I like getting lost in a long, twisty story as much as the next person, but I often lose interest in a manga around the five- or ten-volume mark. As a service to other people afflicted with Manga ADHD, therefore, I’ve compiled a list of seven shorter series that enjoy pride of place on my shelves.
There were a few ground rules that guided my list-making. First, the series needed to be complete in five volumes or fewer. Second, every volume of the series needed to be readily available through a major retailer like Amazon. Third, the list needed to be diverse, covering a range of genres and demographics. Had I expanded the list to include out-of-print favorites — Antique Bakery, Apocalypse Meow, Club 9, Domu: A Child’s Dream, The Name of the Flower, Planetes — it would have been an unwieldy beast, and one sure to disappoint: why recommend a book that’s selling for $100 on eBay?
So without further ado… here are seven short series worth adding to your manga bookshelf.
JIRO TANIGUCHI • FANFARE/PONENT MON • 2 VOLUMES
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. (A Distant Neighborhood was one of my picks for Best Manga of 2009; click here for the full list.)
FUMI YOSHINAGA • DMP • 2 VOLUMES
One of the things that distinguishes Fumi Yoshinaga’s work from that of other yaoi artists is her love of dialogue. In works like Antique Bakery and Solfege, she reminds us that conversation can be an aphrodisiac, especially when two people are analyzing a favorite book or confessing a mutually-shared passion for art, cooking, or manga. True to form, the sexiest scenes in Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law are conversations between law professors and their students. We feel the erotic charge of more experienced scholars engaging their proteges in intense debates over legal procedure and philosophy, even when the topics themselves are rather dry. Not that Yoshinaga skimps on the smut: there’s plenty of bedroom action as the carefree Tohdou helps his uptight, closeted classmate Tamiya explore his sexuality, but the series’ best moments are fully clothed. An entertaining manga that gets better with each reading. (Reviewed at PopCultureShock on 3/14/08.)
OSAMU TEZUKA • VERTICAL, INC. • 2 VOLUMES
While investigating an outbreak of a mysterious disease, an earnest young doctor contracts it himself, becoming a hideous dog-man who craves raw meat. Kirihito’s search for the cause — and the cure — is the backbone of this globe-trotting adventure, but Kirihito’s quest to reclaim his humanity is its heart and soul; his travels bring him into contact with hustlers, racists, and superstitious villagers, each of whom greets him with a mixture of suspicion and fear. As its dog-man premise suggests, Ode to Kirihito is Tezuka at his bat-shit craziest: in one storyline, for example, Kirihito befriends a nymphomaniac circus performer who transforms herself into human tempura. But for all its over-the-top characters and plot developments (see “nympho human tempura,” above), Ode to Kirihito is one of Tezuka’s most moving stories, a thoughtful meditation on the the fluid boundaries between man and animal, sanity and insanity, good and evil. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 4/7/10.)
RIRIKO TSUJITA • TOKYOPOP • 3 VOLUMES
Kanoko, the sardonic heroine of The Secret Notes of Lady Kanoko, is a student of human behavior, gleefully filling her notebooks with detailed observations about her classmates. Though Kanoko would like nothing more than to remain on the sidelines, she frequently becomes embroiled in her peers’ problems; they value her independent perspective, as Kanoko isn’t the least bit interested in dating, running for student council, or currying favor with the alpha clique. Kanoko’s sharp tongue and cool demeanor might make her the mean-girl villain in another shojo manga, but Ririko Tsujita embraces her heroine’s prickly, opinionated nature and makes it fundamental to Kanoko’s appeal. The perfect antidote to shojo stories about timid good girls and boy-crazy spazzes. UPDATE 4/16/11: TOKYOPOP announced that it would be shutting down its US publishing operations on May 31, 2011. Unfortunately, that means that Lady Kanoko will likely remain incomplete at two volumes. The stories are largely self-contained, so it is still possible to enjoy Lady Kanoko without reading the last volume.
