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: ● ● ● ● ○


Manga reviews, Halloween 2016 edition: Shi Ki, Detective Ritual, Parasyte

Continuing the ‘tradition’ from last year, here are some more reviews of relatively recent creepy manga:

Shi Ki (屍鬼 / shiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Fuyumi Ono (original story), Ryū Fujisaki (manga adaptation)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2013-2015 (original run 2007-2011)
Number of volumes: 11
Volumes reviewed: 1-4

Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/shi-ki/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3770481163

In a remote Japanese village, a mysterious epidemic breaks out. One by one, several villagers become anaemic and then die. The local doctor, Ozaki, resolves to find out the cause of the supposed disease.

What starts promisingly as a suspenseful medical thriller soon (in vol. 3 at the latest) turns into a generic vampire story if there ever was one. It turns out that the family who recently moved into a castle-like mansion near the village are vampires who suck the blood of the villagers and turn them into vampires too. Part of vol. 4 is even told from a villager-turned-vampire’s perspective and leaves no doubt about what they are.

That being said, this manga has some things going for it: on the one hand, it manages to keep up some of the suspense even after the vampires have been clearly established as the cause of the deaths. Plus, the art style is truly distinctive – characters are elongated and twisted, faces become fine-lined caricatures, stark contrasts are employed and inverted again. In some instances Fujisaki relies too much on photo-referencing though, resulting in overly flat compositions.

In any case I don’t think I’ll read the remaining 7 volumes anytime soon.

Scariest moment in vol. 4: the little vampire girl with the puppet.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Detective Ritual (探偵儀式 / tantei gishiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Ryūsui Seiryōin (writer), Eiji Ōtsuka (storyboard), Chizu Hashii (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Years: 2011-2012 (original run 2004-2009)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-0134-3

Detective Ritual is more of a mystery than a horror manga, but it’s sufficiently creepy to be included in this Halloween-themed review post. Set in the near future or an alternate present, the story is about two rivaling detective organisations aiding the police in murder investigations, one government-sponsored and the other a group of precocious teenagers. The former, however, becomes the target of mass murder themselves…

The artwork is competent but unremarkable (except for the eccentric character designs) – the biggest draw of this manga is its irreverent attitude towards the detective genre: time and again, the initial, overly convoluted explanations that the detectives offer as solutions to the murder cases turn out to be wrong. There’s also a nice metafictional sub(?)-plot about a former detective who has become a writer of mystery novels.

This is certainly a manga that stands out by virtue of its weirdness, but it’s hard to really like it.

Scariest moment: the first of the eponymous ‘detective rituals’, a gruesome mass decapitation which is re-visited several times.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Parasyte – Kiseijuu (寄生獣 / kiseijū)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hitoshi Iwaaki
Publisher: Panini Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2016- (original run 1988-1995)
Number of volumes: 10
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 278
Price per volume: € 8.99
Website: http://www.paninishop.de/parasyte (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-893-5

Parasyte is a horror manga classic, but its publication in German began only this year, probably in order to exploit a renewed interest in the property that has been sparked by the recent anime adaptation.

In the beginning of this story, worm-like space aliens fall on earth and crawl inside the heads of sleeping, unsuspecting people to take over their bodies. While the infested humans still look like before, the aliens are able to transform their heads into claws and fangs with which they prey and feast on other humans. When one of the aliens tries to take over teenaged Shinichi’s body, though, the infestation goes wrong: instead of settling in Shinichi’s brain, the alien is only able to take over his right arm. From now on, Shinichi and the intelligent, talking alien in his arm have to learn to get along, and ultimately work together to fight the other, less friendly aliens.

Despite all the gore and horror there’s also a lot of humour in this manga, and in addition to that Iwaaki even manages to insert some environmentalist messages. The artwork has a bit of an 80s feel to it, but some of the transformation sequences are downright trippy.

Scariest moment: that famous scene in chapter 1 where an alien-infested man’s head splits open, turns into a huge mouth and bites a woman’s head off.

