Mangaka Inio Asano is known for his heartbreaking realism, especially when it comes to delivering hard-hitting emotional moments. In his newest manga, Downfall, Asano delivers a soul-shattering story that’ll strike the heart of any creator who has ever had trouble finding inspiration. Kaoru Fukazawa is coming off a moderately successful manga and while many encourage him to rest, he’s also receiving pressure to start his next project. There’s just one problem: he doesn’t seem to have the passion anymore, and as a result, his life and marriage start to crumble.
There are a lot of people saying this work is autobiographical, and I sure hope not because this book is a misery-filled tale. Asano’s work emanates the most raw emotion I’ve ever read, and it’s largely due to his use of silence. All of the sadness and anger isn’t shouted at you or shoved in your face. It’s gently whispered to you or placed at your feet. There’s sadness in silence, and Asano has mastered that. I’ve sat down to write this review a number of times now, and there’s nothing I can say that would convey how visceral this manga is even half as much as the manga itself, but I suppose I have to try.
From interviews, it seems as though Asano has become aware of his international audience even if his intended audience is primarily Japanese. The protagonist is a Mangaka, and there are a unique set of pressure and consequences that result from the systems in place within the manga industry. Nonetheless, this book is able to succeed because, at large, it deals with the creator as an entity. Creating, not manga, is what is inherently ingrained into Fukazawa’s identity, and it’s part of what allows us to connect to it so deeply.
Another thing that allows us to connect on to the story on a profound level is how private it feels. There is no other character in the book besides Fukazawa himself that knows as much as we do about his life and innermost feelings, and the book is primarily driven by those thoughts and emotions. It’s as though someone was in your head for a year of your life at your worst point. Everything feels so personal as though you and him are the only ones who know what’s going on. It’s a secret, quiet, and beautiful agony that shines through largely due to the art. Asano’s art is extremely photo-realistic. In interviews, he’s said that he tries to 3D-model photos he takes of specific locations and then turn those 3D models into 2D drawings, which is a ridiculous amount of dedication, but it pays off. The settings are unbelievably crisp and detailed, and the expressions are shockingly specific.
Asano’s own life being a big influence, this feels as much like a memoir as it does a drama. One can’t help but make mental comparisons between Fukazawa’s work and Asano’s, but Asano isn’t alone. There are a myriad of tales of writers and artists battling downward spirals of depression, anxiety, and other mental and social health related struggles. These are struggles someone in a creative industry would be familiar with. Fukazawa is a man so burdened by his lofty and idealistic expectations of his own art that he sacrifices the rest of his life around him and still falls short. An artist searching for his next inspiration, he finds himself disenchanted with the current direction of the industry and married to someone who is supporting the manga he views as “selling out” more than she’s supporting Fukazawa’s. He wants to find an idea, passion, or muse that will satisfy him and keeps coming up short. We as readers soon realize, however, that it’s not the industry that’s on a path towards failure, but Fukazawa himself.
In many ways, Downfall can be likened to James Joyce’s Stephen Hero in its depiction of growth, thinly-disguised autobiographical nature, and changing attitudes towards art. The typical depiction of the artist is that of a guardian that lies at the gates between reality and our imaginations and is often a noble one. Asano, turns that on its head and shows us the life and suffering of a real artist, trying to claw his way towards being someone that matters with every work they put out. Asano shows us this by telling the story through the means of dialogue, with us as observers, occasionally scattered with unwitting first person narration as Fukazawa reflects on his own life. In most scenes, Fukazawa remains depressed or unfeeling while the chaos of the world swirls around him. He turns to prostitution often to feel something, but it comes across to the reader as hopelessly empty. There’s never mistake Fukazawa for a good person necessarily, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. Fukazawa hauntedly reminisces about a cat-eyed girl he dated when he was just starting out who knew him to be a monster that cared more about his dream than those around him. In Fukazawa’s memory, this cat-eyed girl is more of a ghost, echoing his own doubts while he continues to search for a story that will be an accurate reflection of his own ideals.
What are those ideals, you may ask? Fukazawa starts off viewing success as creating a story that matters in the landscape of history and society. The thing he fears most when starting out is that he won’t create a story that stems from true emotion and leaves any sort of lasting impression. By the time he finishes his next piece, however, we see him given in to the formula because the manga industry’s ideas of success doesn’t reflect his own. There are many manga fundamentally about creating manga, Bakuman being the most famous one, but Downfall is almost screaming for you to run in the other direction. Rather than a dramatic story about the importance of following your dream, Downfall is a counterargument that tears away at the beautiful, ornate guardian standing outside the gates between reality and our imaginations.
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