The best manga of 2016? Review of Wolf Girl & Black Prince

Now that the Reiwa era has begun, some people are compiling lists of the best manga from the Heisei era, even though 1989–2019 seems like a ridiculously long time to do so, and comparisons to the previous Shōwa era (1926–1989) are difficult due to their different lengths. However, towards the end of this year, lots of people are going to wonder what the best manga of the 2010s were, and then it will come in handy that we’ve taken an in-depth look at manga from the middle of this decade (technically speaking its 7th year) in this series of blogposts.

Wolf Girl & Black Prince (オオカミ少女と黒王子 / Ōkami shōjo to kuro ōji) vol. 11
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ayuko Hatta
Publisher: Kazé (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 16
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.kaze-online.de/Programm/Manga/Wolf-Girl-Black-Prince-Band-11.html (German), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=66333 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-2-88921-667-3

Even people who usually don’t read romance/shōjo stories seem to like this manga (and/or its anime adaptation). For some reason, though, apparently it has never been published in English. In 2016, the final two volumes came out in Japan, but in Germany, that year saw the publication of vols. 6-11, which is why I’ll deal with vol. 11 here.

Previously in Wolf Girl & Black Prince: in order to remain popular among her friends, 17-year old Erika pretends that her attractive classmate Kyōya is her boyfriend. She secretly begs him to play along so that her friends don’t find out that they’re not actually dating. He agrees to act as if they were a couple, but in private he is mean to her. In the end, however, they fall in love with each other and begin an actual relationship.

And that is the plot of about the first three volumes. The series could have ended there, but like with so many other long-running manga, the cash cow wasn’t dry yet. In the case of Wolf Girl & Black Prince, 13 more volumes followed which tell us of the romantic life of Erika and Kyōya, and of course their large cast of friends. In this eleventh volume, for instance, the first chapter is about Erika falling ill and Kyōya reluctantly caring for her, while the second and third chapters deal with romantic rivals (a co-worker at Erika’s job and a classmate who gets closer to Kyōya).

That isn’t to say that these ‘middle volumes’ are entirely without appeal. There are still moments in which Erika and Kyōya come across as compelling characters – she continues to be slightly selfish but also masochistic, he remains cool and distant. What really sets Wolf Girl & Black Prince apart from many other shōjo manga is its relatively mature content. For instance, the characters talk almost openly about sex (and also sometimes explicitly use that word), though sexual acts are never depicted.

One could probably say a lot about this manga from a gender perspective. The way in which Kyōya (“I’m going to steal your virginity!”) treats Erika, and the way in which Erika lets herself be treated by him, makes it clear that we’re not exactly reading a feminist manifesto here.

Another thing worth mentioning is that most volumes (at least in this Kazé edition) contain bonus stories. These can be spin-off stories from the main one, or unrelated one-shots. In the case of vol. 11, it’s a 38-page one-shot high school love story. On the flipside, though, this means that you only get 130 pages of the main story.

The artwork is of an extremely high quality and, in accordance with the humorous tone of this manga, is full of charming cartoonish characters. Too bad the story has lost its drive long ago and seems to go nowhere. Otherwise Wolf Girl & Black Prince would have indeed been one of the best manga of 2016.

Rating: ● ● ●

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The best manga of 2016? Review of My Love Story and 1F

The publication history of My Love Story (and to some extent also that of 1F, see below) demonstrates the difficulties of determining the best manga of the year through the aggregation of year-end best-of lists: in 2016, the first volumes of My Love Story came out in Germany, while in the US volumes 7-10 were published, and in Japan the series ended with the final three volumes, 11-13. Thus, even though My Love Story was being published in all three countries in 2016, in that year it attracted some media attention in Germany only, while in the US and Japan the hype had already died down. More and more it becomes clear in this series of blogposts that when we’re looking at the year 2016 in manga history (from a Western perspective), we’re actually dealing with more of a 5-7 year window. For today, let’s start at the beginning with the first volume of My Love Story.

