Let us say in life:
No earthquakes are permissible.
What happens then?
Some stories are all about the story—the mechanics, the details, the thing that happens. The guy gets the girl, the dog turns up safely, the bad guy is bisected from top to bottom, the planet blows up. Happy story, sad story, strange story. Beginning, middle, end. The end.
Some stories are not about the story. They’re about the fact that “the story” has been going on for some time now. This is just where we came in. When we enter and leave the first volume of What A Wonderful World! or any of its attendant chapters, the one thing artist and author Inio Asano makes us feel most is how all this could still be going on somewhere. Go out your door and walk far enough and you might run into all the people you just read about, still doing their thing. I don’t get that feeling often from a book, or a manga. When I do, it’s worth celebrating.
At first World looks like an anthology, where none of the stories bear much relation to each other except for the author’s name, but grab you right away regardless. “Quick Like a Bunny”, the opening chapter, gives us the twentysomething Yuriko—college dropout, formerly the unwitting center of her local nexus of friends. She resents the idea that her life influences other peoples’; she doesn’t want to have to live up to the strong, independent image other people have of her. Then one of her old college friends, Horita, shows up: he’s swapped his punk Mohawk for an IBM crewcut and is pushing papers in an office. He “grew up”, maybe as a reaction to her “dropping out”. They scare each other a little bit—and after Yuriko’s apartment building burns down in a freak accident, they’re pushed that much closer together and start thinking again about realizing some old dreams of rocking out.
Each chapter branches off in a different direction—some touching on existing characters, some presenting new faces, some jumping radically backwards or forwards in time. Horita shows up again in “Wandervogel”, the 4th chapter, still wrestling with his old and new selves and trying to figure out where his real loyalties and responsibilities lie. His girlfriend in that chapter, a schoolteacher, shows up as a minor character in the next story—there, she talks Hozumi, the student council president, into luring a fellow classmate (now a hikikomori, or compulsive shut-in) back to school.
She does not know, however, that Hozumi is one of the very boys who bullied him into submission in the first place. The errand of mercy backfires, in great part because of that very fact, with Hozumi crashing into an even deeper pit of despondency than the other boy. Next chapter, years later. Hozumi’s friend, Yokoyama, a fellow bully, is now a manga artist’s assistant; he and his girlfriend are splitting up. The girlfriend’s sister is in a relationship that’s also fraught with gloom and looks like it might be sacrificed to the demands of the working world.
The wheel keeps turning. Sometimes it rolls sideways. In one chapter, a cynical high school girl is held captive by a criminal, a man in a cartoon-bear costume (which, amusingly enough, he never removes). It’s a toss-up as to which one is the more redeemable, and the only connection to any other story in the book is a cameo appearance by someone in a bear costume (it’s never made clear if it is the same man). Another apparent standalone episode involves a bunch of high-school flunkouts and a newcomer in their midst, a cough-syrup-chugging loner whose self-destructive spiral gives them unexpected inspiration.
My original parallel was with Hiroki Endo’s searing collection Tanpenshu, another set of stories about people seething with unfulfilled possibilities and damaged social connections. World is nowhere nearly as emotionally searing—it’s upbeat in most every respect—but it has the same flavor of life as both rough and miraculous in about equal measure.
Asano caught my attention earlier this year with the mini-epic solanin. That was another VIZ Signature title which I picked up for cheap and read all several-hundred pages of in one sitting flat. Most people would call it “slice-of-life”, and I would use that term if it hadn’t already been cheapened by so much careless usage. There was tragedy and triumph in solanin, but on a defiantly small scale—in much the same way the biggest triumphs in World are the most personal and solitary ones. You won’t save the world, Asano seems to be saying, but you may discover how to let the earthquakes happen after all.
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