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.


Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – in comics?

This time, we’re going to look at a theoretical concept which is not specific to art history: heterotopias, or “other spaces”, described by philosopher Michel Foucault in a talk in the 1960s which was published in the 1980s. He defines heterotopias as “something like counter-sites […] in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Foucault then lists six “principles” to further characterise heterotopias:

  1. Today’s heterotopias are “heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”;
  2. “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion”;
  3. “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”;
  4. heterotopias are often linked to either the accumulation of time or to ephemeral time;
  5. “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”; and
  6. heterotopias either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory”, or they are “as well arranged as our [space] is messy”.

These “principles” are not meant to be necessary characteristics of heterotopias, i.e. a space doesn’t need to fulfil all six principles to be regarded as a heterotopia. This rather vague definition means we can apply the term heterotopia to many different spaces. In art history, we mainly deal with two kinds of spaces: real spaces in which art is produced and received, and imaginary spaces conveyed by the content of works of art. For the former, see e.g. Ruth Reiche’s recent blog post (in German) on cinemas and museums as heterotopias. I’m going to look at the latter now, and try to find out what is to be gained when we conceive a space in a comic as a heterotopia.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs... but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that's the only thing we know for sure.

A sword breaks, a demon laughs… but where are we? On p. 23 of Lone Wolf and Cub #2, that’s the only thing we know for sure.

The sequence I have selected for this purpose is from an episode of the manga classic 子連れ狼 / Kozure Ōkami (Lone Wolf and Cub) by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima, titled “Pitiful Osue” in the US edition (issue #2 in the First Comics series from 1987). On the first 19 (of 56) pages, we only see the infant Ogami Daigorō, the “cub”, but no trace of his father Ogami Ittō, the “lone wolf”. Then suddenly, starting with p. 20, the page background turns black for five pages. A caption text tells us we’re “elsewhere” now, and we witness Ogami (Ittō) fighting against animal-headed demons amidst swirling fumes. Is this new setting a heterotopia?

The basic definition, a counter-site which represents and inverts real sites, might be applicable: in this hell (Ogami himself uses this term later), the twisting, naked bodies are representations of the people on earth. Ogami seems unchanged at first, but then his sword breaks in the fight – something which probably never happens to him in “real” life – and he doesn’t overcome his enemies. Some of Foucault’s six principles also hold true for this hellish place:

  1. It is a place for the deviant, not only in a mythological sense (the deviant sinners are condemned to hell), but also in the sense that this scene turns out to be a feverish nightmare of the ill (i.e. unhealthy, thus deviant) Ogami.
  2. It is a place that has changed its function in history. While in medieval Japan, in which the story is set, hell was imagined as a real place where you could end up after death, the 20th century manga readers would probably regard hell as unreal and recognise this scene as a dream sequence, even before it is revealed as such on p. 25.
  3. Three places are juxtaposed here: the place where the dead wind in agony, the place where Ogami fights the demons, and the shrine (which turns into a real place in which Ogami sleeps). These places are both separated and connected by the mists of hell. On another level, they exist all in one “real” place: the shrine where Ogami dreams of them, or his imagination.
  4. It is quite an ephemeral place, as it exists only for as long as Ogami is dreaming. (On the other hand, for those who believe in it, hell is eternal.)
  5. No matter whether we regard this place as hell or as a dream, both have notoriously specific modes of entering: entrance to hell is usually reserved for the deceased, and a dream can be entered only by one single sleeper.
  6. As a dream, this place is an illusion. At the same time, as hell, the place of eternal torment, isn’t it more real than the fleeting earthly life? Ogami himself seems unsure about how his nightmare is connected to reality: “Is it a sign that my fever has passed — or that death is near?”, he wonders on p. 26. (The relation between the two spaces gets more complicated on pp. 42-43, when they briefly merge, but that’s another sequence…)

So what do we make of this dream/hell now that we’ve identified it as a heterotopia? Above all other characteristics, heterotopias are radically different from real places, and this “otherness” might be the key to understanding the role of the dream sequence in the story: it marks a harsh change of perspective from Daigorō to his father, who are for once far apart from each other in the beginning of this episode. By shifting from the real world to the heterotopian underworld, the authors emphasise that father and son are “worlds apart”. In the course of the episode, they will have to find each other again, so that the order at the basis of Kozure Ōkami – the companionship of “wolf” and “cub” – is restored.