Tag Archives: Anna Reads Manga

Anna Reads Manga: New Sci-Fi Manga

Anna Reads Manga

While there are plenty of manga about robots or dystopian futures, it doesn’t seem to me like there are many old-fashioned men in space science fiction manga available in English. The first volumes for two recent series dealing with life in space have recently been published, so today I’ll take a look at Vertical’s Twin Spica and Viz’s Saturn Apartments. I think both series would appeal to science fiction fans, but I found one charming and the other left me cold.

Twin Spica by Kou Yaginuma

Tiny thirteen year old Asumi’s greatest wish is to go into space, but she hasn’t told her father that she’s applied to Tokyo Space School. Space exploration has been overshadowed by a horrible accident that took place when Asumi was just a baby – the explosion of the first Japanese-made spaceship nicknamed “The Lion.” Asumi also has a companion – an imaginary friend or a ghost, who has a human body and the head of a lion. As Asumi walks through her town Mr. Lion provides a sounding board as she works through her decision to follow her dream. Mr Lion pokes her back, she chases him, and they both pause to look at an airplane climbing into the sky. Asumi’s father is upset when he finds out about her application, not because she wants to go into space but because she didn’t confide in him. As long as he has the ticket for a “Free ride on Asumi’s rocket” she made for him when she was a child, he’ll support her ambition. The first chapter of the book has a great deal of emotional catharsis, which made me instantly warm to Asumi and want to read more of her adventures.

Asumi does manage to get into space school despite her small physique and she and her classmates are thrown into an intricate test. They have to live in a sealed room for a week with two other classmates, setting up dominoes in an intricate pattern. Asumi’s new roommates are the open and enthusiastic Kei and the angry bacteriaphobe Marika. Asumi initially adapts to her test with ease, thinking “Mr. Lion said that the most important qualities an astronaut needs are perseverance and a cooperative personality.” Asumi’s powers of observation allow her to reveal a hidden message about the test. But a change in the test conditions causes Asumi to confront her memories of the crash of “The Lion” and her feelings towards her dead mother. Asumi’s companions have to come together to ensure that the entire group doesn’t wash out of space school. As Asumi works through her memories, Twin Spica ceases to be just a slice-of-life science fiction story and becomes infused with magical realism as Asumi meets Mr. Lion for the first time and comes to terms with her mother’s death.

Yaginuma’s character designs invoke a feeling of nostalgia. His art looks more like something from a manga series of the ’60s or ’70s, with gentle rounded faces and simple background designs. The art is simple, but all the essential elements to portray the character’s emotions are in place. The artistic elements in the manga are carefully considered. Yaginuma’s forays into magical realism work because his characters are so grounded in the world he creates. Mr Lion interacts with the parks and streets Asumi passes through. The flashback to Asumi’s childhood features more hand drawn cross-hatching and less grey tone, which sets it apart from the present day story.

Twin Spica is very much a first volume. The story and heroine’s situation is set up and hopefully her world will be explored more in the future. While there was plenty of depth to Asumi’s emotional journey in this volume, her classmates were only just introduced. I’m looking forward to seeing how Asumi approaches the rest of her time in space school. While she might be tiny, Asumi has the type of mental toughness that can only be achieved from dealing with tragedy. I’m curious to see what type of astronaut she’ll become, and I’m wondering if she’ll ever need to say goodbye to the faithful Mr. Lion. The simple art and childlike main character in Twin Spica might not appeal to the casual adult reader. But this series is seinen manga (originally published in a magazine for men) and has levels of symbolism and emotional complexity that I think only more mature readers would appreciate.

There’s a preview of Twin Spica available on the Vertical website.

Saturn Apartments by Hisae Iwaoka

Reading Saturn Apartments was an exercise in frustration for me. An accomplished pie maker could offer me some key lime pie, and it might be an awesome pie to many people but I think key lime is horrible. Saturn Apartments is the manga equivalent of key lime pie for me. I know many people might like it, but I’d rather take a pass and have some cheese danish. Yummy yummy cheese danish….

