Thursday, October 30, 2014
I'm sure I've written loosely about this kind of book being hard to review, or some other one giving an easy target, or other things in that vein. And it is definitely true that some works of art are easier to write about than others: anything notably bad is pretty easy. On the other end, really good can be more difficult, setting up expectations and high standards. Genre stories usually have some loose bit of string to grab hold of -- a SF story is sure to have some error of science in it, or a wonky sociological expectation, and a mystery novel is never so perfect as to leave no nits to pick -- even if the reviewer wants to come down positive in the end. Flamboyantly literary stories are the same way: there's a lot of stuff there to grab hold of.
But low-key stories in a realistic vein are more difficult. If they're wonderful and magnificent, well, there's that to say. If they're clunky and laughable, there's that as well. If they're just pretty good, with some flashes of human insight and a few moments of clarity and beauty and a lot of everyday-ness, though...how do you express that?
Alive is a collection of pretty good realistic manga stories, in the vein of literary short stories, all by Hajime Taguchi (about whom I know absolutely nothing). So I'm left in that last category: not wanting to praise this too highly, but wanting to celebrate it for honesty and truth, for almost three hundred pages of short stories about real people and their real lives. Alive will not change your life. (There are realistic manga short stories that could change your life: Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Tatsumi, for example.) But it is a nice book to read, with stories about people you might recognize, or see yourself in.
If you saw that cover, you might expect survival horror, or the story of some put-upon schoolgirl. But that's not what Alive is: it contains a couple of dozen stories, most of them pretty short, about modern urban Japanese. Some are students -- manga just can't get away from high schoolers, no matter how hard it tries -- but many more are young office workers. None of the main characters are particularly old, or particularly rooted -- they may have lovers or even newish spouses, but they don't have children and long careers and extended families. They also mostly don't have much that they enjoy: Alive is not entirely stories or urban anhedonia, but the tone is more often melancholy or sad than anything more positive.
Taguchi works in what I think of as an indy-comics version of the expected manga look: faces slightly more open and realistic, panel layouts generally restrained and professional, often showing places and things instead of relentlessly focusing on high-energy people and poses. It's all controlled and solid, without ostentation or frippery -- and the writing is similarly unadorned, mostly dialogue leading to moments of clarity at the end of the stories. Some of those endings work well, others...well, a few times you, like me, may be surprised to realize a new story has begun.
Taguchi has skill and clearly a drive to tell these stories. And there are enough hits in Alive to more than balance out the stories that miss. But this is low-key work about regular people: you have to be interested in that going in. If you are, Alive is worth checking out if you can find it -- it's from the newer publisher Gen, and I get the sense their books may not have a wide distribution in print form.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index