After graduating from college, Meiko went straight to work as an office lady, but she can't help feeling there should be something more to life. Determined to find a worthier goal, she quits work, but can she actually make her nebulous dreams come true- and how will her sudden decision affect her relationship with her boyfriend Taneda?
Solanin was nominated for the 2009 Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material Japan. The series also received a live-action adaptation directed by Takahiro Miki which was released on April 3rd, 2010.
The manga was published in English by VIZ Media under the VIZ Signature imprint in an omnibus on October 21, 2008; in Brazilian Portuguese by L&PM Pocket from November 2011 to December 2011; and in Polish by Hanami since October 2009 to February 2010.
Asano Inio's Solanin captures people in a pivotal moment in their lives. The early twenties. That awful precipitous moment of our lives when we are suddenly hit by pangs of self-doubt and uncertainty about our future, our path in life, all the more pangy because we've already been forced to study subjects we may or may not give a shit about and passed college and university and have been pushed into the wide world so there's no going back.
But there is going sideways. Speaking of sideways, Asano's stories feature elements that are so out of left-field it prevents his manga from falling
into cliché, which is so easy to do because of the subject matter. The early twenties. That awfully awkward moment of our lives when we start consuming counter-culture entertainment like The Matrix and Fight Club endlessly reciting every bit of dialogue, reading Haruki Murakami, writing embarrasing poetry, dabbling in hobbies that could reap lots of fame and riches if we were to seriously pursue them but we don’t because it’s just a hobby that we're mediocre at. You couldn’t possibly make it to the big-time...right?
The character of Meiko is an office lady in this manga and she's at this stage of her life where she's sick of routine so she takes a leap into unknown waters and quits her job. An act that is more courageous in Japan than it is elsewhere, being that the country has such a rigid social order about it. Her losing her job puts pressure and a burden on her part-timer boyfriend who's dabbling in music with two college buddies. Could he pursue his hobby and make it big thus saving the both of them from impending poverty?
Her act of quitting sets in motion a collage of choices and events that propels the two through unknown waters, and although it’s scary it’s still life-affirming as in this century it takes courage to confront your own identity and purpose in life and ask yourself outright: am I happy? Can I change my life?
Asano's stories would drip with cliché and hackneyed nonsense in another author's hands; they are so ripe for rolling your eyes at. But Solanin is fresh, adult, funny, compelling and emotional. It manages to roll up those moments of our early twenties into two volumes of heart-felt drama presented in what is now a typically Asano fashion.
The humour is random and inspired, the dialogue is witty and honest, the story is realistic in scope and execution, the art is fantastic and full of memorable imagery that, again, avoids the easy and lazy route other authors would walk.
Asano's route is straight to your heart and his purpose is to make it sing Solanin. Read the manga with Shugo Tokumaru’s ‘Exit’ album playing and sing out loud.
Stretched across the spectrum of time and addressed repeatedly within timeless works comes a subject matter that is ladled with dissonance and admiration by all those who touch it.
And why shouldn’t it?
The topic is us, as us: us as our everyday selves beneath the apathetic masks that we adorn; us as our forgotten selves tethering above the riddles of societal norms; us as our unfulfilled selves stuck between a monochromatic world we can’t color and the world we want to stain with the hues we keep locked in our hearts.
We as a collective society are frequently hindered by the very ‘norms’ we instill—an absurdity
in the truest sense--which Asano Inio has thoroughly understood and depicted within the pages of his work, Solanin.
Based on the synopsis, Solanin may come off as some heavily-dosed slice-of-life revolving around a seemingly-menopausal woman having mood-swings about her boring job and her dazed boyfriend with no sense of direction in his ambition. It may just seem to be about a bunch of twenty-some year olds who are stuck in life’s meaningless rut, and it wouldn’t be wrong. Yes- It is about all those things, but what makes Solanin an erudite exploration of “us” among the plethora of similarly-minded tales in its realm is the amount of sheer humanity, the amount of sheer relatability, the amount of sheer honesty that Asano assigns to each and every frame of the manga.
