What a Wonderful World Volume 1

I previously enjoyed Asano’s Solanin. What a Wonderful World is an earlier work, but I didn’t realize until I read Shaenon Garrity’s review over at about.com that Asano was only 22 when he started working on this manga. It is unusual to get such a polished and accomplished work from such a young creator. In some ways What a Wonderful World seems like a proto-Solanin. The lives of twentysomethings are explored in short stories in this work, while Solanin focused more closely on a small group of interconnected characters.

A girl named Toga has always been “the reliable one” among her group of friends, but she drops out of school and struggles with the idea of reactivating her musical ambitions. A schoolgirl engages in a dangerous contest to win social capital. A man briefly visits his daughter and ex-wife in a park. Aimless ronin studying for their college entrance exams have a memorable encounter with a basket case they meet in the street. Some of the characters are seen again briefly in other stories, making the lives of the different people in What a Wonderful World seem interconnected. The elements of surrealism that I enjoyed in Solanin are also present in this manga. Toga’s pet turtle talks to her, and in one of her dreams he slips out of his shell and goes off to live his own life. Crows offer life advice, and the men in plush bear costumes inexplicably appear in at least two stories.

While reading about the lives of people who haven’t figured out what they want to might seem like an invitation to wallow in ennui, this manga lives up to its title. Asano captures the small moments that people use to define themselves. A change in hairstyle, the realization that the reliability of a relationship can be a comfort, and the loss of an apartment each contribute to a moment of realization that lets someone move on with their life. As I was reading the manga and enjoying the combination of the prosaic and surreal in Asano’s art I realized that I was especially struck by the pacing and paneling. There was frequently a small jolt or surprise right before I’d turn the page to read the conclusion of a story, and this lent a dynamic feel to the manga even when some of the stories were just short sketches.

It is probably unfair for me to compare this manga with Solanin when I’ve only read the first volume, but I think if I were to recommend only one Asano work, I’d go with Solanin just because the focus of the single volume lets the reader feel more connected to the characters. What a Wonderful World is still very good. I wish it had been packaged the same way Solanin was, instead of being released in two separate volumes. Now I really want to see more of Asano’s work translated!