My Love Story!! (俺物語!! / Ore monogatari) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Kazune Kawahara (story), Aruko (art)
Publisher: Panini (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 13
Pages: ~175
Price: € 7
Website: https://www.paninishop.de/serie/my-love-story-ore-monogatari (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-904-8

The story revolves around Takeo, a high school student who is not only unusually tall and strong, but also honest, kind, brave, and naive. When he meets Yamato, he thinks at first that she’s only interested in his good-looking friend, Sunakawa. But it turns out Yamato has fallen in love with Takeo, she becomes his first girlfriend, and so His Love Story begins.

A lot of people file this manga under shōjo, but if it is a shōjo manga, it’s an exceptional one due to its protagonist – as the title suggests, a male character is at the center of this story. I’d be hard pressed to name another shōjo manga in which a male protagonist dominates the story as much as Takeo (except perhaps for those that veer towards the boys’ love genre).

And what a character Takeo is. It’s refreshing to have a truly unique protagonist who defies all manga stereotypes. Just seeing Takeo’s face is a delight, as artist Aruko endlessly varies her style with new combinations of different kinds of outlines, hatching, and screentones when drawing him.

In the writer’s preface, an interesting anecdote is related regarding Takeo’s appearance: her magazine editor thought Takeo was ugly and put a slogan on the magazine cover to that effect, but the authors intended Takeo to look ‘manly’ and by all means attractive (though not quite as pretty as his ikemen friend Sunakawa). A misunderstanding that is almost medium specific – if the story was told not in comic form but as a live-action film, for instance, it would be easier for most people to assess the attractiveness of this character (and indeed, apparently there was a live-action adaptation of My Love Story in 2015).

If My Love Story has one flaw, it’s some instances of lazy storytelling when something unlikely happens to advance the story. In vol. 1 it’s a girder inexplicably falling on Yamato (will Takeo come to the rescue? Read it to find out!); in a later volume, a bird rips Yamato’s brooch off her shirt… There’s actually one more annoying flaw in the manga: the authors’ columns already give away that Yamato and Sunakawa are kind-hearted characters too, thus destroying any air of mystery that might have surrounded them. That being said, My Love Story is a remarkable comic and one of the best manga of 2016 (if you will).

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

 

1F (いちえふ / Ichi efu) vol. 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kazuto Tatsuta
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2013)
Number of volumes: 3
Pages: ~185
Price: € 13
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/reaktor-1f-ein-bericht-aus-fukushima-1/74017 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-551-76107-1

1F (full German title: “Reaktor 1F – Ein Bericht aus Fukushima”; English spelling: Ichi-F) got a lot of press, but not in the context of 2016 year-end reviews – in the US, it was published only last year. As can be expected from a manga about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people deemed it “moving” and “important”, but not explicitly good. Is 1F any good? Could it even be the best manga of 2016?

First of all, it’s worth restating what other reviewers already have noted: this isn’t a manga about the nuclear disaster per se. Don’t expect to see any giant waves or reactor explosions (though there are one or two flashback panels that show an explosion): this is the autobiographical story of Tatsuta coming to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant long after ‘3.11’ to work there as a ‘cleanup’ worker, i.e. to help in the tedious process of decommissioning the radioactively contaminated power plant.

There are two interesting aspects to Tatsuta’s story: one is the business side of the cleanup work, the shady companies at the bottom end of a subcontracting chain who exploit the mostly unskilled labourers coming from different parts of Japan (Tatsuta himself is from Tokyo, not from the Tōhoku area) for different reasons. The other, more fascinating aspect is the actual work in the highly radioactive power plant, even though Tatsuta’s job there consists of only janitorial tasks at first. The depictions of layers of protective gear, radiation measurement devices, meticulous security procedures all help to visualise the invisible, yet potentially lethal, threat of radioactivity.