Solanin collects the fragments of all of its thematic shards and pieces them together through the cast of Asano’s prototypical, flawed characters defined by their ordinariness, classical dissonance, and their inability to reconcile who they are with what they want as per their own projections and expectations. Through and through we are handed the perpetual paradox that confines these characters and unleashes their catharsis; and the root of all this is nothing grandeur, nothing fantastical, but something much more grounded in reality, that perhaps anyone who reads can instantly relate to or at least, understand--especially those who have felt the stale winds of life’s mundanity or meaninglessness.
Essentially, this is a tale of understanding: understanding one’s self in their own periphery and understanding one’s self on the grand stage. It’s a choice of will and intention, not just circumstance and consequence. Asano shows us the common struggles of common people and the potential of facing them. Through Meiko, the very ordinary “heroine” of the story, Asano highlights actions rooted in spontaneity and the possibility of changing, even past an age when personalities and “futures” are so often stated to be engraved on some meta-stone. There is nothing grand about Meiko; she is as common as the office-ladies she complains about, and so are her struggles. Yet we are introduced to something grand by wandering with Meiko and her troupe through a pivotal time in their lives and the path they embark on to find happiness and satisfaction, which may or may not manifest, but the point is that they—on their own accord—try, and there’s an inherent value or ‘happiness’ in just that.
Where Solanin perhaps deviates from Asano’s other works is its defining moments of balanced optimism that doesn’t override the hard-cut realism that Asano is known for, but complements it in a way that depicts life with its good and bad. This results in Solanin being lighter in substance and tone but equally as potent. It can be argued (and I will assert) that Asano’s works demonstrate an amiable admiration for humanity and its potential and are often backed up with snippets of optimism and/or idealism (not the kind found in fairy tales). They aren’t just clouded by straight-laced realism with a clear-cut cynical prognosis. We are often exposed to a cold reality steeped in tragedy, pain, absurdity, and suffering but not without cause and definitely not without the ‘potential’ to change and grow from it. This change doesn’t have to be revolutionary and it doesn’t have to invert one’s life, but the possibility of it existing and gaining from it, is what matters. Solanin is no exception and follows suit to penetrate the real world, not a cynical or pessimistic world—just the real world and the individuals within that world trying to find themselves.
The sense of self, search for individuality, and personifying this innate disillusionment are all extremely important themes for Solanin and can also be largely found in Japanese literature and culture (but Asano’s style can be considered unequivocally universal). Japanese writers often prefer actualizing emotional conveyance through simple, yet resonating imagery over perceptive or didactic-ridden forms, plots, and ideologies. Formless and endless: numerous renowned Japanese literature/works aim to preserve the natural flow of life without any real beginning or real end, unfazed by standards of plot-driven or philosophically-rich or structurally-sound qualities of ‘good literature’. Now, where Asano sets himself apart, is his uncanny ability to intertwine both in a manner that gracefully bridges the two poles by eternalizing the ebb-and flow of life in all of its unglamorous candor while providing powerful insight on the human condition as-is.
Solanin is simply an extension of that congruity. The sentiments, the reality and its by-products, the world, and the artist are all mirrored within the ink-laced pages with an unmatched finesse.
And then there’s the art.
What really stands out about Solanin’s (and most of Asano’s works) art are his characters, both in design and action. Graced with the plainest of faces and the most humblest of attires, the cast is physically reflective of their situation and mindset. Physical gratuities or aesthetically-pleasing faces and/or anatomies will not be found here.
Yet, there is something absolutely stunning about how the art comes together. Perhaps it’s the way the backgrounds are erected with a life-like quality and always providing a subtle but in-tune accompaniment to the forefront dialogue and/or mood. Or perhaps it’s the overarching integral quality that the art plays with the words that makes the two inseparable. Really, when it comes to Solanin, there is no way to talk about the art detached from as a sum of its parts for everything works as one- as a bigger ‘machination’ to tell a story worth telling (and feeling).