In the future humanity has left Earth, which functions as a planet-sized game preserve. Humans live in a giant ring that circles the Earth in a highly stratified society. People have to pay window cleaners in order to get a decent view of their home planet. The wealthy on the upper levels have sky and sunlight, while the people in the lower levels exist in a dingy world. A young window cleaner named Mitsu is about to join his father’s old crew. His father mysteriously disappeared while out on a cleaning job, but did he suffer an accident or was he murdered? Mitsu decides to use his new job to find out more about his father, and on his first day he’s sent out to clean the area where his father had the accident. Mitsu sees evidence that his father struggled to live when he finds hand prints and a fabric fragment caught in the outside surface of the ring.

Saturn Apartments is episodic by nature. There isn’t an overarching plot holding things together as Mitsu learns more about the class differences in his world, meets his father’s old friends, and learns how to be a good window cleaner. Perhaps because of the general “just another day cleaning Earth’s space ring” atmosphere that pervaded the book, I never felt much urgency even when Mitsu was menaced by a co-worker. Mitsu’s reaction to finding the site of his father’s accident is to think “Someday I’d like to find the spot down there where Dad landed. Mitsu’s father is referred to obliquely in the rest of the book, but I was expecting more of a narrative payoff that never happened.

Iwaoka has a unique style of art. I enjoyed her detailed backgrounds which did a great job detailing the run-down ring circling the Earth where the humans live. Mitsu and his co-workers live in ordinary rooms and the occasional shots of the grid lines in their artificial sky and the presence of the Earth below did effectively evoke the feeling of a space colony where people have been living for years. What I found least attractive about the illustrations were the character designs. Iwaoka gives all her characters the body proportions of young children which made her portrayals of elderly people seem jarring and surreal. Character faces are almost entirely flat, even in profile. The facial features look pinched and doll-like, which gave me a feeling of distance from the work even when I was reading about someone’s emotional pain or watching Mitsu’s gruff co-worker Jin mid-outburst.

Putting down Saturn Apartments after reading it I was left with a cold, clinical feeling. I didn’t care to read more of Mitsu’s story simply because he just seems to be experiencing life without much direction or ambition. Mitsu has tendencies towards internal soliloquies that I found a bit annoying. He thinks “I thought, if I can try as hard as Dad did, if I can do the job like he did, than I should discover someting.” There’s no indication at the end of the volume that Mitsu is much further along in discovering anything at all, and the journey to get to the conclusion of his narrative just seems tedious to me. Someone who finds Iwaoka’s artistic style and meandering storyline more appealing might enjoy Saturn Apartments very much, but I won’t be reading further in this series..

A preview of Saturn Apartments is available on the Sigikki website.

Anna Reads Manga: Online Manga

Online manga can be a little difficult to track down if you are trying to avoid the many sites that exist to host scanlations (fan translations), or in the most egregious cases, hosting scans of the American manga editions. Fortunately in recent months more American publishers are putting manga online for free sampling or to make it easy to subscribe for electronic access. I’ll give an overview of some of the places you can go to read manga online legally.

FREE ONLINE MANGA

Viz Media caused a stir when it started serializing manga chapters on its sites Shonen Sunday and Sigikki. This is the place to go if you are looking for quirky seinen manga, as the parent Japanese magazine Ikki tends to specialize in the obscure. There’s a wide variety of stories and art styles on display. Chapters gradually rotate off the site as the print volumes are published.

Here are capsule reviews of my three favorite Sigikki series:

Afterschool Charisma – This series takes place in a school filled with clones of famous people from history. Napolean seems to be in the middle of a growth spurt, Mozart is an arrogant jerk, Marie Curie wants to play the piano instead of studying radium, and Freud is a creepy teen with a pageboy haircut. The ordinary boy Shiro Kamiya, whose father is in charge of the school and the cloning project, attends school along with the clones. Shiro innocently asks his father to help Marie with her musical ambitions, but what happens to her is not what Shiro intended. Will Shiro find out the truth behind the school? The art in Afterschool Charisma looked the most shoujoish to me out of all the Siggiki series. Sometimes it was difficult to tell apart the female characters, but the male characters were a bit more individual and had more personality. Teen-clone-Freud is hilarious.

