Golden Realist’s Top 10 Manga of 2016

2016-manga

Some strange serendipity: my favorite manga and anime from the last two years all start with the letter ‘s’.

2016 was a good year for me in terms of reading, particularly manga. Being fairly active in a local manga forum (in which I met some cool acquaintances) has a lot to do with that, as I discovered many gems that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’ve been trying to diversify my reading list in terms of genre and demographic, and I’m pretty satisfied with the result so far. Still, the kind of works that tend to appeal to me the most remained similar: character-driven titles with distinct art, strong setting, mostly grounded themes, and above all, emotional sincerity.

Making an annual manga list like this is a bit tricky; unlike anime that’s for the most part neatly divided on seasonal basis, the irregular and country-specific nature of manga publication make it more difficult for me to decide on the presentation baseline. In the end, I only considered titles with substantial amount of new volumes published in my country this year.

Now, starting with the Honorable Mentions:

There are some on-going titles from last year’s list that I have to omit from consideration because I haven’t read/they haven’t published enough new volumes in 2016. The most heavy-hearted omission has to be Asahinagu, all-girls sport series featuring competitive naginata and remarkably good-natured storytelling. Only one new volume (the third volume) got published all year, but I still rate it as my favorite on-going sport series alongside much more popular titles like Haikyuu!! and Baby Steps.

I reviewed Stealth Symphony here, and to reiterate: it’s a series overridden by editorial mandates and premature cancellation, but it’s still a solid urban fantasy with pretty cool narrative gimmick.

Throughout the years, I’m developing a taste for the ‘good adults making idiotic and relatable relationship mistakes’ kind of story, and Setona Mizushiro’ s Heartbroken Chocolatier is certainly an example of that. Could stand to be more compact and less repetitive, but there’s good amount of cutting insight that hits pretty close to home for me. Also legitimately funnier than some full comedy series that I’ve read.

Parasyte and Tokyo Ghoul represent a popular seinen sub-genre from different eras, each delivering solid character development and social commentary to complement the gore-tastic action. I’m also growing a soft spot for the procedural/mystery series The Numbers of Hamamura Nagisa, where a math whiz middle-schooler help the police combat math-obsessed terrorists in a dystopian/utopian world where math is taken off the national curriculum.

Finally, the year saw the conclusion of Koe Katachi, one of the titles most responsible in getting me to regularly purchase manga again. Its finish isn’t nearly as strong as its beginning, but as I stated in my final impression: it’s a great series that left a lasting impact, one that feels essential to me on a personal level and whose young author’s exciting development I will continue to follow.

And now, the ten highlights of the year:

silver-spoon

10. Silver Spoon (Hiromu Arakawa)

Alt Titles: Gin no Saji
In a nutshell: City boy Hachiken enrolls in agricultural boarding school, proceeds to work hard, play hard, eat hard, get hard, and learn some life lessons in the process
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), Norma Editorial (Spain), Waneko (Poland), Elex Media (Indonesia), Tre Publishing House (Vietnam)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 13 volumes

I’m a bit more lukewarm on Arakawa’s action series than the general public, so this SoL dramedy is really her first work that clicked with me. Having grown up as a farm girl in Hokkaido, Silver Spoon is clearly her most personal work and it shows. The comedy and romance are nice, but the comic’s main attraction for me is its nuanced dissection of agroindustrial issues, intertwined with the main character’s personal growth and life choices. It’s also a more pragmatic series than I expected, tackling perspective differences and real life problems in a more mature manner than your typical shounen works.

yuureitou

9. 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

Three new volumes were published in my country (Vol. 3-5) throughout 2016, and hopefully we’re going to see the final four volumes this year. This psycho-sexual mystery series has only grown from strength to strength, being a rare example where cross-dressing is an important narrative function and used as an opportunity to explore body issue and gender roles in serious manner. Sprinkle some crazy twists, deformed antagonists, and nostalgia for old-school survival horror games (there’s even a literal puzzle-solving sequence), and we’ve got the making of a cult classic here.

kasane

8. Kasane (Daruma Matsuura)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: A talented girl cursed with grotesque facial figures inherits her late mother’s magical lipstick, which enables her to trade faces with somebody else for a limited period of time by kissing her target.
Publisher: Kodansha (Japan), M&C (Indonesia), Milky Way Ediciones (Spain), Ki-oon (France), Tokyopop (Germany)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 10 volumes

Yep, this was a pretty good year for psycho-sexual manga. I’ve raved before about this cornucopia of female id, physical envy, thirst for artistic excellence, and overwhelming mother figure, and having read four volumes so far, it’s only gotten more intriguing. By delving into the main character’s neuroses and insecurities, Kasane makes for a frequently painful reading—yet, crucially, also one that doesn’t lack in sympathy. Its plot is shaping up as a Jenga Tower of lies and deception, one that would inevitably crumble as I watch in grim fascination.

