familiar surroundings and people, and the series ends on the hopeful note that someday soon Akemi will be ready to take that leap and reunite with Sakura once again.
Minami Q-ta brilliantly illustrates her story through strong gestures and environments that elicit powerful emotions through their minimalism. Q-ta has a loose style that isn’t strict with form or anatomy, but still carries emotional weight through the strength of her linework, body language, and expressions. Her character design sense is simple but nonetheless memorable; she makes distinctive characters through subtle nuances rather than pronounced exaggeration. Probably the best example is how both Sakura and Tsubaki are readily recognizable as kids just by their heights, despite their faces and hairstyles being similar. Her employment of screentones also effectively embellishes any expressions her characters make and aptly characterizes the tone or mood of a scene. However, her art particularly shines in her environments, particularly her renderings of Tokyo. Sequences where she illustrates outdoor scenes with trees are especially striking, and she makes expert use of silhouettes to create a detailed impression of an environment without needing to draw the intricacies of it. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have gorgeously detailed art moments, like Hiroko’s memorial at her funeral, but it’s incredible how many poignant and beautiful illustrations in the book are imagined through her less is more approach, like the full-page spreads of the two sunflowers or the silhouette of an island in the middle of the lake at sunrise. There are so many affecting illustrations in the book that tugs at the heart, beautifully complementing the themes and emotional power of the story.
Pop Life is a powerful, poignant story about growing up and growing apart. It’s about the families we make and the relationships we create, and treasuring the time we have with the people we love before it’s too late. In many respects it’s Minami Q-ta’s defiant declaration against living a monotonous life, espousing the importance of continually creating new experiences and relationships, living fully and freely. The story’s such a love letter to the joys of living itself, and I’m glad to know it received an equally loving localization from Star Fruit Books. My only nitpick would be that there are some words I wish didn’t have to be hyphenated, but considering the space restraints of world balloons, I understand why it had to be done. Regardless, I truly appreciate them introducing English-reading manga fans to this series and Minami Q-ta, whose next work I eagerly look forward to reading. So if you haven’t already, pop up a copy of Pop Life and have the time of your life. We all have a space to fill on our (digital) shelf, and Pop Life more than deserves a place on it. Dig it.