Monday, 18 July 2011

Books: Solanin


By Inio Asano


Available now from Islington Libraries
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I've always had a bit of an idealised view of Anime and Manga stuff (or really - to call it more what it actually is: cultural envy). Back when I was still wee - BBC 2 showed Akira at like midnight o'clock (or something) and I swear after it was finished and I was lying in bed trying to fall back asleep I could feel my scalp crackling with electricity and the insides of my brain swimming around with - you know - thoughts of the infinite and stuff like that. And since that point - I dunno: I always thought that Japan was were where things were at - culturally speaking: so while we tend to get rehashes of one good cop going up against a broken system or reluctant heros in the wrong place at the wrong time - on the other side of the world there's generations of people being entertained by widescreen epic space adventures and giant robots being piloted by wise-cracking kids.

Of course now I've grown up (a little) I realise that maybe that's not quite true. I mean - I guess it's like if a Japanese teen saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and assumed that all western films were about the evolution of mankind mixed together with smooth-talking sociopathic computers but still - there were quite a few days when I would go the big HMV on Oxford Street and walk through the Anime section wishing that I could watch it all [1].

But - like with all things - 90% of Manga just aren't - well - that good. Upstairs in the children's library that I'm based at there's a whole wall of pocket-sized manga books: Fruits Basket, Dragon Ball, Beet the Vandel Buster, Bleach and stuff like that [3]. And - ok - out of those the only one I've ever really tried was Fruits Basket (I wanted to read them all and put up an entry on this blog - but I just couldn't deal with it - the art was too simple for me or the humour was sailing over my head or something) but - well - (I'll try not to sound too condescending when I say this) - they're more like stuff for kids (and I realise that it doesn't make any sense (at all) to judge a whole medium just by the stuff that's on the shelf in one children's library in London but it's more like I'm using it as a specific example to stand in for years of disappointment on not being able to find something that manages to touch my insides in the same way as Akira did all those years ago [4]).

But the point I'm trying to get to is this: every time I pick up any type of Manga - my exceptions are always just a little bit higher than where they would be if it was just an American comic book. Like - it's not just enough that it tells me a somekind of story: it's like I'm also expecting something that's going to take me to the edge of the sublime (or something).

And so then: Solanin.

Meiko Inoue ("I'm just not cut out to be a productive member of society.") is a young, despondent, twenty-something living in Tokyo - doing her best to get by - and trying not to think too hard about the expiry date on her freedom (there's a nice touch near the start where she talks how the sky looked when she first arrived in Tokyo and how it looks a year later). Growing up and slowly moving forward with herself and her frazzled boyfriend Taneda while trying to find some sort of sweet spot between "slaving for the man" (and losing your humanity) and - well - having enough money in order to buy enough food to eat - this self-described "creature of a consumer society" spends her days waiting for an epiphany (sorry - "her epiphany") and wishing death on everyone she sees on the morning commute (yep - I know that feeling). Like her friend says: "Wow... You're scary... You're almost 24, but you really have no idea." Which in comics terms I guess puts her halfway between Halo Jones and Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw and Rebecca Doppelmeyer: that is to say: the whole world (and the rest of her life) is out there waiting for her - the only problem is - she hasn't decided yet what she wants to do with it.

(I don't wanna sound too much (or really - at all) like some kind of clueless cultural tourist who only enjoy something if it's "authentically real" or whatever ("Yeah dude: this is the exactly way that the ancient Aztecs used to jet-ski"): but seeing how I know it's an issue from trying to recommend to someone at the Comic Forum ("You have to read it right to left? Oh man - no thanks!") I feel I have to mention that - yes - you have to start at the "back" of the book and read it in a kinda counter-intuitive back-to-front sort of way. But also: hey - that's how it was written and once you start reading it won't be long until the story draws you in so completely that you'll forget all about it and (damn it) it's nice knowing that you are reading something that's authentically different and I like how i sorta rejigs your brain so that it's reprocessing information in a new way [5]).

Made up from several interwoven vignettes - that float weightlessly between character to character - until they slowly join forces and bloom this is a top-notch book perfectly capturing the strange stumbling transition into the adulthood and the mixed feelings and emotions that can hit you along the way. When it starts there are a few bumps as it seems to flirt around different genres before it decides what it wants to be - is it going to go down the horror route ("There is a demon lurking in Tokyo") or will it opt instead for somesort of board comedy thing (see the toupées literally flying off the top of people's heads)? Don't fret - just relax and let it find it's groove: it knows what it's doing - trust me.

