Manga reviews, Halloween 2017 edition: Scary Lessons, Doubt, Naru Taru

Halloween is around the corner again, and that means reviews of recent and classic horror manga here at The 650-Cent Plague. Today’s three titles show once more how diverse this genre is, and that there are manifold (maybe even medium-specific?) ways for comics to elicit fear from their readers.

Scary Lessons (絶叫学級 / zekkyō gakkyū, lit. “Screaming Lessons”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Emi Ishikawa
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2009-2017 (original run 2008-2015)
Number of volumes: 20
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/scary-lessons/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=35025 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-86719-846-2

A horror manga for the shōjo demographic, can this possibly work? Well, it sure did scare the bejesus out of me – this is definitely the most frightening manga of the ones I’ve reviewed so far. Each chapter is a self-contained episode with a different cast of characters, only loosely held together by a framing narrative with a Crypt-Keeper-like narrator. All stories mostly take place at school (hence the “Lessons” part of the title) and have middle-school girl protagonists who are concerned with the usual things: boys, clothes, mobile phones, puppies, classmates… Each protagonist wants something, but when she gets it, it goes terribly wrong. In the first episode, for instance, a girl desperately wants a handheld gaming console, finds an abandoned one on the street and keeps it, but it turns out to be cursed and the game on it seems to affect people in the real world, even causing their death.

While death and violence do occur in this manga, they aren’t depicted that explicitly. In another episode, a girl is hit in the face by glass shards, but only her body from the chin down is shown in that panel. Still, I’m not sure if this manga is suitable reading material for readers of the same age as the middle school protagonists.

Another similarity to EC horror comics is the moralising and the gleeful twist ending in most episodes: our heroines eventually become aware of their vices and the mistakes they’ve made and resolve to behave better in the future. But often it’s already too late and they have to pay for what they’ve done.

Due to their self-contained nature, the individual stories are fast-paced and lack subtlety, but otherwise this first volume is a finely crafted manga, though I’m not sure if the suspense can be kept up for the remaining 19 (!) volumes.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: at the end of the fourth episode, when our young protagonist goes home and thinks she’s safe, only to find the killer is already waiting for her there.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Doubt
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshiki Tonogai
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Square Enix)
Years: 2010-2011 (original run 2007-2009)
Number of volumes: 4
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~200
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/doubt/18200 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=18068 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-754431

Protagonist Yū is a high school student who plays a mobile game called “Rabbit Doubt” which is based on “Mafia” a.k.a. “Werewolf” a.k.a. “Murder in Palermo”. In the beginning of the manga, he meets his five fellow players face to face for the first time and becomes friends with them. Then, however, the game turns into deadly reality when they are abducted and one of them murdered.

The plot shifts into more of an escape room / Fermat’s Room kind of setting when the kids explore their prison and are confronted with puzzles such as locked doors and corresponding keys, all the while suspecting that one of them is in fact the abductor rather than a victim. Like with Death Note and other similar manga, the author unfortunately doesn’t have much faith in the initially simple but intriguing premise (in this case, the “Mafia” game) and keeps adding more and more elements, characters and game rules in an attempt to stretch out the story.

Although Doubt (and its sequel, Judge) has found a place in some ‘best horror manga‘ lists, it has more of a mystery / detective thriller vibe to it because Tonogai takes great care to present all facts and details of the setting in great clarity to the readers so that they can guess along with the characters who the killer is. Which is a shame, because the first 50 pages set quite a different, subtle and atmospheric mood, which is then abandoned in favor of a still suspenseful but more ‘economic’ storytelling.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when a guy believed to be dead suddenly comes alive again.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Naru Taru (なるたる / narutaru, English title: Shadow Star)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mohiro Kitō
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2001-2006 (original run 1998-2003)
Number of volumes: 12
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~215
Price per volume: out of print (cover price € 5)
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=2394
ISBN: 3-89885-148-6

While swimming during her summer vacation, eleven-year-old Shiina finds a cuddly little alien on the bottom of the sea. The alien, Hoshimaru, can’t talk but has supernatural powers such as flying. An E.T.-like friendship begins. But then Shiina meets other children who also have alien companions, some of which are using their powers for sinister purposes.