birdmen

7. Birdmen (Yellow Tanabe)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: A quintet of middle-schoolers patrol the sky as mysterious specimen known as the ‘Birdmen’
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 8 volumes

The secret best ongoing shounen action. I had mentioned before that this feels like the love child of classic sentai series and American YA series Animorphs, and now I realized there’s one more apt comparison: Atlus’ video game series Persona. Birdmen has good sense of humor and quintessential shounen-esque camaraderie, but it also has character depth and genuinely dark undercurrent (*not to be mistaken with ‘edginess’) in spades. Tanabe’s annoyingly good at cliffhangers too, and her battle scenes carry real sense of weight and danger—this feels like a series that wouldn’t pull its punches when the appropriate time comes.

vinland-saga

6. Vinland Saga (Makoto Yukimura)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell:
Viking dudes kill each other
Publisher:
Kodansha (Japan), Kurokawa (France), Elex Media (Indonesia), Editorial Planeta (Spain), Kodansha Comics (United States)
Status (Japan):
Ongoing, 18 volume

I’ve heard praises about this epic historical series, but honestly, I don’t expect it to be this good. Yukimura’s (of the similarly well-regarded Planetes) detailed artwork and terrific framing alone make this worth a read, but he also has some serious storytelling chops: the unpredictable plot twists and turns through the barnstormer of a prologue (which takes up 7 volumes by itself), and a drastic change in setting afterward cause the characters to truly grow on me. A manga that often comes off like a top notch Shakespearean tragicomedy to me.

tetsugaku-letra

5. Tetsugaku Letra (Mizu Sahara)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: A jaded former basketball player trades shoes with a jaded former flamenco dancer, setting up the path of redemption for both of them
Publisher: Shogakukan (Japan), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 6 volumes

A couple of my Goodreads friends are a big fan of this, and I soon joined them after finishing the comic. Buoyed by Sahara’s beautifully distinct character design and lyrical dialogue,  Letra offers the mixture of themes that I adore: newfound passion, understated romance, friendship, and family values. It’s kind of uneven in its middle part, but the amazing beginning and strong finish make up for it. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this for any fan of bittersweet SoL, and I can only wish that one of Sahara’s works make it to animated format someday just because of how telegenic they are.

im-home

4. I’m Home (Kei Ishizaka)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: Following a carbon monoxide poisoning incident, a man suffers from selective amnesia and must reconcile with the forgotten facts that he had divorced and re-married to a new family
Publisher: Kodansha (Japan), Kodansha Comics (North America), M&C (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 2 volumes

Originally published in late 1990s, the translation and issuance of this award-winning manga by my local publisher came off as pleasant surprise. The general art style is endearingly old-school, and it features a very memorable visual touch by having the faces of the protagonist’s wife and son from his second marriage covered in masks, representing the central themes of newfound estrangement and loss of connection. The premise itself makes for an intriguing hook, and it’s turned out to be a meditative, amusing, and ultimately poignant journey of a man re-collecting pieces of his past and reflect on his many mistakes.

barefoot-gen

3. Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa)

Alt Titles: Hadashi no Gen, Pies descalzos, Gen d’Hiroshima, Nudpieda Gen, etc.
In a nutshell: A semi-autobiographical account following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, depicting a boy’s relentless effort to stay alive and thrive
Publisher: Last Gasp (United States), Conrad (Brazil), DeBolsillo (Spain), GPU (Indonesia), Jalava (Finland), Gevion (Norway), Alvglans förlag (Sweden)
Status (Japan): Finished, 10 volumes

Four years following the death of its creator Keiji Nakazawa, the manga has been re-issued here and I’ve read up to three volumes so far. Based on its historical significance, Barefoot Gen is one of the most important manga ever made, a supremely effective anti-war piece that communicates its horrific subject matter through comical and occasionally humorous art work—which might seems like an odd fit, but works wonder in practice. It’s a story of death and re-birth, of anger, sorrow, and kindness, and one that would cause you to simultaneously lose and re-gain faith in humanity. I’m very much looking forward to see off Gen’s journey, by the end of which I’m sure it will left its mark on me as an indelible masterwork.

barakamon

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 sucked him in
Publisher: Square Enix (Japan), Yen Press (North America), Ki-oon (France), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Ongoing, 13 volumes

The last few Barakamon volumes have doubled down on the future outlook of its main protagonist Handa, leading to a surprising decision in the end of the 13th volume that marks a significant turning point for the narrative. The manga hasn’t ended yet (it’s probably going to pick up the pace again as Yoshino’s spin-off series Handa-kun has been concluded), but this is a point that you can see as a temporary endpoint, and it’s certainly a bittersweet one. I’ve broadcasted my strong feeling about this series numerous times in this blog, and I doubt it’d change much regardless of what will happen after this. Barakamon is a consistently funny, genuine, and poignant work,  a special kind of manga that caused me to reflect on my own life, career path, and people that are important to me.

sket-dance

1. Sket Dance (Kenta Shinohara)

Alt Titles: N/A
In a nutshell: Three high-schoolers form a special club dedicated to help others. Hilarity ensues.
Publisher: Shueisha (Japan), Elex Media (Indonesia)
Status (Japan): Finished, 32 volumes

I laughed, I laughed in tears, and I shed tears for reals. Not many series is capable of such feat.

