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The Best Manga of 2009

I pity the poor critic who panned Up — it’s not fun to buck the tide of critical approbation, especially when it seems like everyone else is wholeheartedly embracing the film or book in question. I say this because my best-of-2009 list is missing two titles that I’ve seen on many others: Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life and Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers. The first, I’ll admit, is a beautifully crafted book, proof that manga can be a great medium for biography. Yet for all its artistry, I found A Drifting Life oddly uninvolving; too many chapters read more like historical pageants than personal drama. The second title I found more problematic. Yoshinaga starts from a humdinger of a premise, inverting the social order of Tokugawa Japan by placing women in charge of everything. Yoshinaga never fulfills the promise of her idea, however, saddling her narrative with long-winded conversations that are both tin-eared and dull, two adjectives I never thought I’d be applying to Yoshinaga’s work.

So what manga *did *I like this year? Read on for the full list.

oishinbo110. OISHINBO A LA CARTE (VIZ Media)

Equal parts Iron Wok Jan, Mostly Martha, and The Manga Cookbook, this educational, entertaining series explores Japanese cuisine at its most refined — sake, seabream sashimi — and its most basic — rice, pub food. The stories fall into two categories: stories celebrating the important role of food in creating community, and stories celebrating the culinary expertise of its principal characters, newspaperman Yamaoka Shiro and his curmudgeonly father Kaibara Yuzan. (Fun fact: Yuzan is such a food snob that he drove Yamaoka’s mother to an early grave, causing an irreparable break between father and son.) Though the competition between Yamaoka and Yuzan yields some elegant, mouth-watering dishes, Oishinbo is at its best when it focuses on everyday food in everyday settings, shedding light on how the Japanese prepare everything from bean sprouts to ramen. Warning: never read on an empty stomach! (Click here for my review of Oishinbo A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine; click here for my review of Oishinbo A la Carte: Vegetables.)

dmc39. DETROIT METAL CITY (VIZ Media)

Satirizing death metal is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: how hard can it be to parody a style associated with bands named Cannibal Corpse or Necrophagia? Poking fun at death metal while respecting the sincerity of its followers, however, is a much more difficult trick to pull off. Yet Kiminori Wakasugi does just that in Detroit Metal City, ridiculing the music — the violent lyrics, the crudely sexual theatrics — while recognizing the depth of DMC fans’ commitment to the metal lifestyle. Though the musical parodies are hilarious, the series’ funniest moments arise from classic fish-out-of-water situations: Negishi driving a tractor on his parent’s farm while dressed as alter ego Lord Krauser (complete with make-up, fright wig, and platform boots), Negishi bringing a fruit basket to a hospitalized DMC fan while dressed as Krauser… you get the idea. Rude, raunchy, and quite possibly the funniest title VIZ has licensed since Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. (Click here for my review of volume one; click here for my review of volumes two and three.)

itazura18. ITAZURA NA KISS (Digital Manga Publishing)

In the twenty years since Itazura Na Kiss first appeared in Margaret, Kaoru Tada’s breezy romantic comedy has been widely imitated, but seldom surpassed. The story is as basic as they come: an airhead falls in love with a genius, is rebuffed by him, and is eventually pursued by him when he realizes just how sincere and kind she is. Tada manufactures a ridiculous situation to bring her characters together under the same roof — earthquake ahoy! — yet the story never devolves into brainless sitcom territory, thanks to her large supporting cast of characters, brisk comic timing, and strategic use of humor to reveal the characters’ true natures. Pure shojo bliss. (Click here for my review of volume one.)

