When Tokyopop CEO and demagogue Stu Levy announced the cessation of U.S. publishing operations in 2011 some saw the event as the beginning of a slow decline for manga in America. The cancellation of print editions for both Viz Media’s Shonen Jump (2012) and Yen Press’ Yen Plus (2010) in favor of online-only distribution seemed like additional guideposts pointing towards the same destination: a shrunken, anemic American manga scene.
The reality has, so far, turned out to be somewhat different. As of the spring of 2012 the contractions in the industry have happened and continue, but many publishing bastions hold fast, more people continue to discover the different facets of manga and established niches have developed, niches in which the cleverest and most dedicated publishers can, most of the time, carve out a loyal existence. Still, many an English-speaking manga fan in 2012 is asking the same question English-speaking fans were asking in 1992, or 2002 for that matter:
Just how much are we missing out on?
It should be common knowledge by now that the English-speaking market gets but a fraction of the manga that comes out in Japan on a monthly if not weekly basis. This isn’t without good reason; manga in Japan is a serialized, mass market, largely disposable medium whose annual throughput contains more than its fair share of white noise. American publishing arms perform an automatic quality control/garden pruner role in this respect.
There are plenty of confounding variables in this equation, however. The vagaries of relationships with Japanese partners/co-owners, poor and/or nonexistent market research, overhead costs of publishing and simple lack of effort and/or creative vision ensure that the publishers’ reliability as a gardener is far from constant. A lot of the time the roses are thrown into the compost heap and weeds left to flourish.
Ipso facto: we’re missing out on a lot.
Below is a small selection of four manga artists and one writer who are being overlooked by American publishers. They work, by and large, within the field of seinen, a loosely defined category of manga anthologies ostensibly geared towards young adult males in Japan. Admittedly the sample’s homogeneity is partly a result of my own preference as a reader towards this niche, but seinen takes on a special relevance these days as well.
Not too long ago many a manga “pundit” and public relations representative was declaring that seinen was a lost cause in the English-speaking market. The interest simply isn’t there, these aren’t the stories English speakers want out of comics, anyone who’d be interested in reading these stories in English has already done so via illegal scanlations and will therefore not buy any official releases, etc. etc. None of these strawmen I just built are without their merits, but they’re also gross oversimplifications whose flaws are highlighted by the simple fact that seinen continues to come out in the United States and other countries. Clever and aggressive marketing as well as the advent of alternative funding/publishing models like Kickstarter and JManga (though neither of these is without their own problems) have all played a part.
It’s our hope that this article can not only play a part in garnering greater appreciation for these artists’ exceptional work (life and attention spans are too short to champion the mediocre), but continue advocacy for the depth of artistic and storytelling achievement that can be found in seinen in general.
Talk about female mangaka producing seinen manga in the historical fiction vein and one might immediately think of Kaoru Mori, the masterful creator of Emma and Bride Stories. Mori’s ebullient stories are largely domestic affairs which use low-key familial relationships as a frame for exploring the historical worlds with which she is so clearly infatuated and well versed.
Yu Itoh, on the other hand, establishes one markedly different central theme for her own historical manga, that of utter carnage.
In Shut Hell, perhaps Itoh’s most hellacious manga, the titular lead character carves literal swaths of destruction through her 13th century Mongol foes. As the sole survivor of a Tangut garrison army, her sole preoccupation-cum-psychosis is the capture and murder of the commander of the Golden Horde tumen that destroyed her city and all the written records preserved therein. So single-minded is she in her revenge impulse that she doesn’t bother to clothe herself in much of anything past chest wrap and the pelt of a massive dire wolf who she kills with her bare hands as the capstone in her transformation from an anonymous Tangut soldier into Shut Hell.
Obviously, the presence of a twenty foot-tall talking dire wolf on the steppes of Central Asia implies that Shut Hell is not nearly as preoccupied with realism as the average Kaoru Mori comic, but its presence does speak to the comparable degree of research and enthusiasm Itoh brings to her time period of choice. The Golden Horde, the confederation of Mongol and Kipchak tribes whom Genghis Khan united to conquer most of Central Asia and the Middle East, believed that it was descended from a family of dire wolves that inhabited the Mongolian steppe in ancient times. By killing this wolf Shut Hell quite literally exhibits her intent to wipe out the heart of the Mongol conquests.
Itoh’s flowing tapestry-esque art compliments the high-flying acrobatic fights that punctuate her comics. Not to say that these are Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style exhibitions of elegant, bloodless grace. Brutality abounds in Itoh’s work, throats are torn out with teeth, castle guards are tacked onto walls by volleys of arrows and cuirassiers are torn off their mounts by crazed infantrymen who hurtle into the air bayonet-first like rockets. In fact, “crazed” comes up quite often in descriptions of the characters and events in Itoh’s stories. Another one of her recurring themes, which appears in both Shut Hell and Imperial Guards, her award-winning collaboration with Daisuke Sato, is a protagonist whose approach to physical conflict is a self-destructive, berserker flurry. In that respect her comics are less reminiscent of Mori than Tsutomo Nihei and Q Hayashida, another female seinen artist whose Dorohedoro possesses a similar extent of gratuitous violence.
