One of the great things about the manga-blogging contingent on Twitter is its spontaneity. Within hours (or more likely minutes) of David Welsh (Precocious Curmudgeon) noting the total absence of manga on the New York Times’ Graphic Novel Gift Guide, the notion of the Great Manga Gift Guide was born. (Here’s the Twitter hashtag, for the curious.) With no set rules and only a few practical guidelines to follow, the results so far have covered a wide spectrum of material and approaches–go to David’s round-up post to see some of the lists people have come up with!
My own manga reading skews heavily towards shoujo (girls’) series–a trend that was only strengthened when I began receiving predominantly shoujo review copies from VIZ Media. I’ve tried to compensate for that in my list, though, in hopes that there’ll be something for everyone here. And while the temptation at the end of the year is to suggest new series that started coming out in 2009, I’ve decided to focus on ten series which are currently available in English in their entirety so that new readers have the option of reading a complete story without waiting on new volumes.
None of these comments are terribly spoilery, but in a couple of cases may refer to events past the first volume when the series takes a while to establish the premise.
For those who’re fascinated by the mysterious (and sometimes twisted) things lurking in the human psyche and/or exploration of gender roles and perceptions: After School Nightmare.
Mashiro has a closely-guarded secret: although he looks and identifies as male, he’s actually caught between genders. Male from the waist up and female from the waist down, he badly wants to be “truly” male, but is desperately insecure and questioning about his identity. A school nurse brings him into a special class conducted after school, in which students–none of whom know each other’s identity–enter into a dream world, where they appear as reflections of their individual issues and neuroses. Mashiro develops relationships with two other students, Kureha and Sou, forming a very unusual triangle as they all try to overcome their demons. After School Nightmare is an intriguing piece of work, with good characters and interesting plot twists.
(10 volumes, available from Go!Comi.)
For those who crave a sweet story that tugs at the heartstrings: Aishiteruze Baby.
Kippei, a popular 15 year old boy, has his life changed overnight when his 5-year-old cousin Yuzuyu is abandoned with his family, none of whom have time to take charge of her. The task of being her primary caregiver falls on Kippei’s shoulders, and although he initially resists the idea, he and Yuzu gradually become close. It’s all incredibly cute, but it also deals well with Yuzu’s experience of losing her mother, and while Kippei and Yuzu’s relationship is at the heart of the story there’s also a strong love interest between Kippei and a classmate, Kokoro. Bonus points for Yuzuyu being a believable little kid.
(7 volumes, available from VIZ Media.)
For those who enjoy epics, mistaken identities, and star-crossed lovers: Basara.
My only reservation in recommending Basara is that some volumes are apparently difficult to lay hands on these days, which is a shame, because this is a fantastic story. Growing up in a post-apocalyptic Japan, Sarasa is a normal girl whose twin brother, Tatara, is the prophesied “child of destiny” who everyone believes will overthrow the tyrannical rulers of the country. But when Tatara is killed, Sarasa sacrifices her identity and adopts his name, starting a revolution in his place.
There’s a lot of great stuff in here. Sarasa is the kind of heroine who gets things done through pure determination, and is a fallible but gifted and charismatic leader. The people who surround her are a diverse and interesting bunch, and the romantic subplot is important without taking away from the epic scope of the events that unfold as Sarasa tries to fulfill “Tatara”‘s destiny.
(27 volumes, available from VIZ Media.)
For those looking for a story about love and friendship with a touch of fantasy (which just happens to be one of the best-known manga around): Fruits Basket.
A recently orphaned, tender-hearted girl winds up living with a classmate and his two cousins, and as she gets to know them, she discovers that their family is cursed by the spirits of the Chinese zodiac animals. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because Fruits Basket has become incredibly popular in North America, and rightly so. There’s something here for just about everyone, with the mood ranging from the light humor you expect from a high school romantic comedy to a painful yet hopeful depiction of a family trying to break free of both a literal curse and a longstanding cycle of abuse. This is a powerful and skillfully crafted story with an amazing cast of characters, and it takes its potentially silly-sounding premise and explores the implications in a meaningful way.
(23 volumes, available from TOKYOPOP. Gradually coming out in a hardback omnibus edition as well. ^_^)
For those who know geeks, love geeks, or are geeks: Genshiken.
Genshiken is the epic tale of an otaku club at a Japanese college [read: all of the geeks who don't fit in with the more specialized geek clubs] and a normal girl who gets sucked in via her boyfriend. Only not so much with the epic. Genshiken takes a group of people whose hobbies and ways of approaching life make them social outcasts, and both empathizes with them and pokes fun at them in a way that lets you know that the author loves them and expects readers to as well. The series tells their story and explores their passions–whether for cosplay, model building, doujinshi, anime, manga–and shows the people behind the stereotypes, through their own eyes and the eyes of an outsider who…doesn’t exactly come to love them, but develops a strong sense of “no one messes with my geeks but me”. And admit it–that’s more fun.
