Manga artist Inio Asano’s characters are not simply haunted by the possibility of apocalypse: they actively wish for it. Their internal musings and conversations are studded with references to some longed-for Armageddon — whether they be the terminally bored twentysomething hipsters of What a Wonderful World! (2002–2004), Meiko and Taneda and the rest of their struggling bandmates in Solanin (2005–2006), the haunted villagers of Nijigahara Holograph (2003–2005), Punpun Onodera and the deeply dysfunctional Onodera family in Goodnight Punpun (2007–2013), the fractured adolescent lovers Koume Sato and Keisuke Isobe in A Girl on the Shore (2009–2013), the gaggle of girls who live in the shadow of the low-hovering alien mothership in Dead Dead Demon’s DeDeDeDe Destruction (2014–present).
For best friends Kadode and Ouran, and the rest of the cast of Destruction, the sense this makes is immediate: three years ago, an alien invasion of Tokyo precipitated a series of attacks and counterattacks that resulted in thousands of casualties, an incredible level of property damage, and an entire city ward being bathed in A-Rays (a barely disguised metaphor for the radiation left in the wake of the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster that rocked Japan in 2011). Too damaged by the fighting to leave but too resilient to be outright destroyed, the alien mothership now hangs ominously over the city, an omen of the inevitable end. Similarly, preadolescent Amahiko Suzuki and his neighbors in the small rural community at the center of Nijigahara Holograph have witnessed a cycle of horrific abuse and trauma that the community has sublimated into local superstitions about a ghostly apparition lurking in a cave and demanding child sacrifices to forestall the end of the world.
It’s little wonder that, with their cultures and their lives defined by these traumatic origin stories, these characters’ fantasies and anxieties have taken on apocalyptic dimensions. When Ouran laments “yet another day of crappy peace,” when Kadode sighs about how “[she] was never entirely satisfied with how everything seemed to stay the same” after the attack, when Amahiko laments “yet the world does not end,” their regrets are not that the apocalypse hasn’t come but that something said to be the apocalypse has come and gone and yet left the world almost entirely unchanged. In the words of literary critic Frank Kermode, “This is the tragedy […] when the end comes it is not an end, and both suffering and the need for patience are perpetual.”
For those Asano characters who inhabit more mundane worlds, this preoccupation with universal oblivion can seem morbid, if not insane. Despite whatever personal catastrophes may beset them, their worlds are ostensibly at peace, so much so that they’re regularly inclined to comment on just how overwhelmingly tranquil things are: “Usual days passing in the usual way inevitably leading to the usual future”; “It’s so ordinary, but this could be a moment of miraculous happiness”; “It’s another peaceful day in Japan […] we avoid disasters and terrorist attacks, living a quieter future than we once dreamed of.” Whatever traumas these protagonists suffer, they are limited in scope and scale, tragedies of everyday life: aborted relationships, the untimely passing of a loved one, deferred dreams and fumbled apologies and professional failures. Yet like their counterparts in Asano’s more fantastic comics, these characters find themselves disgusted with a status quo that seems to overrule any possibility of change: “Isn’t it boring to live with such a predictable future?”; “My life is so easy I’m kind of losing my mind”; “I see no light of hope in our future! It won’t be dramatic, just one boring day after another”; “Who cares […] our future is worthless no matter what”; “The only thing left is the terror of a meaningless life and an empty future.”
In their conversations, in their fantasies, in their internal monologues, they find themselves again and again hoping for anything that might shatter the stillness. Standing tongue-tied before an audience, Solanin deuteragonist Taneda is inspired to belt out, “When a plane plows into a building, when war erupts, an awful part of me […] feels […] kind of excited” — a callback to earlier, literal dreams he had of a “world […] enveloped in the flames of nuclear war.” After yet another brutal, humiliating rejection, Punpun finds himself “fervently hoping that a meteor or small planet — it didn’t matter which — would crash into Earth and destroy it.”
This hunger for catastrophic change, this disgust with the status quo, may seem strange: what crises are Asano’s nihilistic young characters responding to in worlds so tranquil, with futures so prescribed? It’s not that they exist in some fantasy land removed from history: the 2011 Tohoku earthquakes and tsunamis are addressed briefly in Goodnight Punpun. But such intrusions are only ever temporary, forgotten nearly as soon as they occur; the bulk of the citizenry, like Punpun’s friend Mimura, “wish days like today, just ordinary peaceful days, could continue on forever.” The New Age prophet Pegasus even chastises those who would have it differently, intoning, “How greedy are you that you thirst for a new world?” For the placated majority, content with their lot and with the cultural myth that these crises have been managed and conquered, this unchanging world is nothing but a blessing; any threat to it must be subsumed, reduced to an inexplicable aberration, if not entirely forgotten. It’s only fitting that the mysterious sleeping disease that appears at the end of What a Wonderful World! overtakes those who “wish time would stop” and leaves them inert, “like […] remote-controlled doll[s].” “It’s a pretty convenient illness for the modern man,” one character remarks, his bald contempt putting him on the side of those other Asano characters so afraid of stasis that they actively wish for Armageddon.
