Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kaoru Fukazawa thought he was living the dream: he's had moderate success as a manga creator despite the odds being against him, but when his most recent series ends, he finds himself at a loss. Years in the industry have left him jaded, and when he looks at current popular titles, all he sees is a formula without any heart to it. Is Kaoru about to undergo a downfall because of the current state of the manga industry, or is he welcoming his own doom with open arms?
There's always something about Inio Asano's manga that feels like it might be personal. Whether that's true or not, it certainly speaks to one reason why his works are so popular and well-regarded – many readers like to feel like they can relate to a story and an author on a personal level, and Asano is very good at provoking just that feeling. On the other hand, it could just as easily be said that Asano's works engage in self-serving naval-gazing, proving many stereotypes of self-absorbed Millennials true with their excessive, unapologetic internality. Which side of that particular coin you land on is likely to influence your opinion of Downfall, which can alternately be read as an indictment of an industry that thrives on the broken dreams of creators or as a personal study of creativity and “selling out.”
The story follows Kaoru Fukazawa, a thirty-something manga creator who has been working in the industry since college. He's had some success, with his most recent series, Goodbye Sunset, reaching fifteen volumes. But his print runs have been declining as other creators' soar, his editor wife is invested in other creators' works and is almost never home, and he has exactly zero inspiration for a new series. In fact, although he doesn't say it, there's a definite impression that he isn't sure a new series is even worth it.
Thus begins Kaoru's downward slide. When we meet him at the start of the manga, things are already in motion – his wife can't come to the wrap party for his series because she's babysitting a new creator, no one really pays attention to his speech or seems to be celebrating anything, and Kaoru decides to end the evening by soliciting a sex worker. This leads to him eventually getting involved with a young woman named Chifuyu, whom he meets when the sex worker he usually frequents is away, and Kaoru finds himself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by her. Chifuyu reminds him of a toxic relationship he had with a woman with similar “cat eyes” in college, a relationship that seems to have shaped many of his attitudes in later life, although he himself might not be fully aware of it. That the volume is bookended by his statement of distrusting cat-eyed women in many ways says more than Kaoru himself is able to.
Although these relationships, none of which really work out, are a nominal focus throughout the volume, none of them are quite as important as Kaoru's troubled relationship with himself and his own creativity. All of his efforts to move forward are stymied by his use of emotional excuses: his wife doesn't pay enough attention to him, his assistant is ungrateful and tries to blame him for her own lack of success, his wife took the cat when she left, it all goes back to that first cat-eyed woman. It's easy to see that he's in some ways using his relationships with women as the excuse for his lack of creativity, a troubling theme that rears its head throughout the book. After that first girlfriend, Kaoru seems to view women as sex objects rather than people; his bid for reconciliation with his wife ends in an attempted rape (more troubling is that afterwards she agrees to have sex with him) and his most stable relationships are with the sex workers, with whom he needs to do nothing emotional. The only female he seems to have a stable relationship with is his cat.
That there's not really any resolution to this issue is unsettling. Ultimately all that changes for Kaoru is that he decides that he doesn't need to see the act of creating manga, of being creative, as anything more than a job. All he has to do if find the magic formula, to come up with the shallow story that will sell, and he'll be back on track. Emotional supports, he seems to decide, don't need to be a factor. This is a marked change from the man who in the beginning of the book deliberately sought out bad reviews of his works and poo-pooed creators who didn't seem to put any real heart into their sophomoric works. By the end, Kaoru is one of those creators, or at least perceives himself as such, just writing for the money rather than to reach the readers.
Is this meant to be a reflection of what authors go through? Possibly, although we can't assume that it's strictly, or even semi, autobiographical. But look at the late 2019 implosion of the Romance Writers of America, and you can see how social media and the world at large can have an impact on the act of creating a story, manga or otherwise. That seems to me to be the point that Asano is exploring in this work, the way that creators interact with readers, publishers, and the idea of creativity even being part of an “industry.” That makes this a book that is simultaneously reflective on a personal and a professional level, and if Kaoru is the farthest thing from a sympathetic character, he's also one whose path we can, if not understand or like emotionally, at least see where it came from.
Downfall isn't an easy book. It's not something you necessarily pick up to read for pleasure, and it certainly continues Asano's moderate trend of male characters having uneasy relationships with women, something we also see in Goodnight, Pun Pun and The Girl on the Shore. But it is an interesting read with beautiful art, and if you're looking for a different take on industry manga, this is worth picking up.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Interesting view of a creator's struggles and self-blame, as well as a creator's relationship with readers.
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