Yes - some of the characters can be a little bit too earnest at points ("This flat, boring, ambiguous world can't inspire any real songs... Just over-produced crap that has no meaning.") but then that's how people tend to speak when they're too young to know any better (to which I'd guess Meiko would respond: "Ugh! Grown-ups are so gross!"). But - whatever - it's all so exquisitely drawn and effortlessly flipping from the abstract (well you know maybe "abstract" is the wrong word - I guess I mean whatever the right word to describe the semi-cartoony faces like the one on the cover above: "not quite real" maybe) to the photorealistic (check out the gorgeously rendered pictures of living rooms, bridges and cityscapes [6]). Light on it's feet and miraculous in it's effects (I like the way that when someone is talking the panels won't feel the need to stick with just their faces but will float around to stare at the ceiling and things like that): basically - it's a must-read for anyone who's ever been unsure about how to decide what shape they wanted their life to take (I mean - come on - every human alive has spent too much time worrying about all the paths they didn't take - right?) or ever believed in - you know - the power of music to reach some small semblance of - well - grace. (Grace is a good word) [8]

I mean - it feels like I'm just spilling out words from a thesaurus here but (damn it) Solanin is potent, fervent and - yeah - magical in how it reaches further inside and cuts deeper than most all of the other books out there (comic or no): building up to a climax that - altho it doesn't manage to level any cities or restart the Universe in the same way as Akira did - is equally as powerful and equally as memorable.

Any yeah - by the end: I didn't even care it was Manga and I didn't care where it came from. I just knew that it was good and I loved it.

You owe it to yourself to give it a try.

[1] The problem being that back before the internet was really a thing - all I really had to go on was gut instinct and isolated recommendations - which is how I ended up spending - oh my god I think it was twenty quid? - on Casshern (which admittedly did have a really cool cover - although the fact that it praises itself as being "better than both Matrix sequels put together" should have tipped me off a little): which is a film that I took home - invited a whole bunch of my friends around to watch and then the next week tossed in the bin. (Interestingly it says on the wikipedia page that: "The subtitles are almost universally criticized by fans for being enormously incomplete. On several occasions they are lacking entirely; when they do appear they often completely differ from the dialogue or oversimplify it to such a degree that key plot elements and the overall force of the story are diminished." - so maybe it was the subtitle people that were at fault? I dunno - all I know is that I never want to watch it again) [2].

[2] And that thing about the subtitles makes me wonder how accurate the words are in Solanin and just how they managed to sneak in the small (yet delightful) bits of word play here and there ("You gotta say 'Forgive Me'!!" "Give me.")?

[3] Also: Death Note which I'm not including in that list because - erm - actually: Death Note is really good and I would recommend it to just about anyone. So - it doesn't really fit in with the point I'm trying to make. So... Yeah.

[4] Apart from - yeah - all those Studio Ghibli films like: Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away and stuff like that. Also: Neon Genesis Evangelion. Plus (you know) Perfect Blue. Oh: and Steamboy and a few of the shorts in that Animatrix collection. Apart from all of those - nothing.

[5] And yeah - I know that for those of you that have grown up reading Manga since you were little (and there is a reason that there's so many Manga books in the children's library - some kids really seem to have a thirst for it in the same way that - well - they don't have for superhero books...) that I sound hopelessly square making any kind of deal about the way you have to read it ("Did you know that you can get the internet on computers now?"): but what the hey: better to admit it rather than just pretend it's not there? (Although the question is: why didn't I mention this with the other books on the blog that read from right to left?  Hmmmmm. Ok then - so maybe let's just cut things off here...)

[6] I mean I know that pretty much all Manga does this [7] - but still - it does it better than most.

[7] Oh: and can someone please tell me how it is exactly that so many Manga books are able to render backgrounds in such a realistic way? Is it because they're all amazing artists? Or do they just trace them from photographs? Or they have bigger teams of people working on their comics? I mean I know it just says "Inio Asano" on the cover but maybe there's a whole bunch of uncredited artists working behind the scenes like with Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley and people like that? Or maybe "Inio Asano" is the name of a collective and not just one person? Or what? I need to know the reason why particularly every other page I have to stop and utter a sigh at the total coolness of the intricate detail of the artwork....

[8] And it's always a good trick to write a comic (or hell - even a book) about people playing music. As long as you get the pictures right (and I'd say that Solanin beats any other comic book out there (yes - even Scott Pilgrim even) for having the best pictures of people playing music) your head will always rush in to fill the gap and promise you that it's best song you've never heard (will never hear): which is both kinda cool and kinda frustrating - I just want to hear what it sounds like! (Altho - seeing how there's a film based on the comic (trailer here) it would actually be possible to get at least - well - one person's interpretation of what the music in the comic sounds like: but (grrr) for now I'm gonna try and resist the urge to find out...).


Further reading: Scott Pilgrim, I Kill Giants, A Distant Neighbourhood, 7 Billion NeedlesBuddha, Uzumaki, Joe The Barbarian, Death Note, Black Hole, Anya's GhostAmerican Born ChineseThe Ballad of Halo Jones, Ghost World.

All comments welcome.

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