It’s not all depravity in Itoh’s comics, however. Much like in Dorohedoro, the worlds of Shut Hell and Imperial Guards still possess human kindness, humor, affection and honor. Even the worst killers or most irredeemable villains are not above cracking a joke or being kind to their kin and clan, and that’s what separates the Itohs, Hayashidas and Moris of the world from the Japornime image certain other seinen manga are so seemingly willing to embody.
You may or may not have noticed the coming and going of a recent Japanese romantic comedy film called Moteki. What you most likely didn’t know either way is that this film—mostly famous for an impromptu music-and-dance sequence featuring a cameo from J-pop group Perfume—is based on a manga by one Mitsurou Kubo, one of the most distinctive artists working in seinen today.
Many of the most popular mangaka; Eiichiro Oda, Rumiko Takahashi and Mitsuru Adachi come to mind; have in their flagship works a level of fidelity to the art school rules of human proportions and shape that could be described as, at best, tenuous. That’s not to say that these are bad artists necessarily, there’s more to comics than visuals or character designs, not to mention the added dimension of art styles that fit thematically into the story that’s being told (imagine if you will One Piece illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami, or Oh!Great). But there exists an especially rare—some would say secret—category of mangaka who seem to draw for sheer love of rendering the world and its inhabitants in india ink and shading gradients.
Kenji Tsuruta, creator of Spirit of Wonder and Memories of Emanon is one of these artists. Mitsurou Kubo is yet another.
The subject matter and storylines of Kubo’s comics are rather simplistic. Moteki is in essence a manga version of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin in which the lead character, a 29-year-old urban male who, for a variety of reasons, has never been in sexual relationship, finds himself in pursuit of four different women who’ve previously occupied very different roles in his life. In Again!!, another highlight work, Kubo rehashes the old Japanese storytelling standbys of a high school setting and a Groundhog’s Day scenario in which the lead is thrown three years into the past and given a chance to re-imagine his previously lackluster school days from the very beginning.
What sets Kubo’s works apart from other comics with similar boiler plate setups is the palpable love with which Kubo depicts her characters. Like the aforementioned Tsuruta, Kubo is a master of rendering the human form. The sensitivity she puts into said renditions is readily apparent on every page. Not only that, but her characterizations are no less affectionate or true to life. The lead male in Moteki cuts a rather ridiculous figure more often than not, but despite his circumstances he isn’t a vulgar hikkikomori stereotype, and the women he pursues aren’t any of the gross stereotypes you’ve come to expect from this sort of manga. Similarly, Again!! features a high school-age protagonist who’s the quiet type, yet can interact just fine with the opposite gender and has a clear sense of right and wrong without being a passive dullard observer. Said traits serve him well in facing off against his primary antagonists, a painfully true-to-life two-faced unit of scheming meangirls (in case the reader needed any additional tipoff that the author of this comic is female).
Not all manga stories about relationships are geared towards the fetishistic preferences of Neanderthal mouthbreathers and/or screech-pouncer fujoshi. The best stories, regardless of medium, are those that offer a credible depiction of human nature and what life is like. Mitsurou Kubo reaches those heights as both artist and writer.
Sometimes a storyteller is tuned to tell a specific kind of story about a specific type of character. Ryoichi Ikegami has a predilection for stories about barrel-chested alpha males thrown into sprawling criminal syndicate imbroglios. Mitsuru Adachi fixates on high school jocks and the unexpected complexity of character such people exhibit in times of great trauma. For Hidenori Hara, the recurring theme is that of the underdog.
Despite good coverage by continental European comics label Glenat, Hara—like most if not all the creators in this selection—remains virtually unknown among English-speaking audiences. If anything he might be best known for one of the many manga renditions of Densha Otoko, Japanese image board 2ch’s infamous otaku Cinderella story and his sole work to be released in America. In Hara’s version the eponymous protagonist is less the absolute basket case depicted in other versions (as if the accentuate the “wow” factor of his eventual hookup with Hermes) but instead a relatively normal guy deep inside a rut, one largely of his own creation.
The conflicts in Hara’s manga have little in common with the pyrotechnics and steely showdowns of many other seinen titles. His protagonists are almost always average everyday people. Villains do exist, but by and large they’re petty and wretched figures as opposed to towering menaces, twisted wrecks along the highway of life who try to intersect with the hero’s path, colliding with him or her to make sure s/he shares their fate. But the true foe for most of Hara’s characters is themselves. Self-doubt, inhibitions, internal prejudices and learned helplessness are the anvils that weigh down on the heroes’ shoulders, drawing them into self-made ruts so all-consuming that drastic action is needed.
Despite having an Adachi-esque fixation on high school and university stories, all of Hara’s stories exhibit a very adult understanding of human emotions and relationships which belies the sometimes juvenile presentation. In keeping with that premise one of the biggest epiphanies to come upon his protagonists is that of realizing that they themselves are responsible for whatever bullshit has encumbered the trajectory of their life.