Naru Taru has a reputation for starting harmlessly and then turning dark, deconstructing various shōnen manga tropes along the way and thwarting readers’ expectations. Some label it a horror manga, but I’ve just finished vol. 2 and at this point it’s more supernatural thriller than horror, although it’s hard to say which direction the story will take. From what I’ve read about the series, things are about to get darker still. Chances are that I won’t find out anytime soon, because the later volumes in particular are hard to find at reasonable prices.

Apart from this genre-wise ambiguous story, what makes this manga stand out is Mohiro Kitō’s art. As in his previous manga, Wings of Vendémiaire, there are many weird design ideas, but the true charm lies in how he depicts his characters and objects: from all angles, employing a real 360° ‘camera’, not shying away from daring foreshortenings.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when another girl, Akira, quietly slits her wrists with a razor, it’s creepier than all the supernatural fighty-fighty before.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

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Anime-to-manga adaptations worth reading

This is the fourth blog post of a series on the occasion of ‘100 Years of Anime’. Read the other posts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Today we come full circle and return to comics. While most anime are adapted from manga, many original anime have been adapted into manga. Although I haven’t read that many manga based on anime, I’d like to recommend some that I found particularly interesting. As always in my comic reviews, “volumes reviewed” indicates volumes I’ve recently re-read specifically for this blog post and which the review text refers to, i.e. not counting those I’ve read only once.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン / Shinseiki Evangelion)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto / Studio Gainax
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Years: 1999-2015 (originally 1994-2013)
Number of volumes: 14
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: ~165
Price per volume: € 6,00
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/neon-genesis-evangelion/18147 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-74131-X

I’ve never quite got my head around why Evangelion has become such a cult anime series. Its popularity might be due to having done a lot of things right at the right time. (For more on this aspect, see Sean O’Mara’s blog post on the early years of Studio Gainax.) Looking at the manga (drawn by Gainax character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto), there are two actual assets that Evangelion has going for it:

  1. Shinji the emo kid: in the distant future of the year 2015, this troubled teenage protagonist has some issues that quite a few readers of today can probably relate to. On the very first page, Shinji thinks, “I don’t have any dreams, hopes or anything like that. […] That’s why I thought, I didn’t care if I had an accident or died.”
    But then he gets to pilot a mecha…
  2. Mecha design: at its core, Evangelion is still a story about giant robots, and as such, it has to feature mechas that look cool. And they do. The biomorphic or humanoid shape of the EVAs sets them apart from more angular designs in e.g. Mobile Suit Gundam or Transformers.

That being said, there are also many silly ideas in this manga, both in story and design, and a plot that verges on a tedious ‘monster of the week’ pattern. Things get more interesting from around vol. 5 on, when a conspiracy within NERV (the organisation operating the EVAs) is gradually revealed.

Ame & Yuki / Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪 / Ōkami kodomo no Ame to Yuki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Mamoru Hosoda / Yū / Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2013-2014 (originally 2000)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 155 (vol. 1-2) / 210 (vol. 3)
Price per volume: € 6,95 (box set: € 16,95)
Website: http://tokyopop.de/programm-winter-2013-2014/ame-und-yuki-die-wolfskinder/ (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-0905-9

For some years, thanks to a string of successful all-ages theatrical anime films (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars), it looked as if director Mamoru Hosoda was going to be ‘the next Miyazaki’, although recently his popularity seems to have been eclipsed by Makoto Shinkai’s. The 117 minutes of Hosoda’s 2012 film Wolf Children (original script by Hosoda himself, character design by the aforementioned Yoshiyuki Sadamoto) have been adapted into a >500 page manga drawn by a newcomer artist who calls herself Yū (優).

