“This world that we live in is gentle yet sad, fun yet sorrowful, strong yet ephemeral…but as long as you’re alive, something good is bound to happen. I’m sure of it.”
This philosophical two-volume slice-of-life tale lets its focus pass from one individual to another and back again as each encounters turning points large and small. Life is a perpetual stream of changes and choices, and figuring out what to do next — settle down, chase a dream, study for exams, confront a bully, help another — is rarely easy. But it is the spirit in which the characters choose, rather than what they choose, that matters most. If they face their challenges, appreciate what they have, and do their best to move forward without regrets, then they’ve succeeded.
A suddenly homeless college dropout, a child who refuses to be a passive victim, a convenience store clerk with no direction: whether they realize it or not, the diverse protagonists of this ensemble tale are linked by shared experience. Sometimes the connection is as simple as passing one another in the street or looking up at the same rainbow. Sometimes it’s more indirect, as when a narrow miss with a speeding truck in one story leads to other stories about the tattooed driver’s desperate attempt to leave his gang, a woman packing her life into boxes bearing the truck’s logo, and a couple meeting in the amusement park from which the driver stole his get-away disguise. However disparate their personal histories, the author skillfully anchors them in the same “wonderful” world.
Asano generates a lot of healing humor, but he takes care to remind us that violence and death are always close at hand. Along with two watchful shinigami and several ominous headlines, he maintains tension with images of thugs beating people up in the park, blind switchbacks in a residential neighborhood, and vertiginous drops from balconies, bridges, and treetops. A commonly repeated image involves the whoosh of a train or truck suddenly rushing by, fluttering skirts, blowing hair, knocking people off balance. The ever-present danger feels uncomfortably close, and yet the characters simply right themselves, brush it off, and move on.
“Living sucks,” muses one young man as he almost lets himself commit suicide by lazily somersaulting backwards over the railing of his school roof. “And yet I still wanna live.”
Happily, it’s that stubborn refusal to give in that Asano champions. Death itself is a part of life; it’s how you choose to live until you meet it that’s important. Despite the dangers and the worrisome news and the presence of otherworldly observers with somber duties, hopeful wonder wins.
While it can be hard to keep the series’ many interconnected characters straight, even with helpful hints like hairstyles and moles and glasses (as many of those can and do change over time), Asano makes up for his lack of facial diversity with his creativity in characterization and storytelling. His sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle transitions between threads are clever and effective, and the visual cues and motifs sprinkled throughout give the books depth and unity. It’s a pleasure to read something that reveals more of itself than you realize the first time through, and satisfying to see such careful intention behind the whole gradually drawing all the pieces together.
What a Wonderful World! acknowledges that pain exists, but reminds us that so, too, do spring blossoms, sunshine, good ramen, unexpected bonds, love, and hope. Yes, happiness is fleeting and independence is not without sacrifice, but moving forward just gives us that many more opportunities to discover happiness anew.
The strong but not gratuitous language and contextually relevant sexual situations (including some partial nudity, such as when one character stands in his window in nothing but a strategically-hanging tie as he declares his determination to get his job back) will best suit older teens and adults. And the curiosity that drives the strongest of Asano’s characters to see what happens next will keep those same readers turning the pages.
What a Wonderful World!, vols. 1-2
by Inio Asano
Vol. 1 ISBN 9781421532219
Vol. 2 ISBN 9781421532226
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)