March Manganess: SOLANIN

As you may well have sussed, I've got it hot and heavy for alliteration. For that reason, I've singled out the month of March to highlight a few of the best and brightest manga titles from my ever-swaying stack. Each week I'll showcase a new Japanese comics title, be it popular or obscure, right-to-left or flip-flopped. These import digests have flooded into chain book retailers, often outnumbering the domestic fair. It isn't all nose-bleeds and sweat-drops though, and I promise you won't get slapped with any tentacles. So if you're up for something slightly different, join me in celebrating March Manganess


Ooof! This one hurt me where I live.

Writer/artist Inio Asano began work on Solanin at 24, fresh out of college and petrified at the prospect of joining the rat race. He channeled all of that fear and loathing into this serialized maxi-series about a crash of twenty-something slackers trying to keep the band together and pay the rent at the same time. Viz collects the entire 400+ page story in a single honkin' volume, making it an ideal starter manga for anyone who's balked at the idea of committing to a series with dozens of published digests waiting in the wings. As a slice of life drama devoid of the fantastical elements we typically associate with manga, it's also a good choice for those interested in the perspective of a modern Japanese youth, the day-to-day realities of life in urban Tokyo, and all of the cultural nuance that setting implies. A guy's toupée rockets a foot from his scalp during a fit of anger, but surprisingly that brand of visual comedy doesn't really distract too much from the realism. It might distract just the right amount, because otherwise, these events might be a little too bleak. 

Remember when you couldn't wait for graduation? Remember tossing that cap because the last thing you wanted was to shade the glorious light of new horizons? You know how you want to slap that person with a sack of frozen waffles? 

College sweethearts Meiko Inoue and Naruo Taneda live together in Meiko's shabby apartment. She has a tedious, manilla office job and he plucks guitar strings on the couch. It's a tense relationship, with Taneda letting his freelance illustration career fall to the wayside and Meiko begrudgingly paying their way. She's trying her best to wade through the boredom, but the care packages of root vegetables from her parents aren't helping with her confidence. Meiko and Taneda still play with their band, a collection of drunken layabouts still holding on to dreams dreamed in college and struggling to figure out their niche in society. It's a great way to blow off steam after a day of filing or worrying about the bank account, but it's becoming readily apparent that they each have their own wants and ambitions for the future of the group. To further complications, Meiko decides to quit her job. 

Let's get the Scott Pilgrim comparison out of the way. While Solanin is frequently funny and the band scenes can be plenty ridiculous, don't expect the same level of hyperbole. They might share a genre or sub genre, but the two books are vastly different in tone. One's like a fistful of tokens for the arcade while the other's a desperate plunge into the sofa cushions to find quarters for the laundry. As a toned-down drama, Solanin is probably more closely related to another O'Malley comic, 2003's Lost at Sea. I generally like both of these stories, but for some, the level of angst and ennui might be a bit too much. And, as someone in a similar boat as Meiko or Taneda, I should also caution that it's not the most uplifting saga for post-grad dreamers. That said, if you're a Box Office Poison or Local fan, you ought to find similar themes and an equally large scope in the pages of Solanin. 

The primary reason I want to recommend checking out Solanin is that the art is absolutely stunning. While fine detail and exhaustively rendered backgrounds aren't always necessary in comics, they can definitely wet your whistle. Asano furnishes these pages with the most gorgeously drawn objects. It might be the prettiest and most atmospheric manga I've experienced, which does say a lot even if I'm basically a novice. I keep bringing this up, but nobody has a handle on setting quite like so many of these manga artists. Not even at the expense of expression of character either. For western readers, that means that anything lost in translation (though Viz seems to have done a remarkable job with this one) is more than made up for by that sense of place and atmosphere. It's difficult to define exactly, but establishing the larger and smaller universes these characters populate really can contribute to emotion. Are they tiny little inhabitants of a big toothy cityscape? Are they comfortable? Too comfortable? Isolated? Even the fine detail of the empty food cartons or the rumpled laundry sells the idea that this is a story about real-life concerns. Some might argue that Asano achieved this look by cheating. Some, but by no means all of the backgrounds or images on television screens are reproductions of photographs. Several cloudy skies have a Xerox quality with his own hand drawn telephone lines arcing across. It's not photo-referencing so much as collage. Again, it's not on every page or even most pages, but it is a major component of the comic's visual vocabulary. I'd prefer he hadn't used this technique, but I really stopped noticing after a while. 

So, if you like your life in slices, you habitually sob in your bathtub under a blanket of student loans, or you've ever stared at a spotty CV, struggling for one more action verb, you will probably find something to relate to in Solanin. Especially in this climate. It's up to you whether that's the work of a kindred spirit to lean on or something to be avoided at every cost. Still, if you ever spot Meiko's freckled nose among the books on a shelf in the manga department, give her a chance. If's an artfully constructed drama of young love, tough luck, and questionable musical chops. And it's gorgeous the whole way through. I'm not saying it's a complete course in Japanese culture and that you ought to somehow include that as some kind of experience or advanced knowledge on your resume, but…



Paul Montgomery isn't worried about the future. Nooooooooooo, sir. Find him on Twitter or contact him at 


  1. Great review! I bought the book on a whim when I was looking through Borders a month or so ago and I loved it. I also highly recommend "not simple" another Viz book that came out in the last few months it’s also a bleak book with some great art although very different stylistically from Solanin.

