Manga sales were down in 2010, but Japan’s ubiquitous graphic novels are still as widely read as ever. There may well be more manga readers than ever before with manga coffee shops and internet cafes offering tens of thousands of titles, free browsing at used book mega chain Bookoff, a giant market for used manga now thoroughly incorporated into the Yahoo! Auctions economy, and titles passed from friend to friend. While there are fewer true blockbusters than in the Golden Age of Shonen Jump hits between 1985 and 1995, current sales champion One Piece has sold over 200 million copies in Japan alone and new volumes break 2 million within a week of hitting bookstores. With a legion of talented artists and a diverse manga buying public, the industry looks in good shape to reconsolidate even as Japanese publishing continues to contract, tapping the otaku niche, but offering a range of different titles as well.
The following is not necessarily a “best list”, but rather presents some highlights of 2010 that speak to different directions in contemporary manga.
Berserk and Sangatsu no Lion (March Comes in Like a Lion)
For years, manga digests have been mixing titles with shonen/seinen (boy/youth) and shojo/josei (girl/lady) market appeal to win as broad a readership as possible. Seldom, however, have there been two series with such different styles as Miura Kentarou’s Berserk and Umino Chika’s Sangatsu no Lion hitting the heights of manga craftsmanship while running together in what is effectively a second-tier seinen monthly: Hakusensha’s Young Animal.
Prior to recent releases, Berserk had taken a decade-long sojourn through aimless plot arcs and endlessly proliferating characters including tween witches and swordswomen who do little but repeat the thematic role played by heroine Casca earlier in the series. The new arcs, referred to as “The Kingdom of the Falcon” and “Fantasia,” are a refreshing break. The stories show creatures of nightmare and imagination assaulting the often realistically depicted Renaissance-inspired world of the manga, ripping empires apart and providing a drama that has long been absent from the series. The result is like something out of Paradise Lost or at least a return to the same 1980s graphic imagery that seeded Miura’s fantasy debut as well as the Warhammer art of John Blanche and the best of heavy metal album covers. Miura also seems to channel artwork contemporary to his story world such as Hieronymus Bosch’s famed “Triptych of Garden of Earthly Delights”, just as he had drawn on high Renaissance battlefield visions like Albrecht Altdorfer’s “The Battle of Alexander at Issus” in the more military-minded early chapters. In bringing Berserk back to the often aberrant but always gripping fantasyscapes that characterized the opening chapters of the series, Miura is also taking the series to a new level of artistry.
John Kenneth Galbraith once quipped, “The Metropolis should have been aborted long before it became New York, London, or Tokyo” and Sangatsu no Lion’s vision of urban alienation certainly does little to refute that. Umino Chika’s strong follow up to her hit Hachimitsu to Clover (Honey and Clover) ostensibly belongs in the professional shogi (“Japanese chess”) micro genre. The series, however, is a diverse one and also works as a nuanced psychological portrait of young protagonist Kiriyama Rei, a child prodigy of the game whose difficult adolescence has brought oscillating success and a feeling that his human connections are being swallowed up by the pressures of the tournament scene as well as the metropolis around him. Throughout, author Umino sets Sangatsu no Lion apart with poignant depictions of Tokyo. The night skies or water of the city’s canals, soaring above or looming below, are consistently used as visual cues for Kiriyama’s emotional state. From the point of view of foreign readers, the focus on the world of the game and emotional lives of the players rather than the minutiae of strategy makes Sangatsu no Lion refreshingly accessible and prevents the typical shonen manga pattern of ever escalating competition with antagonists and rivals from squeezing out character development. It also skirts the premier shojo pitfall — endlessly repeated affective moments — in favor of a more serious look at how people build networks of friends and households, sustaining relationships that offer an oasis from relentless demands to achieve. In essence, both Berserk and Sangatsu no Lion show the continued vitality of the manga mainstream.
Mabui (Soul) and Suna no Tsurugi (The Sword of Sand)
While they are not new releases, the 2010 publication of Okinawan manga artist Higa Susumu’s stories of war and postwar Mabui (“soul” in the Okinawan dialect) and Suna no Tsurugi in complied volumes is part of a larger trend whereby more ambitious, difficult, or experimental manga are being rereleased for collectors or new generations of readers.
