MMF: solanin and That Horrible Disconnected Feeling

I have no idea what to do with myself. And while I wait for my epiphany, I feel the toxins collecting in my body.

I first encountered solanin by Inio Asano in one of those itty-bitty Animerica magazines crammed on the end of the anime aisle in Best Buy. The first few pages were given as a preview, and I was intrigued by the characters, so when the manga came out October 2008 I picked it up.

solanin by Inio AsanoThe release of this book was pretty timely. Earlier that year I had graduated from college (completely against my will, I might add). I had once imagined that upon graduation I would know exactly where I was going in my life, that there would be a plan, a path, something I could easily settle into and be happy with. Then the day came, and I discovered that the little piece of paper did not include a map for my life. I was on my own. I was totally screwed.

I found myself settling for a job that I did not like, that I did not want, but it was easy, and what else was I going to do? I knew I wanted to write, but how was that going to happen? I found myself getting sad a lot as I dug my rut deeper and deeper, the sides getting so high it was becoming increasingly difficult to pull myself out.

Meiko, the main character of solanin, finds herself in this rut, too. Recently graduated from college, she works in a boring office. Though she is technically an adult, she doesn’t seem to see herself that way, always referring to others as “adults” and “grownups” as if she isn’t part of that group. When she hits the end of her rope, she decides to just quit her job, and see where life takes her from there. This turns into a lot of her doing nothing, but she starts to ask other people the questions, “Are you happy?” “Are you satisfied with your life?” and finds out that no one really is, at least not all of the time.

I read solanin in one sitting. When I was done, I sat there, trying to sort out my reaction. The manga left me with a strange mix of feelings. First there was the good: solanin was a sort of revelation for me, that I was not the only one stuck in a rut, afraid to move, feeling slowly poisoned. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t see herself as an adult, even though by all definitions I was. That horrible, disconnected, paralyzing feeling — I wasn’t alone in it.

solanin also made me feel horrible. Even though the manga made me feel relaxed knowing that other people feel this way, by the end it offers no real solution to figuring yourself out. As Meiko prepares to move out of her apartment and start a new job, a friend says to her, “Bet you won’t be able to stand it, and you’ll quit again.” Not only does she not deny it, she treats it as truth — she won’t be settled, she won’t have figured out what her happiness is.

But what upset me the most about this manga (there’s a spoiler in this paragraph, FYI) concerns Meiko’s boyfriend, Taneda. Meiko begins to push Taneda to take his band seriously again, and after being egged on he decides to go for broke — he’ll send a CD out to every record company and see if someone bites. If not, he’ll quit for good. It sounds inspiring… but in the end he fails, with the only company that responds asking them to give up their pride. After a disappearance, Taneda decides to go back to his old boring job, and back to living with Meiko. He tells himself he’s happy… until he realizes that he isn’t, and shoots on his bike past a red light into traffic. I understood Meiko’s disconnectedness, but I related the most with Taneda’s need to create his music, and his fear that if he tries to hard, he’ll only fail. I rooted him on, and when he literally crashes, well, that just made my chest tighten right up.

Isn’t it better to regret things you’ve done, than regret things you’ve never even tried?

I didn’t get any sort of epiphany from solanin. Instead it was more of an affinity — I didn’t just relate to these characters, I WAS these characters, trapped, confused, unsure of how to move forward. The best thing solanin did for me was point out that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t actually failing just because I didn’t know where my life was supposed to go from here. It also reminded me that even when your lost, you can’t just stand still: after Taneda’s death, Meiko ends her months of wallowing by picking up his guitar and deciding to join his old band. Music isn’t her dream, not like it was for Taneda, but it becomes something for her to do, to focus on. She finds a long sought-after connection, and even if it’s not necessarily moving forward, it’s still moving, which is better than sitting round letting the toxins collect. It may have filled me with an undefinable feeling (friends I lent it to didn’t fare much better, returning the book with an uncomfortable look on their faces) but I’m glad I read this manga at the time I did.

This post was written as part of the Viz Signature Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey on The Manga Critic.

MMF: Personal Reflections on A Zoo in Winter

As someone who strives to create stories, who has that as her dream, I love any tale of how a writer or artist got his start. It’s what gets me reading introductions to craft books like Bird by Bird over and over again, and convinces me to give up oh-so-valuable shelf space to tomes like A Drifting Life. Reading creators’ starts and struggles fuels me — and for that reason I loved Jiro Taniguchi’s tale of his beginnings, A Zoo in Winter.

