by Inio Asano
published by Viz; $12.99 US
After enjoying Solanin, I was curious about Inio Asano’s next translated work. The two-volume What a Wonderful World! is a set of short stories created earlier.
Like Solanin, the characters here are urban young adults unsure of their direction or place in life. Unlike that longer work, I found them annoying here when I didn’t before. Maybe it was because the shorter lengths meant less time to get to know them as people, so they become more defined by their traits, which are mostly “aimless” or “depressed”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
If the characters stopped and thought a little more, before making life-changing choices without much reflection, their lives would have been very different. The first story, for example, is about a college dropout with no plans. She expected her friends to put up more resistance to her decision, giving her an out, but when they didn’t, she felt like she had to follow through. Now she has no purpose, but instead of seeking one, she hangs around waiting for one to find her. It’s only the outrageous actions of a neighbor and a fantastic dream about her pet turtle that kick her out of her shell.
A bullied girl imagines a crow taunting her, inspiring her to a stupid dare that changes her status. A kidnapped girl bonds with a thief, who’s wearing a cartoon bear head. A young businessman, jealous of his former bandmates who stuck with music and succeeded, quits his job. A bully contemplates his victim and suicide. Relationships end and characters’ thoughts wander through monologues. These are the stories in book one. I think a quote from the last one, about skateboarders and their cough syrup-addicted friend, is representative.
So you’ve given up your dream and decided to settle? Ha ha. How pathetic.
Yeah, but … I feel lighter now that I don’t have to carry around the weight of that dream.
Looked at in that perspective, this series is the anti-shojo: love doesn’t survive, relationships occur more out of convenience than fate, and life is easier without purpose or driving force or talent. All that matters is living, even if it’s only existence, because there’s a chance at momentary happiness.
The stories of book two are more of the same, although the age range of the characters has expanded, from still in school to contemplating mortality: A doctor’s son resists school to establish an individual identity. A girl runs away every year during the rainy season as a way of dealing with her grief over her lost mother. Former friends go different ways, symbolized by their expressions. A new father works for a porn magazine and gets beat up. Two brothers reconcile over ramen. An office lady drinks too much. A convenience store clerk finds an abandoned dog. By the end, you’re noticing that some of the characters reoccur, so you can piece together key points in their lives through the different tales.
The art is worth investigating. Settings are detailed, capturing the small elements of daily life that makes things seem so realistic. The characters’ expressions and attitudes carry exactly their emotions. When exaggerated elements occur, whether a flip into the sky or a ridiculous hairstyle, somehow they seem plausible because of the grounding the rest of the art provides.
Asano does give his characters a sense of hope, a feeling that things have improved once they’ve experienced their random life-changing incident, but it’s a false hope when viewed from the adult perspective. We don’t see if their life really changes, or if they’re able to shake loose of the disillusionment that brought them to where they were. History and human nature argue that it won’t, that their apathy and entropy, continuing along with the status quo, is too much a habit to overcome.
On the other hand, if the point is just to seize moments of happiness when you can and that they make the rest worthwhile, why, that can be inspiring. I think it matters a lot who the reader is and what she brings to the series. These are stories where the reader must interact with the work to accomplish full meaning, and her perspective on life will affect the reading.
I confess, I’m still puzzled why this came out in two volumes. There’s no major distinguishing difference between the two, and anyone interested in one would likely enjoy the other. Matthew Brady’s review has some lovely art samples included, while David Welsh calls the stories “familiar” and says they don’t last in the memory. (The publisher provided review copies.)