(9 volumes, available from Del Rey Manga.)
For those who appreciate a high school romantic comedy that has fun playing with its genre’s conventions: High School Debut.
Athletic, tomboyish Haruna starts her first year of high school with a mission: having devoted her junior high days to sports, she’s ready to find the romance promised by the countless heaps of shoujo manga she’s devoured. When it turns out that manga hasn’t really taught her how to catch herself a guy, Haruna concludes that what she really needs is a love coach, and she chooses Yoh, a popular older boy, to show her the ropes. Given that the next part of the premise is “he accepts, on the condition that Haruna can’t fall in love with him“, it may be obvious what happens next–but it happens with irresistible charm and enthusiasm. Haruna is a bit like the anti-shoujo heroine: she tries to do things by the book (literally), but her own personality is too strong. Her relationship with Yoh is one of those lovely ones where it’s obvious why the characters like each other, and what each of them brings to the table. High School Debut is a funny and heartfelt story that should appeal to new manga readers as well as fans of the genre.
(13 volumes, available from VIZ Media. Well, 12 of them are, and 13 will be out pretty soon.)
For those who love psychological drama, layered stories, and a driven, intelligent hero: Monster.
There are two Naoki Urasawa series that are all the rage right now: 20th Century Boys and Pluto (the latter being a retelling of Astro Boy) are both amazing pieces of work, and deserve all the praise being heaped on them as each new volume comes out in English. But this list is for complete-in-English series, so let’s talk about Urasawa’s Monster. Set in several cities across Europe, Monster gives us Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a brilliant brain surgeon who follows his ideals at the cost of his promising career, choosing to operate on a young boy instead of the prominent man admitted after him. Tenma is ostracized within the hospital for his politically-unwise decision, but the child survives…and grows up to become a fiercely intelligent sociopath, a fact Tenma discovers when he himself is falsely accused of murder. When no one believes his incredible story, Tenma becomes a wanted man, pursuing the boy he once saved in order to rectify his mistake and prevent any more deaths. In the process he uncovers a truth and a conspiracy far darker than he had imagined, and learns that countless lives are at stake.
Monster is a fascinating story, full of twists and turns and intriguing characters. It’s also very different from many non-manga readers’ image of “manga”, and could be just the thing for that person you know (we all know at least one) who insists that manga is all wide-eyed shallow fluff.
(18 volumes, available from VIZ Media.)
For those who’re drawn to fashion, creative minds, and difficult romances: Paradise Kiss.
A short, engaging series from the creator of NANA. Yukari is a high school student with no real sense of purpose whose life is turned upside down by a group of eccentric fashion design students who persuade her to model for their label, Paradise Kiss. As they befriend her and pull her into their world, Yukari discovers how much she’s been missing in her life and finds herself falling for George, the group’s designer. It’s a glittering world populated with believably flawed, charming, and (mostly) wonderful characters. I have a particular soft spot for the supporting cast, whose stories are just as interesting as the leads’ without ever quite taking the focus from them.
(5 volumes, available from TOKYOPOP.)
For those who want to read about self-discovery in a soft sci-fi package: Please Save My Earth.
Like Basara, Please Save My Earth can be a bit tricky to come by in its entirety, but it’s well worth tracking down. This shoujo classic tells the story of six high school students and a young boy who share similar dreams about living on the moon and observing Earth. As they meet each other and compare notes, they realize that what’s happening to them is something much bigger and more life-changing than a dream. Please Save My Earth manages to have a complex, intriguing story while focusing heavily on the characters’ relationships, particularly the connection between Alice, a shy teenage girl who can’t quite bring herself to accept what’s happening, and Rin, the little boy who lives next door to her and knows far more than he lets on. It also has some interesting world-building, although the sci-fi elements take a backseat to the characters’ journey of self-discovery.
(21 volumes, available from VIZ Media.)
For those interested in historical drama, the politics of a rapidly-changing society, or heroes seeking redemption for past sins: Rurouni Kenshin.
Kenshin begins in 1878, just over a decade after Japan went through the massive social upheaval called the Bakumatsu and began to westernize. A wandering swordsman, Kenshin Himura winds up at a dojo run by a young woman named Kaoru, who isn’t at all sure what to make of him. Kenshin is unassuming and apparently harmless, but it quickly comes out that he’s also a former assassin once known as Hitokiri Battōsai, whose reputation as a brilliant swordsman haunts him as he travels the country, trying to atone for the lives he took for the sake of the cause he fought for. He tentatively settles at Kaoru’s dojo and begins to build a life and friendships there, but peace is impossible to come by when his legend still brings people after him to challenge him, settle old scores, or force him out of retirement.
(28 volumes, available from VIZ Media. Also currently coming out in shiny omnibus editions!)