Asano Inio is an artist by virtue, not by trade. His works are a resonation of all that surrounds him, all that he surrounds, and as a product, works like Solanin are incepted. An artist whose thoughts are as tangible as the reality that imbues them. An artist whose art is inconceivably clear in what it wants and undisputedly awe-inspiring in what it achieves. An artist unbound by escapist fantasies or uninspired optimism. An artist of “us” and you can easily trace “us” in the pages of Solanin.
Stories you can relate to on a personal level are some of the most powerful ones you’ll encounter, but sometimes, they can be a bit hard to swallow if they hit too close to home.
STORY - Solanin is about the quarter-life crisis: your quarter-life crisis, my quarter-life crisis. After graduating college, Meiko finds herself working as an “office lady.” The hours and pay are decent, but she doesn’t feel any connection towards what she does, her coworkers, or her boss. So she quits. How many other graduates find themselves wanting to do the same not long after starting their first job? We leave high school
with the goal of finding something we want to do for the rest of our lives. We spend years in college or university trying to pinpoint what that is and to collect the necessary skills to pursue such a path. We graduate and find that the real world isn’t that easy. The time and money you spent on that degree may not help you get the job you want at all. All your work could have been irrelevant or the job you thought you wanted might not be what you expected after all.
Meiko flounders around her first couple of weeks without a job. She finds her freedom to be just as boring as her job had been. Direction is hard to find. “The rest of your life” is a scary thing to consider, but this story paces through a few months of that long journey. Solanin echos the twentysomething’s fears and worries very well, but is ambiguous in the answers it offers, if you choose to consider them answers at all. They are half-solutions, partially formed, and depend wildly on the person executing them. Solanin’s narrative feels very personal though, and despite that it’s very much a slice of life in that this is only a snapshot, the story feels complete. Growing up doesn’t happen between two predefined points. Meiko spends the story growing up, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t start long before the first chapter, and that doesn’t mean she’s grown up by the end. But she’s learned something.
The quarter-life crisis is a problem of self-identification, self-worth, and self-motivation. Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to do? Why should we do anything at all? What is happiness? It is a coming of age problem that stretches on beyond the teenage years. So Solanin is about growing up, long after the ages at which we thought we’d already grown up. It is about life. It is about “saying goodbye to your past self.” We spend our whole lives growing up, always trying to figure out where exactly our childhood ended and when our adulthoods began.
CHARACTER - All of the characters in Solanin feel very real. Meiko could be anyone, absolutely anyone. The things she feels towards her job, the things she thinks and feels, her fears and doubts and hopes and pipedreams — I don’t know a single person her age that doesn’t think and feel at least half of the same things. This universality doesn’t detract from her identity though; Meiko is a person sorting out life in her own way. The decisions she makes are based on her own whims, and her failures and triumphs are hers to decide which are which. They could be anyone’s, but they are hers. The rest of the cast works in very much the same way. I feel like I could personally know Taneda, Kato, Jiro, Ai, or any of the others; they are all thoroughly convincing people and Solanin could have very easily been centered around any of them. The story details would differ then, but there would be very few thematic differences, if any. It’s fascinating that supporting characters could feel so in-depth and real despite only two volumes to develop in.
ART - Inio Asano has an oddly whimsical style. His girls in particular appear very childlike, which made it harder for me to see them as twentysomethings — kind of awkward for some scenes. Most of them were also very similar in design and body type, making them less visually interesting. His men were also rather young looking, but facial hair helped set a more convincing age range and widely varying body types made them seem more like real people. Regardless of stylistic drawbacks though, Asano’s artwork is very solid and all of his characters are wonderfully expressive; there’s a good balance between silly caricatures and serious faces as well. Many of the backgrounds felt like stock to me because the straight-up realism and details clashed a bit with the character art, but as the characters often interacted with their surroundings, it would have been impossible for all the backgrounds to be stock. Either way, all of the backgrounds fit in seamlessly and help emphasize that this is the real world — that these are real people facing their real problems in their own real ways.
