A serviceable, if rather unoriginal, coming-of-age story.
Most of us place a great deal of value on the ability to decide our own futures, but the ways in which we embrace this idea can turn it into a burden. Many of us are encouraged to dream big as we grow up, yet realistically, only a handful of children will grow up to be a president, or a sports star, or a famous performer, or even a leader in any given field. Attaining such selective positions requires much more than a dream; in addition to hard work and sacrifice, it takes the right opportunities and the ability to take full advantage of them. Failing those, dumb luck and/or an accident of birth can sometimes suffice, but these are one-in-a-million propositions. Because of this, a lot of people are inevitably destined for a rude awakening, which often comes directly after leaving school and entering the real world.
This concept is the driving conceit behind Inio Asano's Solanin, which follows a group of young, underemployed twentysomethings who’ve recently graduated from college. None of them have settled into a career path, and they keep clinging to dreams of finding success with their rock band, Rotti. However, rather than embarking on a self-destructive path of partying and rocking out, the characters spend most of their time struggling to figure out what they really want, where they belong in the world, and whether to embrace the necessary or the hoped-for.
As the above might suggest, this story is full of self-reflection and introspective dialogue. Unfortunately, its penchant for navel-gazing often comes at the expense of telling a more compelling story. Solanin has a few well-done and beautifully illustrated moments of emotional catharsis, but to get to them, readers must wade through page after page of characters talking to themselves (and, at times, each other) about how unhappy they are. While generally well-written, these conversations mostly consist of people trying to explain their current emotional states, and these explanations don't have much to offer outside of "this is how I feel". Worst of all, these stretches of introspection are seldom inspired or original enough to avoid the impression that they could have been lifted from any number of autobiographical indie comics.
In point of fact, Solanin is rooted in the life of its author; it's basically an expression of his own career-related misgivings. While this personal connection gives the characters' self-reflection an air of intimacy, it might also limit the number of people who can truly connect with the work. Although the story has five central characters, they all face very similar problems, deal with them in very similar ways, and with one notable exception, come to very similar conclusions. This lack of variation in the characters' thought-lives gives the story a very narrow focus, and readers who can't closely identify with one character's plight are unlikely to find the others any more relatable. This novel would be more engaging if its individual voices were more vivid and distinct.
Despite these complaints, Solanin does have merit. While the storytelling is hardly superlative, it's quite competent in almost all areas. For all their navel-gazing, the characters are a believable and likeable bunch, the supporting characters more so than the leads. The weighty tone is leavened with quite a bit of humor, of both the sight-gag and character-based varieties. Most of all, Asano is no slouch on the visual side of graphic storytelling: his character designs are distinct and easily identifiable, his artwork detailed and consistent, and he really excels when it's time to show moments of emotional intensity. Some of the story's most powerful moments occur in the near or total absence of dialogue, which makes its overreliance on verbal exposition all the more frustrating.
What we're ultimately left with is a serviceable, if rather unoriginal, coming-of-age story. Asano’s choice of sincerity and realism over high ideals and melodrama is commendable given the latter's dominance of the Western manga market, but since he appears to prefer articulating emotion over actually demonstrating it, his ability to touch its audience in a really profound way is somewhat impaired. The book is spent trying to define abstract emotional states while the audience hungers for something more visceral, and this lack of direct engagement limits its effectiveness as a portrait of a disillusioned, uncertain generation.