by Shunju Aono; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
When I first tried this series, at the launch of the Sigikki site with its sample chapters, I thought it was predictable and awkward. Even Ed’s thoughtful recommendation of the first volume didn’t sway me. It wasn’t until reading Book 3 that the series clicked for me. Why then? Because that’s where I first got a true glimpse of Shizuo’s personality and the potential range of this story.
So feel free to try the series starting with this latest volume, number 3, because you can pick the premise up quickly. It’s this: Shizuo, a 40-year-old businessman, quits his job to “find himself”. However, once he’s unemployed, he’s no further along in figuring out what he really wants. Finally, he decides to try drawing manga, to the disdain of his father and the bemused acceptance of his high-school-aged daughter.
Book 1 starts with two semi-stand-alone stories, introducing Shizuo and establishing his (lack of) personality. At first, I thought that near-void was a flaw, but now I better understand. He’s not a strong person, and he has few distinguishing characteristics, and that’s what puts him in this situation. He’s not happy, but he doesn’t know what will make him happy. And there are plenty of people like him, those who did the right things, mostly, until they reach a place where they’ve forgotten themselves and what they want — all they know is that they can’t cope with yet another day just like the one before. I can relate, as can most adults who’ve grown up and made trade-offs.
Although the artist, Shunju Aono, is younger than his hero, they have a certain similarity: You can quickly see both improve in their artwork. Even within the first volume, Aono’s use of perspective and line, even in his simple style, is more accomplished by the end of the book, compared to the two early stories.
Shizuo works at a burger joint while struggling to tell the right manga story, although he’s got an encouraging editor. The young burger co-workers provide good contrast, showing Shizuo the difference between their choices and his, as well as reminding him that he’s not a kid anymore. He’s also got two confidants — an old friend who’s still working a standard business job, and surprisingly, God, the voice that carries his doubts and fears.
Book 2 opens with a lovely summary of what brought Shizuo to this point, as he flashes back while waiting for his editor’s verdict on his latest submission, and even though I just read it all in Book 1, there’s plenty of additional detail that makes the story deeper. In terms of his work, he’s made a breakthrough — he’s found a subject, autobiography, that gives his work the passion and intensity it needs. He’s still not good enough, though, and his family life takes a turn for the worse, as he moves out.
Shizuo winds up crashing with a former co-worker, a 26-year-old who’s similarly disaffected and lacking a definite life path. The two together make up one of my favorite parts of the series, since they have so much in common but they’re so different in personality and approach. Shizuo is both admirable, in his clueless determination, and pathetic, in terms of his self-delusion. Both qualities are on full display when he develops a crush on an editorial employee. Plus, it’s all funny and sad and touching that Shizuo’s new friend gets along better with Shizuo’s father than Shizuo himself does. That triad, hitting a variety of feelings at the same time, is the strength of the series.
As I said above, Book 3 is where I became a fan. It opens with Shizuo coping with his disappointment by fantasizing, getting lost in his own head. He talks with God, who tries to set him straight, and meets his younger selves from previous lost dreams. The young businessman, the wannabe musician, the angry punk, and the fat schoolboy all despise him, but seeing them together, hating each other, was hilarious. It also demonstrated how the art continues to improve, with all the characters clearly the same guy at different points of his life.
In this volume, Shizuo also gets his first job as an assistant, providing another view of both his drive to make manga and his conflicts with youth. The message, that the older you are, the more likely you are to fail, but it’s ok, because you’re more resilient and able to recover, is strangely comforting. The stories here put Shizuo in a variety of circumstances and moods, demonstrating more than just the premise of his dream. As the cast has expanded, we get to see more variants on the struggle for happiness.
The simple art style also grew on me, underpinning the idea that maybe Shizuo’s dream is still possible, since it seems like many people could draw it (although I know that that’s a fallacy). Later in the book, Shizuo puts forward a metaphor about how making manga is a journey, a continuing struggle — and one that takes a step backward for him in a surprising turn of events, followed up in a bonus story focusing on another character inspired by Shizuo’s choices. I look forward to seeing how he manges that disappointment in the next book, due December 2011. It’s a long wait, but that’s another thing maturity teaches you: patience. (The publisher provided a review copy of Volume 3.)