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
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
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 edition: Limit, Sidonia, Kirihito

I don’t like horror comics. But to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some short reviews of more or less recent mystery/thriller manga:

panel detail from Limit by Keiko SuenobuLimit (リミット / Rimitto)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Keiko Suenobu
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2012-2013 (original run 2009-2011)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
ISBN: 9783-7704-7875-0

Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t actually overpopulated. The Japanese population is just very unevenly distributed: outside of the crowded metropolitan areas, there are vast wildernesses. This fact is what makes the story of Limit credible. On its way to a summer camp, a bus with schoolchildren crashes in a forest. Only a handful of them survives the crash, and now they have to endure until help arrives. Which takes days.

In this Lord of the Flies scenario, the greatest challenge for the schoolchildren is not to survive in the wilderness, but to get along with each other. One of the girls in particular who was always bullied in school before now sees the opportunity to take revenge. Through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the bus accident, all of the survivors are well characterised, making for a suspenseful read.

Scariest moment in vol. 3: when they find the dead body of one the girls. Somehow I hadn’t seen this coming.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel detail from Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu NiheiKnights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2010-today (original run 2009-2015)
Number of volumes: 12 so far (14 in Japan)
Volumes reviewed: 1-12

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 7.50
ISBN: 9783-7704-8556-7

Knights of Sidonia, which I’ve mentioned before here, is a weird mix of genres: mecha sci-fi action, harem slapstick comedy… and also space horror and body horror.  It takes some time to get used to this, particularly if you’re familiar with Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier, more homogeneous manga, but now, as the series approaches its end, it’s beginning to make sense.

The story revolves around humans in mechas and spaceships fighting against an alien race called gauna. At first, both sides look very different: humans with their angular high-tech machinery on the one hand, the biomorphic gauna on the other. But the lines become blurred when humans build mecha/gauna hybrids and the shapeshifting gauna start imitating mecha pilots.

Scariest moment in vol. 12: when a gauna engulfs an entire mecha – apparently without killing the pilot…

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel from Kirihito by Osamu TezukaKirihito (きりひと讃歌 / Kirihito sanka)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2009-2010 (original run 1970-1971)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: ~270
Price per volume: € 16.90
ISBN: 978-3-551-79180-1

This one is a bit older, but it has only relatively recently been published in English (2006) and German (2009). Kirihito is a medical thriller about a mysterious disease that turns people into dog-like creatures. A young doctor, the eponymous Kirihito, is sent to a remote village where this disease has broken out in order to investigate and find a cure – or so he thinks. He soon learns the hard way that the disease is infectious indeed.

The pacing is off, the story has its issues (e.g. the problematic portrayal of women) and drags on for too long (even though this is only the first of three volumes) – but the art is vastly superior to that of most living mangaka. Although you could argue that his cartoonish style would be more suitable for a humorous story, the sheer amount of Tezuka’s daring design ideas is astonishing.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: towards the end of the volume when Izumi, Kirihito’s fiancée, finds out that her own parents are not quite free from blame for Kirihito’s disappearance.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

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.


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.


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.