I splashed out on Solanin on recommendation and the fact that I was so impressed with Inio Asano’s more recent Nijigahara Holograph but to my surprise they’re actually pretty different. Apart from the general themes of young people’s alienation in today’s society and an examination of how relationships between friends can shape the course of their lives, Solanin is quite a departure from the mind-bending experience that was Nijigahara Holograph but ultimately it was actually the more enjoyable of the two for me.
…Holograph is a labyrinthine, somewhat supernatural piece that came off like a rewrite of Donnie Darko by David Lynch, only even better; Solanin is I guess a slice-of-life story but the impression it’s left on me makes me feel as though I’d do it a disservice by merely calling it ‘just a SoL manga’. The exquisite way in which the lives of the characters are portrayed gives me a feeling that left me speechless for some time afterwards; the truth is, when I look at these people I might as well be staring into a mirror.
As Sasa’s comment pointed out you can only empathise with the characters of …Holograph so far because they’re mostly young children or adults reminiscing on their childhood; Solanin in contrast looks at college graduates stuck in between adolescence and the responsibilities of salary-financed, mortgage-paying married-with-children adulthood. They are adults of course but they are still uncomfortable with the idea of the ‘present’ becoming ‘the rest of your life’ – a topic that doesn’t crop up very often (Only Yesterday does it well too I think) but this fact makes it all the more rare and precious, not least because I’m at a similar point in my life too.
The characters of Solanin are ordinary people, nothing more and nothing less. They look like real people too rather than the usual stylised manga designs; this might not make them particularly attractive in a conventional sense (although I must confess Meiko looks cute in a girl-next-door kind of way) but this helps remind us of their humanity. Asano has the perfect art style here: as gritty and true-to-life as, say, Naoki Urasawa but from the musical equipment Taneda’s band uses to the humdrum streets of the city his frames are phenomenally detailed. Some of the backgrounds are directly lifted from photographs too which pulls the events even closer from the world of fiction and into the recognisable here-and-now.
Perhaps all this is why Solanin resonated with me in a way that hadn’t happened since Byousokou 5cm and other rare pieces of fiction I’ve encountered from time to time in recent years. The clincher is that, both in terms of themes and execution, the path of life that Asano draws here is the same one that thousands of us are walking every day, whether we realise it or not. It doesn’t descend into maudlin melodrama or make any pretentious stab at being some sort of memorial for a disillusioned Generation X though; instead, the narrative has a mono no aware philosophy and quietly observes the events with a sense of whimsical melancholy that I can only describe as Murakami-esque.
I mean this in the sense that as well as nods to rock and roll popular culture and a wistful background of nostalgia, there’s that awareness of the importance in everyday events and little nuances of dialogue and causality. There’s also this heart-rending but familiar sense of isolation in a crowded world, of an enormous distance between those who should be closest of all; it makes the rare moments of connection and togetherness are all the more wonderful as a result.
For all the soul searching and the occasional twist here and there, there are moments of good-natured humour to sweeten the pill and the narrative has a very ‘grown-up’ plot progression. That is to say that Asano doesn’t even try to offer up easy answers to the problems and questions that Meiko and her friends encounter. The underlying message is perhaps that there are no easy answers – spend too much time wondering about the meaning of life and you forget how to live.
What drew me in and crossed that old sympathy-to-empathy divide was how I could relate to so much of what happens here. I know I’m not a young woman in Tokyo dating a freeloader I knew from college but every other page seemed to provide another opportunity to give a knowing laugh or nod inwardly thinking “I’ve been there too.” Asano’s afterword hints at how the events of Solanin were inspired by his own mid 20s when the fear of life decisions hitting a dead end was at the forefront of his mind: between becoming someone who follows their dreams, one turns out not knowing whether or not they’re happy with their life like their parents have, or a complete nobody who has achieved nothing at all, where do you go?
I know there’s not a universal appeal in stories that are ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things’ and perhaps some might think that twenty-something angst is no better than its hormonal teen equivalent but I felt that Solanin touches on a lot of unsaid truths that stare us in the face every day but escaped my notice until Meiko, Taneda and their friends pointed them out to me. They laugh, cry, share fears and dream dreams, as we all do; it’s profound, life-affirming and – dare I say it – deep, seemingly without even trying. Heaven knows I don’t have the answers either but at least Asano has what it takes to ask them so clearly. This is a marvel of character-driven drama and understated brilliance.