Growing up as a child, I’ve always found that there’s never really a right or wrong reason to pursue a passion. Whether it’s sports, academics, or even the creative arts, the reasons behind why one might decide to walk down those paths could range from the incredibly complex and selfless to the rather simple and self-indulgent. Ayumu Fujino is a young girl who starts her career as an artist seemingly for the latter – she draws funny comic strips for the continued validation she gets from her classmates, and conversely she feels threatened when others make that talent seem less than what she thought. She’s stubborn and easily swayed but embodies the youthful pride you’d find in a lot of kids who realize they have some kind of talent without the independent drive to nurture it.
Like many people whose comfort is threatened by others, Fujino lashes out, withdraws, and eventually gives up her desires altogether. Ironically, it takes a very pure and childish form of admiration to give Fujino that last bit of courage to pursue art full-time. Kyomoto arguably isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Fujino, but she does serve as a mirror to the book’s messages of codependency and self-improvement: that is, it’s all well and good to rely on others for support and to get that initial spark of creativity going, but you’ll need to carry on those passions on your own eventually. The relationship between these two is simple yet poignant because even though you acknowledge their bond, you also know that there will be a time when those moments must eventually end. You almost don’t want them to because of how much these two accomplish together and how happy those accomplishments make them. Unfortunately, not everything is meant to last.
Things take a rather dramatic shift roughly two-thirds into the book with a sudden, unexpected tragedy and its aftermath taking up the main focus. At first glance, this admittedly comes off as a rather cheap, cliché attempt at generating drama, especially when the book’s messages about passion and codependency are already well-established without resorting to such extremes. But on a closer read, the lesson that is learned in wake of such a tragedy is still an important one that does bring the book’s ideas full circle. Suffice to say that the first part of the book builds up the story’s heart while the final third of the book puts that heart through the ultimate test.
Do not expect anything remotely close to the high-octane action and adrenaline that is often presented in Tatsuki Fujimoto‘s Chainsaw Man. Look Back Takes a much quieter approach – roughly one-third of the book is without dialogue, relying on reaction shots or large panels to convey specific feelings. Not only is the pacing slow, there are even moments where it feels like time itself stops to let the weight of everything happening wash over you. Even something as simple as someone working at their desk for months on end can feel heavy. The artwork itself does fluctuate in quality from time to time. Some of it features incredibly detailed pencil work and shading, particularly the backgrounds, that make the already large panels feel so much bigger on the page. Other pages and panels take a rough sketch approach, complete with some incomplete lines and off-model faces, that make them almost come off as unfinished. These shifts are definitely not for everybody, but they do feel intentional, mirroring the mindsets and inclinations of the characters.
Without going into too many specifics, I would be remiss to not point out some of the similarities between some of the events that take place in this book and the very well-known, real-world tragedies that occurred around the time that this book was written. Even the names of Kyomoto and Fujino seem to almost be referencing specific places and people. Taking these similarities into consideration, you can absolutely argue that the portrayal of certain elements is done in poor taste, and I would even go so far as to say that the same exact messages could have been communicated just as effectively without the use of real- world parallels.
That said, I don’t think Fujimoto’s story makes light of or downplays the intense loss suffered by those who experienced real-world tragedy. Tragedies, by their very nature, are unexpected, and it could be hard for those that live past them to reconcile with the opportunities and possibilities that have been so suddenly and unfairly robbed from them. A bunch of “what if” scenarios can cloud our brains, leading us to think that maybe if we had done something differently, then such a horrible event wouldn’t have happened and those that were lost would still be here today. This is all part of the mourning process and some people never really get out of such a self-defeating mindset. The book even goes so far as to twist the knife in a way that almost seems to validate that very form of escapism, which puts a new perspective on those feelings that Fujino felt at the beginning of the book, making them come off as less childish by ironically showing that this is just how we respond to hardships as human beings.
Look Back acknowledges the lifelong trauma left in the wake of tragedies, and the fact that there’s little that we can do about it. But it also shows that there is more to take away from them than just sadness. When Fujino reflects on her life and how the joyous, adventurous spark of her creative passions has turned into a more quiet, repetitious routine, she’s reminded of what pushed her to this point in the first place. Just because it’s no longer the case doesn’t necessarily mean that the experiences and people that got us where we wanted to be didn’t happen. Never forget the people that valued you because no matter what happens, they’ll be the ones that will also never forget you right up until the very end. So the absolute least we can do is take those memories and feelings with us as we move forward, even if said path is still filled with melancholy.
Look Back is the type of manga that lives up to its namesake, reminding us to Look Back on everything that has happened around us no matter how angry, sad, or bitter the process makes us. So much is conveyed with so little in this single volume that it has the potential to leave a lasting effect. It makes you think about the impact you left on the lives of others even if they appear only temporary. It’s not a pleasant feeling by any means and I definitely think this is the type of book that you can only really appreciate at specific times and with a specific mindset. But I definitely think it’s worth picking up and keeping close for when that moment eventually comes.