In the beginning, the narration seems very fast-paced, as we witness in quick succession how university student Hana falls in love with a fellow student who turns out to be a werewolf, the birth of their two children, and the death of the werewolf guy. But this isn’t the story of Hana, it’s the story of her two children who grow up with the secret of being werewolves too, and who ultimately (in later volumes) have to decide whether they want to spend their lives as humans or as wolves. The supernatural element of the werewolf transformations are neither satisfactorily explained nor excitingly depicted, but as an emotional drama manga, Ame & Yuki works really well.

FLCL (フリクリ / Furi Kuri)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Studio Gainax / Hajime Ueda
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Year: 2003 (originally 2002)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 192
Price per volume: € 6,00
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=1532 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-75951-1

The OVA series FLCL (Gainax / Production I.G 2000-2001) has a reputation of being one of the weirdest anime ever, and the manga adaptation lives up to that. It’s hard even to give a plot summary, because sometimes you just don’t get what’s going on, and it’s difficult to tell events that are important to the plot apart from those that are not (grandpa’s gateball match?!), and there’s a fair amount of non-linear storytelling and perhaps even unreliable narration involved. What we all can agree on, though, is that the story starts with teenager Naota getting hit in the head with a guitar by a woman on a scooter. To his surprise, he later finds this woman has moved in with his family as a housekeeper. Things become weirder and weirder for Naota as he is confronted with giant-robot attacks, an arson series, and romantic advances from two girls from his school.

All this is depicted in an art style that is really a multitude of art styles between which Ueda continually switches, often leaning to a seemingly crude look with broad, uneven outlines. A lot of the humour in FLCL operates on the verbal level – which works surprisingly well in translation -, for instance when the woman riding a Vespa scooter gets nicknamed “the wasp woman”.

Honourable mention: Some years ago I read the one-volume adaptation of Makoto Shinkai’s Hoshi no koe / Voices of a Distant Star (art by Mizu Sahara) and liked it, but I don’t have a copy at hand to read it again.


Exhibition review: Comics! Mangas! Graphic Novels!, Bonn

Last month, “the most comprehensive exhibition about the genre to be held in Germany” opened at the venerable Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, where it can be visited until September 10. Curated by Alexander Braun and Andreas Knigge, it is a remarkable exhibition, not only because of its size (300 exhibits) but also because it tries to encompass the whole history of comics without any geographic, chronological or other limits. To this end, it is organised in six sections.

The first section is about early American newspaper strips. The amount of original newspaper pages and original drawings on display here would be impressive if there hadn’t been another major exhibition on the same topic not even a year ago. Still, it’s always interesting to see e.g. a Terry and the Pirates ink drawing alongside the corresponding printed coloured Sunday page (July 24, 1942). Another highlight in this section is an old Prince Valiant printing plate, or more precisely, a letterpress zinc cliché which would be transferred on a flexible printing plate for the cylinder of a rotary press, as the label in the display case explains.

Section 2 stays in the US but moves on to comic books. In its first of two rooms we find mainly superhero comics, again often represented through original drawings e.g. from Watchmen or Elektra: Assassin. The second room of this section is about non-superhero comic books; outstanding exhibits here are the complete ink drawings to two short stories: a 7-page The Spirit story by Will Eisner from July 15, 1951, and a 6-page war story from Two-Fisted Tales by Harvey Kurtzman from 1952.

The next section of the exhibition is dedicated to Francobelgian comics. There’s an interesting display case with a side-by-side comparison of the same page of Tintin in various original and translated editions, and there are also original drawings by Hergé, but perhaps even more impressive is an original inked page from Spirou et Fantasio by Tome and Janry, who revitalised the series in the 80s. In the same section, half a room contains examples of old German comics, both from East and West Germany.