7. GOGO MONSTER (VIZ Media)

gogomonster

Every elementary school has a kid like Yuki, a smart, odd student who says things that unsettle classmates and teachers alike. In Yuki’s case, it’s the matter-of-fact way he reports seeing monsters that leads to his social isolation. Newcomer Makoto doesn’t share Yuki’s vision, but he admires Yuki’s nonchalant attitude, and struggles mightily to understand what makes his friend tick. It’s to Taiyo Matsumoto’s credit that we’re never entirely sure what aspects of the story are intended to be real, and which ones might be unfolding in the characters’ heads; Yuki’s monsters remain largely unseen, though their presence is felt throughout the story. Matsumoto’s stark, primitive style suits the material perfectly, inoculating Gogo Monster against the sentimentality that imaginary friends and childhood fears inspire in so many authors.

nameflower26. THE NAME OF THE FLOWER (CMX)

Had the Bronte sisters been born in twentieth-century Japan instead of nineteenth-century England, they might have penned something along the lines of The Name of the Flower, a tear-jerker about a young woman who falls in love with her guardian. Ken Saito employs many favorite Victorian tropes — muteness, garden imagery, orphans — in service of the plot, creating an atmosphere of palpable yearning that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. For all of its Victorian window-dressing, however, The Name of the Flower favors a slice-of-life approach over crazy-wives-in-the-attic melodrama. (Well, almost; the main love interest is a misanthropic — but hot! — novelist who favors yukatas over jeans, is prone to fits of anger, and writes dark, pessimistic fiction.) Saito’s elegant, understated art is the perfect complement to this delicate drama, making good use of floral imagery to underscore the heroine’s emotional state. For my money, the best new shojo manga of 2009.

distant_neighborhood25. A DISTANT NEIGHBORHOOD (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)

A Distant Neighborhood is a wry, wistful take on a tried-and-true premise: a salaryman is transported back in time to his high school days, and must decide whether to act on his knowledge of the past or let events unfold as they did before. We’ve seen this story many times at the multiplex — Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married — but Taniguchi doesn’t play the set-up for laughs; rather, he uses Hiroshi’s predicament to underscore the challenges of family life and the awkwardness of adolescence. (Hiroshi is the same chronological age as his parents, giving him special insight into the vicissitudes of marriage, as well as the confidence to cope with teenage tribulations.) Easily one of the most emotional, most intimate stories Taniguchi’s ever told.

pluto4. PLUTO: URASAWA X TEZUKA (VIZ Media)

What amazes me the most about Naoki Urasawa is his ability to transform a tried-and-true genre like the whodunnit into a vehicle for exploring deeper questions about human nature, morality, and identity. As he did with the equally compelling Monster, Urasawa starts in familiar territory — in this case, a murder investigation — but quickly takes the story in unexpected directions, pausing to fill us in on the interior lives of both the principal and secondary characters — no mean feat, given that many cast members are, in fact, robots. Though Pluto takes its inspiration from “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” a short story within Osamu Tezuka’s long-running Astro Boy series, you don’t need to know anything about the original to appreciate the smart pacing, crisp artwork, or intelligent dialogue. In almost any other year, Pluto would have been my #1 pick; it’s a testament to the depth and breadth of 2009’s new releases that it isn’t.

pelu13. LITTLE FLUFFY GIGOLO PELU (Last Gasp)

Poignant is a word I seldom use to describe Junko Mizuno’s work, given the frequency with which her characters pop pills, wield chainsaws, and whip each other. But Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu is poignant, a perversely sweet and sad meditation on one small, sheep-like alien’s efforts to find his place in the universe. In richly detailed images — if one can use the phrase “richly detailed” to describe artwork that draws its inspiration from Hello Kitty, My Little Pony, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — Mizuno offers one of the most bizarre, most original variations on that chick-lit staple, the quest to find a mate before one’s biological clock runs out. It’s not entirely clear how Mizuno expects her audience to react to Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu — as a social satire? a tragedy? a Sanrio promotion? — but the clarity and appeal of her vision is undeniable. (Click here for my review of volume one.)

redsnow2. RED SNOW (Drawn & Quarterly)

Through a series of ten vignettes, Red Snow depicts life in pre-industrial Japan, when men depended on the sea, the forest, and the field for their survival. Kappa and kitsune mingle freely with humans in Susumu Katsumata’s world, their presence treated as a matter of fact, rather than something extraordinary — a reflection of man’s close relationship with the natural world. Though Katsumata employs a self-consciously primitive style, the stories are neither bleak nor condescending towards their subjects; if anything, Katsumata’s drawings of farmers, woodcutters, and drunken monks have a rude vigor that reflects the resilience of his characters.