NOBUAKI TADANO • VERTICAL, INC. • 4 VOLUMES
Nobuaki Tadano gives Hal Clement’s Needle a manga makeover, moving the action from a remote island in the South Seas to Japan, and replacing Clement’s wholesome, Hardy Boy protagonist with a sullen teenage girl who’s none too pleased to discover that an alien bounty hunter has taken control of her body. The decision to make Hikaru a troubled loner with a difficult past is a stroke of genius; her social isolation proves almost as formidable an obstacle for her to overcome as the monster that she and Horizon (as the bounty hunter is known) are pursuing. Her personal struggles also add a level of raw, emotional authenticity to the story — something that was largely absent from the fascinating, though clinically detached, original. Oh, and the monster? It’s a doozy. (7 Billion Needles was one of my picks for Best Teen-Friendly Comic of 2010; see Good Comics for Kids for the full list. Volumes one and two were reviewed at The Manga Critic on 11/21/10; volume three was reviewed on 2/17/11. The fourth and final volume will arrive in stores on April 26, 2011.)
KEIKO TAKEMIYA • VERTICAL, INC. • 3 VOLUMES
If Richard Wagner wrote space operas, he might have composed something like Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, an inter-generational drama about a race of telepathic mutants who’ve been exiled from their home world. Under the leadership of the charismatic Jomy Marcus Shin, the Mu embark on a grueling voyage back to Terra to be reunited with their human creators. Their principle foe: an evil supercomputer named Mother. Takemiya’s richly detailed artwork makes To Terra an almost cinematic experience, suggestive of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. But don’t be fooled by those blinking computers and blazing starships: To Terra is an unabashedly Romantic saga about two ubermensch locked in a struggle of cosmic proportions. No doubt Richard would approve. (To Terra was one of my picks for Best Manga of 2007; read the full list at PopCultureShock. For more information on To Terra‘s history, click here.)
YUKO OSADA • DEL REY • 5 VOLUMES
Shonen series often run to 10, 20, or 40 volumes, but Toto! The Wonderful Adventure proves that good stories come in shorter packages, too. Yuko Osada brazenly steals ideas from dozens of other sources — Castle in the Sky, One Piece, Last Exile, The Wizard of Oz — to produce a boisterous, fast-paced story about a tyro explorer who crosses paths with sky pirates, military warlords, and a high-kicking senjutsu expert named Dorothy. Though the jokes are hit-or-miss, Toto! boasts crisp artwork, strong female characters, and an infectious sense of bonhomie among the series’ protagonists; Kakashi and his traveling companions are impossible to dislike. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 9/16/10.)
CAT-EYED BOY (Kazuo Umezu • VIZ • 2 volumes): Readers looking for an introduction to Kazuo Umezu’s work could do a lot worse than this two-volume collection of stories about a strange little boy who’s half-human, half-demon. Umezu gives free reign to his imagination, conjuring some of the most bizarre monsters in the J-horror canon. The results aren’t always as shocking as they might be, but Cat-Eyed Boy is by turns funny, scary, and sad. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 10/3/10.)
LADY SNOWBLOOD (Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kimimura • Dark Horse • 4 volumes): Now that everyone’s forgotten Kill Bill, the epic mess “inspired” by Kazuo Koike’s Lady Snowblood, it’s possible to read this series for what it is: a deliciously trashy story about a beautiful assassin who manipulates, cajoles, seduces, and stabs her way through Meiji-era Japan. Expect copious nudity, buckets of blood, and fight scenes so outrageous they have to be seen to be believed.
ONE POUND GOSPEL (Rumiko Takahashi • VIZ • 4 volumes): In this charming sports comedy, a struggling boxer is torn between his love for food and his love for a pretty young nun who wants him to lay down his fork, lose some weight, and win a few matches. The series is a little episodic (Takahashi published new chapters sporadically), but the dialogue and slapstick humor have a characteristically Takahashian zing.
For additional suggestions, see:
- 5 Underrated Shojo Manga, which includes Setona Mizushiro’s X-Day;
- My 10 Favorite CMX Titles, which includes such short series as Astral Project, Chikyu Misaki, Kiichi and the Magic Books, The Name of the Flower, and Presents. Note that many of these series are out of print and may be hard to find through retailers like Amazon;
- My 10 Favorite Spooky Manga, which includes such short series as Dororo, Gyo, Mail, and School Zone.