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COMIC REVIEW: Solanin

Comic Review: Solanin (2008)
Art & Story: Inio Asano
Publisher: VIZ Signature
Genre: Josei / humour / drama
Pages: 432
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1421523213 ISBN-13: 978-1421523217

Solanin is one of those rare comics that manage to something memorable out of a predictable story premise: a coming-of-age story revolving around the lives of twentysomething college graduates.

The heart of the 432-page comic are Tokyoites Meiko Inoue and her long-time live-in boyfriend Shigeo Naruo, whom she’s been dating for six years since their college days. Naruo is the vocalist-guitarist and lyricist of a struggling rock band, Rotti, but he has no motivation to go far. He instead spends time at home, playing video games and strumming on his guitar; generally being a layabout and a dependant on Meiko’s small income. Neither is showing interest in marriage or all other mod cons. Meanwhile around them are their three close former college friends, who are also members of Naruo’s struggling rock band, Rotti.

The story opens with Meiko working in her office job and she isn’t happy. She – at 24 – is becoming acutely aware of the passing time, and that she might be sinking deep into the rat race as another faceless office worker. It isn’t what she was born for, even though she doesn’t know what she was born for. All she knows is she wants to change. She decides that Naruo – and his band Rotti – may be the key to making her undefined dreams come true. When Meiko announces to Naruo she wants to quit her job, he encourages her to go for it.

And so she does, unknowingly opening a new chapter of their lives that would soon force them to recognise the reality of their future that could affect their relationship, their dying childhood dreams and the purpose of their lives. As they – as well as their former college friends – struggle to figure it all out, something happens that will turn their lives upside down.

That’s the only summary I’m prepared to give because solanin – two volumes bundled as one volume – has a very simplistic storyline that can be summarised in just one page.

Considering a huge number of autobiographical comics out there and the fact solanin actually doesn’t offer originality, I must admit I was surprised how much I liked solanin. This kind of story exists everywhere – in comics, novels, films, and songs, but in this case, it left a deep impact on me and I’m not even sure why.

I suspect it may be because creator Asano clearly has mixed feelings towards his characters. Once in a while we can sense – for example – Asano’s regret through a character’s dialogue or action, which makes us believe it had happened to Asano in real life. It might not, but that’s how intimate solanin seemed. He doesn’t make it that embarrassingly intimate, but just enough to draw you into his characters’ world of memories, reflections, vague misgivings, complicated maze of a long-term relationship, and a hope that refuses to die.

It sounds as if it’s a heavy, woe is me and serious story, but it isn’t. It’s a quiet slice-of-life tale with touches of gentle humour and stark glimpses of universal themes that affect all our lives.

Not only the storyline is simplistic and somewhat episodic, the art is also simplistic and straightforward. In spite of its simplicity, almost all characters are likeable and easy on the eye. There are some bits in panel backgrounds that will make you smile quietly. Asano also has the ability to intensify emotions within his characters and "moments", which makes the simplicity of art work in dialogue-free panels even more poignant.

When the story ended, I didn’t know what to think or say. It wasn’t even dramatic or even, "Holy cow! That was the greatest piece of comic literature ever!" It wasn’t. It was more than that. It left me a feeling I needed to be alone and quiet for a bit. And a thought that the best we can do is to move on, like what those characters may be doing after The End.

In spite of being on a am-so-hot-for-you-that-I’m-going-to-pimp-you-to-everyone-I-know kick for solanin, I did have a couple of problems with it.

First problem, the comic’s navel-gazing occasionally interfered with the story flow. I could imagine some readers may be impatient with the pacing, but the pay-off will be worth the patience as it did for me.

Second problem, considering a number of characters involved, their life issues can be too similar, which can make it a repetitive read. I would have like it a bit more diverse. Occasionally, I felt a couple of characters were neglected. Such as Gotou’s girlfriend who were part of all their lives, but we still don’t know much about her and I found that somewhat frustrating. Why was she so patient with her antic-loving boyfriend? Why was she so understanding about Meiko and Naruto’s fight? I would love to know more about her, but I suspect if Asano allowed that, we would have a three-volume book instead of a two-volume book.

After reading solanin, I read reviews to see what they had to say and almost all experienced the same reaction, which is a pleasant surprise. I think the reason why it’s a hit with many readers is, one could sense Asano’s compassion, sincerity, wry humour and occasional gentle exasperation towards his characters and that experiences and themes in solanin are truly universal.

Although it’s rated 16+, I think it’s fine for readers age +14 and above. In spite of these characters’ college ages, there is no scene of drug abuse, glamorous violence, gratuitous nudity and such. Some characters are smokers, which might be a concern for some parents. I believe sensitive teenagers would probably enjoy solanin because although, there aren’t any fast action scenes, dramatic romantic storylines, or good-looking characters, it’s almost a gentle guide of what may happen in life. It still makes a good read for adult readers, though, because it may remind some of us how it used to be.

If you’re new to comic-reading and would like to start with something simple that will leave you emotionally satisfied, or at least won’t feel you’ve wasted your time, I highly recommend solanin. Grade: B+

Be good, be bad & be safe,

Jaili

This book can be purchased at Amazon.