The manga starts, of course, with the thing all creators seem to get in — a horrible, awful rut. Taniguchi (calling himself Hamaguchi in this story) isn’t working in the job he expected. Instead of designing fabrics, he packs up and delivers merchandise — a horrible boring job for someone who spends his free time drawing everything he sees.

Hamaguchi is jolted from his rut when he becomes accidentally involved in helping his boss’s daughter elope. With blame and suspicion slapped on him, he visits a friend, who introduces him to the manga artist Kondo Shiro. Hamagushi is immediately put to work on the manga, and with hardly a second to think about it becomes an assistant.

The opportunity to work towards his dream comes as a sudden chance — almost unrealistically. But all these things are chance; for myself, by chance I went to a school where by chance I had a children’s author for a teacher, who by chance also taught in an MFA program, where by chance I’ve met even more teachers, and fellow blossoming writers, who have helped me learn and grow. It may be luck, but these are also things that are too easy to let slide by. Hamaguchi could have easily let himself be overwhelmed by the sudden intense job, or feel unworthy, and simply run away — an opportunity lost, maybe to never come up again. A lot of these things happen by chance, but even if you’re lucky to have something set in front of you, you still need the sense to grab at it.

A little later we meet Hamaguchi’s older brother. Initially visiting for the purpose of seeing if his little brother’s doing all right (and to convince him to quit), it soon comes out that Hamaguchi’s brother wanted to be a painter, but gave up on it to take care of his family. As he watches the assistants work, his comments sound patronizing: “Doing what you love for work. Sounds idyllic!” Then we see that not only has he decided against talking Hamaguchi out of his career path, but as they sit with Kondo and fellow artist Kikuchi he wistfully says, “This is…freedom, isn’t it?…Living simply…in tune with your feelings. That’s happiness.” We get the sense of regret from Hamaguchi’s brother, which has now come to the forefront because his younger sibling is following the dream he abandoned before it even started. This makes me wonder, what if I hadn’t been able to start this path? What if I felt I had to give it up? Would the regret run deep inside of me, or would I be able to cover it up? Then there’s Hamaguchi’s reaction, which is never fully verbalized. His brother ditched his dream for him, but he’s pushing forward without a thought. Anything could be swimming through his head — guilt, uncertainty, anger, pity — feelings that could stop any artist in his tracks if he let himself think about them too much.

Another moment I whole-heartedly related to was the fit of jealousy from Hamaguchi when it looks like fellow assistant Fujita might get his own manga published. He’s struck with the realization that he’s been wasting his free time and allowed himself to fall behind his colleague. He gets the same kind of panic I feel when I realize a classmate of mine has been published, or that a writer younger than I am has a best-selling book. His envy makes him act a little unfairly to Fujita (he prematurely tells another assistant, even though he suspects this man won’t react well), but it also serves as his first motivation to make his own story. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t compare yourself to other writers — some write more quickly, some just have an easier time finding success. But that doesn’t mean I don’t, and whenever someone I know succeeds, no matter how sincere my compliments the little green monster that lives in my brain says, “Well, now isn’t it my turn yet?” Yet that jealousy and anxiety, when you calm down a bit, can be an amazingly goo motivator to get you off your butt.

A Zoo in Winter is truly a story of beginnings, as we don’t see how this artist eventually turns out (though his bibliography, and this MMF, speak favorably for him). But it shows all the rough points creators find for themselves — ruts, confusion, jealousy, guilt — the important things that ever writer or artist goes through prove that this is what they love, this is what they want. I know I’ve felt all these things and more — here’s hoping I can keep carrying through.


This post was written as a part of the Jiro Taniguchi Manga Moveable Feast hosted on Comics Worth Reading.

Osamu Tezuka MMF: Buddha Volume 1 – Importance of Milieu

One of the things I’ve learned about constructing a story is that you want to be sure to introduce your main character as soon as possible. And yet, in the entire 400-page first volume of Buddha by Osamu Tezuka, we only see Siddhartha, the Buddha of the story, twice, and as a small baby.

So, why does Tezuka choose to start the story this way? It would seem that he’s giving Buddha a slow start by putting the focus on other characters first, especially ones who will only die before the “real” story of Siddhartha gets underway. Tatta remains a major player, as does the Brahmin monk Naradatta. But can’t their stories be told through dialogue or flashback? By including this volume, essentially a stretched out prologue, what exactly does Tezuka accomplish?