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: ● ● ● ● ○

Sexy-lamp-testing Rick Remender

Continuing from the previous post, let’s turn to a gender bias test that some people believe to be superior to the Bechdel Test. In an interview last year, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (Captain Marvel) said,

Nevermind the Bechdel test, try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. They have to be protagonists, not devices.

This seems even more difficult to put into practice than the Bechdel Test. Is there a scholarly sound way to determine if a story “works”? Anyway, I’m going to try this test with two recent comic books written by Rick Remender. Mind you, that selection doesn’t mean I think Rick Remender is a sexist writer or anything. It’s just that he’s writing a lot of comic books at the moment, and by pure coincidence I happened to have read two of them, Black Science #1 and Uncanny Avengers #14. And who knows, maybe this comparison will reveal something about different attitudes towards gender issues at Image and Marvel, respectively.

The science fiction story Black Science (art by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, published by Image) starts with dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay running away from fish monsters. He is accompanied by a sexy lamp in a space suit, and his internal monologue is addressed at another sexy lamp. Weird, but not that important for the story. His flight leads him to the den of some frog men, who have captured and enslaved a sexy lamp. McKay frees that lamp and returns her to the fish men, whereupon they become less hostile. There are some more sexy lamps towards the end of the issue, but they are not that significant.

Black Science #1 with sexy lamp added

Black Science #1: frog men ogling their stolen sexy lamp. Makes sense to me.

 

Overall, the story works almost as well with sexy lamps instead of female characters. The “damsel in distress” motif at work here is almost as objectifying as turning her into a lamp.

Uncanny Avengers #14 (pencils by Steve McNiven, inks by John Dell, colours by Laura Martin, published by Marvel) is part of a somewhat convoluted story. The gist is that one sexy lamp with magical powers wants to perform a ritual to defeat the two major supervillains of this story (one of which is a sexy lamp), while two other superheroes (again, one of them a sexy lamp) try to stop her because they think the ritual will help the villains. Of course, this conflict is resolved by means of a lot of fighty-fighty, in the course of which one sexy lamp kills another, only to be killed in turn by one of the supervillains.

panel from Uncanny Avengers #14 with sexy lamps added

Uncanny Avengers #14: clash of the sexy lamps. Makes no sense at all.

Clearly, this fighting and killing makes much more sense when done by the Scarlet Witch and Rogue, rather than by some sexy lamps. Therefore, Uncanny Avengers #14 passes the Sexy Lamp Test, whereas Black Science #1 fails.

Does that mean Uncanny Avengers is less gender biased then Black Science? Not necessarily. The problem with the Sexy Lamp Test is, it “rewards” comics with female characters who say and do a lot, but it doesn’t judge what they say and do. Despite their importance to the story, the female characters in Uncanny Avengers are “lazily” written – all women in this comic book could just as well be men (and vice versa) and nothing would change (except for Wonder Man and Scarlet Witch becoming a gay couple). These female superheroes are just male superheroes with breasts. On the other hand, the femaleness of the enslaved fish woman in Black Science reveals the society of the frog men as patriarchic, and thus at least serves a purpose within the story.

Therefore, I don’t think the Sexy Lamp Test is better at detecting gender bias than the Bechdel Test. They just point out different aspects of gender bias (in speech vs. in narrative function), so maybe they are best used in combination.


Some keywords from the 2013 ComFor conference

ComFor 2013 conference logo by Thomas GilkeIn comparison to last year, the 8th ComFor conference (full title: „Comics und Naturwissenschaften“ – 8. Wissenschaftstagung der Gesellschaft für Comicforschung), which took place in Erlangen this month, was less international with only one out of 22 talks in English. On the other hand, there were two papers on manga – a small step in the right direction.

Here are some terms that I’ve heard at this conference for the first time and found noteworthy, in alphabetical order, with the paper in which they were mentioned added in brackets.

