The title of this collection, Sneeze, seems nonsensical at first. After all, none of the tales are about allergies, colds, or other things that make you Sneeze, nor are any actually about people sneezing. But on the table of contents, there's a definition of the word according to Naoki Urasawa: “A sudden expiration of breath. A short work as opposed to a long work. It can make the most beautiful person look momentarily ugly.” Therefore, the title is not meant literally but rather metaphorically: each one of these short stories is sudden, short, and challenges the idea of what is beautiful and ugly. They are, for all intents and purposes, literary sneezes.
As with all short story collections, this works better with some pieces than with others. The three strongest works (“Kaiju Kingdom,” “It's A Beautiful Day,” and “Throw Toward the Moon!”) all play into Urasawa's definition most closely, looking at ideas of beauty while being short and relatively sudden. Of these, “It's a Beautiful Day” is the most striking. In part this is because it stems from an encounter Urasawa had with the late musician Kenji Endo, who related the story to him as something he'd actually experienced. He asked Urasawa to turn it into a manga, but died before Urasawa got around to it, leaving behind a written copy of what he'd told the author, indicating that he never doubted that Urasawa would get to it eventually. This adds a layer of wistfulness to the piece upon reflection, as does the fact that Urasawa tells us that he did everything, backgrounds and tone included (these are usually an assistant's job) by himself to honor Endo. The plot of the piece, which is very brief, relates how Endo and his bandmates went to a strip club in the 1970s only to later see the stripper pushing her baby carriage the next day outside the city. The takeaway is that nothing is ever as it seems, and that can be uncomfortable, but it isn't necessarily a bad revelation to have. None of the men can fully grasp what they're seeing, but neither do they feel betrayed by seeing that she's just an ordinary woman in daylight. Instead it makes them think for a brief moment before they move on, making the story the embodiment of the collection's goal as a whole.
Similarly, “Kaiju Kingdom” takes a character largely considered unattractive and makes him a hero. The story follows a middle-aged French man in a world where kaiju, giant monsters like Godzilla, are real and attack Tokyo on the regular. They've become a major driver of tourism for Tokyo, and Pierre is basically a kaiju otaku on a pilgrimage to see a real one. This makes him the subject of ridicule from some Tokyoites and a target for scams from others, most of which rolls off his broad back until he meets Misaki, a scientist whose parents were killed by a kaiju and who is trying to figure out how to prevent future attacks. Misaki forces Pierre to look at the giant monsters as monsters rather than as objects of adoration, and in turn, Pierre manages to not only change his worldview, but to become the hero Misaki and her younger brother need. The story, which is deceptively simple, is at first less striking than the art, which takes Pierre, a character drawn as the stereotypical overweight bumbling fool, and without changing his design transforms him simply through his actions and Misaki's perception of him.
Another of the thematic elements in the collection, which we see in “Kaiju Kingdom” to an extent, is that many if not most of the pieces feature older men as the protagonists. While this is most evident in “The Old Guys,” it fits with many stories. A fair amount also take music as a theme, with Urasawa waxing nostalgic about the music scene of the 1960s and 70s. Bob Dylan and the Beatles make several appearances (and there's a great scene in the travelogue part of “The Old Guys” where Urasawa shows a Beatles manga he drew to a friend, who promptly texts a picture to “someone.” “Someone” turns out to be Ringo, flooring Urasawa.), and the impact these musicians had on Urasawa is interesting to see.
Probably the most unusual piece in the book is “Henry and Charles,” a full-color story about two mice (the eponymous Henry and Charles) who are trying to cross the kitchen to get a piece of strawberry cake while the cat is asleep. It's described as a children's story, and Urasawa's statement that he owes something to American cartoons like “Tom & Jerry” definitely feels plausible. It's also the lightest of the stories in the collection, and while tonally off from the rest, it is a good resting point between “The Old Guys” and “It's A Beautiful Day.” It is not, however, the only full-color story in the book; “Tanshin/Funin: Solo Mission,” originally published in a French anthology, is also entirely in color. This is also on the lighter side with a very fun punchline, and Urasawa notes that since he wrote it for a French publication, he tried to do it left-to-right rather than right-to-left, which proved harder than anticipated – something we wouldn't necessarily notice if he hadn't told us.
Sneeze as a collection is an interesting read. Its pieces are more linked than not in their themes and plots, but each also feels unique, so that it never feels like reading a retread. Whether you've read Naoki Urasawa's work before or not, this solid short story collection is nothing to Sneeze at.