In one of Hara’s landmark works, Hoshi no Furu Machi or The Town Where Stars Fall, the lead character, a down-and-out high school senior with an unclear idea of his own future, is transferred away from Tokyo by his parents to move in with an aunt in the boondocks to try and rebuild his academic record in time to graduate and go through the wringer of university exams. The reason for his academic decline isn’t cut and dry—he wasn’t a star student previously, but neither was he a slouch. Across the course of the story the reader finds out about how this complex of his came to be: a gradual but potent accumulation of overconfident blitheness leading into willful indifference, which itself lead to oversights and the first slipups, mistakes the vestigial confidence rendered him too proud to admit to; indifference that makes him too slow to act. By the time he can no longer deceive even himself the problems have amplified tenfold, affecting his morale and consequently alienating him from friends and family, further hurtling him into a deadly inertia of self-loathing and psychological paralysis. It’s only in a new town, with new friends and family unrelated to the schemes of Tokyo and the sense that his life was being railroaded, that he can begin to rebuild his self worth and accrue the first successes so vital in remembering the flavor of victory.
It’s difficult even for novelists to take the concept of a story about self-actualization and not have it come across with the same staid and facile themes and platitudes one would hear in a Saturday morning children’s TV show on public broadcasting. The fact that Hara can do it so adeptly in so many of his titles speaks to the adeptness of his understanding of characterization. Fuyu Hanabi, or Winter Fireworks, takes the staid concept of boxing manga and flips it on its ear. Here a 30-something ex-boxer picks up an odd job working as a fight instructor for the lead actress on an upcoming movie which appears to be some kind of J-drama remix on Million-Dollar Baby. We soon learn that despite her dilettante attitude, the actress’ professional and personal situation isn’t so different from that of her instructor, a point of intersection on which they begin to bond and find inspiration in each other. In Regatta, a sports manga about collegiate rowing teams of all things, a very Adachi-esque scenario ensues in which the lead, a champion rower, must overcome the death of his best friend and former rowing partner to continue his sporting career. More than that, however, he faces an internal battle where, similar to Tatsuya in Adachi’s Touch he must learn to exorcise from his own mind the ghosts that tell him that he’s “not worthy,” he has no right to go on living a life that was built with the help of someone else, he’s simply a poseur and/or imposter.
Hara’s art style is among my all-time favorites in manga. There is an inherent—and wonderful—dissonance between his character designs, lanky and willowy figures reminiscent of the cartoony art in older manga like Kochikame, and razor sharp, precise backgrounds that effortlessly recreates the sumptuous visual density that characterizes so many contemporary Japanese towns and cities, and which enraptures so many foreigners upon visiting. The visual richness of the world the characters inhabit is an ironic—and poignant–counterpoint to the tunnel vision doldrums they so often find themselves stuck in.
The true genius of Hara’s visual style, however, isn’t simply in the elements of individual frames, but right down to the way those frames are structured and tied together into the whole that gives “sequential art” its namesake. Many a tome about manga talks about how starting with Osamu Tezuka, the first mangaka, comics artists in Japan have differentiated themselves from their colleagues in other countries by openly imitating the gradual progression of a movie’s frames in the way they sequence their panels.
Hara’s comics use this style to virtuosic effect; he’s rarely ever satisfied with using a simple rectangular frame, instead throwing in trapezoids, ovals, isosceles triangles, overlapping shapes and picture-in-picture effects to recreate not only the progression of time across the length of a page, but the tight interplay between events in the environment, characters’ visual reactions to them and the consequent responses by others in the scene to those initial events and reactions. A single page might start with a distant landscape shot of a silhouetted figure pushing a bicycle across a crosswalk, which then progresses to a close up of the traffic like changing colors, followed up by a picture-in-picture focus on the characters’ eyes fixated upon the light which itself is overlaid on another landscape shot—this time zoomed in so that the details of the street are vivid—which shows the character making his way across the street.
Reading these comics is a heady, almost intoxicating experience. Nostalgic without being twee or saccharine, emotionally complex without being preoccupied with or soaked in bathos, visually beautiful and innovative without ever once distracting from the story at hand; Hidenori Hara belongs on a list of 21st century masters of the form. The fact that so little of his work is available officially in English is a travesty.
You might remember an Akiyuki Shinbo-directed TV anime series from 2010 called Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, or And Yet The Town Turns. You might even remember that it was based on a manga by someone named Masakazu Ishiguro. Forget this anime series; it was dross (that much should have been apparent the moment the director’s name was cited). Instead, draw your attention towards the inimitable mangaka to whom it failed to do justice.
Soremachi, started in 2005 and now going strong for nine-plus volumes, is easily Ishiguro’s longest and most “well-known” work. In it one gets a full primer on everything Masakazu Ishiguro is about as a mangaka. The inherent ridiculousness of everyday situations, the divinely incoherent things people so often utter without thinking, mundane yet somehow bizarre mysteries, the ways in which adults and children interact. A rather flippant way of describing Soremachi is a slightly less stoned Azumanga Daioh as interpreted by HEADGEAR, the creative staff that produced Patlabor.
Like the writing staff behind Patlabor, Ishiguro eschews the typical anime and manga style of highly physical and histrionic slapstick humor and instead uses mundane, relatable situations upon which he stacks ever-increasing accretions of the absurd. Speaking to the strength of his character building, the humor in these situations are far less about the wackiness of the events themselves but watching and anticipating the ways in which the different established characters of the manga react to them. When Hotori Arashiyama, the main character of Soremachi suffers a near-death experience and gets glimpse of the Japanese Afterlife (in the world of Soremachi afterlives are Balkanized along ethno-cultural lines) the humor is less in the inherent weirdness of the Japanese otherworld itself (it’s pretty much what you’d expect, a vast aimless bureaucracy where one has to wear a tie) but the fact that Arashiyama herself is such an incorrigible kook that by the end it becomes apparent she’s as weird if not weirder than the spirit world denizens with whom she parlays. Similarly, in Mokuyoubi no Furutto or Furutto on Thursday, a series of shorts about a cat who’s half housecat, half stray, the punchline is not that the cats can talk to each other (Jim Davis take note) but the way they come to their cracked interpretations of the foreign world around them. When Furutto begins to itch all over the reader easily assumes that he has fleas, but when a pipsqueak voice suddenly starts speaking to him out of nowhere, Furutto’s immediate, terrified assumption is that his blood is alive and talking to him through his skin.