And then we get to section 4, the manga section. The biggest treat here are several Osamu Tezuka original drawings from Janguru Taitei, Tetsuwan Atomu and Buddha. There’s original Sailor Moon art by Naoko Takeuchi as well. Most of the other exhibits, however, are from manga that are far less famous, at least outside of Japan. In this section there’s also the only factual error I found in the exhibition: a label on Keiji Nakazawa’s Hadashi no Gen says, “Barefoot Gen is one of the earliest autobiographical comics ever.” While Hadashi no Gen was certainly inspired by Nakazawa’s own experiences, it is a fictional story, not an autobiography – that would be Nakazawa’s earlier, shorter manga, Ore wa Mita.

Section 5 is about underground and alternative comics from both the US and Europe. The highlight here is the famous Cheap Thrills record by Big Brother and the Holding Company, which can be listened to via headphones. Most comics enthusiasts are familiar with the record cover by Robert Crumb, but perhaps not with the music on the album.

The sixth and last section is titled “Graphic Novels”. It is already unfortunate enough to make the dreaded ‘g-word’ part of the exhibition title, but this section makes things worse by not actually problematising the term or even analysing the discourse around it. Instead, “graphic novel” is meant here to comprise a vast range of contemporary comic production, including Jirō Taniguchi’s manga, pamphlet comic books such as Eightball and Love & Rockets, and Raw magazine.

The exhibition as a whole offers a lot of interesting things to see, but maybe its aim to represent the whole comics medium was too ambitious in the first place. Nowadays, no one would dare to make an exhibition about the whole history of film, or photography, but apparently comics are still considered peripheral enough that the whole medium can be squeezed into one wing of a museum. The general public, at whom this exhibition is presumably targeted, will probably discover many new things about comics, but for people who are already comic experts, the knowledge to be gained from this exhibition will be much smaller.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Chichi no Koyomi

One blogpost is not enough to pay homage to the recently deceased Jirō Taniguchi, so here’s another one.

Another noteworthy but largely overlooked manga by Taniguchi is Chichi no Koyomi (My Father’s Journal), of which there is no English translation either. The reason for its negligence in the Western world is probably a different one, though: it might be too similar to Taniguchi’s magnum opus A Distant Neighborhood – which was originally published four years *after* Chichi no Koyomi. Reading these two manga in the ‘wrong’ order makes Chichi no Koyomi feel like a compressed, less daring (no supernatural time travel) and more episodic (thus somewhat haphazard) rip-off of A Distant Neighborhood, when in fact the latter was more of a logical continuation or evolution out of the former.

Die Sicht der Dinge (父の暦 / Chichi no Koyomi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Year: 2008 (original run 1994)
Pages: 278
Price: € 16,90
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/die-sicht-der-dinge/20582 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-77731-7

Yōichi Yamashita (i.e. not Taniguchi himself but an autobiographically influenced fictitious character) is a middle-aged salaryman who lives in Tokyo with his wife. When his father dies, he needs to return to his native Tottori for the funeral, for the first time in 15 years. There he meets his uncle, his sister and other characters with whom he reminisces about his father’s life, Yōichi’s own childhood and how the rift between the two came to be.

The events in the past are shown as flashback sequences, although they take up more space than the events in the present. I wouldn’t call the present-day sequences a framing narrative, though, because several chapters begin in the past, then switch to the present, before they switch back to the past again, so that the past frames the present. There is some structural variation and jumping back and forth in time. The most strikingly structured episode is the one in which seven-year-old Yōichi runs away from home to his uncle in search of his mother: adult Yōichi begins to tell this episode on pp. 19-25, but doesn’t pick it up again until 130 pages later.

Another interesting device, albeit employed only tentatively, is an unreliable narrator: two events from Yōichi’s childhood are first shown as he remembers them, but later he learns from his relatives how he actually misremembered them. This device makes the story more dynamic; just as in A Distant Neighborhood, the past isn’t fixed but changeable. However, there is also an emphasis on a historic event in Chichi no Koyomi, the Great Fire of Tottori in 1952, which makes the past more site- and time-specific in this manga than in A Distant Neighborhood.

