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PG Tips No. 30:

The Best Of 2009: Manga

Manga deserve a ‘Best Of’ all their own, with so much exciting material making it into English through 2009. Here’s my Top Eighteen favourites in translation.

No 1:
GoGo Monster
by Taiyo Matsumoto
I’ve been waiting for this for six years. I first came across a copy of this modern manga masterpiece for a mere fiver in a second-hand bookshop in London, while researching my book Manga: 60 Years Of Japanese Comics in 2003. As an object alone, the pricey original Japanese edition from 2000 is remarkable, an unconventional 458-page deluxe hardback with red-tinted edges to the pages, the vertical side patterned with a strange creature like those on the book’s slipcase cover (“drawn” by the book’s schoolboy protagonist, Yuki Tachibana). The story begins on the cover itself, number minus 8 and counting down inside on grey paper. The crowning touch was something I had never seen in a book before - each signature inside was bound in with threads of four different colours. And clearly the contents more than justified this exquisite packaging, so much so that I had to devote a whole page to GoGo Monster in my 2004 survey (page 163). Happily, in 2006 Delcourt brought out a French edition, pretty much identical, though the slipcase came unglued and they didn’t manage that fancy interior binding. And it’s only taken until 2009 for it to finally arrive in English.

It’s made it now, mainly on the back of the success of the anime version of Tekkonkinkreet. The movie has brought Taiyo Matsumoto’s highly individual source manga, which was originally translated in comic-book pamphlets and Pulp magazine and then two paperbacks as Black and White, only to practically disappear, to a much broader audience. Even clothes store UniqLo were selling T-shirts based on it. And Viz has done GoGo Monster proud, retaining all of the original’s production values, although that multi-coloured stitching is missing inside.

It’s a haunting, enigmatic magic-realist meditation on growing up, centred around a strange schoolkid, shunned by all his classmates except one. Yuki Tachibana draws and dreams and seems to have a rapport with “yokai”-like spirits inhabiting the unused, off-limits fourth floor of his school. Flowers, especially sunflowers, and planes roaring overhead, are among the motifs. Matsumoto’s startling techniques include sequences as Yuki is stepping into the “other side” in pitch blackness where gradually as his eyes adjust, we join him as he can make out his surroundings. An altogether quieter, subtler work than Tekkonkinkreet, I hope GoGo Monster proves popular enough to encourage Viz to complete No. 5. Apparently, Matsumoto’s quirky, animalistic science fiction parable was the company’s poorest seller in 2002 and the No.5 series was abandoned after only two volumes. The French sensibly brought out the whole shebang. I for one would love to see Viz compile the whole thing into one mammoth tome.

And we’ve also still to see his table-tennis manga Ping Pong, adapted into an entertaining live-action movie. His latest series, up to 7 volumes already in Japan, is Takemitsu Samurai with writer Issei Eifuku and again over in France, Kana, Dargaud’s manga label, have already got two books translated as Samouri Bambou (Bamboo Samurai). Through a friend, I met Taiyo Matsumoto at the ICA when he was over in the UK in 2005 with his wife, also a mangaka. They were en route to Liverpool, as big Beatles fans, and also researching locations and architecture for No.5. After lunch, he kindly signed my Japanese edition and added this sketch:

Re-reading GoGo Monster, I sense his strong empathy with Yuki, the quiet, intuitive loner who ignores the inanities and cruelties of the other kids and teachers and connects to the cycles of nature, the struggle between the spirit realms, and the joys of drawing.

No 2:
A Distant Neighborhood, 2 volumes
by Jiro Taniguchi
Another outstanding manga which I’ve been longing to see appear in English also arrived last year. Fanfare have been solidly committed to Taniguchi’s work from the start with The Walking Man. His major series are also underway from Fanfare, from period literary biography The Times Of Botchan to mountaineering epic The Summit Of The Gods, as well as single volumes like The Ice Wanderer and The Quest For The Missing Girl. But this is a key work, as a husband and father revisits his teenage years with all his adult knowledge and insights intact, not unlike a mature manga version of the movie Peggy Sue Got Married. Taniguchi’s latest works are wonders as well, including 2008’s Fuyu no Doubutsu en (Zoo In Winter), already out in French from Casterman last year and his most autobiographical work to date, recreating his strivings to become a manga author. Here’s hoping this will also soon get translated.

