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: ● ● ● ● ○