We tend to idolize creators. On social media, in the press, and in society in general, everyone who creates something is placed on a pedestal, admired for their determination in creating work and for the meaning it gives to the life of the rest of us non-creators. Creators do something most people can’t. They conjure up magic through words and images, put it down on paper, and if they’re lucky enough to maneuver past publishing gatekeepers are able to put their work out into the world. We cheer them on, or sometimes tear them down. But we don’t always see the whole story. We can analyze a creator through their work, but what about through the lens of reality? Who are the actual people that do the work to entertain us? Inio Asano’s nihilistic slice of life manga Downfall opens its panels on the creating side of comics, giving us a bleak portrayal of a manga creator who hates manga.
Kaoru Fukazawa is coming off the success of a hit manga series, but sales dwindled as the series went on and he is now at a creative impasse. Feeling pressure from multiple fronts to create another hit, Fukazawa has lost his passion for manga and is disgusted at what he views as the popular drivel being sold to readers. His relationship with his wife, a manga editor, is strained, and he seeks out comfort from prostitutes. Fukazawa is the epitome of the starving artist trope. His forlorn, empty gaze and generally poor outlook on life is disenchanting, to say the least. He is not the type of person most people would want to spend time with.
Downfall hits its meandering strides with Fukazawa’s strained connections with other people. Fukazawa jettisons relationships, both personal and professional. He asks his wife for a divorce on a whim. When he’s unable to come up with a concept for a new manga series, he fires his staff. His attempts to establish a meaningful connection with his favorite prostitute are pitiful and misguided. He spurns his editor because he thinks so highly of himself, despite his lack of motivation to do work. Readers will walk away from this manga potentially hating this man, which is the point. People, in all their complexities and layers, can disappoint.
Despite the pent up angst Fukazawa leaks out through every panel (every moment of the book is spent with him), Downfall finds success with a plot that drives itself through the oversized ego of its main character. If nothing else, the book is a portrayal of life itself, which is unpredictable, unplotted, and untidy. On the whole, Downfall feels like it might come to a satisfying end, and there is a brilliant moment at the end of the book when Fukazawa might actually have genuine emotion underneath his cool facade, but that moment is snatched away. And that’s something Asano gets right throughout this slice of life manga: life doesn’t always have hope or a meaningful end. Sometimes people are jerks, plain and simple.
Asano’s realistic art works hand in hand with the story, and being a book about creating manga, works at a somewhat meta level since this is a book about a manga creator creating manga which was written and drawn by a manga creator. Asano’s exteriors are especially remarkable, accurately portraying the industrial grayness of modern day Tokyo.
It should be mentioned that the realism of Downfall may be disturbing to some readers, as the book is highly explicit. Fukazawa engages with sex workers multiple times throughout the book, and most of those women are young, college-age, and vulnerable. Though Fukazawa seeks comfort in their company, like taking baths or burying his face into their laps so he can sob, there is still something disturbing about his approach with and treatment of these women. Additionally, there is a scene later in the book that is essentially rape, so be be forewarned if this is a trigger for you.
Downfall is an excellent book that will appeal to adult manga readers looking for more than fluff and who want their slice of life stories to be something other than hopeful cheeriness. But be prepared to spend some time with a tiresome character who will make you uncomfortable. There will be times when you cringe, but such is life.
By Inio Asano
Publisher Age Rating: M