Family values, bullying, countryside life, and in general, loads of stuff where people connect with each other; let’s round up my favorite Japanese comic from last year.
To keep things simple: any manga published in my country during the year is eligible for the list, regardless of its status of completion here, in Japan, or anywhere else. Also, this only covered series that I actually own in physical form, most of them are recent-ish stuff in Japan. Honestly, considering I’ve just gotten back into the habit of regular manga purchase around the middle of last year, the pool of candidates is less comprehensive than what I would’ve like. There are also on-going entries that I’ve only read a couple of volumes or so, but well, sometimes you don’t need a whole jar of cookies to know if it’s good or not! In any case, this is a list I reallyw wanted to make, and I’m more than happy with everything in it.
To the Honorable Mentions, then:
Inubu! Bokura no Shippo Senki (The Dog Club) is a nice, informative, and genuinely inspiring story about college students taking care of stray dogs, and the various tribulations that naturally arise from such activity. For someone who’s mostly lukewarm on dogs, I find myself enjoying this manga quite a bit, and I figure a true blue pup lover would really dig this.
The five volumes (and four cases) of Kindaichi Anniversary Series are more or less what I expected from modern Kindaichi; the level of craft and atmosphere is nowhere near the classic series, but it’s still good enough murder mystery comfort food (‘anniversary’ here doesn’t really imply anything outstanding in the story, they just love their constant re-branding and fancy names). This new year, we have a ‘new’ series in Kindaichi R (Returns), picking up the baton from Anniversary and Special Cases before that, and presumably will lead into Kindaichi S (Super) or Kindaichi Grand Tour.
Border is your typical homicide procedural, with a supernatural twist in that its protagonist could see the (inconveniently semi-amnesiac) ghosts of murdered victims. Paranormal detective is a dime a dozen premise in media, but this one does have well-plotted episodic cases and a solid cast of characters.
Now, the top ten!
10. Sakamoto desu ga? (Nami Sano)
Alt Titles: I’m Sakamoto, You Know?; Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto; Who is Sakamoto?
In a nutshell: Unflappable gentleman and scholar Sakamoto navigates the pitfalls of high school life, leads his friends and enemies to the path of enlightenment
Publisher: Kadokawa (Japan), Seven Seas Entertainment (North America), Egmont Manga (Germany), M&C (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 4 volumes
The funniest pure comedy title I’ve read all year. Running with an eccentric MC is hardly a novel concept for gag manga, but there’s nothing quite like Sakamoto before: a swag master who charms people and produces heart-warming (if extraordinarily silly) moments through completely unpredictable, reality-defying schemes. The supporting cast also contributed a lot through their always amusing histrionics , while the gags really shine thanks to Nami Sano’s ample amount of creative absurdity.
9. Nagu Asahi (Ai Kozaki)
Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: Clumsy and unathletic freshman Asahi discovers and embarks in competitive naginata with her high school club
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), Level Comics (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 17 volumes
There are countless s sports series out there, but how many that you’ve read feature a female MC and an all-ladies competition? Nagu Asahi depicts the signature sport series (it’s classified as seinen, but a lot of it feels more like shounen in a good way) qualities of camaraderie and hot-blooded competitive spirit from a rare female perspective, which lends a breath of fresh air into a genre I already tend to enjoy. An exciting and endearing look into a niche sport (naginata is basically a variant of kendo), I’m fully on board with the journey of Asahi and co to grow stronger.
8. Baby Steps (Katsuki Hikaru)
Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: Hyper diligent model student Eichiro decides to become a tennis athlete, and by god, he’s not going to take any half measure to get there
Publisher: Kodansha (Japan), Tong Li Publishing (Taiwan), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan) Ongoing, 37 volumes
A thinking man’s sports series, for better and for worse. Don’t expect Prince of Tennis-esque flashy techniques and parade of bishonen here, Baby Steps is a much more grounded depiction of tennis with a hyper analytical guy as an MC. While I don’t play tennis, I can dig its obsessive depiction of in-game stratagem and adjustments, as well as its refusal to take narrative shortcuts in regards of its protagonist’s slow (refer to the title) but steady growth from a complete newbie. Reading all those text bubbles explaining stuff like training regimen and in-game flow could get daunting at times, but this manga is also tempered by endearing characters, accessible art, and cute relationship between Ei-chan and Nat-chan.