Yet the contagion of inertia in Wonderful World! is itself an eschatological fantasy every bit as final as the nuclear war of Taneda’s visions, the world-smashing meteor Punpun yearns for, and the wordless, senseless release of sexual ecstasy that Isobe and Kou chase in A Girl on the Shore. Punpun’s childhood love Aiko’s almost gleeful observation that “in a few years we’ll run out of oil, the environment will be destroyed, and Earth will be uninhabitable” is itself an inversion of the sleeping disease victims’ hope that the status quo will lead to some final, freeing apocalypse. Asano’s protagonists — almost all bitter, resentful outcasts haunted by the suicides of loved ones, by squandered dreams, by scarring abuse — may be motivated by their pain to seek a cleansing end that luckier souls would consider a threat. Lucky or unlucky, they are all responding to the same social crisis, an occurrence so apocalyptic that it might easily be blamed for the social and political malaise that has defined the last 30 years of Japan’s history. All of Asano’s characters, no matter how fortunate or cursed, are heirs of a post-bubble Japan.
What these members of the so-called Lost Decades inherited when Japan’s economic bubble popped in the early 1990s was not the unfettered prosperity they had been promised: gone were the secure jobs, the prospect of growing wealth, the assurance of peace. As the years went by without a correction, the certainty that this was just a typical market hiccup gave way to the horrifying revelation that Japan’s golden age was gone, never to return. In its place the country’s citizens were left saddled with precarious economic and resultant social conditions defined as much by precarity as by a kind of reversion to simpler states of dependency: young and old alike soon found themselves reduced to hikikomori shut-ins who retreated into their rooms permanently, "freeters" whose careers devolved into an endless succession of temporary gigs, and so-called "parasite singles" who relied on their families for support at every level. The people of Japan grew resigned to what Japanese sociologist Shinji Miyadai referred to as “the endless everyday,” a sense of entrapment in a stagnant present, where nothing ever changed or could change. Epochal catastrophes still occurred, of course: the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attack on the Japanese subway, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, and the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 were freighted with apocalyptic implications. And yet everyday life remained, unbroken, unchanged, endless.
It is no wonder that those lucky enough to find even a moment of peace despite these apocalyptic nightmares would resist the possibility of further change and insist on compartmentalizing those disasters that do still occur. For those left behind with the popping of the bubble — people like Punpun and Taneda and all the rest of Asano’s creations, reduced to lives that seem defined on every level by deprivation and depression and the ubiquitous sense that nothing can ever change — it’s little wonder they would find the occasional, would-be Armageddon not frightening so much as disappointing. When the past is forgotten, mythologized in Nijigahara Holograph or integrated into the normal order of the world as with the mothership in Destruction and the more historically grounded disasters that define Asano’s less fantastic works, when the present is so staid that it forecloses even the possibility of a future, as in What a Wonderful World!, Solanin, Goodnight Punpun, and all the rest of Asano’s oeuvre, what else is left but to wish for a final leveling that will truly end the world, making good on the false promises of earlier, milquetoast eschatons?
For the doom-wishers in Asano’s stories are not, like people in earlier cultures who anticipate global catastrophe as part of their religious traditions, hoping for an apocalyptic renewal of the world. Again and again, they reject the notion that such a rebirth would bring them any hope. “If that’s true [that the world won’t end], then I will go on suffering for eternity,” cries the father of the Kimura clan toward the end of Nijigahara Holograph. Nor is the end they long for “time-redeeming,” as Kermode would have it, “giving meaning to the […] indeterminate interval between the tick of birth and the tock of death.” Punpun’s dreams of world destruction might read at first like a fantasy of revenge against an uncaring world, an act designed to command the attention his family and loved ones denied him in his youth, but a later confession that he seeks only to “disappear, anonymous, like a bubble, and fade from peoples’ memories” suggests that he was seeking what critic James Berger identified as “the obliteration of the symbolic order in its entirety: the end of both the world and of the conceptual possibility of a world.” The unhappy souls in What a Wonderful World! who willingly succumb to the sleeping sickness that removes their capacity for speech and the teenage lovers in A Girl on the Shore who engage in feverish, unemotional sex seeking the release of an apocalyptic jouissance are pursuing a release beyond the possibility of representation, a release that will brook no possibility of renewal. Trapped by historical circumstances that have left them unable to conceive of a world that can change, offered no narrative alternatives, what else could they do?
