Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Shut-In Shoutarou Kominami Takes On the World
Shoutarou Kominami isn't just a shut-in, he's a “shlocken” – a shy, lonely chicken who can't get out of his own way. His mom wants him to get out and get a job despite his issues and plans to cut him off financially if he doesn't, so Shoutarou ventures out to an employment agency to give it a try. While there, he runs into a manga editor who's looking for just such a person for one of her authors, a gag manga artist who wants to write about someone like Shoutarou. But somehow Shoutarou gets the idea that he's working for a psychologist who wants to cure him…?
Comedy, it has often been said, is among the most subjective of genres. What's funny to one reader is unutterably cruel to another, and while there's not always such a stark divide in purportedly funny stories, that's definitely the case with Dan Ichikawa's Shut-In Shoutarou Kominami Takes on the World. The story's base conceit is that Taiga Kitazono, a gag manga artist, and his editor Katou need a “muse” for Kitazono's latest series. They specifically want a “sholcken,” a laborious in-world portmanteau of “shy, lazy, chicken” for the job – and that's Shoutarou to a T. The two then gleefully throw Shoutarou into numerous uncomfortable situations and have him keep a diary of his experiences to serve as fodder for the manga, all while allowing Shoutarou to suffer the misconception that Kitazono is a psychologist trying to help him. Those familiar with Germanic languages might find that “shlocken” might better be a portmanteau for the Yiddish “schlock” (crap) and the German “schlucken“ (swallow), because that's rather what this feels like. As a premise, what Kitazono does to Shoutarou is reprehensible: he's taking advantage of what is essentially his disability so that he can make fun of him in his manga. That Katou goes along with it, even finding Shoutarou for him, is equally unsettling, as is the fact that she almost never objects to any of the plans Kitazono has for his guinea pig. The idea that someone's anxiety and shyness could be fodder for a story making fun of them in the first place is uncomfortable (which is what Ichikawa is doing via Kitazono), which may explain Yen Press' decision to publish all three volumes and the associated side stories Sensei and Me in this single omnibus. While it does have some broader moments of humor, the insensitivity of the subject matter in general is impressive.
Equally troubling is the way that shlocken are basically a gag to everyone inhabiting the manga's world. Dubbed a popular phrase in-world, it isn't uncommon to see people pointing out Shoutarou, as well as a later character who can only talk if you address his cat, as shlocken, treating them as birders would a rare sighting. While it perhaps isn't fair to call what is clearly intended to be a funny manga out for insensitivity to people with disabilities, it really is uncomfortable, made even more so by the fact that Shoutarou's favorite author is Osamu Dazai, which has the implication for those familiar with Dazai's life and works that Shoutarou may have some thoughts of suicide. That very much makes this a “your mileage may vary” omnibus, because it could be a case of laughter being cathartic for some readers. In general, however, it simply smacks of the creator making fun of something they don't truly understand.
Despite the serious issues plaguing the plot of the series, there are some bright spots. Ichikawa's art is easy to read and largely makes the character designs unique, and a subplot about a celebrity chef who falls for Shoutarou is free of the meanness that characterizes the rest of the series. Shoutarou's grandparents, who appear in two chapters set in his rural hometown, are adorable, and the subplot about them participating in an Obon costume contest is fun. Likewise Shoutarou's weird uncle, who's just a little too attached to his nephew, adds an interesting, largely not-mean element to the story, giving us a chance to see Shoutarou as a member of a happy, albeit odd, family. The conclusion of the series also does try very hard to give us an ending that suggests that Shoutarou has managed to learn to cope better with his issues, which is good. That the methods are questionable is more the issue at stake.
Story aside, this is one of Yen Press' very nicely put together omnibuses. As usual, there's a good amount of attractive color pages and, important for bibliophiles, a spine that resists creasing despite the impressive heft of the book. There are a lot of liner notes, but they come at the end of each anthologized volume, which can be a bit of a pain; it might have been more useful to put all of them at the end of the book, like the under-the-dust-jacket gag strips. There is a lot of wordplay in the story, particularly the chapter where everyone takes a haiku lesson (another of the better storylines), and the translation and notes do a good job working together to make it feel natural while still giving us an understanding of what the original Japanese text was going for.
At the end of the day, Shut-In Shoutarou Kominami Takes on the World seems well-intentioned enough, but it suffers from a lack of understanding about just how debilitating anxiety and “shyness” can be, or how difficult it is to overcome them. It's from the zoo animal school of literature in that it holds up its protagonist as an exhibit for the readers, but it then proceeds to make fun of him in a way that can easily be seen as cruel. The art is nice and the book itself a good package, but the humor here is unlikely to appeal to those with first-hand knowledge or who don't favor basing the jokes on someone who can't fight back.
Overall : C-
Story : D
Art : B
+ Nice art and good notes, haiku chapter and stories with Shoutarou's family are good
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