  2. Another excellent review, Paul.  I sought out some pages after reading this and found some very nice artwork (a sequence with Meiko and her boyfriend’s guitar in an empty apartment was just lovely).  I do see what you’re saying about the reliance on photo repro./collage, although used on backgrounds, I didn’t find it that distracting.

    Ordered… what the hell, I was ordering Afrodisiac already….

  3. But how do you feel about the bubble teams?

    I’m glad to hear that this isn’t Scott Pilgrim.  I might be the only person on the planet who doesn’t like that book.  I’m going to put this on my library request list.  Hopefully I’ll be reading it during Spring Break. 

  4. That is absolutely beautiful artwork. Good job with the reviews so far, Paul. You’re making me want to read manga again.

  5. I love that you snuck in "slice of life" in there at the end.

    When I saw that this manga had a band in it, I initially drew comparisons to BECK, which in my opinion is the best manga pertaining to music. Though as I read further into your review, it seems that this story isn’t so much about the band as it is the band members’ personal drama. I always find these stories about the aimless college graduates very compelling and the most hard hitting, because it’s something we all relate to (except for you Paul, as you noted above!). Everyone, at least a few times in their life, feels that dread. I’m definitely going to be getting this, as I think this is something I can really identify with.

  6. "Somewhere between Scott Pilgrim and Franz Kafka"?? Okay, I GOTTA check this out. There are few dual comparisons more interesting to me. Thanks for the heads up.

  7. Art in that looks amazing. My work just got a copy in. I’m gonna go get it before it’s sold out.

  8. I’m really glad you decided to do this Paul.  It’s nice to see some manga on the site.  And the fact that you did two manga that are at the top of my reccomendation list is even better.  Not to mention that from the looks of your Twitter account, 20th Century Boys is coming up next.  It’s where my username comes from.


    I’d reccomend the Higurashi manga series if you like psychological horrors, or Nana (with the caveat that you read the second volume, since the first is essentially two unrelated one-shots).

  9. …And to double post (er… double comment?), here’s the trailer for the Live Action version of Solanin, that came out earlier this year in Japan.

  10. Aha! A slice of life! Stupendous. I have it qued up on my dcbs. I saw it out at an oriental store a week back but it was EXPENSIVE!!!! like 5 more bux than at an lcs. I’ll give it a read so long as it doesn’t make me cr- urm tear up like "I KILL GIANTS" did.

  11. @whoisfriend – that’s a great trailer, I’ll have to keep an eye out for that on Netflix.

  12. Excellent Review! Solanin is a prime example of the great potential of Manga in depicting real life emotions with great pacing and attention to details that readers can relate to in spite of a great cultural divide. 

    Although I love Beck, Asano’s Solanin is in very different genre. Beck is a typical Shonen Manga full of hope & drive – it’s about growing up by learning, overcoming obstacles & testing one’s limits ( or Nekketsu). Solanin is more about how this optimism and hope can be shattered… 

    Also highly-recommended for detail-oriented and emotionally-charged depiction of everyday life are the works of Jiro Taniguchi: The Walking Man & A Distant Neighborhood Vol. 1 & 2

  13. Hmmm.  Haven’t had this one recommended to me before, nor had it caught either of my eyes, but comparisons to Local and Scott Pilgrimhave me all a t-ingle.  Thanks for the article.

  14. Another great manga article, Paul.  I’m glad you reviewed this one to show the breadth of manga choices out there.  They’re not all the Shonen Jump variety.  That’s great the Viz published it as one big volume.  It came out as two in Japan.

     @whoisfriend: I  believe the movie comes out in theaters this April, at least according to its homepage.

    Also, please do NOT watch the trailer if you plan on reading the manga. It’s got spoilers galore.  (They always do that with movie trailers in Japan.  I remember the "Return of the King" one show the last scene with Frodo throwing the ring into the lava.  I guess the thinking is that you won’t be interested in the movie unless you know the entire story.)

  15. @Kodaiji

    Yup…Totally posted that before doing any real research or watching it.  I remembered some blog talking about the song ‘Solanin’ and assumed it meant the movie already came out.

    And yeah, the trailer has a HUGE spoiler. Be warned. I saw a preview for an instrumental track for an anime movie recently, and they decided to show screenshots of the ENTIRE film on youtube.  Not cool Japan, not cool.

  16. A friend of mine recommended this book to me specifically because I have a short attention span and can’t be stuck reading 20 volumes of storyline. I haven’t read it yet since it’s in my stack but it might just need to be bumped up near the top now.