Today I examine Inio Asano's (also the creator of solanin, which was reviewed for this site by the very talented Melinda Beasi here) short story collections, What a Wonderful World. Just released last week by Viz, these works are required reading for those of us who are avidly following the maturing manga market in the U.S.
These stories feature entirely too young drunks, orphaned teenagers, purposeless young adults, lonely sell outs, and those who even lack the wherewithal to sell out. No one seems understands what it means to be happy or even how to wish for happiness. Life, as we all know it, can kind of suck. But Asano, in showing us the various whys and wherefores of that universal truth, also points out the small ways in which getting through the day -- no matter how horrible a day it was, no matter if it was only horrible because it was like every other day which is what makes it so horrible -- is its own kind of reward. The only way to get one's head straight is finally being able to see this tiny victory of getting through the day as such. Because the next day might not suck so much. That might be a small consolation, but watching these characters overcome themselves in order to locate some aspect of their lives they can hold onto as good or even healthy gave most stories some much needed softening. However, not every character gets that particular moment of consolation, but as a whole characters in these stories do find relief in the form of small moments of possibility we might simply recognize as "hope."
Perhaps I feel overly connected to Asano and his work considering he was born the same year I was and has similar preoccupations with the figure of the twenty-something slacker. My life isn't half as bad as these folks, nor am I confused and directionless, but there is no doubt that these characters often express the kind of bewildered dissatisfaction with life we all share to some degree at some point. In many ways, this feeling is part of what makes us all human, whether we struggle with it on a daily basis or only once in a season. While yes, this means the subject of these stories may seem like kind of a "downer," I found I identified very strongly with the emotional-connective thread running through of these narratives and similarly found solace in the possibility for redemption the title (i.e. maybe it can be a "wonderful world" even if only for a brief moment) gives to the work and the individual stories' conclusions as a whole. In spite of life often being a chore, or worse a burden, as long as one is alive there is hope that something "good is bound to happen."
What makes these short stories quite excellent is how well-constructed they
are. Asano gives us exactly the right amount of information -- through dialogue, internal monologue, and setting -- the reader will need to gain almost immediate footing within each individual story. Yes, the topic of the stories may feel kind of "indie" -- the majority are about 20-something slackers whose lives are all kinds of messed up -- but Asano's handling of the material is accessible. This is incredibly important, particularly in short stories, because it is too easy to fall out of pace with the flow of the narrative, considering the limitations of the form. I almost never experienced that kind of disconnection while reading these volumes -- I found myself right there with the random convenience store worker who accidentally stalks his former girlfriend, or the former punk who traded his mohawk for the salaryman's uniform. And while to some degree these figures are "types," allowing for easy reader recognition, they are also distinct characters who often find themselves pulled in unexpected (yet never completely random) directions.
Asano's art style also helps make these stories compulsively readable. He balances extreme close-ups and fragmented glimpses of characters' expressions with full body views, often situated within detailed cityscapes, which consistently frame characters in real world settings. As a whole, his art style is a nice twist on seinen style, as he incorporates a strong element of realism -- particularly in detail in city spaces, clothing, generally the "things" that place the characters so concretely in recognizably real spaces -- in order to ground the stories when they verve suddenly toward either the fantastic or the poetic.
Review copies provided by Viz.