Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, sent over a review copy of The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, a manga adaptation of neatness guru Marie Kondo’s self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
The latter was a massive worldwide bestselling book, so you’d think it was a no-brainer to have a manga version. After all, manga are perfectly normal and accepted in Japan, considered as much part of the book market as novels and nonfiction books. But this is one of the few manga versions of a self-help book to be translated into English.
The manga teaches the lessons of the book in the form of a funny, light-hearted story drawn by Yuko Uramoto: 29-year-old office lady Chiaki has an apartment that looks like a garbage truck exploded in it. When her handsome neighbour complains about her untossed bin bags stinking up the building, Chiaki decides to call on KonMari, Marie Kondo’s manga avatar, for help in getting her apartment into shape. What she doesn’t know is that she’s also taken the first step to getting her life back together again.
The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up is very much from a Japanese middle-class perspective. It doesn’t discuss the notion that poor people are more prone to hoarding than rich people, as it assumes it can happen to anyone. It discusses the “In case I need it,” and the “I’m going to use/wear/read it one day,” thinking behind hoarding. It touches on notions of depression and hoarding things as a way to regulate emotion lightly without going deep into psychology, which might make it more palatable and useful to readers. Its approach is to cajole and sometimes lightly admonish, but never to scold or guilt the reader into a dark mood.
KonMari doesn’t just tell Chiaki how to clean up her place, but also to understand why she might need to. That becomes a lesson not just in organisation and hygiene, but in self-care. Chiaki is surprised to learn that deciding what to get rid of and what to keep should be tied to what brings her joy in her life. Not everything she keeps around is something she even likes or enjoys, and those are the things she doesn’t need around anymore. The objects that bring her joy can be entirely subjective, and KonMari coaches Chiaki into not beating herself up with guilt or recrimination as she starts to organize her life.
Better to get rid of an “important” book if it doesn’t make her happy to keep it. Better to get rid of clothes she doesn’t like. Best not to put things in storage, because that just hides the problem away and keeps those objects in her life like dead weight. Simple acts like folding up clothes rather than just leaving them lying around can be a whole new way of thinking.
In dramatizing the original book into Chiaki’s story, KonMari’s common-sense lessons become an emotional experience rather than just abstract ideas. She takes Chiaki through each step of tidying up, dividing her campaign into different sections: clothes, books papers to avoid feeling overwhelmed, delving into what led her to lose direction in her life and how to get it back again. For KonMari, tidying up is to clear one’s head and enjoy life again. The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up gives a very direct, pragmatic approach to decluttering without any fancy new-age nonsense, yet it delves into light psychology and life-coaching without the reader feeling forced or conned.
Marie Kondo has built a mini-publishing and consulting empire out of teaching the simple Japanese approach to tidying up and decluttering one’s living space and, by extension, one’s life. This makes sense, since your home can be an extension of your psyche, and to tidy it up and organize it means to literally clean up your act. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a concrete act.
Kondo’s philosophy of keeping only things that give you joy is so simple that it’s amazing so many people forget it. Once you get over the novelty, the notion of a comic teaching lessons about decluttering and tidying up and how to stop hoarding becomes the most natural thing in the world, and it’s due to the storytelling skills of Kondo and artist Uramoto that makes this look so effortless.
I could read The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up again and again as a primer for tidying up. I imagine a lot of people could, too. There aren’t many comics that teach actual practical lessons, which is what makes this one so surprising. This could be one of those rare examples of a comic with real universal appeal. It could be a more important graphic novel than we think.
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