The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story

First published in 2011, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing became an international phenomenon, selling over seven million copies in 40 languages. The book inspired a two-part television drama, a follow-up called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Tidying Up, and a veritable tsunami of related products and experiences including apps, seminars, and journals for documenting “what brings you joy every day.” In an effort to bring her message to even more readers, Kondo recently collaborated with artist Yuko Uramoto (Kanojo no Curve, Hanayome Miman) to create the most quintessentially Japanese tie-in product of all: a manga version of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Uramoto’s strategy for transforming a how-to book into a manga is simple: she turns the decluttering process into a narrative, using a fictional character, Chiaki, to lead us through the process step-by-step. When we first meet Chiaki, she’s a single, 29-year-old career woman living in a filthy apartment strewn with clothing, papers, sports equipment, dirty dishes, and bric-a-brac of every description. After her handsome next-door neighbor chastises her for leaving garbage on the balcony, Chiaki vows to change her life by calling — who else? — Marie Kondo herself.

Over the next nine chapters, Kondo gently but firmly helps Chiaki get control of her apartment. Before they tackle the clutter, however, Kondo asks Chiaki, “What kind of life would you like to live here?” Chiaki is taken aback by the question, but this visualization exercise is a cornerstone of the KonMari system, encouraging the client to think about decluttering not as a one-time effort but a first step towards living a more joyful, less harried life. Kondo then shepherds Chiaki through the discard process, helping Chiaki systematically assess all of her belongings, starting with the three biggest sources of clutter — clothing, books, and paper — before moving on to komono (odds and ends) and sentimental objects. Guiding all of Chiaki’s decision-making are two questions: “Does this item give me joy?” and “Am I using this item right now?”

As an adaptation, The Life-Changing Manga largely succeeds in teaching the KonMari method without recourse to talking-head panels. The graphic format allows Uramoto to show the reader how to store things, arrange a closet, and fold items into small rectangles that can stand upright in a drawer — one of Kondo’s signature organizational techniques. As befits a manga about decluttering, the artwork is both simple and cute. Though the character designs lack strong personality, they’re winsome enough to carry to the story and convey the emotional impact of using the KonMari method; by the story’s end, we appreciate just how elated Chiaki feels after liberating herself from the Tyranny of Stuff.

The manga’s most glaring fault lies not with the adaptation but the source material. Kondo frames de-cluttering as a one-size-fits-all remedy for life’s biggest problems, a point reinforced by the fictional Kondo’s conversations with Chiaki. As we learn in chapter two, Chiaki has a bad habit of falling for guys with hobbies, buying snowboards and tea sets so that she can get to know them better. Every time she breaks up with someone, however, she can’t bear to get rid of her newly acquired gear, developing elaborate rationales for keeping it. Kondo counsels Chiaki to get rid of these items, telling her, “If you hang onto things because you can’t forget an old love, you’ll never find a new love.”

There’s unquestionable value in Kondo’s insight that clutter accumulates when we’re not fully invested in the present, yet her philosophy is too reductive. A messy apartment might be a sign that you need to reconsider your approach to dating, but it could also be symptomatic of working such long hours that cleaning and organizing feel like a second, unpaid job. There’s also a whiff of sexism in the way Chiaki is depicted as a failure for being disorganized, messy, and single; it’s hard to imagine a salaryman character attributing his romantic shortcomings to a sinkful of dirty coffee cups or a jumbled closet, or viewing the KonMari method as the key to living a better, more fulfilling life.

That lingering note of sexism makes it hard for me to unequivocally endorse The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up. I think Kondo’s basic advice is sound, but I can’t quite shake the feeling that perfectly folded undies are being held up as a badge of true womanhood, rather than an artful way to organize your drawers.


9 thoughts on “The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Magical Story”

  1. Aaron says:

    Books like this feel like the second wave of the voluntary simplicity movement of the mid nineties. It’s not nesscerily a bad idea. But I think it’s unhelpful to market it as some sort of “self help” cure all. Also just because something looks disorganized or “messy” doesn’t mean you don’t have your own system of organization or way of keeping things straight in your mind.

    Oddly even though it comes at the book from a distinctly religious perspective that guilty as charged I hold to. The Gospel Coalition had a pretty good article by Megan Hill dealing with some of the problems found in books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

    Sometimes things like this feel like a secular alternative to Religion or Spirituality a sort of “materialistic confessionalism” that even if wrapped in an winsome and oftentimes superficially feminine package.

