"Downfall": Inio Asano's Portrait of the Manga Artist As a Creepy Burnout [Review]

What happens when you're no longer the wunderkind comic creator whose bestselling manga series was the toast of the industry? That's what Downfall is about. And it's not pretty. Well, the artwork is pretty and naturalistic without exaggerated cartoon eyes and faces. That only makes it even darker and more depressing.

Kaoru Fukazawa is the writer-artist of a bestselling manga based on his teen years and the girlfriend who marked him forever. Now his multimillion-selling series has come to an end. He's no longer the fresh-faced whizz kid when he first started out. Middle age hits him like a collapsing wall. His marriage to his wife, who's also his editor, has deflated to a tired indifference. She's now working with a new manga-ka who's young, hungry and talented.

Without a bestselling book to bolster his ego, his self-loathing and narcissism threaten to consume him. Let's be clear: Kaoru is not a good guy. One of his studio assistants confronts him for his past harassment. He uses call girls who dress up like his adoring teenage fans for solace. That's as close to therapy as he gets.

A Realistic Story of Psychological Horror

He has no real self-awareness, wallowing in self-pity blaming everyone else for his misery. He keeps revisiting the relationship of his youth that messed him up and shaped his psychosexual identity like a recurring trauma. Self-awareness is a foreign country for him. He thinks he just needs to figure out how to make a new hit and everything will be hunky-dory. He doesn't believe in the love of the medium or the story anymore. It's all about making him feel good, and he needs fame and adoration to feel good. Or so he thinks.

Inio Asano occupies a unique place in manga. Asano writes stories are mature and unflinching in their depiction of the darker emotions in human nature. They don't show the usual rah-rah can-do optimism of Shonen manga for kids. Asano's stories deal with depression, pessimism, nihilism. They remind us that manga isn't all bright and cheerful empowerment fantasies. This is not a happy story with a happy ending. Asano knows life doesn't offer the neat, redemptive ending that kid's manga offer. Life just goes on, and people who refuse to change keep being themselves.

Not all manga needs to be bright and happy. Downfall is bracing for that, and shows how wide the scope of comics can be.

Downfall is published by Viz Media on February 18th. It can be preordered