Artistically, Chichi no Koyomi is Taniguchi at the top of his game. Particularly the characters and their facial expressions are spot-on, which is no small feat given the number of characters, most of which appear multiple times at different ages.

However, it should be noted that the German publisher Carlsen didn’t do a particularly good job at flipping the manga so that it now reads left-to-right in this German edition: the speech bubbles and captions are often arranged diagonally in the panel, in which case the reading order is bottom(!)-left to top-right, which is awfully confusing. Furthermore, some panels are mirrored and some are not, resulting in the old problems of right-handed characters becoming left-handed and the like.

That being said, Chichi no Koyomi is a classic Taniguchi manga that one shouldn’t miss. Together with The Walking Man and A Distant Neighborhood, this manga embodies the essence of Taniguchi’s work as a mangaka.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Trouble Is My Business

Earlier this month, Jirō Taniguchi died of an undisclosed illness at the age of only 69. During a career that spanned almost five decades, he authored or co-authored a huge number of manga. However, outside of Japan, only a few of them have earned the recognition they deserve.

One of these oft-overlooked titles is Trouble Is My Business, written by Natsuo Sekikawa. Originally published from 1979–80 (not counting the sequel series), it is Taniguchi’s earliest work available in German. There are also French and Italian editions, but no English one yet as far as I know.

panel from Trouble Is My Business by Natsuo Sekikawa and Jiro TaniguchiTrouble Is My Business (事件屋稼業 / Jikenya Kagyō)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Natsuo Sekikawa (writer), Jirō Taniguchi (artist)
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2014 (original run 1979–1980)
Pages: 294
Price: € 16,95
Website: http://www.schreiberundleser.de/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=33 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-943808-54-4

Unlike in many of Taniguchi’s better-known manga, there is little to no autobiographical influence in Trouble Is My Business, except that the protagonist, Fukamachi, is of the same age as Sekikawa and Taniguchi, and lives in Tokyo too. Instead of some contemplative family story, this is a collection of almost straightforward ‘hardboiled’ detective cases which are only loosely connected through the character of Fukamachi and his trouble with his ex-wife and daughter.

Rather than the crime cases and their resolution, the real draw here is the subtle humour which is usually based on the hapless, amateurish, down-and-out, small-time detective protagonist and his interaction with other quirky characters. But let’s focus on Taniguchi’s contribution, the artwork. Because already back then, in his early thirties, he had achieved mastery in draughtsmanship.

That is not to say his style didn’t evolve after Trouble Is My Business. The most noticeable difference to his later works is that he didn’t use screen tone as extensively back then, usually relying on parallel hatching to indicate volume and shadows. This results in an overall darker tonality, which is fitting for the ‘noir-ish’ story. My guess is that the reason for this artistic evolution is rather mundane: perhaps Taniguchi wasn’t yet successful enough to be able to hire an assistant who could take over the time-consuming task of applying the screen tones.

Another difference is the frequent display of his skill at depicting technical objects such as vehicles, watercrafts, or firearms, whereas his (too overtly photo-referenced) cityscapes aren’t as impressive as in his later manga. Something Taniguchi excelled at, back then at least as much as in the 90s, is the portrayal of a vast range of different characters. Each of them has a realistic but distinct look (with the sole exception of the barkeeper at Los Lindos, who looks indistinguishable from Fukamachi).

Recommended for fans of the genre, or anyone who wants to discover a different side of Taniguchi.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


The best manga of 2016? Review of A Silent Voice and Yona

In this second part of a two-part blog post (read part 1 here) I’ll review two more manga from 2016, the widely acclaimed A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima and the ‘dark horse’ Yona of the Dawn by Mizuho Kusanagi.

A Silent Voice (聲の形 / Koe no katachi) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 4 so far (completed with vol. 7 in Japan)
Pages: 190
Price: € 7
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/a-silent-voice/
ISBN: 978-3-7704-8996-1

This is it. This must be the best manga of 2016. While I can’t claim to have read all manga from last year, it’s inconceivable that another manga could be as good as A Silent Voice.

