We're back with more Staff Picks, our list of the best stuff of 2014 as selected by our contributors and guest writers. Two days ago we tackled video games. This time we're taking a look at manga, and we actually have enough consensus to select two overall Manga of the Year picks. As usual, we've got our thoughts for each title below. Enjoy!
Ani-Gamers Manga of the Year
#2: Showa: A History of Japan
Charles Dunbar: 2014 will go down as the year I read a whole lot of “textbooks.” Mostly related to Japanese identity and culture, reactions to world politics, and the postwar period. So who would have expected the best of the lot to be a manga? Okay, given that it was written by one of the best manga-ka ever to walk the earth, maybe some folks. But when I started in on Showa: A History of Japan (Showa-Shi in Japanese), I had only a bit of an inkling of what I would encounter, and devour.
Japanese history books tend to either treat the war as a “mistake” (apologizing and glossing over some of the atrocities committed by Japan) or as a valiant effort showcasing the honor of the soldiers on both sides (and just outright ignoring them). And more frequently, they seem to fix the war as a single entity, removed from time and social situations. Showa-shi does none of this. Told partially as autobiography (with copious notes for the serious buff), the series breaks down the war on the home front, how the Showa period evolved, the difficulties of being Japanese at the time, the shortcomings of the people and government, and how the war was just one piece of an already complicated Japanese era defined by loss, devastation, and eventual recovery. And it does it frankly, fairly, and evenly — a rare achievement, especially for a Japanese book by a Japanese author. Mizuki Shigeru having lived through the era, lost a great deal to the era, and eventually became one of the leading voices after it was said and done, gives him insight, but also credence, to speak on these times and make sure the story remains told. Showa-shi tells that story on two fronts: the upheaval on the nation, and the ripples jarring the life of one boy who experienced it. It’s manga like you’ve never read before.
#1: The Flowers of Evil
Ink: This is one of the few manga I began reading before its anime adaptation appeared. As soon as I saw that the manga took its title from the symbolist work Les Flures du Mal, I decided on reading at least the first volume. And even though this shonen title by Shuzo Oshimi didn’t have a lick of poetry from its namesake book within that first volume, I found myself engrossed by its uncomfortably open account of awkwardness portraying the peak of pubescence. It’s a quick and easy read despite the masterfully layered storytelling. This is owed, in large part, to Oshimi’s frighteningly precise use of visuals which immediately evoke an extremely tense tone via setting. Like moods that waver, the imagery intermittently gets more daring and abstract in later volumes without detracting one iota from the very concrete world that exists within the pages. Similarly, the use of space and rendering of emotional reaction via subtle facial expressions make each volume poppable candy while letting the all of the content slide effortlessly into readers’ brains. So despite the quick pacing, nothing feels amiss. And if you’re wondering if its 11 volumes are worth finishing, let me just say this.
Evan "Vampt Vo" Minto
#2: A Silent Voice
When Crunchyroll launched their Manga service last year, A Silent Voice — not Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail (also on the service) — was the talk of the town. The manga's subject is highly atypical, but its take on emotional insecurity and the growing pains of adolescence is spot-on. A deaf girl named Shouko transfers into Shouya's middle school class, and before long he and his friends have started a merciless bullying campaign against the poor girl. But soon the class turns on Shouya and bullies him too. Years later, in high school, his life is hell, and as depression takes hold, he reconnects with Shouko and tries to make up for lost time. Nothing goes quite as planned, however, and over the course of 7 volumes, the characters (including former and current classmates) wrestle with loneliness, guilt, and even suicide on their quest to transform their shared tragedy into something meaningful. The goings-on occasionally border on the melodramatic, but by the end, A Silent Voice proves to be a surprisingly rich experience filled with young men and women from all walks of life struggling in different ways to find a place for themselves.
DISCLAIMER: I work for Crunchyroll as a software developer, but my positive opinion of A Silent Voice expressed here is my own — it does not represent, nor was it prompted in any way by, my employer.
You would think I could say “Satoshi Kon made it, therefore it’s my Manga of the Year,” but the previous posthumous release from the late manga artist-turned-anime director, Tropic of the Sea, didn't impress me all that much. OPUS shows us a far more well-developed side of Kon, which is ironic, since it’s actually unfinished! Manga artist Chikara Nagai is struggling to finish his sci-fi action title Resonance when he suddenly finds himself inside the world he created. As his own characters become aware of his status as their creator, things get weirder and weirder, with heroes literally running off the page and a villain seeking to challenge the creator’s level of control over the world. Like most Kon works, this one treads the line between fiction and reality, but focuses much more on the roles and responsibilities of creators. Despite all the grief over Kon’s unfinished final film, The Dreaming Machine, I may be more disappointed about OPUS, which remained unfinished throughout a decade of his anime work. Here is an early Kon already wrestling with complex issues of authorship and the nature of reality. Oh well, half a masterpiece is still better than most other manga out there.