OVERALL - Assuming I actually manage to scrape together all my credits and do it on time, I’ll be graduating college next spring. It’s easy to see why I could connect so well with the characters and story in Solanin. It’s every twentysomething’s story, even those that think they know what they’re doing (which, for the record, does not include me). My friends and I manage to talk about the future all the time without actually talking about the future, so it’s hilarious ironic that it takes a story like this to drive things in deeper for me. It isn’t like I hadn’t realized all of those questions and doubts before, but having them presented to me so clearly is like discovering them all over again. And it’s unnerving. And terrifying. And depressing. And something I’ll have to deal with again and again until I figure something out for myself. As I said, Solanin doesn’t really offer any answers, but there’s some kind of reassurance in that too.
"What now?" is the dilemma some fresh graduates experience. On the surface, the issue seems extremely trivial and somewhat privileged. The graduates who experience this must have the luxury to hesitate and question the world around them instead of just plunging headfirst into the cool and foreboding waters of society to make ends meet and survive. Which, I acknowledge, is fair criticism. However, that does not invalidate the legitimacy and emotions felt by those graduates. There is actual meat to what they contemplate over. It is a question of meaning. And it's a personal question. Feeling trapped in a dead end situation because the path
you chose wasn't the one you were passionate about; it was the practical decision. How does one deal with that feeling? That's what Solanin is all about.
Enter the main character, Meiko. She's the girl who's looking for an answer. She's not happy with her job, her coworkers suck, and her boss hits on her in his spare time. The story starts in the critical moment when Meiko realizes that she needs to get out of her ditch, which she does. The problem is that living in a big city like Tokyo doesn't come cheap and this puts pressure on her boyfriend, Taneda, who hasn't really gotten into the habit of integrating himself with society yet.
That's because Taneda also suffers the same blues Meiko has except there's a sense that he's been ignoring it. He lives in a nebulous state where he's only working part-time and still jams with his college band. He's got one foot in the "real world" and another one in the past, reluctant of letting the easier times go. He has a hint of passion for music but isn't all too sure about himself, which is why things go topsy-turvy once Meiko breaks it to him that she quit her job. Now, it's a question of whether he goes for a stable job or risks it all on music.
It's a search for some faint trace of fulfillment in the face of such an unflinching world. Yet, this alone does not make Solanin good. That's just the set up; the heart of the story lies in the way it ticks. How the characters interact and speak with each other feel natural and real. There are enough quirks to differentiate when someone is talking to a friend or someone they're not too close to. There are moments when the dialogue is a bit too contemplative for casual talk, but it never comes off as out of place or pretentious. All their actions and conversations organically flow with their personalities.
The typical Asano visual flare is also there to spark enough absurdity and kookiness to give the manga some levity to balance out the overpowering rawness of the emotional scenes. In those scenes, the emotions rush and pulse feverishly without restraint as if to burst out in an explosion of anxiety, melancholy, and frustration. But then, the manga also knows how to step back to let you breathe and allow the heavier moments to sink in.
All of these factors give real depth and power to the endeavors and experiences of Meiko and Taneda. It allows the audience to relate, or at least empathize, with the struggles and heartaches in this manga. Whether or not Meiko and Taneda find an answer--whether or not any of us find an answer--we can find solace in the fact that these emotions and struggles are not artificially strung. They're real. The pain, the hardships, the loses, they all stand as evidence that we feel and our feelings are real. If anything, this manga gives us something genuine to anchor ourselves on.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a college student, a fresh grad, or a high school student, as long as you’re looking for meaning, give this manga a read. It doesn’t have the answer you’re looking for, but it’s going to be with you until you find it.