Higa’s Mabui was first published in the aftermath of the rape and brutalization of an Okinawan 12 year-old by three US servicemen in 1995. The 1945 Battle of Okinawa had been taken up by a number of manga artists including Higa himself in the Suna no Tsurugi stories, but serious looks at Okinawa’s postwar experience are rare. Here Okinawan Higa deals with the subject matter with notable sensitivity, looking critically at the American presence without lapsing into simple anti-Americanism.
Individual shorts are deftly plotted, never relying on melodrama or stock narratives. The series examines different angles of intersection between Okianwans and the bases that dominate the most populous parts of the island. In a work with clear political relevance, this approach risks coming off as overly didactic, but Higa never lets his characters slip into stereotype, balancing character development with fascinating and sometimes disturbing snapshots of postwar Okinawa.
The coverage goes beyond the usual talking points: Who are the thousands of landlords who have reaped billions in base rents since the 1970s? How do locals see the clash of their beautiful beaches and the concrete of the bases that nonetheless roots a major employer in one of Japan’s most economically depressed regions? One theme frequently approached in Higa’s narratives is the warmth of the relationships between individual Americans and Okinawans contrasted with the operational callousness of the military organization as helicopters are carelessly landed on farmers’ fields and homes requisitioned, seemingly at random, in the first postwar years.
In both Mabui and the war-focused Suna no Tsurugi, Higa uses a pared-down art style reminiscent of North American “art house” graphic novels. The absence of typical manga conventions is effective. Many readers have been numbed to “normal” manga violence. Just about every atrocity imaginable has been turned into a commodity. When Higa’s simply drawn everyday is interrupted by violence, however, the effect can be paralyzing. Coming at a time of heightened debate over the American base presence and the place of Okinawa in the Japanese state, the rereleases of Higa’s manga show the relevance of the manga medium to discussion of issues often sketched over by TV talk or twisted by the often crass alarmism of weekly magazines and mass market non-fiction.
Thermae Romae and Saint Young Men
The sight of foreigners fawning over ordinary Japanese things is an annoyingly common TV trope, but it remains that there are many things (ramen and the world of “b-rate gourmet,” hot springs, saké) that not only continue to stoke domestic passions but are fetishized by visitors and foreign residents of all kinds as well. There are also the difficult to describe but not infrequently unforgettable charms of shotengai (urban shopping arcades), game centers, summer festivals, and rural vistas. Two current manga hits, bathhouse time travel epic Thermae Romae and Saint Young Men, which follows Jesus and Buddha as they do their best to take it easy in the contemporary freeter mode, bring unusual outsiders into contact with the charms of everyday Japan.
In Yamazaki Mari’s Thermae Romae, Lucius, a Roman bath house master who undergoes periodic and inexplicable time slips, encounters the most jimi (rustic) that Japan has to offer and blends in the ludicrous and plainly self-deprecating. The Roman’s dazed encounters with ramune (a type of soda and ultimate nostalgia icon) and onsen tamago (hard boiled eggs cooked in the hot springs themselves) are both a fun tour through Japanese bathing culture and a constant source of effective visual gags. For readers sick of the normal gladiators and political machinations, Thermae Romae presents a very well-researched look at the Roman baths — how they were built and how they were enjoyed — to serve as a counterpoint to the temporal jaunts into present day Japan. The essays which punctuate the manga chapters alternate between details of Roman bath culture and stories such as the author’s accompanying of a dozen Italian seniors on a contemporary Japanese hot springs tour.
Saint Young Men follows the adventures of divine slackers Jesus and Buddha, taking a well deserved break from the holy. Scenes of school girls mistaking Jesus for Johnny Depp set the tone, and the series continues as a silly and laid back paean to everyday routine. As decline narratives proliferate inside and outside Japan, these two series offer a charming look at the rich patchwork of plebian culture that Japan can still count on.
Seraphim is a collaboration between two auteurs known more for their anime work. The series features art by the late Kon Satoshi of Perfect Blue and Paprika fame and a story plan by Oshii Mamoru, best known for Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell. While it never reaches the level of their famous anime films, Seraphim, released in a compiled volume for the first time in 2010, is a visually inventive, often striking manga that echoes Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1980s work on Akira while showcasing Kon’s dynamic and original visual sense. It also serves as a memorial to Kon who died in August and includes a series of essays and interviews.