A key detail to observe while looking at Ishiguro’s manga is the tone with which they approach their stories and characters. While he might specialize in ridiculous personalities, mentalities and situations, Ishiguro’s tone as a storyteller and comedian never once slips into ridicule of his subjects. It might seem odd to describe a comedy-centric mangaka as “gentle,” but there are few other ways one can characterize the execution of his style. Kyoko to Tousan, or Kyoko and Dad, perfectly encapsulates this style in the interactions between the titular Kyoko and her father who lives across the street. While Kyoko openly berates Dad’s satisfaction with hanging onto a broken CD player and eating instant ramen on a nightly basis, her very next course of action is to take him to the local department store to stock up on readymade foods. While Dad occupies himself being baffled and scared by new consumer technologies like a mechanical foot massager, Kyoko sneaks off to surreptitiously get him a new high-tech stereo. Of course, her attempt to surprise him backfires when he notices she’s slipped away and issues a missing child alert over the store intercom (Kyoko is 26).
In Kyoko and Dad Ishiguro exhibits a keen understanding of the way in which adult children interact with their parents which is never overly serious or mean spirited. In reality the people who care about each other on the most fundamental level also tend to argue over the most trivial of topics. When Arashiyama’s parents and younger brother despair over the terminal nature of her absentmindedness, it’s always tinged with the unspoken understanding that they’d never have her any other way. The curtain on this relationship is, at least partially, pulled away when Arashiyama’s father sits at her bedside after her aforementioned near-death experience and delivers a soliloquy that is equal parts emotionally affecting and imbecilic.
Profundity through stupidity—it abounds in the world of Ishiguro. Perhaps the worst stupidity, however, is the fact that the vast majority of his work is unavailable in English.
Soremachi was recently picked up as one of the comics being released on JManga, the English-language online manga reader service concocted by a committee of Japanese publishing houses, which is encouraging. On the other hand we’ve previously gone over the manifold annoyances and Achilles heels baked into the fundamentals of how JManga is structured as a service, and this writer’s fear is that said problems will only serve to keep Ishiguro’s work as unknown among Western readers as it already is.
Nothing is impossible though. If there can be a dog that looks exactly like a wild raccoon then maybe JManga can someday reform itself into a viable service that doesn’t gyp and inconvenience its customers and serve as an invaluable platform for introducing gifted mangaka like Masakazu Ishiguro to a diverse English-speaking audience. Maybe.
If you read or watched any version of the infamous High School of the Dead then you’ve already had a first taste of what prolific novelist and manga writer Daisuke Sato is all about. And it’s not the best techniques for boarding up your windows in the event of the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse.
It’s funny to note that amidst all the gratuitous violence, gore and sex factor brought into HSotD by Shoji Sato, the mangaka also known as Digital Accel Works, one of the chief aspects that got manga readers up in arms—or at least those manga readers chronically predisposed towards getting up in arms about something—was the katana-swinging character of Saeko and her neo-Imperial patrician family living in the hills of Tokyo in a fortified mansion compound.
Incidentally a zombie apocalypse manga has been something of a departure for Sato, whose typical bread and butter is alternate history stories in which a drastically re-imagined Japan takes center stage. Koukoku no Shugosha, or Imperial Guards his landmark, award-winning collaboration with Yu Itoh, takes place in an alternate reality world where an alternate Taisho-era Japan must mount a desperate defensive campaign against a sea invasion by the “Empire,” a mainlander enemy whose identity is clearly tied to that of czarist imperial Russia. A key theme in much of Sato’s work, either explicit or implicit, is that Japan and the Japanese people have lost something of their identity since losing the Second World War and being stripped of their imperial identity in all but name and toy emperor.
The kneejerk reaction for many is to batten down the hatches and accuse Sato of being a neo-imperial warmonger, a shill-commissar for the deadenders who doll up in bad, inauthentic Imperial Japanese Army cosplay and march around the Yasukuni Shrine. I seriously doubt that this is the case. The subtle intellect behind everything Sato writes, even the most openly lurid works like HSotD, possess a nuance to the political and social elements that a simple “Die Whito Piggu” type would never once exhibit in his life. No, the callbacks to imperial identity are not a one-dimensional glorification of conquest, but an evocation of centuries’ worth of history that led up to a point of divergence. Good or bad, the identity of the nation and its people changed, and for writers like Sato the task is to show that for everything gained, there is something lost.
