Manga: Solanin (2005-2006)
Written by: Inio Asano
Original Language: Japanese (read in English)
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Stretched across the spectrum of time and addressed repeatedly within timeless works comes a subject matter that is ladled with dissonance and admiration by all those who touch it.
And why shouldn’t it?
The topic is us, as us: us as our everyday selves beneath the apathetic masks that we adorn; us as our forgotten selves tethering above the riddles of societal norms; us as our unfulfilled selves stuck between a monochromatic world we can’t color and the world we want to stain with the hues we keep locked in our hearts.
We as a collective society are frequently hindered by the very ‘norms’ we instill—an absurdity in the truest sense–which Asano Inio has thoroughly understood and depicted within the pages of his work, Solanin.
Based on the synopsis, Solanin may come off as some heavily-dosed slice-of-life revolving around a seemingly-menopausal woman having mood-swings about her boring job and her dazed boyfriend with no sense of direction in his ambition. It may just seem to be about a bunch of twenty-some year olds who are stuck in life’s meaningless rut, and it wouldn’t be wrong. Yes- It is about all those things, but what makes Solanin an erudite exploration of “us” among the plethora of similarly-minded tales in its realm is the amount of sheer humanity, the amount of sheer relatability, the amount of sheer honesty that Asano assigns to each and every frame of the manga.
Solanin collects the fragments of all of its thematic shards and pieces them together through the cast of Asano’s prototypical, flawed characters defined by their ordinariness, classical dissonance, and their inability to reconcile who they are with what they want as per their own projections and expectations. Through and through we are handed the perpetual paradox that confines these characters and unleashes their catharsis; and the root of all this is nothing grandeur, nothing fantastical, but something much more grounded in reality, that perhaps anyone who reads can instantly relate to or at least, understand–especially those who have felt the stale winds of life’s mundanity or meaninglessness.
Essentially, this is a tale of understanding: understanding one’s self in their own periphery and understanding one’s self on the grand stage. It’s a choice of will and intention, not just circumstance and consequence. Asano shows us the common struggles of common people and the potential of facing them. Through Meiko, the very ordinary “heroine” of the story, Asano highlights actions rooted in spontaneity and the possibility of changing, even past an age when personalities and “futures” are so often stated to be engraved on some meta-stone. There is nothing grand about Meiko; she is as common as the office-ladies she complains about, and so are her struggles. Yet we are introduced to something grand by wandering with Meiko and her troupe through a pivotal time in their lives and the path they embark on to find happiness and satisfaction, which may or may not manifest, but the point is that they—on their own accord—try, and there’s an inherent value or ‘happiness’ in just that.
Where Solanin perhaps deviates from Asano’s other works is its defining moments of balanced optimism that doesn’t override the hard-cut realism that Asano is known for, but complements it in a way that depicts life with its good and bad. This results in Solanin being lighter in substance and tone but equally as potent. It can be argued (and I will assert) that Asano’s works demonstrate an amiable admiration for humanity and its potential and are often backed up with snippets of optimism and/or idealism (not the kind found in fairy tales). They aren’t just clouded by straight-laced realism with a clear-cut cynical prognosis. We are often exposed to a cold reality steeped in tragedy, pain, absurdity, and suffering but not without cause and definitely not without the ‘potential’ to change and grow from it. This change doesn’t have to be revolutionary and it doesn’t have to invert one’s life, but the possibility of it existing and gaining from it, is what matters. Solanin is no exception and follows suit to penetrate the real world, not a cynical or pessimistic world—just the real world and the individuals within that world trying to find themselves.
The sense of self, search for individuality, and personifying this innate disillusionment are all extremely important themes for Solanin and can also be largely found in Japanese literature and culture (but Asano’s style can be considered unequivocally universal). Japanese writers often prefer actualizing emotional conveyance through simple, yet resonating imagery over perceptive or didactic-ridden forms, plots, and ideologies. Formless and endless: numerous renowned Japanese literature/works aim to preserve the natural flow of life without any real beginning or real end, unfazed by standards of plot-driven or philosophically-rich or structurally-sound qualities of ‘good literature’. Now, where Asano sets himself apart, is his uncanny ability to intertwine both in a manner that gracefully bridges the two poles by eternalizing the ebb-and flow of life in all of its unglamorous candor while providing powerful insight on the human condition as-is.
Solanin is simply an extension of that congruity. The sentiments, the reality and its by-products, the world, and the artist are all mirrored within the ink-laced pages with an unmatched finesse.
And then there’s the art.
What really stands out about Solanin’s (and most of Asano’s works) art are his characters, both in design and action. Graced with the plainest of faces and the most humblest of attires, the cast is physically reflective of their situation and mindset. Physical gratuities or aesthetically-pleasing faces and/or anatomies will not be found here.
Yet, there is something absolutely stunning about how the art comes together. Perhaps it’s the way the backgrounds are erected with a life-like quality and always providing a subtle but in-tune accompaniment to the forefront dialogue and/or mood. Or perhaps it’s the overarching integral quality that the art plays with the words that makes the two inseparable. Really, when it comes to Solanin, there is no way to talk about the art detached from as a sum of its parts for everything works as one- as a bigger ‘machination’ to tell a story worth telling (and feeling).
Asano Inio is an artist by virtue, not by trade. His works are a resonation of all that surrounds him, all that he surrounds, and as a product, works like Solanin are incepted. An artist whose thoughts are as tangible as the reality that imbues them. An artist whose art is inconceivably clear in what it wants and undisputedly awe-inspiring in what it achieves. An artist unbound by escapist fantasies or uninspired optimism. An artist of “us” and you can easily trace “us” in the pages of Solanin.