AliveAlternative 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.

Alive
by Taguchi Hajime
ISBN: 9781939012098
Gen Manga, 2014

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

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