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The disaffected world of Inio Asano

Mangaka Inio Asano has become one of the voices of his generation. His work--stories of youth that would be too alien or embarrassing for full-fledged adults--has found a home in the hearts of disaffected teens and twentysomethings. One of Asano's best-known manga is Solanin, the story of a young band, which was recently released as a live film starring Aoi Miyazaki.

Perhaps it should have come as little surprise that during our interview at his Tokyo studio, Asano appeared to be one of his own characters--a "soshoku danshi" (lit. herbivore boy), a current lifestyle in which men tend toward hobbies traditionally associated with women, at the same time refraining from building close relationships with members of the opposite sex.

The 29-year-old mangaka has been working as a professional for a dozen years, debuting at the age of 17 in a manga magazine. His work also includes Oyasumi Punpun (Good Night Punpun), a manga centering on a boy who he depicts like a bird creature in an otherwise normal human setting. The eccentric imagery in that story complements a dark story about how kids treat each other.

Asano, originally from Ibaraki Prefecture, began illustrating humorous four-panel manga back in high school, partly because he didn't really like studying and had nothing else to do, he explains.

"I found myself trying to get an entire manga done in one class period," he says. "My manga was really popular among my friends, so I tried sending it off to Big Comics Spirits."

At first, the major manga weekly rejected his submission. But then he got a lucky break when an editor at the magazine who had seen his work decided to use it when another mangaka failed to come through on a project. This gave Asano four pages to fill for his major league debut.

It was an unexpected start for an artist who was already talented at depicting today's youth and the tough time they have blending into society.

But despite the large-scale exposure for the new mangaka, Asano says a tough, dry period soon followed. "I got cocky and carried away with myself because of the great start, even though I didn't have a solid foundation," Asano recalls. Over the next five years, the artist never was asked to create any new series, only the occasional one-off strip as he attended university in Tokyo.

As graduation approached, Asano became more and more frustrated over the lack of commissions for his work. He once went as far as to consider a job in the game industry, he says, but was "really lazy and couldn't be bothered to fill out the application."

Asano befriended a number of so-called freeters (part-time workers who bounce from job to job) who, like him, hid their anxiety about their futures under a motto of "living for the moment," something he adapted into his manga. He also attributes his ambiguous attitude to being raised in an area that never really had its own identity, as it was stuck somewhere between the Big City and the boondocks.

His frustration and lack of self-esteem--feelings that are echoed throughout his generation--proved to be one of the more attractive qualities of manga such as Solanin, his Young Sunday serial filled with characters ambiguous in both their feelings and words.

At first glance, Asano's style may appear to some as shallow. However, his works are rife with hints of death and futility, and phrases and images that imply "the end is near" appear frequently.

Asano says his general outlook stems from a physical malformation: His chest is slightly distorted inward, a trait that cost him his self-confidence when he was small. He began fearing that he would die young and subsequently stopped thinking about his future. "It was horrifying to imagine a world where I no longer existed but my friends continued on."

"Ever since I was a child, I sort of half resigned myself to an early death. That's probably affected how I interpret the world," Asano says.

He was influenced by mangaka such as Kyoko Okazaki, whose urbane work was published in fashion magazines, not in manga publications. Through this, Asano realized the importance of sticking to his subcultural content even while being carried in major magazines.

"You can basically express anything you want in independent zines or minor manga publications. But too much freedom doesn't lead to good manga. I'd like to try breaking the rules at a major," Asano says.

In the case of Solanin, for example, one protagonist suddenly disappears, coming as a surprise to everybody except his immediate editor.

In Oyasumi Punpun, Asano initially planned to depict all the characters like the bird-like protagonist. But his editor didn't seem to like the idea, so Asano decided to depict only the protagonist and his family members in that way.

"I like to run my works in a magazine and to present them as a decent selling product," Asano says.

(Apr. 16, 2010)
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