Tatsuta’s art style lends itself well to this task of visualisation, as he relies mostly on clear outlines with little or no shading, and occasionally interrupts the comic narrative with diagrams such as floor plans. The flip side of the coin is that human figures aren’t as convincingly drawn; all the characters have a somewhat mischievous expression on their face.

Another flaw of 1F is that the story jumps back and forth in time, which is perhaps due to the haphazard creation history of this manga. It looks like the chronological order of events in the first volume would be: chapter 3, chapter 6, chapters  4-5, prologue, chapters 1-2. Still, overall 1F is a rare gem of an exciting non-fictional manga about science and technology.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


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: ● ● ● ● ○


Shōjo manga roundup: Tempest, Namida Usagi, Kimi ni todoke

Continuing from last week, here are some more short reviews of current (or at least recently translated) shōjo manga.
Hime from Tempest despairs of his male body.

Hime despairs of his male body in Tempest.

Title: Sonnensturm (テンペスト / Tempest)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yuiji Aniya
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Pages: 158
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/sonnensturm/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (of 3 volumes in German so far; volume 4 is scheduled for May)
ISBN: 978-3770481514

In the near future, earth’s entire male population is wiped out by a solar storm – that’s probably the eponymous Tempest (not to be confused with the manga Blast of Tempest / Zetsuen no Tempest). However, the remaining women figure out how to reproduce by hybridising egg cells. Only female children are born this way, until the 40th century, when a boy is born – our protagonist Hime. Trying to fit into this all-female world, he pretends to be a girl. Which goes well until his friend Kou wants to have children with him…
Such a story must be a real treat for anyone interested in gender issues. Homosexuality, social pressure and acceptance, radical feminism, family and reproduction politics, it’s all in there. It’s also interesting from a reception perspective: how easily does the reader “forget” that Hime is a boy? Can it be read as a yuri manga? On the other hand, Tempest doesn’t work well as a science fiction manga. Apart from some advanced data visualisation technology, we don’t see much that tells us we’re in the future at all.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There's also a subplot on photography in Namida Usagi, but that's quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

There’s also a subplot around photography in Namida Usagi, but that’s quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

Title: Namida Usagi – Tränenhase (なみだうさぎ ~ 制服の片思い / Namida Usagi – Seifuku no kataomoi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ai Minase
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2009)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/namida-usagi-traenenhase/
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 2 volumes in German so far; vol. 3 is scheduled for March)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3770481347

Ai Minase’s name might ring a bell, as she was an assistant to Arina Tanemura on the classic magical girl manga Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Namida Usagi was off to a good start: in this high school love story, the stereotypical roles of powerless girl and powerful boy are reversed when Momoka, a fairly average girl, falls in love with her reclusive and unpopular classmate Narumi. However, this setup is already revised at the end of the first volume. After the holidays, Narumi returns to school with shorter hair and without glasses, and suddenly he’s popular with all the girls. This makeover (which the author claims to have made by popular demand) ruins the whole manga for me, as it looks like it continues from this point as just another bog-standard romance manga.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Title: Nah bei dir – Kimi ni todoke (君に届け / Kimi ni todoke)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Year: 2010 (originally 2005)
Publisher: Tokypop (originally Shūeisha)
Pages: 192-208
Price: €6.95 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=875_742
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 18 volumes in German so far; vol. 19 is scheduled for April)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3-8420-0071-1

Her classmates avoid 15-year old Sawako because she looks like Sadako from The Ring. The only one who doesn’t find her scary is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in class – but then again, Kazehaya is nice to everyone…
I learned about Namida Usagi through a review in AnimaniA, which said that is was nowhere near as good as Kimi ni todoke. In the end I checked out both series, and AnimaniA was right. Although the character constellation in Kimi ni todoke (shy girl meets popular boy) seems generic at first, the subtle storytelling makes more than up for that. Particularly by the second volume, the focus is more on the girls Sawako tries to become friends with than Kazehaya. In other words, this manga is more about friendship than romance, at least so far. Will this series continue to be as enjoyable over the course of more than 20 volumes? I’m willing to give it a try.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○