A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Guest reviewer Lucy talks us through Japanese manga comics, how to choose, and where to buy them.
Manga is, put quite simply, any comic created in Japan. The term has stretched out a bit since its creation, as it can now also refer to the style generally associated with mainstream Japanese comics. Their typical characteristics include large eyes and idealised bodies for the characters, but also the type of panelling, visual effects and tones used. Essentially, though, we’re talking about Japanese comics themselves.
The animated counterpart to manga comics are anime films or TV series. While the process that goes into creating each is very different, on a surface level they’re similar. Indeed, many manga series get adapted for anime, which in turn creates a good part of the anime put out each season (anime is generally released in seasons, four each year, with roughly 50-70 shows each season). Manga comicbook chapters, in contrast, are published every week or month (depending on the magazine) and then in tankōbon – volumes of about four or five chapters.
There are four main genres that those magazines (and, thus, manga) fall into: shōnen, shōjo, seinen and jōsei – manga marketed to young boys, young girls, men, and women, respectively. Each of these genres has its own clichés and pitfalls, but each can, with good writing, be great. Shōnen series are often long, involve a young male protagonist who inevitably makes a lot of friends, fights, and grows stronger as he aims towards some long-off goal. These series are permeated with wish fulfilment. Shōjo series are too, though in a different way: they’re typically romance with an everygirl protagonist, some male lead she’s in love with, an awful lot of drama, and romantic resolutions that can take years to come about. Seinen and jōsei are more difficult to pin down. It’s important to point out that while shōnen and shōjo series are easy to parody for being uninspired, some truly excellent series can be written within these genres, as the examples below show.
Manga often gets a bad rap, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Fanservice characters and series are one of the main reasons, all but impossible to avoid, with some mainstream series amounting to little more than softcore pornography. Fanservice characters are usually female, and very young, or appearing so thanks to childish character designs. The lack of originality is another problem: it is often said that the manga and anime industries are stagnant and anything that tries to be different is crushed under the crowd-pleasing series. Standard series concepts include ‘cute girls doing cute things with a single gimmick’, magical girls, ‘trapped in a video game world’, and anything involving a magical high school (especially with tournaments in which students battle each other).
Whole articles could be – and have been – written on the crowd-pleasing series, on the series that try to deconstruct and freshen up the scene, and the general tropes of the manga industry. To the interested, I would recommend the columns on animenewsnetwork, or any of the thousands of manga/anime blogs, for example Wrong Every Time.
Where to buy manga?
To the best of my knowledge, there are troublingly few online manga subscription services, though there are plenty for anime. These are the most convenient: you subscribe for a certain amount per month and get access to most of the titles the service provides. Crunchyroll mostly provides anime, but it also has a selection of manga.
But nowadays, manga can be bought in many chain bookshops, or on Amazon, or in specialist science fiction / fantasy bookstores. The growing popularity of manga is making it a lot easier to buy outside Japan, though only a small percentage of manga titles are actually licensed and translated, and many take a long time to make it into English. If you can read French, you may have a wider choice.
I’m more of an animation fan myself, and I haven’t read all of these, but they are all considered good series that generally avoid the problems mentioned above that can put newcomers off.
Hunter x Hunter: a masterpiece of the shōnen genre. I would highly recommend the 2011 anime by the same name. As our protagonist, Gon Freecs, travels about the rich and vibrant world that Togashi Yoshihiro creates, ostensibly searching for his father, he finds himself caught up in plots that grow heavier and more ambitious with each narrative arc. The background characters are all fleshed-out and interesting, if not necessarily likeable; the variety in the story is enough to give you whiplash without ever quite doing that; and, without giving away any spoilers, the emotional pay-off in the later arcs is infamously powerful.
Fullmetal Alchemist: not one I’ve read or watched yet, but it is an absolute classic. ‘The rules of alchemy state that to gain something, one must lose something of equal value.’ An object exists that will allow any alchemist to ignore these rules, the Philosopher’s Stone. The young Edward Elric is a talented alchemist who through an accident long ago lost his younger brother and one of his legs. Sacrificing one of his arms as well, he uses alchemy to bind his brother’s soul to a suit of armor. This leads to the beginning of their quest to restore their bodies, searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.
One Punch Man: an action series that’s become wildly popular ever since the acclaimed Murata Yusuke started re-drawing the original webcomic. The basic plot is that Saitama, the protagonist, is a superhero who can defeat anything with a single punch, but this has led him to become disillusioned with being a hero. The art and the choreography are fantastic.
Ouran High School Host Club: a shōjo series that parodies the shōjo series as a concept magnificently. Due to an impressively unlucky set of circumstances that includes the breaking of a priceless vase, our protagonist finds herself working in the host club in her school (which, incidentally, is fabulously expensive, full of rich people, and she’s the only one who got in with a scholarship). The host club itself is ‘staffed’ by six very attractive, very self-absorbed students, whom she now has to put up with to pay off her debt.
Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun: another shōjo comedy that deconstructs the genre, but with a lot more focus on comedy than plot or romance. Sakura Chiyo tries to confess to her crush one day, only to have him completely misunderstand and think she wants an autograph, since it turns out he’s a famous shōjo manga author. Unable to refuse, she starts working as his assistant and joins a highly colourful cast of characters who, though they might not have much in the way of character development, are all so entertaining together that it’s easy to forget their lack of a third dimension.
Other kinds of manga
Natsume’s Book of Friends: a gentle series with a lot of emotional weight caught in the understated story. Natsume is a boy able to see yōkai, or spirits, and hates this because of how they target him. When he moves to the countryside, he finds his grandmother’s old book, full of the names of yōkai she has overpowered; it’s now his job to give those names back when the yōkai come asking for them. In the process, he gradually makes friends, comes to grips with the loneliness that plagued his childhood, and comes to learn the stories of the yōkai he meets.
The Ancient Magus Bride: Hatori Chise is a Slay Vega and has exceptional magical potential that finds her sold to a magus, Elias Ainsworth, who plans to take her as his wife. For all that he says he wants that, there’s very little romance in their relationship. While Elias is occasionally protective, he’s far more interested in teaching Chise magic than wooing her. She, like Natsume above, flourishes in this new life that Elias gives her, meeting spirits and fairies straight out of classic British mythology (Titania and Oberon even make an appearance). The tone is roughly the same as Natsume’s Book of Friends, but slightly less wistful, and with a lot more focus on the magical environment.
Yotsuba to!: a sweet, plotless story with stunning background art, about a curious little girl (the titular Yotsuba). There’s very little to describe here, since the story’s merit lies in the sense of relaxation and comfort that comes with reading it.
Lucy has been reading manga for years, and studies Japanese at a British university.