    Feels stifling to any thing greater than just being one of the “better” people who do not consume as much. As those poor benighted people who have not yet heard the good word of “decluttering” their lives. This feels more like an unintended consequence of this type of literature than a something that is intentional on the part of the author. along with it all feeling so painfully Bourgeoisie.

    Another point that could be made is this is not really that new to reiterate my initial point I mean the Arts & Crafts Movement and the writings of John Ruskin where extoling the virtues of a simpler life in the Victorian era, to give a Western example, or even the teachings of Jesus as found in The Bible decry the grasping acquisitiveness that seems so endemic in our Post-Modern society .

    I mean if one wanted to divest themselves of excess things, I’d suggest finding some way to either help your fellow man through it or get money for it and than donate it to charity or the less fortunate.

    I mean I ended up divesting myself of a bunch of Manga over the years and I either used to give it to my friends or their children. Or when Better World Books used to have a donation depot within walking distance I’d dump it all in there that way at least some money would eventually end up going to support world literacy.

    In the end it’s a personal choice but I think it’s got to lead to something deeper than if I do this than I will be fulfilled. As that is simply a hamster’s wheel of performance that will exhaust you in new ways that your once cluttered life did a strange kind of “addictive” mentality if you will .

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Hi, Aaron! You raise some good points about simplicity.

      I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, but I was raised to view materialism as something that could corrupt the spirit if it went unchecked. It’s one of the basic lessons from my religious upbringing that’s stayed with me in my adult life. And if I’m being honest, materialism is something that I –and probably everyone else I know — wrestles with to one degree or another. So if a book like this inspires someone to examine their buying habits or re-orient some of their priorities, I can’t say it’s a bad thing. Of course, the KonMari method is the basis for a growing empire of products…

      You’re also right to point out that this book — and books like it — are clearly aimed at a certain kind of middle- or upper-middle-class consumer who has the luxury of thinking about possessions as potentially disposable. It’s hard to imagine a struggling family warming to Kondo’s blithe suggestions about discarding potentially useful items. This review at Bleeding Cool addressed the economics of The Life-Changing Manga in more depth.

      1. Aaron says:

        Another thing is you’re heart ultimately if you have gotten of a large portion of you’re possessions but you are still coveting other things you are just going to make yourself miserable. Also if I wanted be completely unfair, this whole idea of the “Amazing Eastern Wisdom” being marketed to Westerners reeks of Orientalism but I’m not going to impugn someone’s motives.

        As to the strange cottage industry that has built up around it some could argue that it’s endemic of living a consumerist society where truth has no real value and pretty much everything is for sale.

        1. Katherine Dacey says:

          I think it’s fair to criticize the way Kondo’s book and method have been marketed in the US and Europe; the subtitle of the book is about as subtle as a bag of hammers!

  2. Estara Swanberg says:

    I’ve found that the ‘Unfuck Your Habitat’ tumblr and the book that came our this year is much more up my alley and seems to take into account that people hoard stuff and are messy for different reasons. It uses a lot of repetition to encourage people, but the tips are doable.

    The main tip I took away from it, any tiny time you spend on clearing something up means one less thing to tidy away later ^^.

    However, I’d have loved a manga bout UfyH even more.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Estara — it sounds like UfyH sounds more like my speed than the KonMari method!

  3. Jocilyn Wagner says:

    Great analysis. I read this title out of curiosity as non-fictional manga so rarely get picked up for translation. I admit to feeling more than a little let down. KonMarie comes off as a condescending guru. Her philosophy seems to be rooted in some neo-Shinto transcendental one-size-fits-all approach that feels problematic in application. Also her broken logic that feeling empowered by tidying up will somehow translate into confidence with dating is unsettling. Honestly, I admired Chiaki’s independence and KonMarie set out to debunk her lifestyle in a very conservative almost Diet-approved way. Living with only one simple outfit feels very masculine/anti-fashion and if that outfit were grey… you’d be a Buddhist monk. I thought her methodology for sorting was useful until we came to the chapter on books. She totally downplays reading as some kind of childish indulgence? In light of that attitude I was then really confounded by the panel where she seems to throw nutrition out the window as a joke. It’s really kind of disturbing how popular she is.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who had a bad reaction to the KonMarie method! Between the sexism, the pop psychology, and the hostility to books… argh. I’ve certainly culled my library — manga and otherwise — but I can’t imagine discarding a book just because I’d read it once. Isn’t that what the library is for?!

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