“Solanin” is the correct title for this story – but I’ll get to that later. First, as these things generally go, I should lay out some context.
Written and drawn by Inio Asano when he was around twenty-four years old, Solanin is roughly as twenty-four years old as any story can be, complete with faded jeans and tacky shoes and shirts you probably should have left at college. The story’s protagonist is Meiko Inoue, a girl stuck in a job she hates a year and a half out from an aimless formal education. Her boyfriend Taneda lives in her apartment with her, not because this is a considered long-term arrangement, but because his part-time design work doesn’t pay enough to cover rent. Meiko is stressed about her work, but doesn’t see any alternatives; Taneda is supportive to a fault, but insecure about his own expectations and about what Meiko wants him to be. Together they are nervous and unsure and basically the same as any other young person who feels like this can’t be what adulthood is really like.
It’s tough being that exact person. In fact, from my own lofty twenty-eight years of age, I’d say I haven’t encountered anything tougher. Meiko feels like an adult and a kid at the same time, living for the moment but also clinging to the past. “When I first started dating Taneda, I never thought I’d get old like this” she thinks, a few chapters before throwing a tantrum and running away from her mother. “When you’re young, you think the only way to happiness is the hard road” says her mother, who’s been there for long enough to know you never get any actual answers. Meiko is old enough to feel she’s expected to be an adult, but too young to realize being an adult doesn’t really mean anything. You don’t get a brass ring and a handshake when you figure out who you’re supposed to be. You just try to be that person, and sometimes fail, and sometimes do okay.
Meiko spends much of Solanin failing in a variety of ways. Both she and Taneda lack the conviction to make their own choices, and so that ends up being one of the ways they’re best for each other. Meiko hates her job, but can’t quit, because she’s worried and thinks this is what she’s supposed to do. And so Taneda tells her she should quit, and that they’ll take the future when it comes. When you still believe life has an actual plan for you, it can be hard to deviate from your own expectations – you may dislike your job, but you’re going to stick with it, because you’re performing the person you’re supposed to be. And as Taneda puts it, if you actually pursue your dream, you don’t get second chances – you can lament the potential of the life you haven’t chosen forever, but you can’t just pretend you could have done better at the life you choose. In that space, a good friend can be the best thing for you; someone who’s there to look out for what you want, when you’re too scared of tracing outside the lines to make your own leap. Taneda does this for Meiko’s apathy, and then Meiko does it for Taneda’s dream.
While Meiko feels her lack of talent condemns her to being an ordinary person, Taneda actually does have something resembling a passion. Taneda and his college friends used to be in a band, and still rehearse a couple times a month, mainly just noodling around on old songs. Their friendship is the friendship of long proximity; they know each other well, and have grown together into a collective of roommates and couples and bummed lunches. The band no longer seems like something that’s actually real – but when Meiko sees how Taneda lies about enjoying his work to keep her happy, she urges him to pursue that passion. And so he does. Taneda jumps back into music with the dedication of someone young enough to think you only get one chance at life, quitting his job and reserving studio time and promising he’ll break up the band if their new demo doesn’t get them work. And he writes a song called Solanin, which you can now see I was just about to get around to.
Solanin is many things in this story. When Meiko first watches Taneda’s band practice the song, she sees a light in his eyes, and thinks “this is how it should be.” The characters of Solanin are all well aware that time is fleeting, and remark constantly on how they’re getting older, and time moves faster the more they grow. Without the rhythm of college and exams, seasons are a wash; without the consistency of a steady job, days fade into months. Nothing ever seems quite right in their worlds, and the dreams and loves they’d planned on turn out to be far more mundane than they’d hoped. But music doesn’t have to be that way. A single performance can feel like a moment when everything is right, when everything makes sense, when the choices you made weren’t so bad after all. And you know that won’t last, and Solanin reflects that – it’s a song about moving on, and letting go of a past self, or experience, or lover. Like setting off fireworks and laughing while knowing this is your last summer with your friends, Solanin is a beautiful moment that is aware of its own end. The song can never last.
Solanin is rocked by an unexpected death halfway through, and its second half spins the process of moving on from grief into the process of moving on from youth. In entwining these two, it demonstrates neither truly ends – those who have left us are still with us in too many ways, and adulthood is no more than the knowledge that tomorrow will always be another day. Meiko and Taneda fear the idea of gates closing, of waking up and seeing you’ve frittered away your last chance to change, but Meiko herself is many different people across the course of this story. She finds herself lost in a Tokyo crowd at one point, in the image that doubles as the manga’s cover, but there’s a comfort in that. We always think everyone else has it all figured it out, that there’s some better truth hiding behind another’s eyes; but we’re all stumbling, and though we can assign the peace of certainty to the dead, we are only left with the half-truths they’ve left us, and the chance to try again.
I’m glad I read Solanin now, with the perspective of distance, because the story would likely have been too close to me a few years ago. I was basically Taneda for a large part of my life – I spent college assuming I’d make it as a musician, and threw two years afterwards at seeing how that would play out. I played a bunch of shows and sang a bunch of songs and now have some music tracks and a moldy drumkit. I lacked the conviction of those who make it, and I lacked the experience to know that was true. I was okay at what I did, and I had some great times with friends. At the time I thought, as Taneda consistently fears, that if I took a real job, that would be it; that you get one chance to be yourself, and if you fail, all that’s left is being one more person. I have a different job now, and it’s not steady work, but I like the days I’m living through. Things will be different in the future, and that’s okay. Some things end, some things remain, and days keep passing by.
Meiko’s last great act of Solanin is to pull the band together herself, picking up the guitar and playing that perfect song from the blinding stage. We see the way things change through this performance; a music producer that Taneda had scolded for his complacency is now back running the floor with the indie bands, and the boy Meiko is working with now shows up to be inspired by her song. We change in little ways, and we change ourselves. We don’t figure it out. We never figure it out. We make friends, and share times, and go through jobs we hate and jobs we dislike and jobs that are pretty fun but won’t last, because things don’t last, and that’s okay. “Just living is hard for most people,” says Taneda. “The world is so full of stuff that it’s confusing, but I know there must be something precious out there. That’s what I’d like to believe, anyway.” There is something special, but who knows how special it is. Maybe Solanin isn’t a great song after all, and the crowd never loved it as much as we remember. But all the rest of it was real.
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