As with Orange, the synopsis didn’t sound that exciting though, which is usually given as something along the lines of ‘deaf girl is bullied by her new classmate but then they get to know each other better’. However, apart from the first 8 pages of a framing narrative, the girl (Nishimiya) doesn’t even appear until page 50. This gives us a lot of space to get acquainted with the compelling character of Shōya, a sixth-grader who (similarly to e.g. Bart Simpson) does evil things without really being evil. Everything he does is motivated by his desire to ‘defeat boredom’ by all means. It’s impossible not to like him when he exclaims, “I declare this day a triumph over boredom!”, and it’s understandable how he immediately sees his new classmate Nishimiya as a remedy for boredom and desperately tries to make use of her to this end.

They way Ōima crafts her story is simple but couldn’t be more effective. By contrasting Nishimiya’s ultimate kindness with Shōya’s ever-increasing meanness while at the same time evoking the reader’s sympathy with Shōya, we experience their conflict as a gut-wrenching lose–lose situation. It can’t get more emotionalising than this. And even though the manga goes on for 6 more volumes, it’s not even all that important whether Nishimiya will ever be able to forgive Shōya – the story as told in vol. 1 is already perfect in itself.

While the script would have been strong enough to work well even if it had been drawn by a lesser artist, the opposite is also true: Ōima could probably illustrate the proverbial phone book and it would still look good. The art of A Silent Voice is absolutely on par with the writing. Of particular ingenuity is the device of repeating panel compositions of certain scenes (Shōya and his mates hanging out in his room, Shōya getting told off by his teacher, Shōya talking at Nishimiya) – not copy-and-pasting but re-drawing them with myriad background details (the amount of which is incredible in many panels anyway) changed.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ●


Yona of the Dawn (暁のヨナ / Akatsuki no Yona) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mizuho Kusanagi
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Hakusensha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2009)
Number of volumes: 3 so far (22 in Japan)
Pages: 190
Price: € 5
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yona-prinzessin-der-morgendaemmerung/
ISBN: 978-3-8420-3143-2

With vol. 1 released in both Germany and the US and vol. 20-22 in Japan last year, plus a popular anime adaptation the year before, I would have thought Yona to be the most talked-about manga of 2016. Instead, I found it on only one best-of-2016 list. Does that mean it’s not actually that good?

Yona is marketed as a fantasy story for the shōjo demographic, which is an interesting niche – although ‘fantasy’ might be somewhat misleading, as there are no supernatural elements (at least in vol. 1), so it’s more of an alternate history story in a vaguely medieval East Asian setting. This genre mix means that the manga has to deliver not only on drama and romance but also on ‘swordplay’. While the drama/romance part works out fine (could there be anything more dramatic than Yona’s father getting killed by the man she is in love with?), the few action scenes seem stiff, especially when compared to manga by masters who appear to feel more at home in the ‘samurai’ genre such as Sanpei Shirato, Gōseki Kojima, or Hiroaki Samura.

Another problem of this volume is its slow pace: at the end, Yona flees from her father’s murderer and embarks on a journey that will surely end in another dramatic confrontation with said killer. It’s palpable that this is the beginning of what will eventually become an epic and probably very exciting and good story – but in vol. 1, we’re simply not there yet.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


To sum up, in my humble opinion, A Silent Voice is the best manga of the year 2016. However, there are several other strong ongoing series with which I have yet to catch up to their 2016 volumes, so maybe there’s going to be a third review post later this year.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Orange and Knights of Sidonia

Are the manga that almost everyone put on their best-comics-of-2016 lists really so awesome? (Spoiler: yes, they are.) Or was the actually best manga a completely different one that was overlooked by most? In this little two-part blog post [EDIT: read part 2 here] I’ll review two titles from each of those categories.

