I discovered manga author Inio Asano years ago through one of the inter-language accidents of fate I love: I picked up Volume One of What a Wonderful World! in a used bookstore, translated from Japanese into French, in an edition that I can today not even find on Amazon.fr.
At the time, I didn’t know anything about the book itself. I was just looking for stuff to read in French that wasn’t too difficult. Any comic qualified.
In one of the crises of practical faith that I suffered throughout my twenties on the regular, I fell in love with What a Wonderful World! These crises existed as such because I felt I had pushed the dream of pursuing a career in the arts as far as it could go, to the point where it somehow felt dishonest to continue. At the same time, as I tried to pursue more practical but still-enjoyable routes of learning and skill-building (becoming fluent in French, for example), I ran up against certain artistic creations that overpowered the fluid and indifferent approach I wanted to take to things like language.
What I thought I wanted was to pick a safe distance from which to enjoy the world. I wanted life to be a day at the beach, but no matter where I pitched my absurd lawn chair and umbrella, the world kept slapping me in the face like an unexpectedly high wave.
This type of situation, as experienced by people in their twenties (something I could relate to) living in Japan (something I could relate to much less) is, as it turns out, a major theme in Asano’s writing. Maybe this theme doesn’t appear as the exact experience above, but the reality surrounding it, the idea of being “special” (read: artistic) seeming both diametrically opposed to and entirely necessary to being “significant,” is one that rears its head again and again.
To put it more simply, Asano often writes about people who see no definite reason to either take a risk on a dream or to accept an ordinary fate with grace and goodwill towards mankind.
Asano’s characters (in his works that I have read) are often twenty-somethings caught between their resistance to growing up and their desire to be a functional part of society, a conflict that may be felt more acutely in Japan and other Asian nations than in the U.S. or the rest of the English-speaking world.
The existential portrayal of their problems may seem almost laughably adolescent, or rather, we may feel obligated to laugh at their problems in front of our friends. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t relatable. Asano plumbs the depths of an ennui many Americans in my generation believe themselves to be well past, but which in reality may hang on forever in some form or another.
Both volumes of What a Wonderful World! follow several different characters through their own tragedies, crises and depressions, but the overall mood is light and playful. This is due to a persistent and occasionally absurd sense of humor, cutaways to beautiful landscape drawings and the cinematic embrace of the stories themselves. Typical problems that are no better for being typical (being bullied in school, being stuck at a dead-end job, simply feeling insignificant) plague these young adults, but the beauty given to portraying their troubles offers a protected, rainy-day quality to their stories. No subject matter is off-limits, but no subject matter is gratuitous, either.
So first, I read What a Wonderful World! in French. It drifted through my consciousness for years and—like other art that caused the aforementioned “practical crises”—probably affected my writing, actions and decisions in ways of which I wasn’t even aware at the time.
Granted, there are some parts of WAWW and Asano’s other work that could be described as sentimental or cheesy, but this doesn’t mean they’re simplistic. I’ve never read through any of his work without feeling like I wound up learning something, in an artistic sense.
A quick YouTube search reveals that Asano has gained an international audience: Here he’s shown drawing at a showcase put on by Italy-based Lucca Comics, here he’s speaking at an event in Barcelona and here’s someone displaying a German edition of WAWW. In fact, I’m having an easier time finding vlogs and video reviews of his work in Italian and Spanish than in English or Japanese.
More recently, when I discovered, like the convenience-loving American I am, that I could download manga on my Kindle, I got started on the second volume of WAWW in the e-edition. In doing so, I found that reading comics on a digital ink screen is not only a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable way to go about reading comics, but that it basically provides a new medium for enjoying them.
In the case of Asano’s work, which juggles and juxtaposes images in an energetic manner (emotional dialogue close-up, words-only panel, cityscape, someone’s breakfast), I might say it’s like watching a silent movie in which you, the viewer, are entirely in control of the pace. Turning pages, and being able to view two pages at once, is a little different from being given a mere four or five panels to study at your leisure before replacing them with new images in a smooth motion not unlike waving a magic wand.
A comic with less of a sense of motion might result in less of a notable difference between the two ways of reading, but in the case of Asano’s work, I think e-reading only adds to that sense of motion and enhances its cinematic qualities. I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from paying for the paper versions of the books to more thoroughly support Asano and his publishers, but I still think there’s something a bit intoxicating about reading a well-rendered, black-and-white comic with e-ink and the power of touch.
I recently read Asano’s Solanin like this. Solanin is currently described on Wikipedia as being a “slice of life romance music manga series” (a phrase that leads to four separate internal links!). While that may be a bit much, it’s also about right.
Solanin follows Meiko, an “office lady” who, along with her live-in musician and illustrator boyfriend, struggles with ideas of commitment and usefulness. I found Solanin less urgent and immediate than WAWW, but this is probably partially because it’s a longer series rather than a mix of shorts, and opportunities for intensity of storytelling don’t crop up naturally as often.
I’ll no doubt continue to read my way through all of Asano’s work that I can in this way, including all volumes of Goodnight Punpun as well as A Girl on the Shore. I may have to buy the hardcover version of the epic-looking Nijigahara Holograph, but I assume this will be well worth it.