  • apocalyptic riskscape – a place where impending doom is tangible, e.g. New York City in Watchmen. (Mentioned in Laura Oehme: Alien Science and Risk Technologies in Dystopian Science Fiction Comics)
  • “basic”, “qualified” and “technical” media – categorisation of aspects of mediality by Lars Elleström, described in his text “The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations” in 2010. (Lukas Wilde / Kay Kirchmann et al.: Wenn Comics Medien erklären – Google-Werbung vom Paul McCartney der Comictheorie)
  • euchronia – the “good time”; a golden age, usually bygone. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • jadarite – a mineral discovered in 2007. Its chemical formula is similar to the fictional formula of kryptonite as shown in the film Superman Returns, prompting headlines such as “Superman beware, kryptonite is real”. (Markus Prechtl: Chemie & Comic – Grenzgänge und Herausforderungen)
  • MAC-10 – a machine pistol, or submachine gun, designed by Gordon Ingram for the Military Armament Corporation (MAC). Its unrealistic use in popular media is criticised by cartoonist Marion Montaigne. (Rolf Lohse: Die Naturwissenschaften im Blick der französischen bande dessinée)
  • mechanomorphism – here: turning something into a machine, e.g. turning a human into a robot by means of cybernetic implants. (Markus Oppolzer: Utopie und Dystopie im Werk von Shaun Tan)
  • “strong” and “weak” images – distinction made by Gottfried Boehm between images that are merely mechanical reproductions (weak) and ambiguous images that require some interpretative effort (strong). (Jens Meinrenken: Comics als Archiv historischer Wissen(schafts)formationen und -entwürfe)
  • Titor, John – name used by an internet forum user claiming to be a time traveller from the future. Appears as a fictional character in the video game Steins;Gate. (Kristin Eckstein: „Beyond the 1% barrier“: Die Zeitreise und ihre Funktion in Sarashi Yomis Steins;Gate)

Heinrich Wölfflin’s plane and recession – in comics?

Welcome to the second installment of what might become a series of blogposts on classical theories in art history and their relation to comics. Twenty years after Franz Wickhoff’s Wiener Genesis, Heinrich Wölfflin published his seminal book Principles of Art History (Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, München 1915), in which he introduced five pairs of terms with which the formal differences between Renaissance and Baroque style can be described.

knights_of_sidonia_vol6_p7

Let’s focus on one of these pairs, plane and recession (“Fläche und Tiefe”), which achieved additional notoriety through the excerpt reprinted in the textbook Methoden-Reader Kunstgeschichte. According to Wölfflin, Renaissance painting is characterised by planar composition in layers parallel to the picture surface, whereas in Baroque painting, the depth of the pictorial space is emphasised. In order to find other whether these different modes of composition can be found in comics, I’ll now turn to two more or less randomly selected examples from titles I had been reading lately.

Page 7 of chapter 26 (in volume 6) of Tsutomu Nihei’s シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia) consists of four panels, each of them an example of planar composition. In the first panel (in “Japanese” reading direction from right to left), the space ship crew members are arranged in a row nearly parallel to the picture surface, which only slightly recedes to the right. Panels 2 and 3 show computer screens, the first one being tilted sideways but still, again, parallel to the picture surface (the English lettering is somewhat misleading). Finally, in the last panel of the page, the figure is almost exactly frontally orientated towards the picture surface, while the background is largely undefined.

dot_hack_vol2_p2

In contrast, .hack//黄昏の腕輪伝説 / Tasogare no udewa densetsu (.hack//Legend of the Twilight) by Rei Izumi and Tatsuya Hamazaki employs quite a different style, for instance in the first three panels on page 2 of chapter 7 (in volume 2). In the first panel, the ground is tilted towards us, so that we look down on the wolf at an angle, which allows us to perceive the wolf and the space in which it is placed as three-dimensional. In the second panel, the four characters are arranged in three tiers, receding from left to right so that we are pulled into the depth of the pictorial space. Likewise, in the third panel, we look onto and over the wolf’s head and follow its gaze towards the character Mireiyu, thus experiencing once more a pull diagonally into the picture.

What do the differences between those two examples tell us? I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Nihei’s personal style is planar, while Izumi generally favours recession. In fact, even within these two volumes, both compositional modes can be found. What we can see, though, is that plane and recession fulfil different tasks: planar compositions are useful to convey information to the reader, whereas recession puts the reader into the midst of interactions between characters. I still think Wölfflin’s principles are useful for stylistic analyses of comics, but the samples would have to be much larger.