And yet the ultimate irony is that the apocalypses these characters dream about will never come, can never come precisely because they are fantasies born of societies that have already precluded any possibility of change. It is not for lack of trying: Punpun’s wishes do quite literally create a gargantuan daruma poised to crash into the Earth; the box that a young Akahiko (in Nijigahara Holography) was told would end the world if opened does precipitate a reckoning that threatens to reveal the town’s originating trauma and, in doing so, end the entire world. Much as Ouran and Kadode lament how little the aliens’ arrival has done to change the status quo, later revelations show that the mothership’s reactor is melting down and will trigger a chain reaction destined to end all life on the planet. In each and every instance, however, something prevents the advent of that apocalypse. Punpun’s longed-for meteor is diverted at the last minute by the sacrifice of the prophet Pegasus’s cult, and though years later his nephew hears rumors that “humanity is done for,” these are but echoes of the same words Punpun himself heard as a child at the story’s opening, promising nothing but a repetition of what has come before. In later volumes of Destruction, it's revealed that Ouran has actually come from a different timeline in which the mothership bypassed Earth entirely, sparing her Armageddon's liberating fire, and that she may be compelled to time travel once more despite her wishes to see the Earth destroyed. The doomsday Akahiko ushers in cleanses the world, finally, only to then immediately restore it, resulting in a closed loop of events that finds the cast of Nijigahara Holograph existing alongside their past and future selves, a sobering reinforcement of the societal narrative that holds that the past will be subsumed, the future prescribed, the whole world locked forever into Miyadai’s “endless everyday.”
If one asks why they don’t commit suicide and be done with it, the answer is simply that suicide is not an option. Those who have tried are pulled back again and again at the edge of success by friends, by family, by circumstances that seem designed by the unchanging world to reaffirm the status quo. Even those few who do effect an untimely escape — Punpun’s lover Aiko, Isobe’s unnamed older brother — do not quite find themselves achieving true anonymity, that longed-for “obliteration of the symbolic order.” Instead, again and again, their memories are summoned like ghosts to haunt the loved ones they left behind, consigned to an afterlife in service to those still seeking the release of oblivion. And so, living and dead both are left to yearn for an apocalypse so undeniable, so total, that it will prevent any such interference, a catastrophe that will obliterate even the possibility of regeneration, all the while knowing this won’t happen because it cannot happen: it would violate the very nature of the world. The apocalypse will be eternally deferred.
Inio Asano has often been called “a voice of his generation.” The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun bestowed the title in an article as the young author was rising to prominence; manga luminary Naoki Urasawa described him in conversation as one of “those young people who give off the sensation of what’s to come […] like [the] representative of […] a new beat.” For his part, Asano has rejected the label. “With so many people using social media, there are more people who have directly become the voice of a generation. As such, I don’t feel the need to do so as a manga creator,” he argued when pressed on the question by Anime News Network’s Rebecca Silverman. Despite his protests, however, Asano’s work has earned him a position of undeniable cultural prominence, recognized by his peers, his predecessors, and his fans as an essential and unique voice.
Asano is similarly loved in the United States — a fact that took the author aback when the staff of Viz Media presented him with a letter of thanks from American fans on World Mental Health Day. “I used to think my feelings were particularly Japanese, but I see that there are people, regardless of nationality, who have the same feelings as me,” he said, sounding almost baffled by the evidence of fellow-feeling. “My manga is a little different from manga that’s purely for entertainment,” he added. Despite or perhaps even because of that, his comics remain a favorite of the terminally online, recommended ubiquitously on message boards, on podcasts, in reviews, remarkable enough even to merit publication by the normally manga-adverse publisher Fantagraphics (a privileged reserved almost exclusively for legendary creators like Moto Hagio and stylistic radicals like Yuichi Yokoyama).
Comics critic Joe McCulloch has ascribed the appeal of Asano’s work to similarities it shares with “a greentext post on 4chan, where the writer details a cringeworthy vignette from their life so that readers can enter their headspace.” Artist Sarah Horrocks claims that “what Asano does better than anyone in any other medium is he captures the sensation of surviving horror and dissociation, and having to live in a world surrounded by so many people who are so much better at faking it than you” — a sentiment familiar to anyone who has ever wondered how it is possible that people can go on striving toward a better future on a planet that seems so violently opposed to any hope of the same.
Given how rooted in his own cultural milieu Asano’s work is, it might seem strange that it resonates so strongly across national lines. And yet why should we be surprised? Asano’s work is largely characterized by anxieties of stagnation, peopled by characters whose social histories have promised apocalypse after apocalypse only to have them wake up to find that “yet [I] still live.” As a culture, we laughed at the false prophets who scrambled to recalculate their math after May 21, 2011, passed without God descending from the heavens and scoffed at the acid heads who explained that the world did not end on December 31, 2012, because the whole conceit was always just a metaphor, man, all the while regurgitating our own alarmist claims about why this or that disaster is the true climactic one, the sign that the end times are finally upon us. Y2K, 9/11, the housing crash of 2008, the election of Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the endless array of natural disasters that demonstrate the undeniable reality of climate change: all were guaranteed to usher in some kind of revelation, some final accounting of days. To be certain, these events were catastrophic for hundreds of thousands if not millions, and they have left generations scarred and ruined. Yet they were also, for all their attendant horrors, far from final.
