What If Scott Pilgrim Was Good?: Solanin by Inio Asano
I’m kind of kidding with that title. I actually think Edgar Wright’s film, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is pretty solid. It’s no Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, but it’s funny enough and still looks quitee good. I’m less of a fan of the comic version of Scott Pilgrim. The way it’s drawn makes every character look pretty much the same, sort of like how in South Park all the child characters have the same face with different hairstyles. In groups it’s difficult to tell who’s actually speaking sometimes. This is a problem with the character Ramona Flowers in particular, as her hairstyle changes with every arc of the story. Whenever she appears with a new hairstyle the writer includes a little arrow pointing to her indicating the change, because her face looks like every other characters’ face and it would be impossible to tell who she is just from her dialogue. It’s tough to get invested in the lives of any of these characters and their zany, video game style adventures when you sort of can’t tell who’s who on the page.
Drawing techniques aside, the story of Scott Pilgrim (whether his comic or movie incarnation) is one about growing up. Scott starts the film/comic as a directionless slacker dating a high school girl to a slacker that’s slightly nicer to women and dating someone his own age. There’s nothing really wrong with the work story-wise. Scott Pilgrim meets a girl he likes, he fights her seven ex-boyfriends to the death in video game boss fights, he ends the book a better person. It’s funny, it’s care-free, it relies pretty heavily on 90’s video game tropes and jam rock references that people who grew up in the 90’s (and were therefore in their late teens or early 20’s when comic began in 2004) would absolutely love. The whole series has a cartoonish optimism that was reflected in stuff like Jack-Ass and early MTV shows. The stuff you did might hurt, but the damage never seemed to be lasting. If you want the worldview of the kids of that era encapsulated in like three minutes, watch the first skit from the show Portlandia, called “Dream of the 90’s.” It’s on Youtube! I was fourteen at the absolute oldest when this era ended and Fred Armisen describe that decade is like watching a documentary about life on Krypton. I can’t fathom it, and it fills me with rage.
Ramona Flowers is the typical ‘manic pixie dream girl’ made famous by Zach Braff’s film Garden State and that stock characters near mystical care-free attitude hearkens back to an era that doesn’t really exist past the 2008 economic crash. Scott Pilgrim and all his friends, no matter how hopelessly slacker-like they seem, move through life with the assurance that shit is just gonna work out. Scott’s responsible roommate Wallace Wells is always there to cover him for rent or food. The emotional damage Scott inflicts on his underage girlfriend is magically undone by the end of story, with the two characters making up and becoming friends. Scott straight up murders seven people so hard they explode into piles of Super Mario coins and the only cops that appear in the whole book strictly enforce proper dietary rules amongst vegans. Scott Pilgrim lives a manic pixie dream life where nothing is high stakes. Death has video game rules, all bad relationships end in friendship, and you can spend you’re twenties in a band that’s bad in every way except its name (‘We are Sex Bob-omb!’) and you’ll end the story generally fine.
That shit’s real cute for my older cousins that were Scott’s age when Scott Pilgrim came out, but this story didn’t hit me the way it hit them. I hit the Scott Pilgrim stage of my life after the 2008 recession, and a lot of the care-free optimism in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s work wasn’t really a part of my life. Adults my age had fun when we were in college, but we could also be grim little jerks. College wasn’t a key to your future unless you were an engineer. Any place worth living had rent prices that limited us to shoe-box sized roach motels with four plus roommates to live in. A lot of kids I went to college with made jokes all senior year about us all moving back home to work crappy paying jobs and for many of them that was less of a joke and more a statement of inevitability.
The issue with Scott Pilgrim or any other coming of age fiction is that they age like milk, no matter how good they are. Scott Pilgrim is fine for people who were just out of college in 2005, just like A Separate Piece by John Knowles is the perfect coming of age story for wealthy, homosocial boarding school attendees during World War II. If you catch the story at the right time, they’re perfect. Think reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. Read them at the wrong time however, and the story will lose a lot of its power, if not be outright intolerable. Think reading The Catcher in the Rye if you’re older than a teenager. A Separate Piece is a wonderful story, but I had to read that in English during the late Bush era and we couldn’t get passed the fact that a story so homoerotic was being taught in schools.
Solanin is a manga by Inio Asano of Goodnight Punpun fame and y’all, this the Scott Pilgrim for the kids that grew up in the wreckage of 2008. Reading it was like reading a list of the greatest hits of the problems my friends and I have dealt with since we left college, which makes this book deeply unsettling despite its general upbeat attitude.