One might not assume a comic like Imperial Guards could have anything approaching good writing when considering the premise of a scouting/assault unit of the Japanese army whose specialty is leading aurochs-sized saber tooth tigers into battle, but you’d be surprised. Slight goofiness of the premise aside, Imperial Guards is as authentic a depiction of fighting men and military culture as one is going to find in manga. Rendered in Yu Itoh’s kinetic art style the action is frenzied and high-flying, but the chemistry between the individual soldiers of the Tiger Brigade is authentic to the core. The main character, a proven veteran lieutenant, has by the beginning of the story already entered into an uneasy mentor relationship with his captain of the company, a young and impressionable intellectual from the city who knows little if anything about actual warfare.
The Taisho era setting is a novel one as it sets the action in a transitional period between the lockstep linear tactics of the Napoleanic era and the wholesale slaughter and mechanization that characterized warfare from the First World War onwards. The Tiger Brigade along with everyone else is decked out in the elegant uniforms and kit typical to the period, but the fighting they face is no less gruesome or brutal than combat is in any other era in any other circumstances. There are, however, several technological aspects here that mesh well with both Sato’s storytelling approach and Itoh’s art. Fast-firing breech-loading rifles have been adopted, but machineguns have yet to find full-scale integration into either military. The effect is a type of warfare where massed infantry assaults as well as division-level cavalry charges can still turn the tide of a battle without being shredded to pieces by hails of automatic gunfire. In the first battle of the series the Russians inflict a surprise defeat on the Japanese defenders by fronting their attack with a vanguard of cuirassiers, cavalrymen equipped with steel breastplates and heavy sabers, who charge the front of the Japanese lines before they’ve had a chance to shake out into defensive formation and passing under the lowest possible muzzle trajectory of their artillery batteries.
If there’s one single manga I’d go on a bayonet charge into an entrenched enemy for, it would be Imperial Guards.
One hopes that the continued development of smarter, more niche manga publishing tactics, alternative funding models and online distribution will lead to more Western exposure for mangaka like the ones above.
It’s easy to say “there’s no market for it.” It’s even easier to cop a smug smile in your panel at the local anime convention, make a comment about how you “don’t hesitate to cancel anything,” and launch into a non-sequitur anecdote about The Industry which boils down to telling the self-appointed manga literati that they should happy that they get anything at all as opposed to nothing. In what other industry do the gatekeepers ask, nay, dictate to their loyalest consumers that they must first eat shit to taste sugar? Sure, that may be the “reality of The Industry,” but the graveyard of defunct customer service businesses is filled with the bones of companies that went on about how they Tried Their Best as a rationale for a subsequent absence of effort to ever strive again.
How about this: if you want us to care half a whit about the fate of your companies you should perhaps look into ways of servicing those of us who inhabit manga readership’s long tail, the place where Day 0 scanlations of Bleach and Naruto don’t matter so much and hardbound premium volumes of Bride Storiesand 1970s comics by Osamu Tezuka actually sell in respectable amounts. The tools to make it happen are just now coming into full effect. The question is who has the talent and the brain power to make anything of them.
Which manga and mangaka do you think are being criminally overlooked by the industry today? Let us know down in the comments section below.
Although the target audience has grown up and has tastes that have chanced, the English publishers still seem to be stuck, assuming that people still want the generic offerings. It’s pretty frustrating for fans who know that there is more to manga than what is on the market.
I have a preference for series with a bit of a psychological bent. It’s always fun to read about characters that aren’t one-dimensional.
My picks are: Chuya Koyama’s Uchuu Kyoudai, which seems to be receiving positive responses from what I’ve seen online due to the anime adaptation. I can see this series striking a chord with a lot of people, due to the issue of dreams and setbacks. Nice to see a series about siblings that isn’t incestuous.
Another one would be Hanazawa Kengo’s I am a Hero. There’s zombies in it..how can that not be an attractive license? Ressentiment is also really good.
Other series would be Oyasumi Punpun by Inio Asano. People I’ve talked to who’ve read his work seemed to enjoy it a lot, it’s a shame this isn’t being brought over.
On a random side note, I wonder what happened to Viz’s Ikki line. I thought they pretty much got the concept down, publishing work that was intended for a more mature crowd, but it doesn’t seem like they have updated their site for a while now.
Great recommendations. I’m going to look into each and every one of these artists.
For me, I’d have to say that criminally overlooked artists are:
Atsumiko Nakamura (I Am A Piano, Coponicuous no Kokyuu). She does a lot of oneshots/BL work, but she does draw things aside from just BL. She’s a fantastic artist whose work is very dreamlike. There’s a lot of attention to form and line in her work–it has shades of Aubrey Beardsley in it.
Est Em (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Est_em). Again, she does mostly BL/LGBTQ work, but her stories and characterizations are very solid.
Q Hayashida (Dorohedoro). I guess she’s actually the most popular one on this list, since Viz actually licensed Dorohedoro, but the average comic/anime fan that I talk to hardly knows about it, or any of her work–which is a damn shame, since she has the ability to create the most well-realized worlds ever. Also, she’s crazy dedicated with her linework.
Asa Higuchi (Ookiku Furikabutte). Incredibly dedicated to researching the hell out of her stories and subjects, will redraw entire chapters when the book versions of her magazine work gets released, super expressive (and unusual) character style.
Oofuri has a lot of great characters and is probably one of the few sports comics I’ve actually sat down to read. Unfortunately, this is probably why the comic’s never going to get officially licensed, because a) it’s sports and b) games often stretch on for chapters, because each game is drawn out as if it was being played in real time.