House of Five Leaves – Masanosuke is a poor masterless samurai with a personality defect: He falls apart when he attracts attention. Thus he does a poor job of acting intimidating and keeps getting fired from his bodyguard jobs. Yaichi hires him for a day’ work. Masanosuke is struck by Yaichi’s confident air. But it turns out that Yaichi is a member of the criminal group the House of Five Leaves. Will Masanosuke continue to work for kidnappers in the hopes that Yaichi’s calm demeanor will wear off on him? I enjoyed the art of this series, as Ono has a loose and fluid style of drawing which serves to highlight Masanosuke’s defeated body language and his eyes, which look hollow eyes of someone who isn’t eating very well. Most samurai stories feature a main character who is more of a traditional bad-ass type, so I thought this twist on the genre was interesting.

Children of the Sea
Children of the Sea is as beautiful, deep, and mysterious as the ocean that the characters inhabit. Ruka is a young girl who gets in trouble at school for violently retaliating against a teammate at sports practice. She decides not to go home and goes on a quest to see the ocean. She travels to Tokyo at night and reaches an ocean view. A mysterious boy makes the pronouncement “The sea in Tokyo is kinda like a broken toy” and leaps over her into the sea. Ruka runs down to rescue him. Umi was raised in the ocean along with another boy named Sora by dugongs. They maintain their connection to the sea, and their skin becomes unbearably dry if they aren’t submerged in water very long.

Mysterious ocean animal disappearances have started to plague scientists. Animals seem to become spotted with light before they vanish like ghosts. Ruka’s father works in an aquarium where Umi often hangs out. As Ruka tries to escape her troubles in school she spends more and more time in the aquarium, meeting Umi and Sora’s foster father Jim. He’s a foreigner with mystical tattoos who loves to surf. Sora is sickly and spends a lot of time in the hospital. He’s suspicious of Ruka even though Umi says that she “smells like them.” Ruka sees Umi and Sora occasionally glowing with the unearthly light that the ocean ghosts emit. Are they going to be the next to disappear?

Shonen Sunday is a companion online manga site aimed at the younger set. Viz uses it to serialize new series like Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-Ne and Yuu Watase’s Arata, but it also serves as a way to sample some of Viz’s lesser known backlist titles like the excellent monster hunting series Kekkaishi.

Kekkaishi
– The hero of the story is Yoshimori. He’s young and weak and struggles with his training to become the successor to his family’s long-standing demon hunting tradition. His secret friend is the older girl next door Tokine, who belongs to a rival demon-hunting clan. Both Yoshimori and Tokine are aided in their demon hunts by demon dog sidekicks, who provide comic relief and guidance. Yoshimori isn’t very savvy about hunting demons. Tokine saves him and is injured in the process.

The story picks up again when Yoshimori is 14 and Tokine is 16. She criticizes his lack of refinement when demon hunting and counsels him to save his power. He doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt in front of him anymore and is determined to become a better fighter. Their school is conveniently located above a reservoir of power and at night they pursue the hunt. The manga blends action and humor as Yoshimori tries to fulfill his cherished ambition of making the perfect cake and dodges his grandfather’s training attempts. There are darker forces at work behind the sacred site that Yoshimori is sworn to protect. The story lines and character development are more complex than a typical fighting manga, which makes for a rewarding reading experience for those who like manga with a little bit of monster fighting and slapstick comedy.

Other major manga publishers like Tokyopop and CMX do tend to put up sample chapters of their manga, but I think Viz’s decision to set up separate online magazine sites with highlighted content gives their content greater prominence. I wish that in addition to the shonen and seinen sites Viz would put up an online magazine where readers could sample shoujo manga, especially after the demise of Shojo Beat magazine. Shonen Jump will soon be the only manga anthology magazine on the newsstands in the US. Yen Plus recently announced plans to discontinue their print magazine in favor of going digital instead. I think the next few years will hopefully give publishers a chance to experiment with digital manga magazines.

