I’ve found the phrase “slice of life” creeping into my entries here a little more often than I’d like. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I just feel like relying on it so much kind of suggests that stories about everyday people and their everyday lives are somehow a strange kind of niche, one that readers may need to be “warned” about in advance or something. I’ve always enjoyed comics that tell stories about average people and the trials and tribulations they face in figuring out who they are and what to do with their lives. Two of my favorite graphic novels are Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. These books honestly and artfully deal with what it’s like to be young and struggling with real-life issues: coming to peace with yourself and trying to find one’s place in the world. Solanin tackles some of the same themes, which affect young adults just as much as adolescents, and takes its place next to those titles as one of the best illustrated books that I’ve ever read.
Meiko Inoue, the “heroine” of the story, is disillusioned with her dead-end office job, which was hardly the future she envisioned for herself after she graduated college. At 24, she wonders if she’ll ever discover a greater calling for herself than the soul-crushing world of nine-to-five work. Early in the story, she quits her job in the hope that it will force her hand and lead her to a more meaningful calling in her life. I know how she felt because, at almost the same age, I did the exact same thing. I expect that plenty of readers will relate to her situation or perhaps even be reminded of when they finally reached that breaking point themselves.
This, perhaps, isn’t the most responsible decision that Meiko makes in the story, particularly because her longtime boyfriend Taneda is only able to find part-time work as an illustrator. Taneda deals with his own professional dissatisfaction by continually pursuing his dream: to play in a successful band with his friends from college. Throughout the story, we follow not only Meiko and Taneda, but their friends and bandmates Rip and Kato. They weather trials of chronic boredom, self-doubt, indecision and impatience, both in their individual lives and in their relationships. This is the kind of stuff that may have many shonen readers crying “emo!”, but will instantly hook anyone who’s craving a thoughtful story about well-developed and empathic characters.
The art in this book is wonderful. Asano’s characters are drawn with personality and flair, and with lots of attention to their individual sense of style. Set in Tokyo, the backgrounds are richly detailed and boldly flushed out, drawing the reader into the world of the characters. Even the interiors, from Meiko’s apartment and office to the band’s practice space, are meaningfully designed and rendered, often feeling tiny and claustrophobic. This is difficult to achieve in the space of a few panels on a page, but Asano makes the characters’ spaces highly involved in the story.
As the story progresses, we learn more about Taneda and his music, which takes a more prominent role in the second half of the (rather lengthy, at 426 pages) book. Asano captures the raw energy of the band’s performance in a way that I’ve never seen in comics before. In contrast, there’s nothing glamorous about the way he shows the struggles of a young band trying to succeed and simply be heard. There are plenty of opportunities to glorify the rock and roll lifestyle in this story, but Solanin‘s portrayal of playing in a band is much more true to life than most fiction. Just convincing others that it is (or could be) more than a mere “hobby” is a hurdle that many fail to clear. Asano understands this, as well as the conflicts that young artists face in slowly growing up and facing the eternal question: how long should one continue to push on with your dreams? When is it time to give them up?
Solanin is a handsomely-bound book that you wouldn’t feel ashamed to leave on your coffee table, even in sight of your non-otaku friends. I hope that fans of thoughtful graphic novels like Blankets or Ghost World will give it a chance, as it’s not only a wonderful story, but stands to bridge the gap between manga and those kind of books, so much more commonly accepted as worthy reading for adults than ever, even here in America. And like so many graphic novels of that caliber, Solanin carries with it an air of “cool” that’s impossible to deny. It not only makes the case for manga as vital modern literature, but as a genuinely hip cultural item to possess. Heh, if only.
So it’s funny how, in the afterward of the story, Asano blatantly states that, “there’s nothing cool about these characters,” perhaps understanding the temptation of readers to ascribe such a tempting quality to them. (And the fact that we may see ourselves mirrored in them? What a coincidence!) “They’re just average 20-somethings who blend into the backdrop of the city. But the most important messages in our lives don’t come from musicians on stage or stars on television. They come from the average people all around you, the ones who are just feet from where you stand.” In its thoughtful focus on the pervasive aimlessness and quiet desperation that’s so common in our world today, Solanin might make you take a second look at the people around you. Maybe their stories are worth telling, too.