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?

Favourite Writers: Manga

26 March, 2010

Asaki Yumemishi Tokimeki TonightYukan Club
(Covers: Asaki Yumemishi, Tokimeki Tonight, Yukan Club)

I’m half Japanese and the great thing about that is that I can read Japanese and have access to the world of Japanese manga without having to wait for a translation. It was also a great way to learn Japanese, and as my parents never limited the number of comics I bought when I lived in Japan it was a win-win situation. I was happy if I got my monthly comic magazine and a couple of comic paperbacks every three months. Of course, there is so much out there that if I wandered into a Japanese bookshop now, I wouldn’t know where to start.

It’s also a great conversation starter because all Japanese people grow up with manga. There is manga about every subject available and it’s a great way to learn. For example, take The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the world’s first modern novel written by an 11th century court lady. The original is written in Heian court Japanese (which no one except academics can read). There is a modern version in 10 volumes by Tanizaki Junichiro which we have at home and which one summer I was planning to try but was told by my mother that it was still too difficult for me to understand. Luckily, there is a manga version, beautifully drawn and faithful to the story. The English version of the novel is over a thousand pages long and I would have to have the constitution of an ox and the patience of a saint to wade through such a classical text. I would try it, but reading Asaki Yumemishi was so much more enjoyable. You get the passion, the sorrow and the beauty. And you don’t mind reading it all over again when you’ve finished. So yay for manga! I learnt about the French revolution, the Cultural revolution, the Communist revolution, food, love, basically everything from manga. I even found a manga about the astrophysicist I was researching for my thesis! How cool is that?

I am aware that the manga you get in the west tends to focus on the extreme, but the majority of Japanese people don’t go for the hentai stuff (I didn’t even know they existed until I came to the UK), but the ordinary stuff about love, life, friendship and adventure. And there are some great manga out there for us normal folk.

Here are some manga I recommend:

20th Century Boys by Urasawa Naoki – part nostalgic/part futuristic mystery adventure charting the rise of a strange entity called ‘Tomodachi (Friend)’ who takes over Japan.

Asaki Yumemishi by Yamato Waki – The Tale of Genji.

Bleach by Kubo Tite – about Japanese reapers who battle hollows (spirits without souls) and herd human souls to the Soul Society. It’s a very Japanese take on the after-life.

Candy Candy by Igarashi Yumiko – all Japanese girls in the 80s grew up reading this manga. Set in America, it’s a tale of a feisty orphan girl who grows up overcoming her problems to find love and happiness. I thought it was pretty dark in places, dealing with friendship, betrayal and loss, but it’s pretty amazing.

Chibi Maruko-chan by Sakura Momoko – a modern tale of a Japanese family told with comic touches (like Sazae-san – see below)

Crows by Takahashi Hiroshi – high school gang wars, scary but funny. The films Crows Zero I and II are based on this manga.

Dragonball by Toriyama Akira – I admit I haven’t read all of this but I bought it when it first came out and I’m a big fan of Toriyama who also wrote Dr. Slump.

Garasu no Kamen (The Glass Mask) by Miuchi Suzue – long-running series (20 years?) about a talented actress competing with her celebrity rival for a prestigious role. My mum and I have been waiting with bated breath for new volumes but at the moment it’s being published at a rate of one every two years (normally it’s every 3 months). What’s happening??

Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star) by Hara Tetsuo and Buronson – set in a post-apocalyptic world, a lone warrior with special martial arts powers helps people terrorised by monstrous gangs while looking for his lost love. The illustrations aren’t pretty and it’s very violent, but it’s also deep and philosophical. Just don’t watch the live-action movie.

La Maschera by Yoshino Sakumi – I just love Yoshino’s illustrations, they are so enchanting. This manga is an atmospheric murder mystery set in Venice during the Carnivale.

Oishimbo (The Gourmet) by Hanasaki Akira – I’ve learnt so much about the history, culture and preparation of food from this series about the adventures of a food journalist.

Peking Reijin Sho (An Actor’s Journal) by Sumeragi Natsuki – beautifully drawn and set in Peking on the cusp of revolution when the communists are just gaining power. Sumeragi shows a Peking that is slowly succumbing to modernity.

Rontai Baby by Takaguchi Satosumi – set in 70s Japan, this is a tale of two tough girls as they go through high school fighting and searching for love. You won’t look at Japanese high school girls in the same way again. It’s kind of a female version of Crows.

Sazae-san Hasegawa Machiko – a manga and anime that has been loved by generations. It’s a heartwarming traditional family comedy showing the everyday life of a post-war Japanese family.

Tenshi Kinryouku (Angel Sanctuary), Count Cain and Godchild by Yuki Kaori – Yuki is the queen of gothic manga. I first read the Count Cain series set in Victorian England with overtones of various European fairytales. Then I came across Angel Sanctuary which cemented her reputation about the war of the angels (which was quite difficult for me to understand in Japanese – with lots of references to Milton and the Bible). Her illustrations are gorgeous.

Tokimeki Tonight by Ikeno Koi – the first manga I fell in love with about a family of vampires and werewolves in which a vampire girl falls in love with her human classmate.

Vagabond by Inoue Takehiko – based on Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi about the life of Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman. Violent but profound with a lot of references to Zen Buddhism and the search for the self.

Versailles no Bara (The Rose of Versailles) and Orpheus no Mado (Orpheus’ Window) by Ikeda Riyoko – legendary mangaka Ikeda always tackles epic themes. The first is about Marie Antoinette and the French revolution and the second is about Regensburg, music and the Russian revolution. They both made me cry.

Yukan Club by Ichijo Yukari – one of my favourite mangas about a group of six extremely wealthy high school students and their adventures. It’s very funny and with lots of cultural and historical references. Her illustrations are divine and she seems to have a fondness for food and the macabre.

Yume de Aetara and Yume no Hitotachi by Ogura Fuyumi – her love stories are still and beautiful.

The greatest draw for me is the beautiful illustrations. I cannot help but pick up a comic when the cover boasts such beautiful art.

Currently I’m making my way through Bleach, Vagabond, Crows, Fist of the North and Cesare by Souryo Fuyumi (about Cesare Borgia). As I don’t have access to Japanese manga, I’m reading them online as they get scanslated.

You can read translated manga online at One Manga, Manga Volume and Manga Fox and bookshops now seem to stock a wider range. And I know that in the States you can get Weekly Shonen Jump. I love my Archie and Asterix comics but for me, my first love will always be Japanese manga.

A list of manga authors can be found here.

(Covers: Vagabond, Bleach, Angel Sanctuary)