First published in the defunct Weekly Young Sunday magazine, the introspective and shoegazey Solanin by Inio Asano is a slice-of-life seinen (teen/adult male) manga about the role that music can play in a young person's life, and the promises and heartbreak that music can represent.

The story follows Meiko and her boyfriend Taneda, who live together in Tokyo, aimlessly drifting through jobs they don't really care about. They still hang out with their old college friends, and Taneda actually performs in a band, Rotti, with two of them, Katou and Rip.

They have fun, but nothing seems fulfilling. Then, one day, fed up with her unsatisfying job and pervy boss, Meiko quits. Reasoning that she has enough savings for her and Taneda to last a year, Meiko resolves to enjoy her newfound freedom. It lasts about a week. Things get complicated when Taneda also quits his job in order to pursue a record deal and write a "real song," and when a sudden tragedy enters the mix, Meiko has to find her sense of purpose all over again.

 

The cast of Solanin (L to R): Meiko, Katou, Rip, Ai and Taneda. Inio Asano / Viz Media

 

Unlike Asano's striking use of computer-generated backgrounds with traditional art in Goodnight Punpun, he and his assistants draw Solanin the old-fashioned way, in Asano's supremely arresting style, with bizarre faces and actions galore.

I've never been sure whether it's just the way Asano draws faces and bodies, or how the inking affects his pencils, but there's a real, clear weight to them. Every close-up shot, every subtle gesture looks like something you'd see from an actual person. Small wonder, then, that Solanin was adapted into a 2010 live-action film by Takahiro Mike to solid acclaim. Sadly, the film does not appear to be available in English, but it does have an awesome theme song by Asian Kung-Fu Generation with lyrics written by Asano that is well worth listening to.

 

 

What really drives this story is the music. Several times, Taneda talks about how the music he fell in love with in high school is the first thing that ever felt real to him, and that passion is reflected back in the music that Rotti makes. In Rotti's rehearsal sessions and live performances, Asano and company depict the band sweating hard; really actually laboring over their instruments. As anyone who's ever played live music can tell you, it really is a laborious, surreal thing to do. But when done well, the rewards are great.

Solanin also tackles the age-old question of what it means for an artist to "sell out." At one point in the story, Rotti is seemingly offered the big break they've been waiting for... only for the record executive who contacted them to turn around and offer them a different (albeit very lucrative) deal as the backing band for a swimsuit model the label is trying to rebrand as a singer.

An emboldened Meiko turns down the deal on the band's behalf, but later, in the restroom, Taneda encounters the executive again. He recognizes him as Saeki from the defunct band the Qooneldas, telling him that his group's Western-influenced sound "was one of the reasons I decided to go into music in high school."

 

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When Taneda asks him why he's become a corporate sell-out now, Saeki responds in a very measured and reasonable way. "I stopped focusing on my pride... and looked to something more important. ... You can see me as a loser if you want, but I am still fighting. Not all battles are fought in the spotlight. You'll probably understand that one day."

That monologue works both from a character standpoint, from someone who has gone down the road that Taneda is trying to walk down and has faced the decisions that he'll have to face, and from a thematic standpoint. Among creators of all fields there's a aversion to letting your art get co-opted by corporate interests, but Saeki represents the idea that corporate influence may have become a necessary part of a life in creative arts.

I think what keeps me coming back to Solanin is that it offers a rounded picture. It understands the energy and the sometimes overwhelming ennui that comes with post-college life. It gets how making music can be both a boundless joy and a punishing road. And it gets how one shining moment can make all the garbage of the world worthwhile. Combine that with Asano's enormous, talents and you have a comic for the ages..

 

Note: A copy of Solanin was provided to the author by Viz Media for this review.