Following two childhood friends now finding their way through adulthood, Tasuku find himself pining for his younger days after meeting back up with Maika.
Niiro Ikuhana's Imaginary feels at times very meandering, taking most of its inspirations from extending the flights of fantasy taken by her characters, be they pondering themselves as a kunoichi, giant robot or even a cat, it's an often bizarre landscape of visual oddness that's very grounded in the mundane reality of everyday life.
It starts off with the star-crossed pair discussing the games they played as children, but throughout the book these flights of fancy expand into observations of strangers on trains, or groups of friends discussing what it might be like to be a cat which take on an otherworldly quality, but honestly it's the boring scenes of everyday life that I find most endearing.
Probably the most common pastime in modern human existence, but beautifully drawn
We're all guilty of drifting away with our thoughts at times, personally my mind is all over the place when I'm running at the gym as I find it helps me pass the time. As such there's a very human quality to the book that makes it interesting, but this strength is also something of a weakness as the plot can often feel equally as unfocussed and incidental as the daydreams it caters so eagerly to. It's not that Imaginary is a hard read per-se, but there were times when I found my interest waning as I just wanted to see some plot progression.
The good bits, for me at least, are those parts that show how difficult reconnection can be - the characters second-guessing themselves as they try to show interest without being off-putting, in particular the rituals we go through to try to impress a person even if we're not entirely sure why we're doing it.
It's only clear to us as the reader that there are any romantic feelings between the two, but even then there's no "heat". Maika isn't sure she's all that bothered about getting together with Tasuku, yet her actions always seem to be designed to forge a connection. Tasuku is far more clear-headed, going so far as to imagine traveling in time to berate his younger self for not showing more interest when he had the chance, and then meeting his older, forlorn self from a future where he doesn't pursue the relationship now. His feelings are very clear, but I can't help shake the feeling that he's chasing a ghost, and that perhaps Maika, who seems to treat life with the same casual interest she shows in her would be suitor, isn't really worth all his efforts.
The tepid nature of the romance makes some of the fantasy surrounding it more distracting than interesting, as it often focuses on secondary characters such as Maika's tall friend Akao and her new (shorter) boyfriend as they explore some ancient sites together. It's fine for what it is, but it just seems like an unnecessary detour when I really want to follow the main characters, especially this early in the book.
That said, the artwork retains interest and the overall package is quite strong, it's just a shame that, like our characters, the book often wanders off on splintered narratives that don't do much to add to the overall story, which can be frustrating when you're trying to focus on where things are going and the overall mood of the central couple. Ironically the nature of the book becomes the frustration of it, moreso because I find the realism in the setup so fascinating.
An interview with the author to the back of the book reveals that the initial idea was unrequited love and the development of her characters was always supposed to be a slow-burn, so my impatience is really just a reaction to the deliberate design of the story, and I'll just have to keep my pacing expectations in check. As such, I couldn't really recommend the book to Shonen fans, it's a decidedly more mature read and works best if you share the experience of rekindling old connections. In the days before I was married with a daughter, I'd meet up with people I'd met at anime conventions or my younger days, and sometimes the connection was still evident and other times it was clear we'd both moved on, and it's this sort of human interaction Imaginary examines so well. At times frustrating or bittersweet, it can be fun to imagine what might have been or could happen, and Imaginary is the closest manga I've seen replicate this sensitive experience with the added fun of seeing those ideas realised.