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.