PAYING FOR MANGA ONLINE

This is an area where some of the smaller, more experimental publishers have more developed sites.

eManga

This is the online publishing arm of Digital Manga Publishing, which is probably best known for their yaoi titles, although back in the day they put out editions of some wonderfully weird stuff like Bambi and Her Pink Gun and Project X – Nissin Cup Noodle, a manga about the invention of noodles in a cup. While a casual reader might expect the titles on eManga to be only yaoi, there’s actually more variety there, with plenty of manga adaptations of harlequin romances and the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss. Reading manga there operates on a points system, where $10 will get you 1000 points, and online access to selected volumes may be priced anywhere between 200-400 points. If you follow digitalmanga on twitter, they’ll often give away free online access to selected volumes.

Netcomics

Netcomics is mainly a specialty publisher of Korean comics, or manhwa. They’ve used their online platform to publish American manga style comics and Japanese manga as well. Paying for manga on this site works on a chapter by chapter basis, with each chapter costing 25 cents. Single chapters from most titles are available for preview as well. Titles are sorted by genre, so it is easy to find series that might fit your mood, if you are looking for romance, comedy, or science fiction manhwa. Some of Netcomics’ titles that had print editions for the first few volumes have the later volumes only available online. I hate it when series are dropped, so while someone wanting to collect print copies of an entire series might be disappointed, it does seem like a good way of making slow-selling titles available to readers.

I can’t say that we’ve reached a level of mature development with the legal manga that’s available for readers. It would be nice if other publishers also followed Viz’s Sigikki model. But at least a handful of sites is available for fans who want to do the right thing and avoid scanlations. Hopefully the next few years will have more manga publishers experimenting with their online presence.

Anna Reads Manga: The Works of Fumi Yoshinaga

Fumi Yoshinaga is probably the most critically acclaimed female manga artist among the pool of creators that have had their works translated in the US. She’s won many awards in Japan for her work and has been nominated for Eisner Awards. Her series frequently end up on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists. She got her start in shonen ai and yaoi manga, but her best works transcend the limitations and storytelling conventions usually found in these genres.

Today we’ll take a look at her most accessible work. There’s something in her work for almost everyone, if you are the type of person who enjoys insightful portrayals of family relationships, intricately detailed alternative history, yummy cake, or touching slice of life high school stories.

As a bonus, I’m also going to giving away a copy of Yoshinaga’s All My Darling Daughters. Just leave a comment at the end of this post and I’ll select a random winner next week.

All My Darling Daughters

This single volume would be a great first pick for anyone interested in sampling Fumi Yoshinaga’s work. Some manga anthology collections are just collections of back-up stories that are only loosely linked thematically, but this manga is extremely cohesive. All My Darling Daughters focuses on the lives of women at varying stages of their lives, and it is one of those works that I can see myself rereading for years to come.

The first story introduces Yukiko, a career woman who still lives with her mother. Yukiko’s life takes a dramatic turn when her mother Mari decides that she’s going to live her life the way she wants to after recovering from cancer. Mari marries an actor three years younger than her daughter and brings him home. Yukiko views her new “dad” with an incredible amount of suspicion, and the situation increases the tension between Yukiko and Mari. Yukiko ends up moving out to live with her boyfriend and starts a new chapter in her own life. The relationship between Yukiko and Mari is sometimes sarcastic and acerbic but there is obviously a lot of caring between them.

The middle story in the collection is about Sayako, a woman who takes her grandfather’s advice “not to discriminate among people” to an extreme. Sayako is unselfish to a degree that might not be normal. She decides to go on arranged marriage meetings in order to find a husband, and the person who might be perfect for her is totally unexpected. Yukiko is a framing device for an additional story as she thinks about some of her old friends from school and their agreement to go to work in order to advance the cause of women’s rights. Some of their lives didn’t turn out the way they predicted in high school. The final story in the collection returns to Yukiko and Mari, as Yukiko learns some of the ways her grandmother influenced her mother.

