Alternative manga is often obtuse, which can be a detriment or a delight. Taguchi Hajime’s Alive is often both at once. The book is a collection of loosely-connected stories: teenagers hiding from their exams on a rooftop; a man who is afraid to love, cohabiting with a sex doll in lieu of falling for a real woman; a man digging a deep hole to deal with his heartbreak; and a boy scaling a giant wall that claimed his father’s life. Each story has a distinct beginning, middle, and end, though conclusions are often elusive; the entries feel like literary short stories condensed to comic book-length.
Connecting each story is a sense of existential frustration with the realities of a disconnected, regimented, and cold society. It’s a particularly pervasive feeling in Japan: childhood is a world of constant studying, drilling and testing; adulthood is often defined by loneliness, anonymity, and over-work; and a combination of misogyny and gynephobia rules the day for many men. All of these recognizable social ills appear and reappear in Alive. As such, the overwhelming takeaway from this book is not “Isn’t society tragic?” but rather, the amusing, unfortunate, and not wholly accurate observation “Isn’t Japan weird?”
Setting its cultural specificity aside, Alive is by turns poetic, fantastic, and banal, lightly and emotionally illustrated. There is no flourish or overemphasis to be had and few manga dramatics herein; instead, Hajime includes just enough detail to get the point across. There are haunting moments of sadness and thrilling moments of connection—many of the protagonists go to great and terrible lengths just to feel something, anything at all.
All in all, Alive is a straightforwardly obtuse collection of stories that explore the same confounding feeling of disconnectedness in different settings and lives. In one sense, it’s unfortunate that much of the context in the stories is so distinctly Japanese—if this was the first or only exposure I had to Japanese culture, I’d be inclined to make some broad and largely incorrect generalizations. Read as part of a manga spectrum that runs from wildly experimental to pedestrian and commercial, Alive finds a satisfying middle ground as a serviceable offering that captures universal emotions worth lingering over for a moment or two.
by Taguchi Hajime
Gen Manga, 2014