Some money-losing (even money-hemorraging) manga are only kept going in English, volume after volume, due to considerable personal efforts. This has been true at Viz, at Dark Horse, and at other U.S. publishers besides.
Titles such as Eden and The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service didn’t start out as quasi-annual; they were initially released on a more regular, rapid basis. They were certainly not intended to fail. But sales deteriorated to the point where the question was no longer “are we going to lose money?” but “how much loss, and how fast, can we tolerate on this book?”
Companies that didn’t care about the books or their readers would do the rational thing, and stop losing money by canceling the title. Sometimes that happens (and as I said, it is the rational thing, especially after it’s clear the loss is indeed a trend and not just a one-volume blip), but often it doesn’t.
Regarding customer service, I am happy to personally address any inquiries any reader might have. I also do not separate the readers’ tastes into shit and sugar, but try and respect their individual interests and concerns.
It may seem blunt, but there is also smugness in speaking of the industry’s shortcomings without having personally demonstrated the ability to succeed with alternate practices. That is, if it is indeed possible to use new tools and practices to license and make profitable these manga, it would be better to demonstrate it one’s self, by starting one’s own company. In the 1980s, Toren Smith was frustrated by all the great manga that were unreleased in English–so he took on the responsibility, and the risk, of starting his own company and bringing them over. The best way to shake up an industry is by becoming a business rival with a new model.
It is not enough even to have knowledge of something–not enough, even, to care deeply about it. To make it succeed as a business, that is only the starting point. You must go from there to making the personal and financial sacrifices necessary, putting in the hours and the money. You must also, of course, convince the Japanese creators and publishers, whose properties these are, that your business model is acceptable and will be effective.
But it is possible to do these things, as others have done them before. Every U.S. manga publisher had its first book, and had to build from there. Viz struggled for years, putting out manga after manga, long before Naruto–or before Pokemon, for that matter. If they were into manga for the easy dough they would have closed shop in the 1990s.
switchco: Uchuu Kyoudai is a funny one. It’s an excellent, well-crafted manga which is currently unavailable in English, but I hesitated to make it part of my own list of overlooked manga since it’s so transparently designed to have mass appeal. That’s not a slur against the comic in the slightest, as I said, I’m a fan, but the internationalist themes? The abundance of American characters (who aren’t gross charicatures)? The straightforward, inoffensive art? My own instincts tell me Koyama was aiming to create a property, like Coppelion or Moteki, that could easily be picked up for many different media adaptations including live action (though there’s no way I can prove to you that I really did predict the live-action film version of Uchu Kyoudai long before it came out, but I did!).
In response to Asano, again, I’m a big fan, but Viz has actually done a good job providing a decent overview of his works in English. Oysasumi Punpun is a bona fide masterpiece, Dostoevsky-esque black family drama in contemporary Japan, and I do hope that it makes its way to an official English release in some form or another.
Tofubeast: Whether or not a manga is BL or whatever doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a good story. We have several avid readers of Natsume Ono on staff, believe it or not.
I was holding up a torch for Hayashida before SigIkki ever existed, so you can imagine my reaction when Dorohedoro was picked up by said Viz imprint. I’ll cosign what you said about her dedication to lineart, especially so when you look at her meteoric artistic progression from the first two or three volumes to the most current ones. The real hook for me, however, is how despite whatever dire and grotesque events might befall the cast, the artist’s effervescent, incorrigible humor remains intact–unlike the characters themselves more often than not. Some people I know have compared the comic to BLAME (helped along by that rumor that Hayashida started as one of Nihei’s assistants/apprentices), but frankly I’ve never much liked BLAME because of its distinct lack of any sort of humor or characterization whatsoever. Dorohedoro walks up to you soaked in blood and entrails, but it’s wearing California Raisins cosplay and has a huge dopey smile on its face. Who can say no to that?
Obscenely long baseball-centric sports manga about high school kids? Nothing’s impossible–Cross Game is coming out in America after all.
Carl: Thanks for your response. The points made in the intro and outro of this article are by no means supposed to be an airtight, objective and/or definitive argument for where the manga industry needs to go and what it needs to do. I’ve long maintained that Colony Drop isn’t a news site. At the end of the day we’re advocates for a highly elaborated and sectarian perspective (our own) on the media we love, and people can take or leave that as they please, so to have responses from more learned sources is always appreciated.
Also appreciated (by me at least) is Dark Horse’s continued perseverance in bringing Eden out in the States. Hiroki Endo is another one of my favorite mangaka, and as I’ve said before Eden appeals to me as what I perceive to be an 00s response to the ultraviolent seinen SF epics of the 1980s and early 90s like Akira, Appleseed and Grey. Kumar’s personal afterword on the DH edition of one of the later volumes only imbued the series with even greater poignancy.
Your points all tie into the ten-ton gorilla that is scanlations of seinen titles. I won’t touch upon the morality or legality arguments because they’re quite cut and dry, but the fact of the matter is that despite the moral and legal implications, many people still create and consume scanlated manga. Perhaps it’s less a gorilla and more the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell of manga fandom and industry–with all the inherent hypocrisy and double standard that term implies. I’m talking less about the Day 0 scanlators of big-name titles and more those who pick up titles like the ones mentioned in this post. Understandably the industry can never officially condone such endeavors and scanlators themselves can never make claims to unfettered legitimacy without sounding like morons, but the Floridian Cuban Exile zero compromise attitude on both sides is tiring. I long to see some sort of detente. I’m not smart enough or enough of an industry insider to extrapolate what such a detente would look like or consist of, but my inclination when no side of a dialectic is getting exactly what they want is to push for a synthesis.