1. CHILDREN OF THE SEA (VIZ Media)

cots1

Children of the Sea defies easy categorization; it’s a high-seas adventure, an exploration of pan-Asian mythology, a cautionary tale about the environment, and a meditation on the ocean as a life-giving force. Though Children of the Sea could easily devolve into mystical hoo-ha — two of its characters were raised by dugongs, for Pete’s sake — Igarashi embeds a coming-of-age story within the main narrative that grounds Children of the Sea in everyday experience, even as the plot takes a turn for the fantastic. (See “raised by dugongs,” above.) Igarashi’s naturalistic art captures the beauty and strangeness of the ocean settings, as well as the sheer diversity of undersea life; you won’t soon forget the site of a sea turtle leaving a starry trail in its wake or the image of a young boy hitching a ride on a humpback whale. Eerie and poetic. (Click here for my review of volume one.)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Done because there are too menny… great manga, that is, to confine myself to a traditional top ten list. With apologies to Thomas Hardy, here are some of the other manga that tickled my fancy in 2009:

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Comments

  1. I have four out of your top ten. Children of the Sea, Pluto, Red Snow, and Gogo Monster, though I haven’t the latter two yet.

    I really, really need to pick up Real, though. I’m saving it for when I’m all caught up with Vagabond’s Vizbig books.

  2. Phew! My judgement isn’t as whack as I thought.

    Are you planning to do a top ten list? I’d be really curious to see it, as you’re one of the few folks who can talk knowledgeably about manga and comics. I toyed with the idea of doing such a list, then realized most of the comics I’d read this year were aimed at kids. I figured my list would be too heavy on talking animals and too light on the kind of stuff that reassures serious fans that I’ve heard of Stitches and Asterios Polyp.

    By the way, I can’t say enough good things about Real: great art, great storytelling, memorable characters. If you’re any kind of hoops fan, you’ll enjoy it even more.

  3. I was surprised to see DMC on your list. I thought I remembered you being pretty close to dropping it with the second volume.

  4. Katherine Dacey says:

    If you go back and look at my review of volumes two and three, I gave DMC high marks; I was just a little quicker to point out the series’ flaws. In the comments, I went back and forth with a reader who wasn’t very keen on it. I agreed with her that the series is episodic — sometimes snarf-your-tea funny, sometimes not — but I think I was still pretty positive about it. Maybe that’s what you’re remembering? (And jeez, your memory is scary-good!)

    Anyway, thanks for reading, and for taking the time to respond! It’s always nice to see familiar names popping up in the comments section.

  5. No love for 20th Century Boys?

  6. Katherine Dacey says:

    I know, I know — what kind of manga critic am I? I debated whether or not to include 20th Century Boys, but ultimately went with my gut and selected Pluto for the list. It’s testament to how many good titles were released this year that I actually had two Urasawa titles to choose from. Now there’s a problem I’d like to have every year!



Trackbacks

  1. [...] At The Manga Critic, Katherine Dacey chooses the best manga of the year. Among them, Oishinbo, Gogo Monster and Children of the [...]

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by mbeasi: RT @manga_critic New blog post: The Best Manga of 2009 http://mangacritic.com/?p=2564

  3. [...] Chris Butcher Katherine Dacey’s manga best-of matches my tastes almost exactly: RT @manga_critic The Best Manga of 2009 http://mangacritic.com/?p=2564 [...]

  4. [...] start with a link to Katherine Dacey's Best Manga of 2009 — I actually like this list because looks rather eclectic to my eyes.  As Dacey notes, yes, she [...]

  5. [...] Best of lists for manga that came out in 2009.  Johanna Carlson Draper of Manga Worth Reading, Katherine Dacy of the Manga Critic and the gang at Pop Culture Shock all give their lists.  Give these posts a [...]

