Welcome to the first edition of Mangaka Spotlight, where I talk about the career and works of a manga artist, or mangaka. To begin with I’ll be looking at my personal favorite mangaka, Inio Asano.
Inio Asano started drawing manga in high school, and was first published in the Big Comic Spirits manga magazine when he was 17. However, he struggled to get a breakout work until January 19th, 2002, when his short story collection What a Wonderful World! was serialized in Shogakukan’s Sunday GX magazine. This work ran until 2004 and was released in English by Viz Media in 2009.
Even in this early work Inio’s style and voice are instantly recognisable. These loosely-connected vignettes act as windows into snippets of modern Japanese life. From mundane setups such as a girl meeting an ex-boyfriend at a club, a group of friends unable to get into university who make friends with a cough syrup addict, to a ramen chef thinking of retiring after a life of rivalry with his brother.
At other times, these stories are surreal and bizarre, such as the tale of a runaway schoolgirl who ends up helping a man in a bearsuit escape from the Yakuza, or the story about a shinigami (death god) who tries to convince a girl to kill herself, only to help her gain the respect of her classmates through a downhill bike race.
This juxtaposition of bizarre and everyday events all happening in the same town gives What a Wonderful World! a sense of unpredictability, and allows Inio to use all sorts of bizarre imagery and situations to get his points across.
The art in What a Wonderful World! features extremely detailed and expressive characters, and Inio isn’t afraid to shy away from the ugly side of human emotion. Characters are drawn crying with snot pouring from their nose, and sex is portrayed as sweaty, tiring, and ultimately unsatisfying.
The backgrounds are also very detailed, and although Inio does often use traced photographs for urban scenes, this style adds to the realism of the settings, and is definitely preferable to blank backgrounds. The manga also features Inio’s signature black panels with white text that he uses to make important character monologues really stand out.
Although the stories in What a Wonderful World! are deal with such a disparate range of characters and themes, they are all imbued with Inio’s signature style of writing. The characters are often deadpan and narcissistic, and tend to be concealing some type of insecurity or complex that stops them from being honest with themselves and those around them.
This pessimistic, almost nihilistic outlook reflects Inio’s personality; he was physically frail and self-conscious from a young age, which led him to believe that he would die an early death. However, the manga as a whole ends on an optimistic note, with the line “…but as long as you’re alive, something good is bound to happen. I’m sure of it.” reflecting the belief that modern life, no matter how petty, strange, dull or annoying it might seem, can still hold moments of happiness as long as you don’t give up.
Inio’s next work was Nijigahara Holograph, which began in 2003, a significant departure from the easy-to-ingest What a Wonderful World! The story focuses around an elementary school class who, now all in their early twenties, are haunted by a tragedy that befell one of their classmates.
The manga jumps between the past and present with abandon, making the it a confusing first read, but the ambiguous structure helps build the atmosphere of surrealism that permeates this extremely dark story. Nijigahara Holograph is available in English from Fantagraphics.
The next work we’re going to look at is Solanin, which began in June 30, 2005 and ran until April 6, 2006. Compared to the interconnected vignettes of What a Wonderful World! and the time-hopping Nijigahara Holograph, Solanin is one of Inio’s simplest works. It deals with a group of 20-somethings in Tokyo who, although they have entered the adult world, don’t quite know how they fit into it.
Best described as a post-coming-of-age story, Solanin deals with the realization that comes with the entry into adult working life that following your youthful dreams is often not an option, and that maybe you’re destined to be a cog in the machine.
It follows Meiko, her boyfriend Naruo, and their group of college friends as they try to keep their band together while struggling with their new-found adult responsibilities.
Solanin’s characters, when not giving monologues about their un-fulfilling lives, have smart, fast dialogue and comedic moments that really give the impression of a group of friends who’ve known each-other for many years.
The manga keeps Inio’s signature pessimistic tone whilst still allowing for some genuinely funny moments, usually stemming from Kato and Rip, the two goofball members of the group.
The characters’ struggles reflect Inio’s own feelings at the time, as he himself had just graduated from college at the age of 24, and was unsure if he could turn his manga into a proper career.
Luckily, Solanin was a success, with a live-action movie being made in 2010. It was also released in English by Viz. Go buy it.
That concludes the first part of out look at Inio Asano and his manga. I hope you can join me next time when we’ll be looking at his works from 2007 to the present.