My point in writing this article wasn’t so much to heckle the established industry for perceived lack of action or motivation as it was to highlight the fact that changes in the industry can maybe, just maybe, bring potential for new opportunities as opposed to ever-deepening pessimism about further shrinkage of what we get to read Stateside. We’ve already seen a bit of that on Kickstarter particularly, which is encouraging. Just today (June 7, 2012) we’ve seen JManga take a first step towards becoming a halfway decent and viable service. Hopefully they can continue in that direction despite the manifold problems they face.
Of course, the vitriol in my words might have muddled that message quite a bit, but that very anger that I–and others on staff–feel is itself telling. Passion and righteous indignation are not enough, sure, but this is CD, and we’ve never hesitated to risk occasional buffoonery in pursuit of advocating for quality.
Great spotlight, these kind of articles (underlooked mature manga) are very criminally low on the fandom, as it needs a rare trifecta of someone who understands Japanese-who is a mature manga fan-who cares enough to write about it.
Perhaps as important as Eisner (as in, no one but certain people actually cares unless it’s a title they already know), there are awards in Japan that highlights such manga, such as Japan Media Arts and Manga Taisho.
Unsurprisingly, very few of those titles are known outside the Japanese manga fandom.
But thanks to the spotlight, brief and meager as it is, I have a passing familiarity of two titles mentioned in this article because I at least check every one of those titles.
Speaking about scanlations, some of those titles do get scanlated, but for the most part there is very little chance anyone will continue after a few chapters. That scanlators do it for “the labor of love” is only halfway true, as the attention one gets is a very motivating factor.
Case in point, Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, which you discussed in this article. I remember someone scanlated the first volume years before the anime airs, but the later volumes are only scanlated after the anime airs.
Compared to the whim of the scanlators then, official publishers have a definite edge against them in non-crowd pleaser titles such as these… but that’s if they decided to publish it at all, which is THE question.
I apologize, as I don’t think I was getting my own ideas across very well ^_^ I’m saying that Colony Drop can move beyond advocacy into action. You’ve already demonstrated the ability to put out a publication with design and content; many people in the industry began with fan activities (look at all the ANIMAG alumni who worked on Animerica, for example). Who would have thought the big contraction of the anime home video market a few years ago was the time to launch a new (print!) anime magazine? And yet OTAKU USA did it, and has stuck around.
The proposals you have don’t need to be airtight or definitive–no realistic business plan can be. But on the other hand, you definitely have confidence in your knowledge of titles and in your ideas for bringing them to market in English. I’m saying, D.I.Y.–take what you’ve been saying here to the Japanese licensors of these titles, and turn Colony Drop into a manga publisher. As I said, the best way to shake up an industry is not to simply propose, but actually demonstrate and show to be profitable (remember, your proposals are *business* proposals) a successful alternate model.
Go Nagai. We’ve gotten some of the anime based off his work, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten any of his manga. It’s a shame too. The man is vastly underrated and under appreciated. Even some of his older works like the original Devil Man is too this day jaw dropping brilliant (thank you scanilators). The world needs more Go Nagai.
I’ve got to second Go Nagai. I also really don’t see any harm in scanlating his work because not only is it not likely to ever see an official English release, most of it is out of print in Japan as well. Of course, I’ve scanlated or participated in scanlating more than twenty volumes of his work, so my opinion is probably biased (look out for some really crazy stuff of his later this summer, including one that almost no one even remembers exists).
Ishikawa is another one who really needs more appreciation. Even his fans usually only know about Getter.
One series I’ve been reading lately but don’t hear many people talking about, even though it is being scanlated, is “Cesare: The Creator of Destruction” by Fuyumi Souryo. Some of her work has come out in English, but I never heard many people talking about those, either. “Cesare” is a really fun and beautifully illustrated series about the life and times of Cesare Borgia.
Also, I am going to go out and buy as much of Shut Hell as I can find as soon as the rain lets up (which can take almost a week, this time of year).
Overlooked is Rikdo Hoshi, but I had something else to say…
Sad but true, the DIY punk ethic does not work in “otaku” or anime fandumb…it just doesn’t.
Keep in mind,I do stand by indie publications…sadly, no one has the money to start their own manga line.
Well, unless your are bud’s with a mangaka in Japan,that is.
On a sidenote, looking forward to getting both Colony Drop’s fanzines..(ordering both for my birthday!)
“…How about this: if you want us to care half a whit about the fate of your companies you should perhaps look into ways of servicing those of us who inhabit manga readership’s long tail, the place where Day 0 scanlations of Bleach and Naruto don’t matter so much and hardbound premium volumes of Bride Storiesand 1970s comics by Osamu Tezuka actually sell in respectable amounts…”
Don’t rely on manga-specialty places for it, though. Comics-in-general places like Dark Horse and D&Q, and books-in-general places like Macmillan can probably do it better.