I admire the way Shinohara produces the most consistently funny and diverse set of parodies I’ve ever encountered, rotates the massive group of side characters, and seamlessly shift between narrative tones. I deeply respect how he takes the time to write author’s notes for every single chapter and interact with the readers. I adore his characters, who come in various shades of zaniness, and yet are also unmistakably humane in their pains, flaws, and insecurities.

If there’s anything I learned from my teenage days, it’s that having silly friends that you can do crazy things with is the perfect antidote to your personal problems, and Sket Dance takes me back to those days in the most fun and poignant way.

Notes and Observation

-Well, this is completely dominated by seinen and shounen titles (7 and 4 each, with Barefoot Gen counting as both). Not unexpected, I guess; josei titles are few and rare, and while there’s  always a glut of shoujo around, I had a hard time finding even just one that can really resonate with me (especially with no new Yona volume. Let’s see if I can somehow get my hands on 7 Seeds this year…)

-Some of the titles here are of the ‘I’m late to the party’ variety, most notably Silver Spoon and Vinland Saga. Otherwise, they would’ve very likely made the previous year’s highlights already.

-Speaking of the previous year’s list, it’s fun to re-visit it and see things that I probably rated too high. Donten ni Warau is probably the best example; a good comic, but one that I don’t feel compelled to re-read and in hindsight doesn’t feel strong enough as an annual highlight.

One Punch Man (five published volumes so far) is the most notable ongoing manga that I don’t follow, but I’d be all over Mob Psycho 100 if it’s licensed here. Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia is also something that I hope will get licensed this year.

-I started buying and reading digital manga! Well, only two titles so far (both are sport series; Giant Killing and Harlem Beat), but I’ve been getting more open to the format. It’s not going to supplant my preference for physical comic anytime soon, but the perks are undeniable and it works nicely as a complementary alternative.

Best Classic Manga I Read in 2016: Neon Genesis Evangelion (Yoshiyuki Sadamoto)

evangelion

It’s rather unfortunate that a lot of discussion regarding this manga is centered on how it’s “more pro Shinji-Rei than Shinji-Asuka like in the anime”, which is a reductive take that doesn’t do justice to Sadamoto’s version of the story (or any other version, for that matter). I always find the characters in Eva to be the most interesting aspect of the series, and here, most of them are at their most sympathetic and fleshed out selves. The comic also help to fill the narrative gaps in the TV show, and drive home the central theme (which is much more uplifting than the series’reputation tend to be) in a very firm and coherent manner.

In lieu of declaring it better/worse than the anime, I’ll just say that they complete each other in ways that I find satisfying and intriguing.

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6 thoughts on “Golden Realist’s Top 10 Manga of 2016

  1. It seems so odd to me that people even describe Evangelion (in any of its adaptations) as pro Shinji-anyone. As you point out, the characters in and of themselves have always, to me at least, been the heart and soul of the story, as well as by far the most interesting aspect. Their relationships with one another, romantic or otherwise, only really matter in so far as much as they help define the characters in their own right – their fears and secrets and insecurities. I get that people can get passionate about these kinds of things, but looking at the relationships from any other primary point of view feels like it’d be a huge disservice to the overall work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I guess shipping is one of the most basic instincts for animango fans (and general consumer of fictional media, honestly). To be fair, Eva does have its share of fanservice/shipbaiting moments, albeit mostly with tongue on the cheek.

      Eva’s one of the series that I came very late to the party for, having absorbed Too Much Information/Opinion beforehand (I eventually went TV show->manga->movies). Honestly, after all I’ve heard, I didn’t expect to like the series and especially the characters this much. I’ve seen argument along the lines that ‘characters in Eva are bad because no one makes a good role model’, but this is honestly the kind of characterization that I love; people who are deeply flawed and carry so much mental baggage, yet are still fundamentally good people who try their best. Plus, everything you said there about how they connect to each other in ways that escape simple definition.

      Maybe I’ll write full thoughts on both the anime and manga someday, but then it’s not like the world is lacking in Eva articles, haha.

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      • I don’t have anything against any of the fanservice/shipbaiting moments in Eva, or shipping in general come to that, but I do get irritated when it becomes the be all and end all of a show for some viewers.

        I think the characters in Eva would be bad if they were presented as good role models in the first place, but at no point do I ever get the feeling that that’s the intention. They’re just people, dealing with their shit the best way they know how.

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      • Yeah, i feel you there. I’d get it if it’s a primarily romantic show or if there’s literally nothing else to discuss, but this isn’t the case here.

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    • Yep, gotta say that though you won’t find either the manga or the anime in many people’s top list/recommendations, that series will always have personal significance for me.

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