I enjoyed the ways Yoshinaga portrayed her characters’ lives. While there is humor present, her women firmly live in the real world. Endings aren’t always happy and there is sometimes a sense of loss that lingers even when to all outward appearances everything looks fine. I always like Yoshinaga’s art because she has a such a distinct style. She uses a thin line in her drawings that is deceptively loose, giving some of her illustrations the immediacy of a sketchbook.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers

Ooku takes place in an alternate universe during the Edo period, where a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the male population. Gender roles have reversed with women taking on men’s work, while the remaining men are protected, pampered, and cosseted due to their increasingly rare and important sperm. A new shogun takes over and a young man enters service in her harem, aka The Inner Chambers.

Yunoshin is from an impoverished samurai family, and he’s been educated in the art of fencing. He announces his intention to enter the Ooku, saying that he’ll send his allowance home so his sister can use the money to find a husband. Yunoshin gives up on his love for his childhood friend and enters the small world of the Inner Chambers, a society comprised of men devoted to decadence and an elaborate social hierarchy that proves to be complex for a newcomer to navigate.

When the new shogun takes command the pampered men of the inner chamber are shocked by her radically different ideas. Yoshimune is the third child of a noble family that lived in a far province. She regards the Ooku as an irresponsible drain on the country’s treasury. When a lady-in-waiting dresses her in an elaborate gown Yoshimune fires her, saying “At a time when the shogunate’s coffers are near empty, it strikes me as sheer folly for one who is charged with ruling the nation and rebuilding its finances to pad around dressed in such opulence. ‘Tis something only a lunatic would do.”

Some of the nicest moments in Ooku occur when Yoshimune and her right hand woman Kano meet to talk about strategy and share some laughter in the gilded palace. Yoshimune has the self awareness and curiosity to regard some of the customs of the shogun’s office with suspicion. Why must she meet foreign visitors by wearing male clothing and sitting behind a screen? While the plot of Ooku might seem to be inching forward at a leisurely pace, Yoshinaga’s fascinating alternate world and facility with character development ensures that the series is entertaining while it explores Japan and gender roles.

Antique Bakery

Antique Bakery is a little shop run by the resolutely heterosexual Tachibana, the “fatally charming” gay pastry chef Ono, and a retired boxer turned apprentice baker named Eiji. Tachibana is aided by his clumsy sidekick Chikage. The four men each have their own reasons for taking refuge in a world filled with pastries and antique china teacups. The scruffy Tachibana has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cakes he serves and a repressed childhood tragedy in his past. When Ono and Tachibana were in high school together, Ono confessed his love for Tachibana and was promptly rejected. Years later they work together.

This is probably my favorite series by Yoshinaga as it was the first work of hers that I read. The four volumes meander a bit, alternating between portraying the lives of the people that work at Antique Bakery and the customers, but the power of dessert draws the lives of different people together, ranging from joyful episodes to the tragic. Yoshinaga plays with genre conventions in the stories she tells. Sometimes childhood friends will reconnect over a slice of cake, but these simple stories are contrasted with the darker episodes that flash back to Tachibana’s past. It is very difficult to read this manga without feeling hungry, because Yoshinaga lovingly illustrates each variety of cake the bakery serves. Sometimes I felt there was a story hidden in a single panel showing customers of the shop, just because of the way Yoshinaga captures a moment as an elderly couple orders cream puffs, or a man orders cake with a girl standing silently in the background. And as a bonus some of the earlier editions of the manga feature scratch-n-sniff covers!

Flower of Life

Flower of Life uses a series of vignettes to showcase different aspects of friendship in high school. Hanazono is enrolling in school a month late, and he’s a year older than his new classmates. He spent the past year recovering from leukemia. Hanazono quickly makes friends with the roly-poly Mikuni but he’s annoyed by Mikuni’s other friend, an otaku named Majima who delights in lecturing people about his favorite anime and manga characters.