Seraphim originally ran in flagship anime magazine Animage between 1994 and 1995. Oshii’s favorite symbols (birds, basset hounds, biblical references) are sprinkled liberally throughout but never quite come together like they do in his best film works. The story centers on the World Health Organization’s attempts to unravel the mystery of birds multiplying as humans are afflicted with “Angel Disease,” warping their forms into the “seraphim” of the title. The manga is unfinished and the plot is lacking in momentum and even coherence, but Kon’s artwork is more than enough to recommend the whole. The future director’s attempts to replicate cinematic lighting are often breathtaking and seem to foreshadow his screen ambitions. Even before the release of the first Ghost in the Shell film, Kon put to page Oshii’s vision of continental Asian cityscapes hovering between squalor and futurist exuberance. Kon will be missed as a filmmaker, but a string of 2010 rereleases will give many fans a chance to discover his manga work for the first time.
Novelist Edogawa Rampo and manga horror master Maruo Suehiro are a natural pairing. In late 2009 (cheating a bit on the 2010 theme here), Maruo produced Imomushi, his second Edogawa adaption. The story tracks a veteran, left a quadruple amputee, deaf and dumb, by a Russo-Japanese War shell, as he returns from the front to his horrified wife. The pair are thrown into a vortex of mental anguish, sadism, and masochism. This is obviously not easy material, but Maruo has developed his own take on the Taisho erotic-grotesque milieu in which Edogawa thrived. Most manga adaptations of literature seek to simplify. Maruo, however, adds something of his own. The sex scenes between the tragic pair are twisted enough to allow Mauro to maintain his reputation for the daringly transgressive, but here the artist doubles down with a form of artistic animism: insects, weeds, blades of grass, snaking vines, the environment is alive with a creeping power that mirrors the traumas and strange energies of the characters. This is Maruo’s art at its best, serving out visual horrors and doses of the morbidly fascinating while never sacrificing fidelity to Edogawa’s original. Whether he is working in his own gruesome worlds or adapting the classics of strange fiction, Maruo continues to be the master of manga grotesque.
Taboo Nihon Zankokushi (“Taboo” Cruel History of Japan)
I am neither of the target audience for josei (women’s) manga, nor am I a particularly ardent follower. One series that has grabbed my attention, however, is Bunkasha’s Manga Grimm Dowa (Manga Grimm Fairytales). The series began as a line of manga adaptations of the “real” bloody and explicit originals behind fairytale classics sanitized by Christian puritanism and Disneyfication. Running out of gore soaked Sleeping Beauties and Big Bad Wolves, the series has since sought other tales of cruelty — everything from serial killers, to Edo torture, to the racier classics of the European canon — and has made them into manga with varying degrees of success. Ichikawa Miu’s recent installment Taboo Nihon Zankokushi is not the most visually inventive, but it has considerable thematic strengths and reads like a contemporary manga take on the postwar Nihon Zankoku Monogatari (Cruel Stories of Japan) project. There, noted anthropologists and cultural critics outlined the starvation, torture, exploitation, and other horrors that characterized much of Japanese historical experience and in doing so sought to overturn the sanitized and banal boosterism of wartime propaganda versions of the past. In the manga, Ichikawa does the same for a Japanese past now often subject to the lame framing of TV trivia or yaoi-bait samurai boys.
Taboo Nihon Zankokushi looks at the historical suffering of the Ainu people, wartime violence, the forced internment of leprosy sufferers, and most interestingly, the seldom discussed sanka. This is a name given by Japanese folklorists and anthropologists to a group of nomadic mountain people who resisted the registration, compulsory education, and conscription that came with Japanese modernity.
2010 has seen the release of a number of interesting non-fiction titles on how Japanese culture and national cohesion are not “natural” in their 20th century forms but rather were created as part of the Meiji modernization. Even what is considered to be Japanese body language was selected from among countless regional and class variants, codified, and taught to the population, effectively becoming the new “normal.” Amid a rush of writing about other possibilities in Japan’s past, Ichikawa’s look at the sanka is, for manga, a fascinating link with what have typically been pigeonholed as academic debates. The manga, complete with explanatory essays, probes the history of this group and the social and political forces that snuffed them out of existence, often with considerable violence.