Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (1/3)

     A week ago this blog celebrated its one year birthday. Well, celebrated might not be the best word since I think it’s a pretty arbitrary amount of time, but anyway I’m generally very pleased that this project keeps going. To be frank I didn’t expect to manage not to stop some time soon in the beginning, but finding people who read your stuff and, more importantly, people who themselves write some interesting things has been an amazing experience. Thank you everyone for encouraging me to continue, I hope this won’t be the last time I can write something like this. What is better in this case than some musings over my favorite mangaka among other things?

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     The post ended up being a lot longer than I thought so this is the first part (concerning realism in Asano’s manga), the second (about the darkness in the Asano’s world) is here, and third (finally about Nijigahara Holograph) is here.

     To start from pretty far, let’s talk for a bit about Haruki Murakami. Yes, he’s not some obscure animator or mangaka, he’s the guy who almost won Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m not particularly well-versed in his works, but they have definitely left an impression on me. As far as I know, there always has been an easily observable theme uniting many of Murakami’s stories. That is, his protagonists most of times may just be the same person, experiencing different lives in parallel universes, but ultimately his character remains more or less constant.  Murakami’s protagonist is usually going with the flow, being not especially happy about his place in the world, but in the end being rather content, or just not courageous enough to make effort and change. Reading the surreal stories (A Wild Sheep Chase for example – you can’t get more mystical than that) brings a melancholic feeling, not unrelated to the intellectual side of the protagonist and particularly his interest in music. There also appears some secret wish to experience a different world, to escape from the ordinary life, to be able to do something different and avoid being just a quite unsuccessful and lonely dude with some regrets, a person whose absence wouldn’t be mourned. Precisely this feeling and the ability to create stories to be as realistic as possible is the connection that arises between Murakami and the person I really want to talk about.

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     If you have ventured at least a little into the world of manga, the chance is pretty high that you have heard of Inio Asano. His best known work Oyasumi Punpun (or Goodnight Punpun as it’s named by the current release by Viz) stands in a very high 5th place on MAL – not that it’s a very meaningful fact, but still. Asano definitely has much to say and his stories inevitably invite discussions, though not every comment about them may be a positive one. Still, I deem Asano to be one of the top creators in the seinen demographic range, being an expert in not shying away from topics and ideas that are usually marginalized or completely omitted from many mainstream manga. Yet, despite all the weird or sometimes even creepy elements Asano’s works are very deeply rooted in the reality and suspension of disbelief that is needed in any, say, “stuck in an RPG world” kind of anime here isn’t as needed. To think about it, pretty much every manga Asano has written could (in theory) be fairly easy adapted into a live action movie (Solanin already has been). Also, as the mangaka himself said, he’s trying to create stories that are not solely based on experiences of a single character, but rather an ensemble of several, and that makes sense – everyone is the main character of his own life and can be perceived as a temporary co-protagonist of some huge story going on. Another virtue is that Asano consciously doesn’t try to fit into a single genre – life doesn’t attempt that either. In the real life about anything could happen at any moment, from comedy to horror and beyond.

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     All these things sound good in theory but it would arguably have far less impact on the reader if everything had been only made up. There are some interviews on the Internet where you can get to know Asano better than just an empty name on the title page. It’s fascinating to get some glimpses of his own life and mindset in order to get a better understanding of his manga. The fact is that Asano (as probably any other creator) pulls inspirations from his own experiences, and that makes his manga feel more genuine, if not more personal. Take for example such little and pretty unconventional detail like a character (a boy, just for the record) having a complex because his chest is a little caved in and because of that he shies from the pool activities at school. It feels a little weird, but you can’t deny a specific flavor that grounded real life experiences like this one brings to a fictional story. Murakami-ish feeling of nihilism and existentialism that’s so inherent to Asano’s stories to some extent may be traced from the mangaka’s perspective on life. Asano clearly isn’t the most untroubled person in the world, and not only because of the difficult dilemma how to find balance between drawing what he really wants and what actually sells. Sometimes drawing manga for him is a way to experience some kind of an auto-psychological help. It’s probably impossible to tell which experiences and story elements had been real and what is only thought up, but the base is clearly heart-felt and it shows.

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     Another case of Asano’s life seeping in his works might be well illustrated by Solanin – a manga about young adults who try to counter their bland lives by playing in a band. Asano himself isn’t any stranger to music, during his time at a university having played in a band. Sometimes he still returns to music for his own personal indulgence. In Solanin you can feel a mindset of a person who wants to continue doing what he enjoys, but also understanding that to be able to earn a living from that is not that realistic since you have to be particularly talented and lucky to be able to climb up in the entertainment business. Not everyone is meant to become a professional musician and this notion stands heavy above everyone. At this point I can do nothing but introduce some thoughts about Asian Kung-Fu Generation, a band (that I adore very much) that probably reminds the majority of people only of Naruto openings. Yet, it’s not unrelated to Asano. I’ve mentioned that Solanin has been adapted to a live action film and the ending song (lyrics by Asano himself) that is the climax of the story was created by AKG, whose garage-rock existence began just as any other music club experiment. AKG is the dream that Asano’s characters want to achieve and because of that AKG’s music for me feels very compatible with Asano’s stories. It’ s nothing strange after all, as both the mangaka and the band are the faces of the same generation with pretty much the same worries, same influences and same worldview.

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     Visually anything Asano draws is an eye candy. The character designs might not be realistic per se, but they are definitely beautiful, and when you’re immersed in the story, the difference from the real faces is negligible. Every emotion is conveyed well so you can do nothing but admire every single page. The backgrounds also deserve a mention. According to the artist himself, “if you googled “Inio Asano” back when my first volume came out, you’d only get six results, and one of them described me as being “just awful at backgrounds”, which I really hated, so I started trying all sorts of different methods”. That included tracing the backgrounds from photos. That’s a lot of work, to the point of becoming a pain in the ass, but the results are just incredible. There are opinions that such extremely detailed backgrounds may distract from the real action or undermine the emotional value of some key panels, but I believe it just deserves lots of respect, making every panel a true work of art.

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     It can be argued that every manga has these features – the author getting inspirations from his own life and trying to adapt his art to the stories he wants to tell. Yet in Asano’s case I think these features are pushed far beyond average – sometimes it looks like you are reading a diary of a person who chose to be represented by his characters. That feels exceptionally real, and the photorealistic artstyle enhances it many times. Still, as realistic as it is, Asano’s world doesn’t offer a rosy-colored life to the point of becoming a truly dark place. And more about that in the second part. The third part covers Nijigahara Holograph.

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  1. Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (2/3) | Aldael's Attic
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