No. 3:
Children Of The Sea
by Daisuke Igarashi
Another great gift from Viz last year were free online serialisations of thirteen very different, experimental manga from Shogakukan’s IKKI magazine, home to Matsumoto’s No.5 and a monthly where great mangaka can craft stories less frenetically than in the volume-driven weeklies. On the site you get a whole book, chapter by chapter, and then when it comes out in print, they leave just the opening chapter as a sampler, while they carry on with the next book. It’s a great way to test-market material and invite reader reviews. For me the highpoint is this series about two mysterious mer-boys, water babies who have somehow evolved to live underwater and are attuned to how sea creatures relate to the ecosystem. Drink deep of this first taste in English of the naturalistic, deeply perceptive draughtsmanship of Daisuke Igarashi, another manga master. He draws both our natural and man-made worlds with a delicate acuity and sympathy, largely in the deftest of linework. I gasped at such visions as looking skywards from the deep at the ripples of the rain hitting the surface, or a giant manta ray leaping from the ocean while lightning arcs down from the skies.

No 4:
by Naoki Urasawa

No 5:
20th Century Boys
by Naoki Urasawa
We are being spoilt with not one but two compelling serials from the creator of Monster. Pluto reinterprets and expands the Astro Boy classic which marked Urasawa’s childhood, while 20th Century Boys spins off from the conceit of a kid gang whose secret manga-inspired imaginings start coming true when they become adults. Why choose between these, when both are truly first-class. 

No 6:
A Drifting Life
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
In A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly), veteran Japanese master Yoshihiro Tatsumi took ten years and 804 pages to unfold his own life as “Hiroshi Katsumi”, from Japan’s surrender in 1945 when he was 10 through to 1960 when he joins angry protestors in Tokyo demonstrating against the new security treaty. This is a volatile period of change, not only in Japanese society, reported here in documentary-style, photo-referenced sections, but also in the author’s personal life from adolescence into adulthood, and in the mutating marketplace for manga which young Katsumi is so eager to break into.

His great idol and influence, whom he meets as a youngster, is Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the post-war pioneer of both the modern comics and animation industries. Fresh talent is so much in demand that, to ensure loyalty, one shrewd publisher promised a tailor-made suit for every author who produced five books for them. For Katsumi, winning contests and getting printed while still in school fires up his determination, and little his more stolid, cynical elder brother says can dampen this for long. Not that he never faces doubts or setbacks. As cut-price novelty books for kids make way for darker, more mature anthologies sold to the burgeoning rental library sector, fierce competition erupts and publishers’ gambles do not always pay off. Katsumi and his young peers want to break away from Tezuka’s approach and band together to champion a movement of “manga that isn’t manga”, which they eventually christen “gekiga” or dramatic pictures. The tantalising glimpses we get here of these 1950s comics, unseen outside Japan, suggest there may be gems among them. Even the moodier “noir” gekiga retain a certain cartoonish charm, very different from the more realistic chiaroscuro illustration in American crime comic books of the period, inspired by Milton Caniff. While it’s a fascinating tale of personal, national and cultural history, it may not be the most accessible introduction to Tatsumi’s work, especially since the book lacks a handy biographical appendix explaining the significance of the many manga artists he refers to. Better to start with one of his collections of short, sharp stories, in which Tatsumi’s searing perception confronts the private crises and their underlying causes within post-war Japanese society.

No 7:
Moyasimon: Tales Of Agriculture
by Masayuki Ishikawa
Tamaki Seto alerted me to this wacky hit as one her choices of the Best Manga of 2008. It has many of the traditional tropes of school/college soaps about a novice student with a secret talent, his best pal, wacky teachers and classmates, love interests, and how we comes to be accepted, etc. But what lifts this and has made it so huge in Japan is that Tadayasu’s weird gift is that he can see germs with the naked eye and seems to have a rapport with the microbial world. Bacteriological science has never been more entertaining, or really cute and funny thanks to their cartoony caricatures. What is more, the author has insisted that the marginal asides, footnotes and jokes he added for the magazine serialisation, which are normally dropped when the pages are compiled into a book, be kept here for added enjoyment. In our flu-phobic era of antibacterial handwash, Moyasimon reminds us of our relationships with our tiniest fellow lifeforms.

