Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 13th 2009
What a Wonderful World!
Tales of modern life continue to intertwine in this collection of ten short stories, centering on the inhabitants of a suburban town. Cram school students try to find meaning in life, young adults drift between college, part-time jobs and lazing around, and twentysomething professionals seek their true career path while balancing the demands of family. Some will find happiness, some will find frustration, and some will find that even the most mundane existence has its own mysteries.
Deep down, Inio Asano is probably about 80% realist and 20% optimist. And that 20% makes all the difference in What a Wonderful World!, which strikes a careful balance between philosophical extremes. ASANO is not about to tell you to believe in your dreams and fight for justice and protect the ones you love, but neither does he subscribe to the fatalist worldview that, in the long run, we are all dead. In the long run, ASANO says, we are what we choose to make of ourselves—and it is that idea, more than any particular character or storyline, that permeates this entire series. It is in Volume 2, however, that the idea is executed more deftly, ultimately making it the better half of the two-part collection.
Let us, for a moment, indulge ASANO's hipster pretension of calling each chapter of the series a "track." (What is this, some kind of mixtape?) If we take this as a 19-track album, then Volume 1 is the front end with all the singles, but also comes loaded with a slew of filler tracks to fill in the gaps. Volume 2, meanwhile, is the hidden gem of the series—various B-sides and oddities that somehow form a beautiful whole. Think the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Sure, Volume 1 was the first to try connecting various plotlines together, but it is this installment that perfects the form. A casual observer becomes a protagonist. An incident from one chapter sparks off the first scene of the next. A gag character turns out to play a pivotal role in the following arc. Some may criticize the series for its apparent lack of plot, but it's definitely there, weaving its way to a surprise finish.
Whether it's a good surprise or a bad surprise, however, is something for the reader to decide. Supernatural elements start sneaking their way in during the closing chapters, and one could argue whether it elevates the series by adding a new layer of narrative (Is this real, or just a character's imagination? Is it there to make people think?), or ruins things by bringing mystical mumbo-jumbo into a slice-of-life series. Either way, one thing's for sure: it all comes to a warm, touching finish, one that makes us finally understand the series' joyful title even if most of the chapters are about the struggles of youth.
If the story takes a strange turn toward the ending, however, at least one can rely on the art to stay consistently good. It's a tough job trying to make the ordinary lives of ordinary people into something visually interesting, but ASANO finds a way, with his wide range of character designs (What?! You mean there are other types besides spiky-haired schoolboy and doe-eyed schoolgirl?) and ever-shifting choices of imagery. A lot of these scenes boil down to two people chatting with each other, yet the page layouts change from moment to moment, focusing on the gleam in someone's eye, or the clench of a fist, or even a bit of scenery in the distance—anything to keep the conversation interesting. ASANO's skill with pen and ink also adds an appealing level of polish to the art—anyone can toss out a scribbly little comic these days, but the precise linework here, as well as the careful balance of blacks, whites and grays, reveals an artist who is genuinely committed to his craft.
If most of the scenes in the series are about people discussing their paths in life, then the discussions had better be good ones—and fortunately, they are. The dialogue isn't necessarily crawling with razor-sharp wit, but it does come with a lot of thoughtfulness, sometimes delivered in just a single line. Of course, one also gets the occasional clunker that sounds like it was copied off a greeting card, but that just comes with the territory. And while the message of the series may be universal, there are still the everyday aspects of Japanese culture to be found here, and occasional footnotes between the panels help to explain the details. Overall, this is the kind of translation that does exactly what it's supposed to—present the text in a way that's so natural, so transparent, that one focuses entirely on the story and never gets distracted by the way the characters are speaking.
It probably goes without saying that those who picked up the first volume of What a Wonderful World! also went after the second right away. This basically just confirms that everything on Tracks 10-18 (plus the "Bonus Track") is just as good as what was on Tracks 1-9, if not slightly better, once Inio Asano figured out how to get the chapters to link to each other. The variety of characters and situations is a breath of fresh air—you'll get your college ronin, salarymen, part-timers, and all sorts of other folk who aren't the typical school students or fantasy warriors to be found in every other series. The artwork, too, is fresh in its stylish precision and avoidance of visual clichés. Best of all, however, is that these stories—no matter how mundane and depressing they may seem at first—always end with just the right amount of uplift, that 20% of optimism that lightens the burdens of everyday life. Not just for the characters, but for all of us.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Takes all the good stuff from the first volume—the fascinating characters, the intertwined stories, the appealing artwork—and makes it even better.
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