Title: solanin
Japanese Title: ソラニン
Author: Asano Inio (浅野いにお)
Translator: JN Productions
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 428

Is manga literature? In some cases, like Urasawa Naoki’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, one could make a very strong positive argument. Some manga, however, like Bleach or Yuzawa Ai’s Nana series, are nothing more than once promising but now over-bloated cash cows. On the other hand, many of my favorite manga, like Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&!, are not literature simply because they are masterpieces of a completely different art form.

But Asano Inio’s 420 page work Solanin is literature, no doubt about it. Like many Japanese narratives, it is driven not so much by plot as by character development and a fascination with the beauty of everyday life, which sounds like a Hallmark greeting card but is actually quite gritty and satisfying. Unlike a great deal of manga, Solanin deals with the problems of Japanese young people who are not sailor-suited schoolgirls and have already passed through their fun and fancy-free college years. In other words, the protagonists of Solanin have already grown up, or at least are trying to. I suppose that, in this way, Solanin is like a more focused and mature version of Umino Chika’s popular shōjo manga Honey and Clover, which chronicles the struggles and heartbreaks of a group of friends who have just graduated from art school.

As I said, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plot (although there are some fairly gut-wrenching twists in the story), but the basic premise of the manga is that the protagonist, Mieko, who has just graduated from college and moved in with her boyfriend, has gotten sick of her boring office job and creepy boss and decided to quit working for a few months. During this time, she focuses on her friends and boyfriend, who had formed a rock band together in college. Mieko wants her guitarist boyfriend Naruo, who also feels suffocated at work, to get the band back together and be more serious about his music and his dreams, which drives the story forward but causes tension between the two. What ends up happening is way beyond what the characters – or the readers – suspect. The ending of the manga isn’t happy, necessarily, but it is fulfilling.

Although the focus of the narrative is on Mieko, occasionally chapters will be told from the point of view of another character, like Mieko and Naruo’s friends Rip (the drummer) and Kato (the bassist). These chapters rarely have anything to do with the main story but are still interesting, especially in how they highlight different aspects of the group dynamic within the circle of friends. The alternate narrative chapters also provide the majority of the manga’s comic relief, which is actually quite funny in a quiet sort of way.

Although the characters and narrative style alone make Solanin worth reading, what really made me pick up this book and buy it was the artwork. The character designs, though simple, are very appealing. I also feel that, within the limits of Asano’s personal style, they are realistic in the way they depict different body types and facial expressions. The background art is wonderfully realistic, which is extraordinary when you realize how much of it there is. Unlike most manga, which only provide a panel of background art every page or two, Solanin is filled with beautiful drawings of the scenery and landscape of the Tokyo suburbs. Even if you think Solanin’s story is just basic Banana Yoshimoto style angsty emo crap (although, in my mind, it never gets that bad), the artwork makes the whole thing worthwhile. Really, it’s gorgeous.

So, although the cover isn’t that appealing, and although the $17.99 price tag is pretty hefty, I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m really happy I gave it a chance, despite my misgivings.

Just to give a feel for the art style, I’ll post some images from the manga. I apologize for the poor scanning quality…

Solanin Page 1

Solanin Page 2

10 thoughts on “Solanin

  1. Y’know, the first thing that I thought when you started defining literature and excluding overbloated cash cows was Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know of a single manga artist that was actually forced to bring his main character back to life because of an over-zealous audience.

    I guess what I’m saying is that even cash cows count, to me, as literature. I don’t really believe in discounting something from the hallowed halls of Literature just because it had the audacity to be popular.

    Solanin sounds interesting, but slow. That’s what got me about Honey & Clover too. I was perfectly interested for a bit, and then got bored. Which is, perhaps, why I’m more accepting of the sell out manga like Naruto and Bleach. The authors often go to amazing contortions to keep the pace of the action up. I imagine that that is, in turn, part of why solanin is so short: if there’s no action, it’s hard to keep an audience engaged for a long period of time. Chicken, egg, egg, chicken. Hard to tell whether the pacing causes the length or the (intended) length causes the pacing. I’d guess that it’s a bit of both. After all, Naruto clearly ran into trouble. Kishimoto had to stop drawing it for almost a month and frantically come up with a way to end it. It’s obvious that it’s success took him by surprise, and now he’s stuck dealing with a ton of characters that he just doesn’t know what to do with. At any rate, slow and plotless is not really my thing, but I’ll probably give it a shot.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike something simply because it’s popular. As embarrassed as I am to admit it in front of certain people, Stephen King is my absolute favorite author of all time, and I don’t think the Harry Potter books are any less wonderful just because they’re popular.

      The problem I have with manga like Bleach and Nana is that, although they started out strong, popularity drove them way past the point at which they should have ended. A series driven mainly by plot and character design ceases to be interesting once the plot loses steam and the artwork becomes sloppy. I kind of feel betrayed by both titles, actually.

      As for literature and popularity, the novels of most major postwar Japanese authors that we consider writers of pure literature, like Tanizaki and Abe Kōbō, were all bestsellers when they were first published. The novels and short story collections of Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki are of course no exception.

