Author/Illustrator: Inio Asano
Translator: JN Productions
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Manga; Slice-of-life, Drama
Publisher: VIZ Media / 2008
Original Publisher: Shogakukan / 2006
Cover Design: Inio Asano
Reason to Read: I sampled the first chapter of Solanin on VIZ Media's iPad app a number of months ago, and I only just discovered (while browsing) that the local library had the finished book on its shelves. Huzzah!
"There's nothing cool about these characters. They're just your 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."
(Inio Asano, 2008—Afterword)
Such humble words from a mangaka who's left me rattled with his unflinching portrayal of a young girl's struggle to find the purpose in life. I know there are readers out there might roll an ironic glance to the ceiling and discount Solanin for the sheer fact of its being manga, but I can assure them of their ignorance in this case. When manga hits the mark, it touches a very raw and very real place in a reader, much as a regular novel might. Where North American comics prize their superhuman heroes and their otherworldly heroines, Japanese manga tends to reflect the lives of real kids living in uncertain times. And I can think of no other work that deserves more praise than Solanin for its honest, complex depiction of the quarter-life crisis as experienced by a handful of college friends facing the Real World for the first time.
Meiko, Kato, Rip, Al, and Naruo
Meiko Inoue is a small town girl and recent college graduate who works as an average drone in the heart of Tokyo. She fetches tea, photocopies reports, and resists the urge to fall asleep at an office that manufactures office equipment. She lives with her boyfriend of six years, Naruo Taneda, who works nights as a part-time freelance illustrator for another nameless design company. In their spare hours, the couple manage to get together with their friends/former "Pop Music Club" members from college: Rip, the drummer, works at his family's pharmacy; Kato, the bassist, has started his sixth year at school; and Al, Kato's girlfriend, works in a clothing store where her boss is eager to shuffle her off to another location (with an "older" clientele). The gents find solace in their old songs, but the trio haven't tried to find a professional venue for their work for the past two years.
With his pittance of a paycheque, Naruo relies on Meiko for shelter and sustenance. But, after two years of working in the same stifling office space, Meiko decides to quit her job without warning—and with nothing more than one year's worth of savings to support her. With no plan and no guidance, Meiko drifts through her days in search of what will make her feel happy and fulfilled. Meanwhile, Naruo senses the new pressure—in the absence of a regular, substantial income, he is forced to choose between longer hours at a frustrating dead-end job or a last shot at pursuing his music with the band. He must weigh his own confidence against his need to measure up to the world around him; however, the cost of both options turn out to be far too much to bear…
As I stated earlier, I was rattled by Solanin namely because the subject matter hits a touch too close for comfort. Inio Asano strikes a scene that's at once believable, palpable, and relatable—he captures the unfocused angst of the young adult and renders it both beautiful and tragic. Asano explains in his afterword that he wrote this manga as a twenty-four-year-old recent graduate who found himself debating whether he could make a decent go as a professional mangaka. His doubts about his artistic talent, his fears over risking his uneventful and good life for the sake of change, and his questions over what constitutes true happiness overwhelm the pages of Solanin, and I think these are universal issues among the twenty-something crowd out there. He handles his characters with great care and humanity, to the point where I could see reflections of myself and my friends within this group's dynamic. Asano also manages to work in brief moments of slapstick humour (re: embarrassing public displays of vomit) to break up the drama in Solanin—which, impressively enough, adds extra weight to those dramatic scenes.
I found the one drawback to the manga was Meiko's transformation after the Event that Shall Not be Named (due to its epic spoiler-y nature)—I was surprised she'd adopt someone else's dream so completely, and almost lose herself to the unfulfilled goals of another person. But, to see Meiko come into her own and accept her imperfections brought me back around to Solanin in the end.
In 2010, Solanin was made into a live-action film (again with the book-to-film tie ins; I swear, I'm not profiling, here), and I have to say, I think the cast looks flawless. I mean, crack open a page of the manga and compare the actors to the drawn figures and WOW. Perfect match. I was tempted to post a trailer in this post, but I felt the spoiler-to-trailer ratio was a little high. I think your time would be better spent with the manga version first, if only to appreciate the uncanny resemblance of the film cast to their drawn counterparts.
Ideal for: Manga disbelievers who ought to be converted; Listless, fearful, or dissatisfied twenty-somethings in need of the reassurance that they're not alone in this; Readers who like stories about bands or that special band-induced camaraderie; Artists (in any medium) who need a shot o' inspiration.