Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Solanin: I think it's safe to say that I liked it

A note before starting: I've noticed that this book has been an object of discussion around the comics interblogs (Jog, Chris Butcher, and David Welsh, for example), but I've avoided reading any of those until I was able to finish the book and write my own take.  So stay tuned around these parts, I guess, in case I end up feeling like I need to react to others' opinions.  Discussion is good!

By Inio Asano

Why don't we have more manga like this in English?  For that matter, we could use more comics like this in general, but the fact that this book, which isn't about young boys fighting, vampires, or dudes making out with each other, got published in the West at all is not only noteworthy, but quite hopeful for those of us who want to read more manga geared for adults.  

With this book, Inio Asano has crafted a beautifully realistic, down-to-earth slice of life that most adults should be able to identify with intimately.  Haven't we all been aimless youths struggling to come to grips with the responsibilities of adulthood?  Here, Asano focuses on a group of young twentysomethings, led by Meiko, a girl who recently graduated from college and lives in Tokyo with her boyfriend Tanabe.  She hates her office job, and ends up abruptly quitting after being assured by Tanabe that he can take care of them.  But he's not in much better of a position, only working part-time as an illustrator.  Meiko has what she figures is enough savings to get through a year, so she figures she has that amount of time to figure out what she wants to do, or resign herself to boring office work for the rest of her life.

It's a realistic, if not everyday, situation, and Asano nails the details, from the boredom that soon strikes Meiko when she has nothing to do but sit around her apartment all day, to the strain it puts on her relationship with Tanabe.  In fact, that relationship is kind of the centerpiece of much of the story, and one of Asano's triumphs here.  They way they interact with each other is so complicated and lifelike, they feel like real people.  While Tanabe initially supports Meiko's decision, he soon comes to resent her and worry that he won't be able to provide for both of them.  They end up fighting a lot, but also demonstrating a lot of tenderness toward each other.  It's a beautifully, achingly real depiction of two people struggling to figure out how to become adults.

Part of the reason this all works so well is Asano's gorgeous artwork, which captures the characters and setting with a wonderfully true-to-life, lived-in feel.  Meiko, Tanabe, and their friends don't seem like perfectly clothed and coiffed manga heroes; they look like somebody you would meet on the street, with messy hair and normal outfits.  And they aren't all blandly good-looking either; Meiko in particular is kind of plain, but Asano still manages to capture her beauty while making her look fairly average:

Asano's environments are also perfect for the story, looking like the normal streets, shops, and dwellings that we see every day.  But they're so detailed in their normality, that it's almost like looking through a window at a scene playing out in front of you:

This aspect gets emphasized in occasional chapter-heading illustrations that show some of the backgrounds without any characters, demonstrating the amount of detail that Asano put into every image:

It's amazing stuff, beautiful in its mundanity.

As the plot progresses, Meiko and Tanabe begin to pin their hopes on Tanabe's band, which he started with some friends in college and still continues to mess around with.  In what is either a last attempt to hold onto youth or an effort to keep dreams of artistic success alive, Tanabe quits his job and decides to put all his energy into music.  For a while, the theme of the book becomes the struggle between artistic integrity and being able to put food on the table.  But man, if Asano doesn't make the fight seem worthwhile, with performance scenes that capture the energy of making music (or observing the process from the outside):

But, this being a realistic book, sometimes dreams don't work out.  Eventually you've got to put away those fantasies and be a grown-up, unless you're one of a very select few.  So while the thrill of rock and roll grips the characters for a while, eventually real life seeps back in, and the young lovers have to figure out what they're going to do.  Highly emotional exchanges result:

And, in one of the less realistic, though no less effective, twists of the book, something tragic happens, and the book heads off toward another theme: dealing with loss and grief.  It ends up being some powerful, emotional stuff, and Asano can handle it as well as he could everything else.  He has a great grasp of character, from both a writing and artistic perspective, and he really puts you right in the scenes along with his characters, making you feel the emotions along with them.

It's just beautifully done, with the entire thing building up to a wonderfully cathartic moment that will bring tears to your eyes (unless you're made of stone).  But lest you think it's all serious scenes of emotional breakdowns, there's plenty of moments of comedy that keep things from getting too heavy and introspective:

It makes for an exquisitely complete package, assured in its storytelling from the first page to the last.  This is exactly the kind of book that fans of manga who want to read mature, adult work have been hoping for, and if there's any justice, it will lead to much more in that vein being released.  But for now, let's celebrate what we have, and that's an excellent comic that satisfies on every level.  I'll be impressed if a better example of comics comes out this year.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

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