Favorite Manga Series, Part 2: Bakuman through What Did You Eat Yesterday? [in The Booklist Reader]
Ready to get graphic? If you’re new to the genre, might I suggest you go directly to the godfather of manga, the late Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989). Astro Boy ring a bell? Speed Racer? Kimba the White Lion? “There’s a reason why the Japanese call [him] the God of Comics,” says Gene Luen Yang, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the Library of Congress. “He can pull off such a range of emotion, and he weaves plots that really hook you in. All with this simple, big-eyed art style.”
The word “manga” is made up of two characters: man [漫] means “involuntarily, in spite of oneself” and ga [画] means “pictures.” Together, there’s the suggestion of making pictures despite oneself, as in creating pictures out of an uncontrollable impulse. The character for man is also used to form the adjective mida(ri) ni, which means “without reason, arbitrarily, recklessly.” Fun and abandonment, in other words. Take things one step further and midari is also used in midari–gamashii: “morally corrupt.” Some might use this condemn manga as a corrupting influence. Not me!
While manga is believed to have its origins in 18th-century Japan, when the term came into vernacular usage, Tezuka is credited with single-handedly inventing the modern phenomenon. After his medical training —yep, he’s a doctor, too—Tezuka began his manga career just after World War II, and created for four decades. Many of his manga characters have found long life as anime (Japanese animation). But that’s a whole other story.
Most recently, you might have seen manga make (not so great) news. Hollywood’s white-washing trend is affecting some of manga’s most popular protagonists in celluloid incarnations. Light Yagami of Death Note has become Caucasian onscreen; Motoko Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell is now . . . Scarlett Johansson; and adorable Goku of Dragonball suddenly went pale. Devotees are none too pleased.
But readers know that the book is always better than the film. The same goes for manga. Check these out—and yes, the original Death Note series comes highly recommended!
Bakuman (20 volumes) by Tsugumi Ohba, art by Takeshi Obata, translated by Tetsuichiro Miyaki
At 14, Moritaka Mashiro figures he’s “just going to live a normal life.” For a teenager, that translates into “getting into a good high school, a good college and a good company to work for.” But he’s not quite ready to mindlessly accept such a “boring future.” He teams up with fellow student Akito Takagi—he of the superb writing skills which complement Mashiro’s already award-winning drawing prowess. Together the pursue their dream of becoming the next great manga team. Mashiro’s got plenty of arguments not to even try, including memories of his dead manga artist uncle. He even quotes the author of the real-life phenomenally successful Death Note series—a witty little self-reference as Bakuman is created by the Death Note team. The boys have the talent. All they need is to try again, and again . . . and again.
Black Jack (17 volumes) by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camellia Nieh
The late godfather of manga puts his medical degree to entertaining use with this renegade-doctor-without-a-license story. Black Jack rejects the controlling and corrupt medical establishment. With a heavily scarred face, a dramatic black cloak, and shock of black-and-white-unruly hair, he’s quite the distinctive and menacing sight. But he’s also got a caring, suffering heart hidden deep within. Each volume includes a dozen or so stories of Black Jack’s magical, globe-trotting medical adventures.
A Bride’s Story (8 volumes, thus far) by Kaoru Mori, translated by William Flanagan
Before you read a single word, you’ll find yourself marveling at the incredible artwork. Exquisite hardly does the painstakingly detailed panels justice. You’ll just have to discover the pages for yourself. Set in “Central Asia in the nineteenth century . . . in a provincial town near the Caspian Sea,” bride Amir is a sweet, wide-eyed 20-year-old. And as local tradition dictates she is eight years older than her boy-hubby Karluk. Amir is not quite sure how she’ll fit into her new household. Most importantly, she doesn’t quite know how to treat her very young spouse. She quickly proves herself versatile—a fearsome hunter, a talented seamstress, an accomplished cook, and a wonderful pal. She easily endears herself to her new family. The series follows the couple’s developing relationship, and intersperses their story with forays into the lives of other brides and wives in other villages and cities.
Buddha (8 volumes) by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Maya Rosewood
Welcome to Tezuka’s irreverent, brilliant, revisionist narrative about the sage. Consider the series a spiritual investment. Buddha made its English debut in 2003, with the eighth and final volume released in 2005. Volumes 1 and 2 won the highest honor in graphic novels—the coveted Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material in 2004. And Volumes 3 and 4 repeated the surprise win in 2005. With stunning jackets by renowned book designer Chip Kidd, each copy sports a colorful band around a stark black and white cover. Put the volumes together (which is why you need all eight) and the spines reveal three images of Buddha: the fresh-faced young mendicant; the enlightened adult; and the wrinkled elder. While Buddha is certainly the star of the series, he’s not always the focus. Tezuka deftly introduces other characters, both historical and imagined—not to mention a few cameo appearances by himself (and even Yoda!).
