The city of light is a town above a hill, called that because it's surrounded by the sun, but it hides an obscure side. There, lives Tasuku, a young kid who works as a 'messenger' for a mysterious group who organizes suicides on the phone. At the same time other youngsters like him are trying to survive the everyday's life: Satoshi changes one occasional job after another, Momoko is the daughter of a prostitute who abandoned her. Finally there's Hoichi who is always involved in dirty business, among which is the suicidal group, but at least he has a dream: earning enough money to buy the whole place and turning it back into the country village he was born in.
Hikari no Machi/City of Light (2004–2005) is Asano Inio's third release and my second reading by this author (first one: Solanin, his next work). This manga certainly deserves a score stats of 8.0, 8.5 or as scored in my personal mangalist, 9.0. Why?
Have you ever played Jenga? It's simple: during the game, players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses.
Well, I can easily say City of Light is a Jenga Tower. One of the characters, Inspector Mizutani, even mentions that the buildings remind him of
this toy. But not only physically, City of Light is a Jenga game happening right in from of your eyes. Jenga is derived from a Swahili word meaning "to build" and that's what you see the characters doing. They're building their lifes, doing what they can to survive in this world, removing the blocks and building a new structure to try reaching something above themselves... But if you keep removing the blocks from the bottom, this unstable new structure will eventually fall.
City of Light consists in 9 chapters, bringing many different stories. Some are regular slice of life, like a mangaka and his wife, two girls talking about random yet deep subjects and on. Others have more intense and heavy subjects, such as suicide, kidnap or murder and these are the most interesting ones, Tasuku and Hoichi's chapters. Still, all of the 9 chapters are necessary to create the City of Light environment in your head and all of them are connected to each other somehow. It's incredible how slowly you get into this city, knowing about the stories based on the character's opinion, you will easily hate this character in the first 1-4 chapters and then, love the same one on the last 5-9. There is no manichaeism describing the characters, "he is the evil one and she is the good one", all of them have done good things and bad things, all of them are humans, there's no villian, they're just victims of life, quoting Kurt Cobain: "Nobody dies a virgin... Life f*cks us all".
Carrying a realistic storytelling as well a realistic art style, City of Light tells us about the dark side of the humans, how far they can go to achieve something or how far they go just because they're bored. Shows how connected people are, how weak or strong bonds can be and how one's attitude changes the entire scenario.
You should give a try to City of Light if you are looking for a manga with a melancholic atmosphere and deep subjects. City of Light brings this bittersweet feeling, life is happening. "People staying, people going". The same Sun lights us all while we remove blocks from our own Jenga towers, balancing in insecure choices and building a unknown and unstable future.
It's a manga that has to be read and enjoyed slowly. There's something to ponder in every page, from the expressions on the characters' faces, to sentences that are in no way devoid of sense or used as a simple placeholder.
Bearing in mind all the questions that this manga raises in regards to the morality of some situations (e.g. assisted suicide, murder in the name of revenge), the answers would be strictly personal and it'd feel wrong for me to describe any of the characters as "bad" or "good". There's no "right" or "wrong" way to interpret or regard this manga, and you will most
likely find yourself holding different opinions on the characters, than the ones you started out with.
And that, in my opinion, is a great technique sadly underutilized in manga: reminding the reader that people aren't defined just by a single personality trait or (more importantly) through a single point of view. Every character presents themselves as the "hero" of their story and is later shown through the eyes of other characters with varying moral compasses of their own. It is at these points that the saying "we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions" comes to mind.
Sometimes, the art looks messy - or rather unlike the clean, perfect characters you normally see in mainstream manga. Although slightly exaggerated, the characters in this look more on the normal side, albeit not as visually appealing as regular manga. All in all, the story is definitely the more important aspect, and I can let some art quirks slide in favor of it.