The best manga of 2016? Review of Yuru Camp

Although the first two volumes were already published in 2015 and 2016 in Japan, Western publishers once again came late to the party and only began translating Yuru Camp when it was adapted into an anime series.

panel from vol. 2

Yuru Camp (ゆるキャン△ / yurukyan△; international title: Laid-Back Camp) vols. 1-2
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Afro
Publisher: Manga Cult (originally Houbunsha)
Year: 2020 (originally 2015-16)
Number of volumes: 11 so far in Japan
Pages per volume: 175
Price per volume: € 10
Website: (German publisher), (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 9783964333094, 9783964333223

Most other reviews mention how unusual the subject matter of this manga – camping – is, that the Japanese truly have a comic for everything, that it is enjoyable even if you don’t like camping, and that it is also an educational manga that gives detailed and practical information on the topic of camping. All of this may be true, but it’s worth noting that the kind of camping that we get to see here isn’t everyone’s idea of camping. First of all, it’s camping without hiking. Rin takes her moped to go camping, Nadeshiko lets her older sister drive her in the car, and on one occasion, Chiaki, Aoi and Nadeshiko take the train and then have to walk for 4 km, only to find out later that they could have taken a bus.

It’s also camping without wilderness, despite what the blurb might say (“A time off in the wilderness”, the German back cover says). Our protagonist high school girls always put their tents up at official campsites, and these campsites usually come with amenities such as firewood, lots of rules, and sometimes pricey fees. Nature does feature in the form of scenic landscapes viewed from the campsite, but in essence, this kind of camping is, as the title says, rather yuru (緩 – loose, relaxed) and consists essentially of outdoor cooking – various recipes are provided – and sleeping in a tent.

On the other hand, the kind of camping undertaken by Rin and the others is peculiar because it’s off-season camping, meaning that the story takes place in late fall and winter and it’s always cold. This gives the author the opportunity to offer tips on how to protect against cold weather, while at the same time not having to have the protagonists interact with many other characters, as they are almost the only campers on their campsites at that time of the year.

page detail from vol. 1

And of course, our main characters are probably not the first kind of person that comes into one’s mind when thinking of campers. A sort of explanation is hinted at in the story: at Rin’s high school, there are two different clubs, the mountaineering club and the “outdoor club”. Perhaps all the boys at that school who are interested in camping have joined the former? In any case, with Yuru Camp, we’re deep in the sub-genre within the slice-of-life genre known as “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things”, which is closely related to (or, as some say, identical with) the concept of moe.

Reading such a kind of manga is always a bit of a guilty pleasure, at least for heterosexual male readers. Not that it is sexually exploitative or anything – despite several onsen bathing scenes, there is no explicit nudity – , but such para-erotic appeal is of course precisely the essence of moe. Then again, the manga abstains, perhaps mercifully, from any yuri elements whatsoever (although there would be plenty of opportunities for homoerotic scenes, e.g when there are two girls sleeping in the same tent etc.).

Some who have reviewed the first volume only have expressed doubts regarding the single-mindedness of the characters and the manga as a whole: would Yuru Camp remain interesting over several volumes? It does, by virtue of a carefully crafted story. Basically there are two parallel stories, that of the outdoor club, and that of Rin who prefers to go camping alone. But through the characters of Nadeshiko who is a club member but also befriends Rin, and Ena, a schoolmate who isn’t interested in camping but encourages Rin to befriend Nadeshiko, the stories are interwoven and feel like one big story.

Interestingly, the artwork of the scenery isn’t that spectacular. There is a lot of almost crude cross-hatching, and an overuse of an obtrusive parallel hatching effect that shrouds many backgrounds (and quite a few foreground objects as well), perhaps to indicate that it gets dark early during off-season. The figures, in contrast, are elaborately rendered and exhibit versatile facial expressions.

All in all, Yuru Camp is definitely one of the strongest manga series still running. However, it’s a shame that both the German and the American publisher decided to put such a hefty price tag on it. A Yuru Camp volume is perhaps worth it, but only just.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○