  6. [...] the crew at Manga Recon (where you’ll find picks from yours truly) and Kate Dacey’s list at Manga Critic, where Netcomics’ Small-Minded Schoolgirls earned an honorable mention. Keep [...]

  7. [...] year-in-review posts keep coming. Kate Dacey lists her picks for the best manga of 2009 at The Manga Critic and Lori Henderson looks at the world of manga in digital formats at Manga [...]

  8. [...] It’s about a salaryman who finds himself replaying a critical phase of his own adolescence, and, as Kate Dacey notes, it’s “one of the most emotional, most intimate stories Taniguchi’s ever [...]

  9. [...] The Manga Critic » Blog Archive » The Best Manga of 2009 [...]

  10. [...] titles to arrive on US shores: volume one of A Distant Neighborhood (one of my nominees for Best Manga of 2009) and volume one of Summit of the Gods. To enter, simply tell me the name of your favorite new manga [...]

  11. [...] The Name of the Flower (CMX). This lovely, borderline-josei title was one of my nominees for Best Manga of 2009: Had the Bronte sisters been born in twentieth-century Japan instead of nineteenth-century England, [...]

  12. [...] so if you buy them, you won’t be stuck with an incomplete set. The Name of the Flower made Katherine Dacey’s best manga of 2009 list, and Chikyu Miksaki has long been recognized as a strong, short series full of oddball appeal. All [...]

  13. [...] Did Ken Saito have Charlotte Brontë on the brain when she dreamed up the plot for The Name of the Flower? I ask because Flower’s storyline seems like pure Masterpiece Theater fodder: Chouko, a young orphan left mute and despondent by her parents’ death, is sent to live with a male guardian who  endured a similarly tragic past. Over time, the two form a deep attachment that neither dares admit, an attachment tested by Chouko’s decision to enroll in college and Kei’s general reclusiveness. If the set-up is ripe for melodrama, Saito manages to craft a story that’s rooted in everyday experience; her characters’ journey to self-awareness and romance is complicated by real-life obstacles, not mad wives in the attic. Lovely art cements the bittersweet mood of this borderline josei title. One of my nominees for Best New Manga of 2009. [...]

  14. [...] goes well beyond an affinity for collecting seashells. This beautiful series was my top pick for Best New Manga of 2009: Children of the Sea defies easy categorization; it’s a high-seas adventure, an exploration of [...]

  15. [...] the second and third volumes of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea (VIZ), my pick for Best New Manga of 2009; the third volume of Raiders (Yen Press), a horror story in which zombies and scholars fight to [...]

  16. [...] Taniguchi’s ever told. (A Distant Neighborhood was one of my picks for Best Manga of 2009; click here for the full [...]

  17. [...] Chris Butcher Katherine Dacey’s manga best-of matches my tastes almost exactly: RT @manga_critic The Best Manga of 2009 http://mangacritic.com/?p=2564 [...]

  18. [...] Did Ken Saito have Charlotte Brontë on the brain when she dreamed up the plot for The Name of the Flower? I ask because Flower‘s storyline seems like pure Masterpiece Theater fodder: Chouko, a young orphan left mute and despondent by her parents’ death, is sent to live with a male guardian who  endured a similarly tragic past. Over time, the two form a deep attachment that neither dares admit, an attachment tested by Chouko’s decision to enroll in college and Kei’s general reclusiveness. If the set-up is ripe for melodrama, Saito manages to craft a story that’s rooted in everyday experience; her characters’ journey to self-awareness and romance is complicated by real-life obstacles, not mad wives in the attic. Lovely art cements the bittersweet mood of this borderline josei title. One of my nominees for Best New Manga of 2009. [...]

  19. [...] the second and third volumes of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea (VIZ), my pick for Best New Manga of 2009; the third volume of Raiders (Yen Press), a horror story in which zombies and scholars fight to [...]



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