      All that aside, I think there are certain qualities of a work that make it more literary, such as a close attention to language and meaning, an awareness of both the particular historical moment and the universality of human nature, and an avoidance of formulaic plot devices. It isn’t my place to take up the debate of what is “pure literature” and what is “popular literature;” but, in any case, I think most manga don’t fall into the category of literature simply because they are another medium of expression altogether, which is part of their appeal.

      On the topic of the appeal of “slow and plotless,” I actually can’t get enough of it, but I won’t try to convert you. As is perhaps indicated by my immense love of the Harry Potter books, though, I’m also a big fan of exciting, action-oriented, and plot-driven narratives, but I think it’s good to make a distinction between “plot” and “story.” Solanin has very little to speak of in the way of plot, but the forward momentum of the story is intense, and the manga is far from slow. While Honey and Clover is carried forward mainly by comedy and romantic tension, sheer emotional drama, occasionally lightened by subtle humor, keeps the pace of Solanin fairly brisk. At least, that was my experience. I think the series didn’t last for more than two volumes simply because the majority of Asao’s work is very short, although that doesn’t mean that she isn’t really popular in Japan right now.

      Thank you thank you thank you for your comments. You gave me a lot to think about, and I really enjoyed responding to you!

      1. I’m really behind on Nana, and never followed Bleach, so I can’t say too much about either of those (although I have some later volumes of Nana and didn’t really notice any falling off in art values). Perhaps part of the problem is that the long-running series that I do know tend to fall into two camps: interesting and popular, if problematic in one or two ways (Sailor Moon, Kareshi to Kanojo no Jijou), or what I tend to think of as kids’ shows (Pokemon, Dragonball, et cetera). For kids’ shows, falling off plot-wise isn’t an issue, because the audience ages out of the show and is replaced by younger kids.

        Where being literary is concerned, I’m still a bit confused. I would think that light novels exemplify “a close attention to language and meaning, an awareness of both the particular historical moment and the universality of human nature, and an avoidance of formulaic plot devices”. Certainly the close attention to language and meaning is central to the idea of a light novel, since the main organizing trope of the grouping (?- it’s not a genre) is the way that light novels play with the meanings and pronunciations of kanji. But you don’t like light novels, right? And anyway that doesn’t really sound like what you’re aiming at.

        You know, I always sort of thought of manga as a mixed medium – part art, part literature. That’s why I’m always throwing all sorts of random theory at it – pop cultural, literary, film – whatever seems useful at the time. Not the best approach, and certainly hard to follow for anyone who doesn’t study all of them, but it works for me.

        Oh, and I caught a look at solanin in the store the other day. It does look interesting, so I’ll probably try to read it sometime.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I shall keep an eye out for it.

    You read this in English? You recommend it in English? Or should I keep an eye out for the Japanese version?

    1. You’re welcome!

      I did read this in English, but I have read a few of Asano’s other works in Japanese (like 素晴らしい世界), and I can recommend them in Japanese, too. He writes like he’s writing lines for a movie, does that make sense? He’s a pretty amazing manga-ka, I think. Even if you don’t like his slice-of-life stories, his artwork will make you all sorts of natsukashii for Tokyo.

        1. Thank you for your comment, and thank you for the link as well! You’re absolutely right, Asano is totally a “he.” Now that I’ve become more familiar with his work, and now that he’s had more titles translated into English, that seems like common knowledge. Now it’s easy to just run a Google search and find all sorts of information about him; but, when I first posted this review, I think all I could find was an “About the Author” blurb on the Viz webpage, which referred to him as a “she.” Silly me for not double-checking on the Japanese Wikipedia page! In any case, I think it’s wonderful how far the English-language internet has come since 2009 in terms of providing information on manga artists, either through Wikipedia or through blogs or through sites like Baka Updates Manga. In any case, your comment has motivated me to edit this post accordingly, and I will continue to do my best to improve my own knowledge of manga and manga artists. Thanks again!

  3. Also, I suppose I could and should have asked this way earlier, but what would you recommend for me, as someone who’s never read a full novel in Japanese before, as a good starting point?

    1Q84 is certainly tempting, given all the buzz and hype and such, but it’s also really intimidating in its length, and while I quite enjoy Murakami in translation, I fear that his rather eccentric writing style would trip me up in the original Japanese – lots of weird word choices and uses, bizarre conjugations or outdated grammar forms, not to mention puns and other wordplay. Or am I mistaken?


    1. In my experience, Murakami Haruki is by far the easiest and most rewarding Japanese writer to read in Japanese (there are other writers who, in Japanese translation, are easier, but let’s not go there). You absolutely cannot go wrong with him. The length of his novels isn’t a problem; you’ll find yourself reading fifty pages at a time and wondering what happened. Another interesting writer to read in Japanese is Miyabe Miyuki; her historical fiction, which mainly takes the form of short stories, is especially good.

      But, in any case, you should pick a writer whose work you really, really want to read; otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll get bored and decide it’s not worth the effort of reading in Japanese to finish the book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s