The Apocalypse had come, we were told again and again, and yet again and again the world seemed to find some way to return to equilibrium. YK2 brought nothing but the turning of the calendar; 9/11 did not, as promised, unite the country in anything beyond a jingoistic bloodlust that spurred on multiple catastrophic wars; the 2008 financial crisis came and went, torpedoing the futures of millions while for the better part of a decade President Obama, despite his promises of hope and change, refused to prosecute the perpetrators or enact stricter restrictions on the industries that caused the meltdown;for four years Donald Trump’s opponents warned that he would initiate nuclear war after first ushering in a regime that would make the Nazis look tame, for four years his lunatic supporters elevated him to the status of a messianic figure who would fulfill their most deranged fantasies of purifying violence — hated minorities expelled from the country or bludgeoned into submission by the police, a mythical cabal of deep-state pedophiles rounded up and executed on the White House steps, America made great again — only for him to spend his term carrying out the same decades-long project of his Republican predecessors: gutting the social safety net, finalizing the transfer of wealth to the capitalist class, perpetuating the Forever War, persecuting racial and religious minorities, and filling the Supreme Court with Wall Street cronies. Now his supporters spin apocalyptic yarns about president Joe Biden, a man who limped to victory by campaigning on the promise that “nothing would fundamentally change” and peddling illusions of a return to the same static Obama years he helped architect. COVID’s potency and our leadership’s equally bungled reaction to it may not have manifested the eschatological visions of Contagion but it has left us a nation of involuntary hikikomori, "freeters" and "parasite singles" locked in interminable professional and personal stasis. Even global warming, which truly looks poised to spell the end of world, is so abstract a threat — its origins so diffuse, its daily effects indistinguishable to the undiscerning from typical natural disasters — that it has been assimilated into the everyday, as if it’s just the new status quo.
For those of us lucky enough to emerge from this endless series of crises with our wealth and lives intact, how could we not latch on to the promise of normalcy? For those of us ruined by these catastrophes, slaving forever in jobs that offer no advancement and barely enough to survive, alienated from our communities and beset by the threat of the “eternal everyday,” placated by a culture that offers nothing but rehashes and reruns, desensitized by an endless series of half-assed Armageddons, how could we not wish for a final, unequivocal end to it all? And yet the apocalypse has come and gone, and come again and gone again, and “[we] still live.” The past has been subsumed, the future will not be born, the present is all there is, all there was, all there ever can be.
If it is frightening that Asano’s work, despite its nihilism, has proven so successful, so resonant, it is hardly more frightening than a world that makes the fantasies he offers feel so cathartic, so honest. In a 2014 interview with Daisuke Yoshida (that was later translated into English by MangaBroG) Asano opined that “it’s obvious that at this point we’ve entered the end of the world. The world isn’t going to end soon; it’s already starting to end now. The question is how to live in an age where the whole world is spiraling down, down, down.” When asked if he thought his manga could teach readers anything, “toughen the reader up to face reality,” he shrugged, offering only, “nah, I don’t think so.” After all, what could there be to teach in an endless downward spiral, where the patterns that are have been and will be forever, repeated again and again, world without end?
Asano is, of course, not alone in his fascination with the end of days: a survey of postwar and post-bubble Japanese media finds a culture awash in images of apocalypse; so, too, any reasonable survey of late-20th-century American art. What distinguishes Asano is that his work is ruthlessly, unflinchingly committed to this philosophical pessimism. It is not merely an ambient element, but the mood entire; like true despair it is all consuming, all encompassing, suffusing the theme, the narrative, the characters, defining the very purpose of the work. Asano, in his uncompromising artistic visions, reveals a phenomenon that others dissemble and obscure; in his unwavering commitment, he offers works so completely despairing that they do not offer the false solace found in other less committed art. Like other prophets before him, he can show us glimmers of the imminent apocalypse. It is hardly his — or our — fault that the revelation he offers will never be fully understood. How could it be? The apocalypse — and its attendant revelation — will be eternally delayed.
Austin Price’s criticism and journalism have appeared in The Comics Journal, PopMatters.com, The Fjords Review, and Unwinnable, among many other outlets; he is also, alongside artist Matthew Rainwater, the co-creator of the webcomic Batmonster, and the writer of the musical Rush to Die and the opera Feast (with composer Costantinos Dafnis).
Featured image: "Inio Asano at Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2018" by Jody C. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image has been cropped and de-saturated.