A bit, actually. This part of the story is told through the eyes of Chapra, a slave; Tatta, a pariah; and Naradatta, a Brahmin. Chapra and Tatta are of the two lowest classes, and thus are perpetually treated unfairly, hardly viewed as human and not even allowed an attempt to better their situations. The Brahmin monk is of the highest class, who would normally also look down upon slaves and pariahs. But as he travels with Tatta he becomes humbled by the boy’s pure heart and selflessness. Combined with viewing Chapra’s determination to better the lives of himself and his mother, the Brahmin begins to understand the flaws of the caste system.

We see the beginnings of other problems in this volume. There is the war between Kosala and the Shakya kingdom, in which Kosala is perpetually trying to crush their neighbors. This creates hate between two sets of people, but also specific hatred for the character of Tatta, who becomes driven by a need for revenge against Kosala after everyone he loves is taken from him. We also meet Bandaka, a villain who will not only create problems for Siddhartha in the future, but is also the progenitor of another foe.

Buddha is a character driven tale, and it is a key part of the story to see how the infant Siddhartha grows into the Buddha history knows. But just as important as character – possibly even more important – is the milieu, the location and culture in which the story takes place. What the first volume of Buddha does is set up this world so that we understand the culture and the people. We see the issues that are caused by the way society is set up, and the world-spanning problems brought about by other characters. It is the world that Siddhartha will step into as he enacts change on his journey to become a Buddha.

It may seem unnecessary to spend so many valuable comic pages on the world before Siddhartha, but by beginning his story this way Tezuka wraps us up in the world. Had Tezuka told the story of the time before Sidhartha, of Tatta, Chapra, and Naradatta, through flashbacks, we may have understood the gist of what he wanted to get across. But then we would not have really experienced these scenes, and we would not feel so deeply tied into the heart of the story. By spending so much time on his world, on the milieu, Tezuka immerses us in the story of Buddha in a way that carries us through all 8 volumes.

This post was written as a part of February’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Kate Dacey on The Manga Critic.

Manga Moveable Feast: Barefoot Gen Vol. 1 – I Wasn’t Ready

Barefoot Gen Volume 1

Planning on leaving the house in a bit? Got a few free minutes, think you’ll sit down for a quick read of Barefoot Gen? Don’t do it, it’s a terrible idea.

I’m not saying don’t read this autobiographical comic of a boy living through the Hiroshima bombing. It is a master work. But make sure you’re hunkered down for the night, or plan on being a shut in for the day. Because by the time you reach the end of the first volume, you might not be fit to face humanity.

Keiji Nakazawa lived through the bombing on Hiroshima at the end of WWII.  He hated the war, the Americans for dropping the bombs that killed his family, and the Japanese who started the war in the first place. So he created a comic about a boy named Gen who had to deal with everything Nakazawa and others he knew suffered.

The bomb isn’t dropped until the end of the volume, but I knew what I was reading, I knew what was coming. To put it in gentler terms than what I actually felt, waiting for the bombing to happen was like waiting for a shot: I know it’s coming, I know it’s going to hurt, just do it already!

And then he did it. And I wasn’t ready.

I was expecting the dead people. I knew from the introduction that there would be melted skin. This manga is based off Keiji Nakazawa’s life, so I knew members of his family would die. But I didn’t know about the girl with shards of glass stuck in her eyes. I didn’t realize the melted people would be wandering around like zombies, eyeless. And even though I knew it was coming, I wasn’t ready for his family’s deaths, trapped beneath a beam, his brother yelling “I hate you, Gen! I hate you!” when he has to run away, and then all of them lighting on fire.

I lost it.

I was fine through the beatings, the stealing and starvation. It was sad, but I could handle it. But this. Oh, this. If this was fully fiction, I could let this roll off. But it’s true. All of this is true.

I  get sensitive when I read. I tear up.  But I read the end of this book and I cried. I couldn’t see the page sometimes. As soon as I thought I was fine, I’d flip the page, and the next terrible thing would happen. And then you think it’s good: his mother has the baby, she’s well and alive, and Gen holds her up to show his family… only they’re not there. “Y-you’ll never know her!” Gen sobs, and I was gone again.

And then I had to get ready to go to work.

Barefoot Gen is good, it’s powerful, and it is brutal. I suggest reading it (or at least trying to). Just bring a box of tissues, and make sure you have time to clean up your puffy, tear-streaked face.

This post was written as part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Sam Kusek at A Life in Panels. Go to his website to see the full archive of Barefoot Gen MMF posts.