#3: Higurashi no Naku Koro ni
The endless June of 1983 is finally over! Watching the anime in no way spoiled the reading of this title. If I’d “played” the original visual novels, I doubt doing so would’ve kept me from eagerly flipping each printed page. Normally I’ve a problem with reading manga in that I never stop to smell the roses blooming in every panel of the page, but my experience with this title was different. The panel framing was engrossing, the portrayal of the characters fully evoked every necessary bit of their duality exactly how and when it was called for, and the use of different artists on specific story arcs, for better or worse, kept things visually interesting strictly through slight interpretive and stylistic differences. In and of itself, Higurashi… is a screw-with-your-mind page-turner. (The Cotton Drifting Chapter and corresponding Eye Opening Chapter always manage to trip me up.) The power of the manga, compared to the other mediums, can be likened to reading a really good ghost story by candlelight on a chilly night while wrapped up in a white knuckle-gripped blanket.
#2: Mysterious Girlfriend X
Ridiculous is the perfect adjective for this seinen manga by Riichi Ueshiba. It’s ridiculously inventive and ridiculously tender despite being ridiculously frustrating and ridiculously repetitive. No matter how odd/gross/disturbing the concept (emotional and visual telepathy via drool ingestion between destined lovers) is, the story is one steeped in nostalgia for falling in love as a teenager and being in a developing relationship. While I think my review of the last volume says it all regarding the pros and cons of this manga, I don’t think I ever really spelled out who this title targets. Simply put: the romantics. Sure the notion of swapping spit sans liplock may be beyond the stomachs of most, but watching the main characters get to know each other and legitimately grow with one another as they try to understand their respective inner workings is more than a nostalgia trip to times of simpler puppy love. It’s an apology to all past loves for all the screw-ups along the way and a love letter detailing how we wish things could’ve been.
#1: The Flowers of Evil
[See writeup above]
[See writeup above]
#3: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches
One of Crunchyroll Manga’s launch titles from 2013, Miki Yoshikawa’s Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches has gone on to be my favorite comedic manga in 2014. Ryu Yamada, high school slacker with a fearsome reputation, trips and falls down a flight of stairs, landing on ace student and school idol Urara Shiraishi. He wakes up later to find they’ve swapped bodies! Magic-fueled hijinks ensue. Add in a supernatural studies club in search of answers, student body council that runs the school, and six other witches with powers of their own and you get a sense of the craziness that is this manga.
I usually find myself getting bored with comedic manga because they tend to repeat similar gags or storylines over time, but not only does the cast of Yamada-kun grow and continue to stay fresh, but there’s real character development as the storyline evolves. Yoshikawa’s talent for combining dialogue and art to hilarious effect makes all that possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes things in the coming year.
#2: Vinland Saga
Vinland Saga, by the celebrated Makoto Yukimura, follows the journey of Thorfinn, son of Thors across the battlefields of pre-Norman England as he seeks to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of Askeladd, a vicious and cunning mercenary captain. Thorfinn spends a decade as Askeladd’s captive and sort of protege, eventually becoming a fearsome warrior in his own right. At its heart, Vinland Saga is a story of fathers and sons, war and peace, life and death, and brutality and redemption.
Yukimura doesn’t sanitize the Viking age in this work. The world of Vinland Saga is bloody, savage, and gruesomely immersive. His attention to detail drew me in until I could smell wood smoke and hear battle cries on the air. Each volume of Vinland Saga is published in hefty hardbound format, but I frequently couldn’t pull myself away until I finished it in one sitting. If you’re looking for a historical manga to join your collection, Vinland Saga is an excellent choice.
#1: The Flowers of Evil
[See writeup above]
#3: From the New World
Shin Sekai Yori, published by Vertical Inc. under the title From The New World, is a science-fiction (and arguably, horror) manga that seems to initially mislead you: the covers are bright, cheerful, and promises plenty of fan service. The covers lie. I devoured the first four volumes back in June, and immediately wanted to know when Vertical was releasing the rest!
This manga is not so much about “the world” around the characters as the characters' relationships between each other, and volumes 3-6 — encompassing the remainder of the series — hammer this home. The setup between the Mole Rats and the humans who can use magic, the line between who are regarded as “monsters” and “saviors,” really pays off, and hits hard with suspense and terror. While the plotline may be somewhat predictable, there is a reason why the original Japanese novel won the 29th Nihon SF Taisho Award (a prestigious science fiction award similar to the Nebulas) and you see that reason in the concluding volumes. While there is some fan service, it only serves to drive home a particular plot point: how can you even trust your own thoughts and feelings? Who are we, really?
Unfortunately, this manga does not have an English release: simply because the “English release” would be Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs! In Japan though, the biography was released in two volumes, and the publishers arranged for a manga version for easy reading as well. This illustrates that manga is more of a medium than a genre: here, we have the story of Steve Jobs' life, illustrated in image and dialogue by Mari Yamazaki, the same artist who you might know from works like Thermae Romae.
Volume 2 of the manga begins in the 1970s when Steve Jobs was trying to find himself by traveling, meditating, and going to ashrams: this quickly segues into the Homebrew Computer Club, the establishing of Apple Computer as a company, and the birth of Apple I and Apple II. Of all the as-yet-released volumes to pick up, this may be the volume that resonates with computer history the most: but it seems that this biographical manga will continue on with the story of “the man who changed the world” until it's done, in a fitting worldwide tribute to someone who changed how people used computers.
#1: Showa: A History of Japan
[See writeup above]
Another category bites the dust! Just one left, and it's a big one: anime. That should be up later today. Meanwhile, if you haven't already, go check out our thoughts on the best video games of 2014.