In between reading my books ve-ry slowly, I’ve also been reading a number of manga and was contemplating doing a little update. So what a coincidence that In Spring It Is the Dawn’s Hello Japan June Mini-challenge is all about manga! As most of you will probably know, Japanese manga tend to run into many volumes and go on for years. So I’m still waiting to finish several, but have also found some complete series. The story-telling and illustrations will amaze you and I urge you to give them a try if you can.

Monster by Urasawa Naoki – I read Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys last year and was impressed by the clever story which combined a futuristic Japan after some kind of an apocalypse with the nostalgic simplicity of a 70s childhood. Great story, although I was a little dissapointed with the ending. Urasawa’s previous serial manga is Monster about Dr. Tenma, a genius Japanese brain surgeon working in Germany who decides to operate on an injured boy over an important political figure. His choice changes his life as his patron deserts him, his fiancée leaves him and his career stalls. But things go from bad to worse as his patron and other surgeons are mysteriously found poisoned and the boy Tenma saved dissappears with his twin sister. Urasawa is a master storyteller as we follow Tenma as he tries to prove his innocence and search for the truth behind the murders, uncovering the horrors perpetuated by East Germany during the Communist era which led to the birth of a ‘monster’ who kills for the greatest prize of all. I have to say I was very impressed with Monster. Forget the unlikely scenario of Tenma being the sole Japanese in this series running around Europe; Urasawa keeps you guessing as to what will happen whilst simultaneously peeling away the secrets to reveal the true reason behind the creation of the ‘monster’. Brilliant.

Pluto by Tezuka Osamu and Urasawa Naoki – again another brilliant sff manga. Reminiscent of Asimov’s robot world in which humans and robot live together in an uneasy alliance, Pluto is the re-imagining of Tezuka’s most famous work, Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) which was first serialised in the early 1950s. Tezuka is probably Japan’s best loved mangaka. Originally a medical doctor he turned to writing manga post-war creating some iconic manga such as Atom, Buddha and Black Jack. Urasawa opens Pluto with the murder of one of society’s most beloved robots. As more high-profile robots are destroyed, one, a police robot, is determined to find out who is trying to exterminate them. In order to do so, he must delve back into his and their pasts, their involvement in the last war and try and remember who wants them dead. Urasawa deals with deep-rooted fears and emotions in a way which makes you question what it is to be human. Profound.

Naruto by Kishimoto Masashi – I wasn’t sure about reading this as it seemed to be a boy’s comic, but seeing how popular it is, I thought I’d give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. It’s all about the world of the ninja (and who doesn’t want to know more about the ninja?) I’m still halfway so can’t say how it will pan out (the series is still ongoing), but the manga is about Uzumaki Naruto, a student ninja, an orphan and a boy who has had the evil and extremely dangerous nine-tailed fox sealed within him. We follow him as he learns to be accepted, finds friends and trains to be a ninja, all the while aiming to be the strongest in his village whilst keeping the seal intact. Great fun!

Bleach by Kubo Tite – Oh, what can I say about this series? It’s a totally new concept of telling a story about reapers (shinigami) who collect souls from the recently deceased and shepherds them to their next destination. Kubo takes inspiration from Japanese history and folklore where the reapers dwell in Soul Society controlled by the laws of bushido. They dress, speak and think feudal Japan but with all the techonological kit that makes life so convenient. Kurosaki Ichigo is a high school student who encounters a strange girl named Kuchiki Rukia who turns out to be a shinigami. Ichigo is immediately drawn into a parallel world where he must battle hollows, souls without closure who are unable to find peace. Kubo Tite’s long-running series is still on-going and it’s utterly brilliant. I particularly like how the Soul Society’s nemesis who controls the hollows and their world, Hueco Mundo, are all given Spanish names (as opposed to the usual English/French/Latin so liberally used in manga). There is a huge cast of characters, both reaper and human, there’s love, family, regret and anger and I guarantee you will fall for this series as hard as I did. Temple Library Reviews has a wonderful post about Bleach, so check it out.

And finally, Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Musashi about the life of the famous swordsman. Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings and master of the sword, is given the fictional treatment here and it’s wonderful to see how Inoue brings him to life. Musashi starts life as Takezo, who has his first taste of battle at 17 at the Battle of Sekigahara. Finding his strength and battle rage, he goes from one place to another trying to become the strongest warrior. With time, he realises that just killing someone doesn’t make you strong unless you have dealt with your inner demons first. And his meeting with the Buddhist monk Takuan as well as other great sword masters profoundly changes his view of life and introduces him to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. Although the violence may put some people off, I found there were moments of intense quiet and depth when reading Vagabond. Musashi will meet his greatest rival Sasaki Kojiro and their fight will become the stuff of legend, but I’m not there yet as the series isn’t finished!

These days I find myself reading more shonen (boys) manga as it’s more plot-driven compared to shojo (girls) manga which tends to be all about lurve with achingly beautiful illustrations. I never used to question this distinction when I was younger but it’s beginning to bother me a little now… I guess I don’t like being categorised.

I read all of these in English online as I’m finding it difficult to get my regular supply of manga in Japanese. The plots move at such a fast pace that reading them in translation didn’t bother me at all.

Have you tried any of these, and what is your favourite?