*They* don’t chase after the kids who hate English the way the places that release books right-to-left, label books “Boys’ Love” as if that’s not supposed to remind you of boys (behold the trainwreck thread starting at http://mangabookshelf.com/blog/2011/06/29/soapbox-womens-manga/#comment-52809 ), don’t translate half the text, etc. do.
“The main problem I have with reading unflipped manga is one nobody ever seems to mention – while it’s not that terrible a stretch to get used to reading the images right to left, English still reads left to right. So with the words and images pushing in opposite directions, the flow of panels will never really be smooth, never really be what the artist intended. Something’s always going to be lost in translation.
“For me, I’d much rather just read a flipped book. Having never seen the original unflipped pages, the imperfections revealed in their mirror images will probably go largely unnoticed. It’s worth suffering the occasional accidentally flawed image for the comfort of reading left to right, and for words and images flowing in the same direction. That said, if a book looks interesting enough, I’ll certainly suffer the awkwardness of reading it unflipped, as I likely will with those Black Jack and Dororo books…”
“…To break out of the comic shop/manga aisle “walled garden”, we need to stop focusing on selling this kind of comics for grown-ups merely as “manga” (or “seinen manga,” “josei manga” or even “indie manga”). Clinging to Japanese classifications may give a diehard fan a degree of satisfaction that they know that a particular manga was published in XYZ magazine in Japan, but classifying a particular manga title as a “shojo,” “shonen,” or “seinen” title isn’t all that helpful to a reader who doesn’t understand Japanese; it just adds another potentially off-putting “code word” for new readers to decipher.
“Using Japanese labels to describe a book tells new readers that they have to take Japanese lessons or earn their “otaku cred” before they’ll be allowed into the “manga clubhouse.” As Shaenon Garrity pointed out, and as Ryan Sands also mentioned in his essay, what we consider to be “indie” in the U.S. doesn’t always jibe with how Japanese readers perceive the same series anyway…”
http://okazu.blogspot.com/2012/06/yuri-network-news-june-16-2012.html shows another publisher fail miserably at even *reading* English:
After someone says “…*IRL* JManga *did not* sell English translations outside the US/Canada region without each title’s original artist’s permission, therefore there *is* nothing remotely illegal or illicit about JManga districution…”
the *owner* of the publishing house says:
“…@Anonymous - Your argument hinges in a fundamental misundertanding of what JManga is.
“Jmanga is a Japanese digital publisher, not an English scanlation group. It *has* permission from the Japanese publishers and the artists to sell manga globally. That permission is called a “license."…”
No wonder middle school English teachers don’t count reading manga as a substitute for learning to read paragraphs in English, when even the people publishing the stuff can’t read paragraphs in English.
>>Overlooked is Rikdo Hoshi, but I had something else to say…
Sad but true, the DIY punk ethic does not work in “otaku” or anime fandumb…it just doesn’t.
Keep in mind,I do stand by indie publications…sadly, no one has the money to start their own manga line.
I think Rikdo Koshi stands out from the pack when it comes to manga–in Excel Saga he does the story, the characters, and the dialogue first, and *then* he adds the fan service–as opposed to other manga-ka who start with the fan service, and may or may not put in any effort beyond that. It’s unfortunate that Excel Saga has sold so poorly in English, as that makes it hard to pitch releasing his other works.
When you say that no one has the money to start their own manga line, I agree that’s true for most, in the sense that they can’t simply write a check to get started. But that’s true of many small businesses, whatever type they are. They have to take out a loan, or raise revenue. I know otaku can do it, because it’s been done. Toren Smith basically sold all his earthly possessions (including his anime collection!) in order to raise a stake for his first trip to Japan. As mentioned in The Notenki Memoirs, even so his money ran out and Gainax let him stay at their place.
But in the end, he succeeded, making the contacts in Japan and winning their confidence in his abilities, enabling him to start Studio Proteus. It’s not easy and there is considerable risk involved. But if you have a vision of a better way to release manga–and it’s of sufficient importance to you–then it may be necessary to work hard and make personal and financial sacrifices to realize them.
I still say some of Leiji Matsumoto’s ’70s manga is ripe for America. The war stories, S*xaroid, stuff like that.
After all, we can’t let Howard Chaykin be the ONLY guy putting bl*wjobs in his comics!
(damn finicky spam filter!)
Carl: I have a funny feeling (and it a shot in the dark at best), that the Excel Saga anime didn’t really help things much. I’m not swearing to that, I am just saying….
Regardless, I am hoping his other projects do get release here in the States.
Anyway, I still am pretty skeptical that anyone, even with the funds available, would even bother. Which pretty much sucks.
Carl, it’s interesting you would encourage CD and others to get some skin in the game and license their favorite manga themselves. I heard Ed “Vertical” Chavez make that exact proposal to a fan at TCAF. The barriers to contacting licenseholders and mangaka have never been lower, and it’s never been easier to publish. Don’t wait for THE MAN to hand it to you - take it!
I just got caught up on Shut Hell and placed an order for the first book of Imperial Guards. Thanks so much for recommending this stuff.
I wanted to thank you for writing such an informative article. I have finished reading Imperial Guards and what was published thus far of Again!! and Shut Hell. I have also picked up Hoshi no Furu Machi and two volumes in I’m hooked. I’m probably just going to keep taking recommendations from this article until I run out.
If you have the time to write another article with recommendations for manga, please do so! This was quite a treat.