Saturday, 4 October 2014

Alive by Hajime Taguchi Review

Love and heartbreak, ambition and depression, growing up, growing old, and dying - the struggle between dreams and reality and the endless search for happiness. These are universal themes, all explored in Alive by Hajime Taguchi. 

Gen Manga is, like Max Factor, the manga of manga artists! These are underground indie manga (doujinshi) traded between manga artists, and who doesn’t want to read comics that the artists themselves consider great? Alive is a fantastic collection of short stories that definitely don’t jibe with mainstream manga - they’re introspective, brooding, and criticise modern society - totally at odds with bestsellers like Dragon Ball, One Piece and Naruto. 

A number of stories focus on the pains of adulthood, the idealisation of innocence and wanting to remain a kid or return to the womb and be reborn. A boy tells his guidance counsellor he doesn’t want to grow up because adults are dirty. A girl gets her first period and thinks she’s dying. A woman lies in a small, warm bathtub, imagining herself in the womb again. A boy and a girl run away to live atop the roof of the tallest apartment building, believing they could live together alone forever. A man and a girl dig a giant vagina-shaped hole, enter it naked, and emerge, seemingly changed. 

Other stories focus on love in various forms. Like a woman whose partner of three years leaves her with a note and a box of cookies - she eats the cookies and reminisces about her relationship. A man goes through a bad breakup and buys a life-sized doll of a woman, unable to forge new relationships with women. A man breaks up with a heavy-smoking woman and, in her absence, buys a pack of cigarettes and lights them in his flat, the smoke reminding him of her presence. 

Surrealism is pleasantly worked in as well, like a girl with spectacles which blur out anything she doesn’t want to see, a talking frog wanting to be named, and the bizarre story of a climber who discovers the truth of his world when he climbs the giant wall that encloses his town. 

The stories as a whole could be looked upon as superficially melancholic but there’s a lot of hope to be found in them. The characters encounter difficulties in their lives, the story explores them, and they emerge at the end with renewed purpose, better for the experience. They go through an arc, put down by circumstances but rising by the end. 

And it’s not like Taguchi is unaware of the kind of stories he’s creating - he does throw in some humour here and there, like in the story of a desperate man, unhappy with being a grown-up and deciding upon suicide. He goes to the woods to die and tries to recapture some happiness by dancing frantically only to fall over a root and have an ant laugh at him! 

Or the story of the boy and girl who run away to live on the roof ending with the boy standing in traffic wanting to be run over only for a driver to tell him to get out of the way. “Why won’t you hit me, are you telling me that I have to live?” the boy sobs. “No,” says the driver, “but if I hit you I’d have to through the court system.”

The stop-start of the short story collection means it’s not ideal for reading in one sitting and not all of the stories are effective but for the most part these are outstanding original comics.

The problems of modern life, Japanese or elsewhere, and the pains of the human soul are memorably delved into with these stories, told with enormous skill and imagination by Hajime Taguchi. It’s easy to look at these stories and think they’re just sad tales and nothing more, but they’re actually very upbeat in unexpected, abstract ways. Many of the characters are suicidal but they don’t die, they choose life, and that’s the message of Alive - life, with all its pain, is worth it. And so is reading this book.


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