By Inio Asano
Published by Viz Media
Twenty-something Meiko Inoue hates her office job, loves her underemployed boyfriend, and gets frustrated with the endless supply of vegetables her parents send her from home which just end up rotting in her fridge. After her boyfriend, Naruo, casually suggests she quit her job, she actually does (much to his surprise), though this brings her much less satisfaction than she'd hoped. Quitting provides relief but not direction, so amidst hours of mindless vegging and video games (while attempting to ignore impending financial doom), Meiko turns her focus on Naruo's life by encouraging him to revive the rock band he left behind after college. Naruo's child-like excitement as he finally lets himself indulge in an old dream is enough to invigorate both of them for a while, but eventually the reality of the adult world forces them to face their limitations head-on and evaluate what makes their lives worthwhile.
Solanin captures perfectly that particular time of life when each of us is first faced with the question of whether to pursue our heart's wildest dreams or to instead seek happiness in less obvious places--that time when we determine whether we can (or must) succumb to a mediocre existence and what that even means in the first place. Is getting by day-to-day in the company of a familiar loved one enough, or must we strive for something grander--something that will outlast our meager human lifespan? These are issues that can (and do) persist throughout life, but there is something unique about those early years when it first becomes clear that it is even a question and the frequently paralyzing fear and uncertainty that goes with that.
While this could easily manifest itself in a self-indulgent angst-fest, fortunately mangaka Inio Asano addresses the subject with wry humor, simple honesty, and a real affection for his characters in their best and worst moments. He also avoids passing obvious judgement on their choices, letting their conflicted thoughts and frustrated lives stand on their own without (for the most part) inserting unnecessary drama into the mix. The downside of this is that the pacing occasionally suffers, particularly when the story shifts to focus on supporting characters, though this is a minor quibble at most. Meiko and Naruo are more than compelling enough on their own to sustain the story's momentum, even through its slower patches. Asano's understated sense of drama, bare-bones honesty, and thoughtful characterization take us back to a time when we all sought that intangible something--that soft, distant beacon in the murky haze of adulthood that, if only we could reach it, might somehow allow us to taste the exhilaration of freedom without leaving behind the comforts of home. He also reminds us of what most of us already know: the beacon is a mirage.
What this manga does not provide is escapism. There is no great purpose realized, no higher calling discovered, no deep secret revealed to carry the characters off into the sunset. Life's perfect moments must inevitably pass into the mundane, and though this might suggest pessimism, that is not the tone of this comic at all, which is perhaps its greatest strength. If there is something profound to take away from solanin, it is that there is no universal measure for happiness or success, and that a life spent searching for something greater may ultimately have less meaning than one that is simply unexceptional.
One of the most striking things about this manga is the art, which is expressive, clean, and above all, distinctive. The character designs in particular display the same course honesty as the characters themselves, with realistic body-types and average looks. There is not a single overly-pretty character in solanin, which is surprisingly refreshing.
Originally published in two volumes in Japan, Viz's release combines both into one double-length volume in the larger trim size characteristic of their Signature series, which includes two small sections of color pages, with a thick cover and high-quality paper, giving the book a nicely satisfying weight. Recently nominated for a 2009 Eisner award, this slice-of-life manga offers unique art, thoughtful characterization, and a refreshingly unromantic perspective on the transition to true adulthood.