No 8:
Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu Volume 1
by Junko Mizuno
Junko kindly gave me a copy of this 2003 title when she was at my Graphic Novels book launch, a Comica event back in 2005. Are you ready for her deliriously bonkers intergalactic satire, starring an overly cute alien critter who leaves his pink home planet of Princes Kotobuki to find the love of his life on Earth, and more specifically make a baby with her amongst a crazed version of modern Japan? Somehow Junko brings a Pop Art trippiness and sweet sexual ambience here straight from the Sixties which reminded me at times of Jean-Claude Forrest’s Barbarella and Guy Peellaert’s Pravda. Her art also benefits from being enlarged quite a bit for this English edition (thought the paper is a bit flimsy). And where else are you going to find a calm but carnivorous giant space hippo decimating a poodle farm with projectile vomiting?

No 9:
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit
by Mase Motoro
In a sly critique of Japan’s inculcation of studying hard, conforming and seeking success at any price, Ikigami posits a state system that serves a death sentence on one in every thousand citizen by the time they reach adulthood. It’s supposed to motivate youngsters to do their best and our leading man is a fresh recruit at the government agency which notifies those randomly selected to die. What would you do if you had only 24 hours left to live? Mase Motoro uses this high concept to examine two emotive cases per volume and along the way how the job affects this agency employee. He seems to be becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his career and is starting to question the system he works for. Will he dare to rebel against the system or subvert it from within? 

No 10:
by Benjamin
To the surprise of practically nobody but TokyoPop, this was an almost instant sell-out and will hopefully get a second edition. From the heights of romantic passion to the depths of despair, this is a heart-breaking story of young love from China’s digital wunderkind and posterboy, Benjamin, who came to the UK for a second mini-tour last July, signing at the late-lamented Orbital Manga and then demonstrating his computer wizardry to a stunned audience at the Manhua! China Comics Now exhibition at the Oriental Museum in Durham. A second Benjamin book, Remember, is on the cards in 2010 from TokyoPop.

No 11:
The Box Man
by Imiri Sakabashira

No 12:
Red Snow
by Susmu Katsumata
Following up last-year’s Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, Drawn & Quarterly continue to champion the proto-avant garde of manga exemplified by the monthly magazine Garo with these two hardbacks. When you think of what was going on in comics almost everywhere else around the early Seventies, you can’t help but be struck by the advanced sophistication and experimentation of style, tone and subject in these underground Japanese comics or gekiga. They could often be so ahead of most of the medium that they can surface in English today, almost forty years later, and still work as fresh and forward-looking work and sit comfortably alongside the finest of D&Q’s modern output. What is missing still, though, is work by Yoshiharu Tsuge, a crucial innovative figure and cultural institution in Japan, although I gather it has proved far from easy to secure his agreement to translations.

No 13:
Black Jack
by Osamu Tezuka

No 14:
Barefoot Gen
by Keiji Nakazawa
Two Seventies manga classics continue. Volumes 9 and 10 of Barefoot Gen out in 2010 finally conclude this landmark Hiroshima epic, while Tezuka’s tales of his scarred super-surgeon-for-hire are models of inventive, concise storytelling with some killer twists of the scalpel.

No 15:
by Kiyohiko Azuma
Learn about life and all its mysteries through the eyes of a spritely adopted five-year-old girl. After vanishing in 2008 due to ADV’s decision to focus on anime, Kiyohiko Azuma’s utterly beguiling short stories returned in 2009 from Yen Press who reissued the first five and continued with a new volume six.




No 16:
Akira Vol 1
by Katsuhiro Otomo

No 17:
Ghost In The Shell Vol 1
by Shirow Masamune
The return of two manga classics marks the significant arrival on US soil of the Japanese publishing giant Kodansha, now reclaiming and republishing these two big back-catalogue hits. It remains to be seen how much of a bigger presence and impact Kodansha itself will have within the translated manga market.

No 18:
(Age of Co-Habitation)
by Kazuo Koike
And finally, and so far only in French, is the 1972 girl’s manga Dosei-Jidai (Age of Co-Habitation). I have been waiting to read this series ever since Frederik Schodt wrote about it in his seminal 1983 study Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. This three-volume series was bafflingly omitted from the Heritage Awards at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. It is written and drawn by the late great Kazuo Kamimura (artist on Lady Snowblood written by Kazuo Koike and inspiration for Tarantino’s Kill Bill). It’s been translated into French by Kana (Dargaud) as Lorsque Nous Vivions Ensemble (When We Lived Together). I was lucky enough to catch a small exhibition of original art, loaned by Kamimura’s widow, at the Belgian Comics Centre in Brussels and was blown away by its erotic visual poetry and striking Seventies experimentation in layouts and graphics. Jiro Taniguchi writes a touching foreword to one volume. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too many more years for this trilogy to make it into English.

Posted: January 24, 2010


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