Contestant for the “Most misleading title ever” prize, and not to be confused with the exclamation-marked near-homonymous eroge known for one of the most delicious traps since Bridget, “Happiness” is a one-volume collection of eight dramatic short stories by Furuya Usamaru. And when reviewing a fairly unknown seinen it gets pretty hard to think up a decent introduction, you know?
A schoolgirl in love with her teacher. A bullied boy contemplating suicide. A girl taking refuge in Satanism. A mistreated underground idol. A mentally challenged girl running from home and being deceived and abused. These and more are the subjects of these eight crude, adult stories dealing with various kinds of “social alienates”. They do not necessarily have a tragic ending, but certainly they do not lead to a happy one, except maybe the more bittersweet resolutions of two of them. The emotional impact is not moving and tear-jerking as it is unsettling, dark, thought-provoking: a different kind of intensity, but intense nonetheless. A comparison that often sprang to my mind is that with French Naturalism (Zola in particular), due to the attention given to low, shady parts of society, people afflicted by common social problems and the socio-psychological circumstances behind them. The very short What if is the only story with a different, albeit still tragic, tone, but any further description would spoil the twist so I’ll just leave it at that. Personally, I loved it in its simplicity. The plots are, of course, pretty simple and linear, and not all of them work to the same degree (for example, Lolita 7 and Indigo elegy feel kind of underdeveloped and unpleasant, Teased and stepped on, what blooms is a passionate flower feels a bit out of place and forgettable, and for some Happiness may rely on one or two coincidences too much), but none fails in a deal-breaking way. Each situation is treated in an effective yet evocative subtlety: never too graphic or explicit, despite quite a few nude scenes and, heck, even two rape scenes!, but always carrying the meaning across.
As I mentioned, again in a somehow naturalist fashion, many characters belong to a somehow “difficult” part of society: social alienates bullied at school, a girl exploited as an underground idol in a sort of quasi-prostitution, a lolicon hikikomori, and so on. Of course, in short stories there isn’t much room for psychological depth (unless you're Yukio motherfucking Mishima), but while some characters are given only a quick sketch (Teased and stepped on... and Lolita 7 being the worst offenders), for others Furuya manages to frame a surprisingly well-rounded picture in very few words (the characters of Happiness, The song of the devil and especially A room of clouds reaching the highest peaks): they all work within the frame of their tory, and some do so really well, entering as a whole character in the reader’s mind leaving an unexpectedly lasting impression. It’s hard not to care for innocent, simple-minded Yama-chan, not to get a little moved by Mika’s backstory and by how it got her to take refuge in Satanism, not to pity Takuya and Ruka’s despair, not to be repulsed and yet saddened by Atsushi, not to hate that bloody Ota maggot and so on.
This is the first Furuya Usumaru manga that I read, so as a person unfamiliar with his style, I must say I was impressed. I found the character design particularly striking: varied enough (especially on the males) to make each character stand out and to give them a definite feeling, a definite personality showing through; some look innocent and naïve as others look repulsive. The style is also varied, the locations and setting always manage to somehow give off the necessary feeling of miserable, almost dirty decadence, and the close-up facial expressions are stunning. I’d give special praise to the stories A room of clouds and A song of the devil, the former for the direction and for a scene with a poignantly symbolic imagery, the latter for a very disturbing scene with some very creative designs that probably owe a lot to Nagai Gō’s awesome Devilman (the manga). At times, though, I can’t help feeling that some passages are a bit confusing, as if rushing a story that could have used a couple more pages.
As a collection of dramatic stories, it does a good job at capturing tragic characters and situations, and while never heart-gripping it does manage to get across a certain kind of intensity that never lets up. I wouldn’t call it an absolute masterpiece, but in an argument about whether or not manga are literature or have the potential for being "high" art, it’s a title I’d probably name.
Let me state it clearly, though: Happiness is not an easy read. I would make a Mariottide joke here, but only my fellow Italian countrymen would get it. If you enjoy a darker read once in a while, something dealing with cruder situations and more adult themes, this volume could be a nice choice. But if you like your manga light-hearted or action-packed, skip this one, or you’ll end up like that friend of mine who bought it and then sold it to me at half its price not a week later (suck it Arathor, you tasteless git! ^_^).