For the record, I’m aware that this story was actually published around the time Scott Pilgrim was. Though it came out in 2005, the Japan in which it is set was much closer to the America of 2008 and beyond. A decade’s long economic crash, sky high urban rents, lowering birth rates and living standards. Let’s just say the last twenty to thirty years have not been kind to Japan. The story of Salonin follows of group of early to mid-twenty somethings living in Tokyo smack dab in the middle of the economic recession known in Japan as “The Lost Decade.” They’re JUST out of college. A few have entry level jobs, most work freelance or part-time, and the designated fat friend is pulling the super senior move of going to Uni for an extra year. In general, the characters in this story are pretty aimless. They don’t know what they want to do, they just know they don’t want to move back home with their parents.
The books’ main character, Meiko Inoue, exemplifies this last part more so than her friends. She’s from outside Tokyo and faces much pressure from her family to move back home. Her office job keeps a cramped roof over her head for both herself and her barely employed boyfriend, Naruo. They’re lives are satisfying in the sense that they want for nothing and can be considered happy if they don’t think about it too much. The early parts of the book are pure mid-budget relationship comedy. They hang out with friends and do dumb hi-jinks, Meiko frets over her future with her boyfriend, but they always agree to stick it out and make things work with little conflict. Meiko quits her job when the office grind stifles her too much. Naruo decides to try giving his college band one last legitimate shot at a record deal. They kick ass at a local bar show that leads to his band being offered to be studio musicians for some model trying to transition into pop stardom. All in all, it’s pretty cute. The characters get some small wins, just enough to be realistic while staying within the confines of the lowered expectations of modern livening. Naruo turns down the offer, maintaining his self-respect and he and Meiko resolve to find better jobs, stay together and live that hard working post-grad life.
And then he kills himself.
Naruo’s suicide is the single most upsetting act I’ve seen a character perform in the pages of a manga. It hits with all the suddenness of the ending of Uncut Gems and at first seems like it comes out of nowhere, until you think about it too much and realize it was always coming. Naruo made the decision to give up on his dream and live the quiet, normal life of downwardly mobile middle class youth. He’s happy with that decision for about five seconds, then he plows his scooter straight into the back of a truck. That’s it. He literally says to himself “I’m happy,” to which a voice in his head asks back “Really?” and then he Irish Goodbye’s the mortal coil. I have a problem with Scott Pilgrim’s drawing style not just because everyone looks the same, but also because it’s meant to be cute. That’s not a bad thing, but Scott Pilgrim occasionally deals in heavy topics that chibi drawing styles can’t properly express. The two full pages of Naruo’s face going from him lying to himself about his own contentedness before literally screaming for the future he has lost and revving up his bike are gut wrenching. You see every minuscule change in the muscles of his face as his hopes for his life crash down around him. It’s a single moment of terrible greatness in what is up to that point a B+ comedy.
The remaining half of the book is a mediation on grief and healing. Meiko has to rebuild her life, talk to the family of Naruo after the funeral, and face the hard truths about her future. It culminates with her and Naruo’s band performing a short concert in his honor, played with more passion than skill that serves as an epilogue to the first real relationship of her life. It tackles this pain in a way Scott Pilgrim doesn’t have the seriousness to do. Meiko’s journey back from grief is not quick and it’s not pretty. The idea of dating again literally brings her to tears. The ending is not clean. Naruo is gone, she still doesn’t find fulfillment through her job, living in big city is still expensive and hard. She ends the story closer than ever to her group of friends, both new and old and though they’re all traumatized in their own way by Naruo’s death, they’ll face any challenges that arise together. Beats dealing with life’s cruelty alone.
Quote of the Story:
“I was just an average guy…Who kept worrying and suffering, but always laughing. People all die one day and the vanish as if they never existed…But that’s only natural. I always thought I wasn’t afraid to die. No..No one is afraid of death itself. Your pain and suffering is over in an instant. What really makes me suffer…is seeing you cry over me…from the darkness of the Milky Way. I’m sorry…Please, don’t make that face. You look best when you’re smiling, you know.” -Naruo
Keep or Donate?:
I loved this book and I’m keeping it. Full stop. I feel about this book the way certain literary nerds feel about J.D. Salinger’s books. I read Catcher in the Rye too late and found Holden Caulfield annoying. Salonin hit me at that right moment between being a dirt bag young adult and actually being a functioning adult man. If you’re of a different generation, this book probably won’t hit you in the same way, but such is the tragedy of all coming of age books. Whether this is your Catcher in the Rye or not, this is worth the read. Buy it new so that Asano gets more much deserved money, then donate it so that others can experience the painful, but necessary act of healing that is Salonin.