Slacker icon Buddy Bradley articulated his ambition in 1990’s “My Pad and Welcome To It”, the first issue of Peter Bagge’s Hate.
“My goal is to eventually quit my job and support myself by collecting and dealing records, comics or whatever…Maybe even open up a store,” says Buddy (known as “The World’s Greatest Slacker”).
In the second story, “Hate at First Sight,” Buddy notes that “Time’s flyin’ by faster all the time…I can easily see myself falling into a rut if I don’t clean up my act. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of older guys I know. They develop a safe little claustrophobic world for themselves…their solitude becomes a guarded habit.”
The first two volumes of this unusual manga appeared in English in 2010, and the first volume introduces us to Oguro, a salaryman who quits his job on his fortieth birthday.
“Now, if you’d asked me what was wrong with my life, I couldn’t really have told you,” he says. “It wasn’t anything in particular…I just needed to find myself.”
Noble as that sounds, the reality is that Oguro soon spends all his time playing video games, and living off (and with) his father and daughter. Soon, Oguro decides that he wants to pursue his lifelong dream of drawing manga for a living, and of course, he is completely unsuited and unprepared to do so. Much like Buddy Bradley’s dream of making a living by “collecting,” reality won’t stop him.
“In Japan, this manga bears the catchphrase ‘Nice! A Middle-Aged Comedy!’” says “Mr. Kamimura,” editor of the manga, in an interview featured on the official website.
“That gives the impression that it is a light read, but it actually presents the current circumstances, dreams, hopes and realities that people live with in today’s world,” he continues. “I hope readers will peer beneath the ‘middle-aged comedy’ aspect and walk away with something more from this manga.”
Certainly, there are many aspects of this story that are far from light: Oguro meets his daughter working in a surprisingly harsh place, and he encounters several characters with dark pasts and mysterious motivations. At times, Oguro seems to be a clownish figure set up for ridicule, but then he reveals a depth of character, a moment of tenderness, a cry of desperation that approach heartbreaking territory.
There are also intriguing qualities that suggest the story could have real-life parallels. The name of the protagonist bears similarities to the author’s name (Shizuo Oguro vs. Shunju Aono) and the publisher named EKKE in comic echoes IKKI, this manga’s actual publisher.
“Some aspects of the manga are based on my lifestyle and experiences. Shizuo is about half like me. The other half is fiction,” says Aono in an interview on the official website. “I didn’t start drawing manga until I was about twenty-two years old. I think that is, generally, a late start.”
There are also hints that Oguro led a life tinged with violence before settling down as a salaryman. He’s smitten by the tough-guy behaviour of Shuichi, a young co-worker at the burger joint he ends up managing, and an early panel shows a youthful Oguro wielding a sword and challenging someone to a fight.
Aono’s visual style is deceptively simple, with surprising details throughout: a melancholic expression, Oguro’s permanent shrug posture, and a wonderfully strange dream sequence where Oguro wrestles with a lookalike alter ego who might also be god. It’s a style often referred to as “Heta-Uma,” which Dan Nadel’s PictureBox blog describes as “pre-punk and post-hippy” embracing “production defects, street scrawls, and technical incompetence.”
The rebellious quality of the visual style resonates with Oguro’s struggle to succeed despite everyone discouraging or even mocking him at every turn. Part of this manga’s appeal lies in rooting for the underdog, but there’s also a sense that more will be revealed about everyone’s past, and how that continues to haunt them.
While each chapter in Volume One picks up roughly from where the previous chapter left off, the book ends with a stunning standalone story, “To Live.” Wandering home from work one night, Oguro stumbles over Yukiko, a suicidal young woman in the woods. Cautiously, they become friends, and she tells her story, which resonates strongly with Oguro’s in her search for a purpose.
“I certainly never gave a thought as to whether my life had any meaning or not,” she says.
Her need for money leads her to a dangerous line of work that also has parallels with the activities of Oguro’s daughter. At one point, Yukiko asks Oguro, “Why do you go on living?” He tells her a strange and wonderful little parable about how her age relates to the time of day, and how he is like a bamboo shoot.
“Sorry,” he says, finally. “I have no idea what that means.”
Her reaction suggests otherwise, or at least, that he’s wiser than he knows. Similarly, this story demonstrates a level of emotional depth that might not be expected on first glance, and the plot device (Oguro as a deeply flawed influence on other troubled characters) could easily continue across upcoming volumes.
As the young woman says some time after her encounter with Oguro: “I think not knowing if your life means anything is perfectly fine.”