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

     This is the final part of the write-up and it concerns primarily Nijigahara Holograph. The first part about realism in Inio Asano’s works is here and the second about Asano’s dark world might be found here.

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     After all these thoughts Nijigahara Holograph, a manga of only one volume, seems as Asano-ish as possible, but also having its own charm. The manga doesn’t have as much optimism as Solanin, and in that respect it’s more like a similar iteration of Oyasumi Punpun’s world. The limited length doesn’t allow to delve deep into the characters’ inner worlds, but it isn’t that needed since Asano manages to get the message across by using old as ages method of “show, don’t tell”. For example, bruises on an arm of a child in just one panel reflect the relationship with his parents, and as in that case it’s the parents that are the center of that sub-story, the conclusions about them can be made very quickly without any elaboration that needs lots of words. It’s probably for the best since then the readers can come to their own conclusions without being swayed by the subjective thought trains of the characters themselves.

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     The reader must be prepared to think also because Nijigahara Holograph is somewhat further from other Asano stories since it contains some unnatural phenomenon – time loops, to some extent repeating events and the mystic atmosphere to create an unsettling mood. Characters live their lives as all normal people do, but you feel that everything is a bit more complicated. As everyday routine in all Asano’s stories is portrayed to be suffocating, Nijigahara Holograph goes further – many entangled lives are meshed into an endless repeating cycle of suffering. Some characters are slightly aware of it, and it’s only more painful. The mysticism is also expressed  visually, as many panels are invaded by butterflies that look like something straight from Junji Ito’s works – being something unknown, incomprehensible, awe-inspiring.

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     Broken characters are inevitably here. What made them that way? Well, just one wrong decision, one wrong step can lead to haunting memories for a long time. It may be thought of as karma at its cruelest – if one gives in to his desires, there will always be a dark shadow hanging over. Even the most normal looking person inside may prove to be not that harmless as there’s a monster in every character of the manga, only some are hidden better than others, but one way or another in the end they come out. It all comes out as an idea that you can’t escape your past – it follows you whenever you go, influencing your future decisions. Another neat idea Asano uses here as well as in Subarashii Sekai is that there are countless unexpected connections between the characters. Take for example a girl working in a cafe owned by the brother of her former classmate. Then one day the cafe is visited by the girl’s former teacher, who also has connections with the owner. The characters themselves might not be fully aware of their intertwining fates, but the connections exist, and in this way past events may have even bigger influence over the future. Also it’s interesting that some events may repeat themselves – not exactly, but enough to be recognized because of some specific prop, character circumstances and so on.

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     I know that everything I said is very vague, but just have faith that if you want to experience Asano’s stories but don’t have much time, Nijigahara Holograph may as well be a good start. This manga encompasses many of recurring themes and ideas, also having its own identity and overall working as a good example of what Asano is capable of. It’s rather easy to just skim through the pages getting only a sensation of something half-baked and weird, but I think on a closer inspection there’s lots of interesting stuff to ponder about.

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     I wish there was even wider knowledge and appreciation of Asano’s works. of course there was that Solanin live action film, but probably it would be naïve to expect an anime adaptation of pretty much anything Asano has written. Well, to think positively, there is a precedent of Aku no Hana getting an anime, and that’s encouraging, since Shuzo Oshimi is another mangaka whose exceptionally beautiful art is able to accompany mature and complicated stories. There is also one interesting connection between Haruki Murakami and anime – Yoshitoshi ABe was heavily influenced by Murakami’s imagery in his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World when creating the world of Haibane Renmei. The Wall, the Clock Tower, the Library and other things appear in both works and evoke similar feelings, even if the circumstances are completely different. These facts are not much, but stories that invite thinking and reassessing your relationship with the world are slowly getting more appreciation and acceptance through different mediums. Well, you don’t even need to go far, last season’s Kuzu no Honkai provided some interesting food for thought. And what’s more interesting, there exists one photo of Kengo Hanazawa, the author of I am a Hero and a good friend of Asano in Asano’s office. And guess what manga lies on a table behind? No wonder since thematically Umibe no Onnanoko and Kuzu no Honkai have many common points.

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     So yeah, I guess you have grasped a bit of what kind of person Inio Asano is and what his stories are like. At this point it’s useful to remember Haruki Murakami for a second. Both of the creators wander along existential themes and their characters to some extent are very similar. Why does that appeal so much to me?  I guess because I (as probably everyone) have come to question my place in the world, what am I really supposed to do with my life and whether am I not wasting it and if yes then if it’s really wrong; is it ok to dream knowing that you can’t achieve something you wish for? If not, when is the right time to stop? Should I be content with everything I have or should I try more? And then what would be the point of achieving anything? The answers the readers find may be completely different, but that’s beside the point.

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     It’s interesting and a bit disheartening that Asano’s manga is, as he himself put, a blend of things that have meaning and things that have absolutely none. It’s like a gamble trying to guess what the author intended and what he didn’t. Either way even if intended to be meaningless (for Asano), some symbols still can be interpreted. Also, some at the first sight meaningless things might have some symbolism, but knowing Asano, sometimes you just have no chance to guess the right answer. Some ideas are deeply integrated into the narrative, others are there just because Asano wanted to do that for apparently no reason. It’s a bit of a mess, but I’d call it  one of Asano’s strengths – you can achieve many different interpretations, and some of them can be completely opposite to what the author intended, but they nonetheless can be seen as valid in their own right. There are many possible meanings, and you can chose what you like.  An author who makes his audience think about the meaning of the art is automatically a very good one. Every piece of art that encourages you to question anything is a step towards being a wiser person, being able to avoid some of the mistakes of the unlucky characters, and Asano can certainly provide that.

     Have you read any of Asano’s works? What do you think of them?

Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (2/3)

     The first part where I talk about the realism in Inio Asano’s works and from where does it originate may be found here. Now it’s time to think about how Asano transforms the world to suit his stories and finally to bring some thoughts about Nijigahara Holograph in the third part.

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     It’s not hard to agree that generally manga industry tries to promote positive, inspiring and uplifting stories (pretty much typical shounen stuff), so inevitably there appears a niche for some deeper studies of darker characters that may come close to being antiheroes. Though the world in Asano’s manga is shining with realism, it also is created to be very dark, a place where no one would rather live. For example school life in Asano’s works definitely isn’t the pinnacle of human existence as many anime seem to propose. Children are often left to their own devices as adults have their own problems and that ensures survival of the fittest with bullying at its best. Asano portrays school experience as a journey to a wider and always expanding world, but it has little parental guidance or visible influence by the teachers – kids try things on their own, discover ways to deal with various problems on their own, and just try to survive an environment that’s certainly not the most sympathetic.

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     It’s not only school – anytime and anywhere tragedies sometimes just happen, sometimes you invite them yourself, but nobody is safe. There’s no such thing like “oh no, my friend was eaten by zombies, but after two chapters I’m absolutely alright like nothing happened”. Unpleasant things ensure that the characters are affected to the core as it provides means to dig deeper into human nature. Characters may not show how their experiences influence their decisions, but at critical moments you see that even the most secretive emotion may find a way through all the barriers. Widely appreciated Oyasumi Punpun begins like a somehow weird but ultimately harmless tale of a little boy trying to find a place under the sun and his journey through years, but the influence of the unfriendly world increases as the time goes on and by the end you end up being almost terrified what became of that sweet little kid, and the saddest part is that many of his not the best decisions weren’t his fault. Also, the viewer is left to ponder whether at the start Punpun’s life was any different from that of a random statistically averaged person and if truly everything that occurred could happen to anyone – is it true that either you’re just lucky or you aren’t? The effect is enhanced by the fact that Punpun himself is made to look like a bird-like doodle – naturally his emotions are visualized in a limited way so the reader may imagine himself in Punpun’s boots a lot easier. Punpun isn’t a character meant to be clear cut and having a rigidly defined personality – you may construct your own Punpun from a doodle to an actual person like any other.

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     Punpun starts as a fairly normal person, but as the characters are just the products of their own universe, probably there was no right way for him from the start.  Asano’s rather pessimistic world just isn’t forgiving for any little mistake that may come to haunt you later, seemingly harmless choices may lead to sad outcomes. Then it’s no wonder that pretty much all of Asano’s characters are broken people in one way or another. Each of them comes into the society naïve and hopeful but then the life just bashes their hopes, dreams and entire worldviews and in return thrusts a question “What will you do now?” The answer obviously is “I don’t know” and at this point characters begin to differ by trying to answer the question properly to the best of their abilities.

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     As Asano’s world is unrelenting, it’s filled with various individuals some of whom may appear to have gone absolutely nuts. To some extent that’s again a confirmation how hard is to live there. Some characters use this kind of behavior only as a way of dealing with their problems but everyone has his own internal logic and what’s perfectly fine with them. On the surface that may seem abnormal but that’s how Asano’s characters are. To think metatextually, some of these weird moments provide a little bit of comedy relief that brings a tiny ray of humor in seeing how ridiculous the world actually is apart from all the gloomy stuff. The humor often comes from totally unexpected and at the first glance illogical actions of the characters, almost on the same level as in Nichijou. Anyway, ultimately Asano’s existential questions lead to the conclusion that virtually no one knows exactly how to live. Everything just happens and in a blink of an eye you can end up in a horrible mess that no one warned you about. The harsh environment has broken many, shattering dreams and wishes, but as lonely creatures as they are, Asano’s characters strive to form connections and somehow live on.

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     Even a person without goals or aspirations still needs to live somehow. An idea being explored in practically all of Asano’s work is the necessity to choose your future. Probably the two most important decisions in human life are the choice of a partner and a choice of profession, and Asano’s characters struggle with both of them as there is no right way do one or another and everyone just has to find his own path which usually isn’t that filled with joy. It’s practically impossible to find a perfect partner, especially since at first we are prone to overestimate the good points of a person we want to like. Entangled in imperfect relationships, Asano’s characters sometimes try to go their separate ways only to begin a new cycle of imperfectness. Sometimes they try to work things out and stick together even if there seems to be no logic behind it. Speaking about relationships, Asano doesn’t shy from sexuality. He tries to portray it as a very casual thing, just like eating lunch or something similar and that makes his works exceptional among many stuff nowadays where there’s tons of teasing and fanservice, but everything ends with only that. Well, I myself am not a person who particularly looks for such scenes in manga and anime, but the idea of treating it as a normal thing once again brings the realism, or rather a world without thinking about sexuality as a stigma. A perfect example of that is another Asano manga – in Umibe no Onnanoko characters (that are just in the beginning of their independent lives) experiment, err, try again, and just continue living on as best they can.

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     The other big question isn’t any easier. No one during their school years wants to become an average person, that is to work long hours of a salary man or, even worse, to be able only to achieve a position of a part time shop assistant. Continuing education in a college in this regard is a no better solution since a person at that point usually still doesn’t have a slightest idea what he wants to do with his life. Or rather, what he could do with his life because as children the characters have many huge dreams but virtually all of them are shattered sooner or later. Despite of that, usually there are opportunities to break out of all these cycles of misfortune. Not every character is able to make the right step, but among all the unhappiness there are moments of joy and salvation, moments when someone just finds the right answer to one of the multitude of questions that the life continues to ask.

     Please continue reading the final part about Nijigahara Holograph here. The first part examining Asano’s realism may be found here.

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.