Orange (orange) vol. 1panel from Orange #1 by Ichigo Takano
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ichigo Takano
Publisher: Carlsen Manga (originally Shūeisha and Futabasha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2012)
Number of volumes: 3 so far (completed with vol. 5 in Japan)
Pages: ~190 (+ 30 pages backup story)
Price: € 8
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/orange/72643
ISBN: 978-3-551-71324-7

Orange is the highest-ranked manga in the aggregate ranking of 2016 year-end lists, so it certainly is the most popular among critics. But is it also the best? If you only go by its synopsis, you wouldn’t think so: 16-year old Naho mysteriously starts receiving letters from the future, written by herself at age 26. The letters are mainly concerned with Naho’s new classmate Kakeru, who will die next year, and adult Naho wants teenage Naho to prevent this.

Magically travelling back to one’s teenage days is not a particularly original premise for a manga – cf. the recent ReLIFE by Yayoisō and 31 I Dream by Arina Tanemura, and of course Jirō Taniguchi’s 1990s masterpiece, A Distant Neighborhood. The new spin in Orange is that 26-year old Naho doesn’t travel back in time; she only sends letters but can’t control what her 16-year old self does, and 16-year old Naho doesn’t know anything about her future except for what she reads in the letters.

This makes for an ideal starting point for the compelling exploration of a theme that was also central to Taniguchi: regret. One could even argue this works better in Orange, because although 16-year old Naho knows what she is supposed to do (according to the advice in the letters), she often can’t bring herself to do it, or decides against it, or simply misses the opportunity. The letters don’t change who she is; they don’t turn her into another, more courageous, person.

Add to that some gorgeous artwork (masterly use of screen tones!) and you get an almost perfect manga. Almost, but not quite: what took me by surprise was that the story is partially set in the time of adult Naho, and – not unlike the much-reviled epilogue to the final Harry Potter novel – I don’t think this works all that well. While the manga demographic terms of shōjo and josei are often problematic, this distinction might be at the core of the problem here: a reader can identify with either Naho the wife and mother or Naho the high schooler, but probably not both.

Another potentially problematic element is the unlikely plot device of sending letters back in time in an otherwise realistic setting, which as of vol. 1 hasn’t been explained yet. An unconvincing explanation at the end can still ruin a series that had been good up to this point (I’m looking at you, Nobuaki Kanazawa), so we’ll have to wait and see how this is handled in the four remaining volumes of Orange.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi) vol. 14
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2017 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 14 so far (completed with vol. 15 in Japan)
Pages: ~170
Price: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/knights-of-sidonia/
ISBN: 9783-7704-9240-4

Ostensibly, this penultimate volume of Knights of Sidonia has little to do with 2016: the original Japanese tankōbon was published in 2015 already and this German translation only this year. However, the 15th and final volume, which is yet to be published in German, came out in the US last year, so I would have thought the conclusion of the series would make a bigger impact on the Western manga scene.

Instead it seems to have gone by unnoticed – it wasn’t on any of the best manga/comics of 2016 lists -, which is a shame because of the historic significance in the field of science-fiction manga that this series has already earned itself due to its scale (surpassing Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier magnum opus, Blame!, by 5 volumes), its ambitious genre-bending, and its modernisation of the venerable mecha genre.

I’ve sung the praises of the series before, but how does a a single volume hold up when judged individually? In the case of vol. 14, it’s an above-average volume because many exciting things happen in it: there’s an alien infiltrator aboard the mothership Sidonia, Mrs Hiyama the talking bear makes several appearances, we get to know the enigmatic captain Kobayashi better, we even learn something about protagonist Tanikaze’s origin, Tanikaze gets a new mecha model, etc.

That being said, Knights of Sidonia might be a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – or rather, being precisely the sum of its parts, with each new volume adding to the enjoyment of reading, rather than merely replicating it. For each awesome scene, there’s a sequence where it’s hard to figure out what’s going on (particularly the space fights), or an unlikely twist that’s only there for shock value. But put together, there’s a lot of awesomeness over the course of this series.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○