7. Yuureitou (Taro Nogizaka)
Alt Titles: The Phantom Tower; Ghost Tower; La Tour Phantome
In a nutshell: A NEET in post-war Shouwa era teams up with a mysterious gentleman (?) to find secret treasure amidst a web of deception and gruesome murders
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), Carlsen Manga (Germany), Glénat (France), Level Comics (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 9 volumes
Adapting Ruiko Kuroiwa’s adult psycho-sexual suspense novel, Taro Nogizaka successfully conveys a striking setting with great architectural and fashion sense, as well as atmosphere thick with menace (he’s also really, really, good at drawing facial expression). I initially had my doubts with its spineless-looking NEET protagonist, but the manga quickly dispelled it by not wasting any time to get very intriguing. Racking up individual mysteries, eccentric (and very dangerous) characters, and plot twists, Yuureitou is a morbid fun with fascinating genderqueer element.
6. Donten ni Warau (Karakara Kemuri)
Alt Titles: Laughing Under The Clouds; Laughing in A Cloudy Sky
In a nutshell: Three brothers are tasked to escort criminals in the Meiji Restoration era to a lake prison, with the threat of multi-generational demon looming nearby
Publisher: Mag Garden (Japan), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 6 volumes
Karakara Kemuri has several titles recently published here, and after hearing that this one is a particularly underrated gem, I picked it up and was subsequently pleased as punch. This is one of the most well-paced series I’ve read, delivering significant amount of characters and plot threads without ever rushing or stalling things. A busy series that contains political intrigue, supernatural element, and swordplay action, Donten ultimately is a drama driven by its well-fleshed characters, with themes of familial love, loyalty, and revenge coming through very strongly.
5. Kamisama ga Uso wa Tsuku (Kaori Ozaki)
Alt Titles: Our Summer Holiday; God Tells Lies; Los Dioses Mienten
In a nutshell: A pair of sixth-graders connects over the course of summer holiday; hard truths are revealed, marking the end of their innocence
Publisher: Kodansha (Japan), Vertical (North America), M&C (Indonesia), Milky Way Ediciones (Spain)
Status (Japan): Finished, 1 volume
What might seems like a fluffy first love tale turned out to be unexpectedly mature and heavy reflection on life and its inherently unfair nature. There’s melancholia etched on practically every single page of this manga, but there are also joyous and warm moments, as well as depiction of that indescribable feeling when you start to deeply care for someone. As the conspicuously tall and burdened Rio said with a bittersweet smile, “We might as well enjoy this rain while we’re still kids”, I was reminded that there are few things sadder than children forced to grow up way before they’re supposed to.
4. Akatsuki no Yona: The Girl Standing in The Blush of Dawn (Mizuho Kusanagi)
Alt Titles: Yona of The Dawn; Yona Princesse de l’Aube
In a nutshell: Former spoiled princess Yona rounds up a collection of color-coded boys in a fantasy coming of age story with more intrigue and nuances than it reverse harem set-up may suggests
Publisher: Hakusensha (Japan), Pika Edition (France), Viz (North America), M&C (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 19 volumes
Picking this up right where the anime left off (beginning of Volume 8), I rejoin the journey of “The Dark Dragon and The Happy Hungry Bunch” as they continue to traverse the land, make names, kick asses, and hand out candies to kids. Yona’s primary strength in character development continues to be apparent, with Mizuho Kusanagi expertly juggling the fully assembled cast, all while ramping up the political intrigue and giving a glimmer of romantic hope for the long suffering Hak. It’s the hapless second prince of Fire Tribe, Haejun, who steals the spotlight during my reading thus far though, proving to be equally great source of comic relief and genuine pathos.