Yoshinaga is great at portraying the little details that define character. Mikuni notices Majima slamming manga down at his desk, Hanazono’s lunches evolve as his sister tries to fix him just the right meal, and his observation of an exchange between teachers leads to the revelation that they are having an affair. Hanazono’s boisterous outspoken personality meshes well with Mikuni’s more retiring nature, and it is nice to see their friendship develop as they bond over the idea of creating their own manga. Hanazono’s family life is entertaining, as his sister reminds him that she’s his savior for giving him her bone marrow and he calls her an old hag when she’s trying to coerce him into running errands for her. So many manga series set in high school end up incorporating story lines where there’s bullying taking place or a sub group of students is really mean. It is refreshing to read a manga set in high school where everyone is generally nice, working through the typical misunderstandings of teenagers while being supportive of each other.

Many of the students are in a manga club, so Flower of Life sometimes takes a detour into the metatextual, where the characters comment about manga conventions and some of the stereotypical storylines found in different types of manga. Yoshinaga’s art will sometimes parody these genres, slipping into an overdone shoujo or shonen style as her characters imagine their own stories. These detours usually feel like fun in-jokes due to Yoshinaga’s sense of humor and the way she portrays Majima’s rants, but this aspect of the series isn’t as accessible to a new reader of manga. While most of the series is light and happy, there’s a shift in tone in the fourth volume as the characters approach the end of their school year. Overall, Flower of Life is Yoshinaga’s most cheerful and whimsical series, and will be fun to read for anyone who can catch its references.

Manga for Your Quarter-Life Crisis

It is easy to find plenty of manga about intrepid boy ninjas or vampire boarding schools on the crowded shelves of your chain bookstore, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish manga titles aimed at adults.  This column will provide an overview of the best manga out there featuring characters in their twenties.

Ohikkoshi by Hiroaki Samura (amazon)

ohikkoshi

This is a single volume of short stories by the creator of the sprawling samurai saga Blade of the Immortal. Samura uses the short story form to indulge in writing humor and as a result the episodes included in this book have a slightly manic edge.

Sachi is the hapless protagonist. He and his friends hang out at horrible battle of the bands shows and skip their college classes whenever possible. He’s hopelessly in love with Akagi, a woman whose boyfriend has just left to work overseas. Now is his big chance to ask her out, which he does in such an oblique stammering way it is easy to feel sorry for him. Sachi’s friends conclude “Our pale-faced friend is drunk with the turmoils of youth!”

Other stories in the collection include an epic tale of manga artist tribulation as a woman takes her editor’s advice, loses her comics gig, works in a coffee shop, becomes a kept woman, manages to attain mastery at the game of mah-jong, and ends up apprenticed to a mafia boss in a few short years only to finally become a manga master. A half-Italian half-Japanese teacher decides take revenge on Japan by sleeping with the country’s women until he meets two girls who are immune to his charms. Some of the elements in Ohikkoshi will appeal to fans of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. Characters break the fourth wall and comment directly at the reader. When Akagi and Sachi go on a horrific zoo date, information about the animals is listed in game stat format. Samura will often shift into alternate art styles for a panel or two. Ohikkoshi has a bit of a rough and frenetic feel, but it is hard not to be captivated by Samura’s sense of humor.

Office Ladies Need Love Too

Josei (manga aimed at adult women) is probably the scarcest manga genre translated in English, which is why I cherish any title that portrays the life of a post-college woman instead of a starry-eyed high school girl.

suppli_0

Suppli by Mari Okazaki (amazon)

Minami is 27 years old. Her relationship with her boyfriend is going nowhere. Every morning she gets dressed for work feeling as if she’s putting on battle armor. She heads into the office on a Sunday only to find all of her co-workers already there. Minimai is paralyzed by the thought of ending up like her boss – a single woman in her 40s. When her boyfriend dumps her, she throws herself into work, trying to prepare new presentations and socializing with her co-workers. She tries to avoid being alone in her trashed apartment, but she lives so much in her own head that she doesn’t pick up on the crush one of her co-workers has on her. Okazaki frequently interposes nature symbolism like water, fish, or grass with Minami’s urban office environment. Suppli has a melancholy feel that reflects the anxieties of its main character. Sometimes Minami’s only connection with another person is sitting with a co-worker in a break room at the office, watching the sun rise.


Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa

trampslikeus

This fourteen volume series is sadly out of print but it is well worth tracking down. Sumire maintains an intimidating presence at her workplace. She reacts coolly when her boyfriend breaks up with her and her co-workers are afraid to comment to her about it due to her bitchy reputation. As she returns to her apartment after a long day of work she finds an injured boy sleeping in a cardboard box. Sumire takes him into her house and feeds him. She jokingly offers him a place to stay if he’ll be her pet, which means following all her orders. He accepts. She names the boy “Momo” after her childhood dog. Having somebody else to care for eases Sumire’s tension from work.
Momo is just as ambitious as Sumire, except he’s pursuing his studies as a modern dancer. Sumire and Momo enjoy domestic life together but things may change when Sumire gets a new boyfriend who miraculously fulfills her requirements for height, salary, and education. She seesaws back and forth between portraying her idea of the perfect career woman and indulging in wrestling TV shows when she’s at home with Momo. Tramps Like Us balances a light and fluffy chicklit quality with a sensitive portrayal of an unconventional but evolving relationship.

Inio Asano

Asano comes by his emphasis on aimless twentysomething characters honestly; he was in his early 20s when he started publishing his stories.

waww

What a Wonderful World by Inio Asano (amazon)

Toga has always been “the reliable one” among her group of friends, but she drops out of school and struggles with the idea of reactivating her musical ambitions. A schoolgirl engages in a dangerous contest to win social capital. A man briefly visits his daughter and ex-wife in a park. Aimless ronin studying for their college entrance exams have a memorable encounter with a basket case they meet in the street. Some of the characters are seen again briefly in other stories, making the lives of the different people in What a Wonderful World seem interconnected.

While reading about the lives of people who haven’t figured out what they want to might seem like an invitation to wallow in ennui, this manga lives up to its title. Asano captures the small moments that people use to define themselves. A change in hairstyle, the realization that the reliability of a relationship can be a comfort, and the loss of an apartment each contribute to a moment of reflection that lets someone move on with their life. As I was reading the manga and enjoying the combination of the prosaic and surreal in Asano’s art I realized that I was especially struck by the pacing and paneling. There was frequently a small jolt or surprise right before I’d turn the page to read the conclusion of a story, and this lent a dynamic feel to the manga even when some of the stories were just short sketches.

solaninnew

Solanin by Inio Asano (amazon)

A later work than What a Wonderful World, Solanin shows what Asano can achieve with more maturity. Meiko works at a job she hates. She’s crushed in the subway on her way to work, and has difficulty listening when her boss yells at her because she’s distracted by his hideous nose hairs. When she goes home, she’s greeted by her boyfriend Taneda. He works part-time and aimlessly pursues his dream of music. Meiko’s horrible job pays well, and she’s saved up some money. One day she abruptly decides to quit.

She lazes around and tries being domestic, but quickly realizes that too much free time can be boring. Taneda can’t deal with the idea of being the breadwinner, and their relationship begins to suffer from the strain. Meiko encourages Taneda to pursue his dream of making music. Although Meiko is the unifying character, Solanin frequently makes narrative detours that show readers the inner worlds of other members of Taneda’s college band. The shifting point of view is a literary device that I enjoy in novels, and it definitely contributed to the depth of character development in this manga.

Small details in the way the characters’ interacted with their environment made their world seem surreal. Bunnies with Xs for faces appear on key chains and Taneda’s CD. Meiko watches a bizarre bear attack training news story on TV. Taneda has a “me summit” where all the aspects of his personality wear a different slogan on their t-shirts to comment on his life. Towards the end of Solanin Meiko begins to come into her own in an unexpected fashion. She’s still supported by her group of friends, but the conclusion is bittersweet. Solanin captures the restless feelings many people have as they move into adulthood.


Portions of this column appeared in slightly different form on TangognaT.