Death Note (12 volumes) by Tsugumi Ohba, art by Takeshi Obata, translated by Tetsuichiro Miyaki
In possession of the mysterious Death Note—a frightening notebook that gives the owner the power to control death—genius high school student Light Yagami plays god. At first he thinks he’ll just rid the world of the most heinous criminals. But that’s just not enough, especially as his power grows and he gets the assistance of Ryuk, the Death Note’s Shinigami (“death god”). In the face of rocketing murder rates, the international law enforcement community gathers to devise a plan. Light’s ultimate vision of utopia means he won’t anyone—and certainly not any laws—stand in his way. His seeming omnipotence appears invincible. but what happens when your own father becomes your next formidable foe? A bone-chilling read, Death Note will make you question everything from Machiavellian strategy and good vs. evil, to your own family ties.
The Drops of God (4 volumes in U.S. (representing 8 Japanese volumes); 44 volumes in Japan) by Tadashi Agi, illustrated by Shu Okimoto, translated by Kate Robinson
I’m no oenophile, but I savored this series. Besides being an international publishing success, Drops has actually affected wine sales around the world! Volume 1 boasts quite the stamp of approval. Decanter Magazine declares: “Arguably the most influential wine publication for the past 20 years!” And yes, all the wines in the series are real. Here’s the story. Shizuku Kanzaki has never tasted wine—he works with beers—a supreme irony as his late father, Yutaka, was an internationally renowned wine critic and collector. Shizuku’s was estranged from his famous parent, but he’s called to the family mansion for the reading of the will. To inherit Yutaka’s vast estate, Shizuku must identify 13 wines: “The Twelve Apostles,” plus the . . . “Drops of God.” But Shizuku has competition. Just before he passed away, Yutaka adopted Issei Tomine, who seems to be heir apparent as he’s already a highly regarded wine critic despite his youth. The two “brothers” have exactly a year to identify the selected wines. While the various bottles will make your mouth water, your eyes will drink in the wonderful visuals.
House of Five Leaves (8 volumes) by Natsume Ono, translated by Joe Yamazaki
Welcome to the uncertain world of Akitsu Masanosuke who just can’t seem to hold down a job. A warrior bodyguard (yojimbo) for hire, young Akitsu is definitively told he’s “not intimidating” by the old woman who runs the boarding house where he has a simple room. Indeed, although his samurai skills are impressive, his demeanor is too meek and mild. Masterless once more, Akitsu’s timidity attracts unwanted attention, but he’s saved by the mysterious Yaichi, who offers him a job . . . as an outlaw. Akitsu must decide quickly what kind of man Yaichi really is, and whether or not to join his “Five Leaves” group. Ono creates a long-ago world where rules and laws are still rather fluid, and it’s difficult to know right from wrong.
Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka (8 volumes) by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka, co-authored by Takashi Nagasaki, supervised by Macoto Tezka
Godfather of manga Tezuka introduced his beloved Tetsuwan Atom—known in the West as Astro Boy—way back in 1951. The adorable robot boy became a worldwide phenomenon, thanks to his animated incarnation that began in 1963. Half a century later, renowned contemporary manga artist Urasawa re-envisions Astro Boy with his own dark twists. In a brave new world, humans and robots peacefully co-exist. That is, until someone—or something—starts viciously murdering the world’s most powerful robots. Europol superdetective Gesicht is called in to investigate. Gesicht himself is a robot who looks completely human but has a left hand that turns into a hypno-gas gun on command! He soon learns that seven robots are on the target list, and somehow he must thwart impending doom.
Wandering Son (8 volumes, thus far) by Shimura Takako, translated by Matt Thorn
Check out this gentle, groundbreaking graphic series about two middle-school friends coming of age: Nitori, who wishes he could be a girl, and Takatsuki, who wishes she could be a boy. Their family and friends aren’t quite always sure how to react, but acceptance is always a great start. Creator Shimura Takako is an award-winning manga artist recognized for her LGBT focus. Certainly not your usual manga fare. Shimura treats both protagonists’ journeys of self-discovery with real sensitivity. Her characters are wide-eyed and adorable, uncertain and searching. But hard times lie ahead for the children. Always rooting for her two heros, Shimura surrounds them with a support network of family and quirky, curious friends.
what did you eat yesterday? (12 volumes, thus far) by Fumi Yoshinaga, translated by Maya Rosewood
While the food here is the obvious temptation—every cover has teasers about the meals to come–the narrative has considerably more substance. Meet “tall and handsome” Shiro Kakei, a successful a lawyer at work and a gourmet chef at home. He cooks with devotion for his boyfriend Kenji who is as carefree and fun-loving as Shiro is disciplined and practical—especially about money. When criticized for his frugality, Shiro explains things to Kenji: “Since we gays won’t have any kids to look after us in our old age, money is all we can count on.” Featuring tempting recipes, each savory volume explores Shiro and Kenji’s everyday lives as an attractive gay couple in contemporary Japan. Navigating family relationships, friendships and careers, they are always committed to each other.