3. Koe Katachi (Yoshitoki Oima)
Alt Titles: The Shape of Voice, A Silent Voice
In a nutshell: A bully turned self-loathing loner Shouya seeks forgiveness from Shouko, a hearing impaired girl whom he used to harrass in grade school days
Publisher: Kodansha (Japan), Kodansha Comics (North America), M&C (Indonesia)
Status (Japan) Finished, 7 volumes
A critical darling that delves on some hard-hitting issues, the manga has certainly lived up to its reputation for me. The first volume is one of the best opening volumes that I’ve ever read, and things afterward remain compelling as Yoshitoki Oima dishes out strong paneling work and brutally honest exchange of dialogues. There’s refreshing frankness and complexity in the way the characters think and act here, and while I’m still waiting for the last couple of volumes, Voice had already won me over with its heartfelt depiction of imperfect kids trying to understand, forgive, and ultimately, connect with each other.
2. Barakamon (Satsuki Yoshino)
Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: Grumpy caligrapher Handa sets off for an excursion in the countryside, where the islanders’ flow of life suck him in
Publisher: Square Enix (Japan), Yen Press (North America), Ki-oon (France), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 12 volumes
Here’s a challenge: try to read a whole volume of Barakamon without cracking into a big wide grin once. It would be impossible for me; the dorks in this manga are too damn charming and amusing, and even just thinking about them could make me smile already. Drawing from her own experience growing up, Satsuki Yoshino doesn’t beat me over the head with how awesome this particular countryside is, and instead let the snapshots of life speak for themselves. The life lessons and personal catharsis are gracefully integrated in-between every well-constructed joke, and above all, the manga just permeates a really beautiful sense of belonging.
1. Sanchoume no Yuuhi (Saigan Ryohei)
Alt Titles: Sunset on Third Street
In a nutshell: The daily lives of the residents of Third Street, a neighborhood in Tokyo, in post-war era
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), M&C (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 63 volumes
And here it is, my favorite discovery of the year. A manga that has been running since 1974, the version I’ve read is the editor-picked ‘Best of’ stories, which consisted of five volumes. This manga doesn’t have an amazing plot or sophisticated art, it’s a very humble and compassionate narrative, whether it’s about a twin who keep fighting each other, a mechanic saving up for his first new car, a wife reminiscing about her first love, a father attempting to win over his stepson’s heart, and many more stories of that kind. “A gentle wrapping of happy times and sad times with the warm-hearted residents of Third Street..” is an apt self-descriptor for this work of art, made by someone who’s not only a great mangaka, but also a wonderful humanist.
Notes and Observation
-By demographic: 4 seinen, 4 shounen, 2 shoujo. That’s pretty much what I expected. I do wish that I’d get to read more josei (pretty sure I hadn’t read any last year), it’s easily the least published demographic class and I don’t have enough reference to pinpoint any recent title that I should be looking for.
-This list is dominated by female mangaka, 7 to 3. I haven’t heard of any of them prior to their respective work in this list, and it’d be interesting to see if this trend (my personal preference leaning toward male-demographic series written by female authors) would carry to the next year. Excited to see more works from them, particularly Oima, who’s the same age as me at 26 and seems to have a really high ceiling.
-The top two is basically slice-of-life at its best, a genre that I love the most when it’s in manga form (you could argue that #3 Koe Katachi also has more of a slice of life flow to it than overarching drama). The episodic format adds a lot of re-read value, and there’s just a very relaxing feel that I get when I read some light, uplifting, story just before going to sleep after a hard day’s work. Reading a good SoL is self-healing.
-For anime viewers: five of these have been (partially) adapted, i.e. Baby Steps (two seasons), Sunset, Donten, Yona, and Barakamon. I’ve only seen Yona and Barakamon, but would recommend all of them based on what I’ve known—although Sunset, which was a short-lived series in early 1990s, would probably be near impossible to see for most people.
Best Classic Manga I Read in 2015: Hikaru no Go (Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata)
Well, a re-read, actually. HikaGo has always been a major personal favorite since junior high, and I’m happy to report that it holds up very well. Hikaru’s growth in ability and maturity, as well as Yumi Hotta’s skill in juggling an impressive number of characters who often left to re-enter the story later (Isumi has become my favorite character throughout this re-reading), remain a great pleasure to read. Entertaining, emotional, and always engaging, this is an exemplary work in the “Japanese people being crazy passionate on something” category—a genre most responsible for me falling with the medium of manga and anime back then.
(also, that scanned image? Devastating)