Note: this piece originally appeared on The Bureau Chiefs as part of my Anna Reads Manga feature.
It is easy to find plenty of manga about intrepid boy ninjas or vampire boarding schools on the crowded shelves of your chain bookstore, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish manga titles aimed at adults. This column will provide an overview of the best manga out there featuring characters in their twenties.
Ohikkoshi by Hiroaki Samura (amazon)
This is a single volume of short stories by the creator of the sprawling samurai saga Blade of the Immortal. Samura uses the short story form to indulge in writing humor and as a result the episodes included in this book have a slightly manic edge.
Sachi is the hapless protagonist. He and his friends hang out at horrible battle of the bands shows and skip their college classes whenever possible. He’s hopelessly in love with Akagi, a woman whose boyfriend has just left to work overseas. Now is his big chance to ask her out, which he does in such an oblique stammering way it is easy to feel sorry for him. Sachi’s friends conclude “Our pale-faced friend is drunk with the turmoils of youth!”
Other stories in the collection include an epic tale of manga artist tribulation as a woman takes her editor’s advice, loses her comics gig, works in a coffee shop, becomes a kept woman, manages to attain mastery at the game of mah-jong, and ends up apprenticed to a mafia boss in a few short years only to finally become a manga master. A half-Italian half-Japanese teacher decides take revenge on Japan by sleeping with the country’s women until he meets two girls who are immune to his charms. Some of the elements in Ohikkoshi will appeal to fans of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. Characters break the fourth wall and comment directly at the reader. When Akagi and Sachi go on a horrific zoo date, information about the animals is listed in game stat format. Samura will often shift into alternate art styles for a panel or two. Ohikkoshi has a bit of a rough and frenetic feel, but it is hard not to be captivated by Samura’s sense of humor.
Office Ladies Need Love Too
Josei (manga aimed at adult women) is probably the scarcest manga genre translated in English, which is why I cherish any title that portrays the life of a post-college woman instead of a starry-eyed high school girl.
Suppli by Mari Okazaki (amazon)
Minami is 27 years old. Her relationship with her boyfriend is going nowhere. Every morning she gets dressed for work feeling as if she’s putting on battle armor. She heads into the office on a Sunday only to find all of her co-workers already there. Minimai is paralyzed by the thought of ending up like her boss – a single woman in her 40s. When her boyfriend dumps her, she throws herself into work, trying to prepare new presentations and socializing with her co-workers. She tries to avoid being alone in her trashed apartment, but she lives so much in her own head that she doesn’t pick up on the crush one of her co-workers has on her. Okazaki frequently interposes nature symbolism like water, fish, or grass with Minami’s urban office environment. Suppli has a melancholy feel that reflects the anxieties of its main character. Sometimes Minami’s only connection with another person is sitting with a co-worker in a break room at the office, watching the sun rise.
Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa
This fourteen volume series is sadly out of print but it is well worth tracking down. Sumire maintains an intimidating presence at her workplace. She reacts coolly when her boyfriend breaks up with her and her co-workers are afraid to comment to her about it due to her bitchy reputation. As she returns to her apartment after a long day of work she finds an injured boy sleeping in a cardboard box. Sumire takes him into her house and feeds him. She jokingly offers him a place to stay if he’ll be her pet, which means following all her orders. He accepts. She names the boy “Momo” after her childhood dog. Having somebody else to care for eases Sumire’s tension from work.
Momo is just as ambitious as Sumire, except he’s pursuing his studies as a modern dancer. Sumire and Momo enjoy domestic life together but things may change when Sumire gets a new boyfriend who miraculously fulfills her requirements for height, salary, and education. She seesaws back and forth between portraying her idea of the perfect career woman and indulging in wrestling TV shows when she’s at home with Momo. Tramps Like Us balances a light and fluffy chicklit quality with a sensitive portrayal of an unconventional but evolving relationship.
Asano comes by his emphasis on aimless twentysomething characters honestly; he was in his early 20s when he started publishing his stories.
What a Wonderful World by Inio Asano (amazon)
Toga has always been “the reliable one” among her group of friends, but she drops out of school and struggles with the idea of reactivating her musical ambitions. A schoolgirl engages in a dangerous contest to win social capital. A man briefly visits his daughter and ex-wife in a park. Aimless ronin studying for their college entrance exams have a memorable encounter with a basket case they meet in the street. Some of the characters are seen again briefly in other stories, making the lives of the different people in What a Wonderful World seem interconnected.
While reading about the lives of people who haven’t figured out what they want to might seem like an invitation to wallow in ennui, this manga lives up to its title. Asano captures the small moments that people use to define themselves. A change in hairstyle, the realization that the reliability of a relationship can be a comfort, and the loss of an apartment each contribute to a moment of reflection that lets someone move on with their life. As I was reading the manga and enjoying the combination of the prosaic and surreal in Asano’s art I realized that I was especially struck by the pacing and paneling. There was frequently a small jolt or surprise right before I’d turn the page to read the conclusion of a story, and this lent a dynamic feel to the manga even when some of the stories were just short sketches.
Solanin by Inio Asano (amazon)
A later work than What a Wonderful World, Solanin shows what Asano can achieve with more maturity. Meiko works at a job she hates. She’s crushed in the subway on her way to work, and has difficulty listening when her boss yells at her because she’s distracted by his hideous nose hairs. When she goes home, she’s greeted by her boyfriend Taneda. He works part-time and aimlessly pursues his dream of music. Meiko’s horrible job pays well, and she’s saved up some money. One day she abruptly decides to quit.
She lazes around and tries being domestic, but quickly realizes that too much free time can be boring. Taneda can’t deal with the idea of being the breadwinner, and their relationship begins to suffer from the strain. Meiko encourages Taneda to pursue his dream of making music. Although Meiko is the unifying character, Solanin frequently makes narrative detours that show readers the inner worlds of other members of Taneda’s college band. The shifting point of view is a literary device that I enjoy in novels, and it definitely contributed to the depth of character development in this manga.
Small details in the way the characters’ interacted with their environment made their world seem surreal. Bunnies with Xs for faces appear on key chains and Taneda’s CD. Meiko watches a bizarre bear attack training news story on TV. Taneda has a “me summit” where all the aspects of his personality wear a different slogan on their t-shirts to comment on his life. Towards the end of Solanin Meiko begins to come into her own in an unexpected fashion. She’s still supported by her group of friends, but the conclusion is bittersweet. Solanin captures the restless feelings many people have as they move into adulthood.