When I sat down to compose my Best of 2022 list, I was certain I’d compiled a similar one as recently as 2017, only to discover that I hadn’t done so in almost seven years. In looking over some of my earlier efforts, I hardly recognize myself: who was this person with the energy to review 40 or 50 books in a year? Or who thought that Yowamushi Pedal was the best new series of 2015? It felt a little daunting to revisit those lists, honestly, as I’ve often let my blog lie fallow for months at a stretch as I adjusted to a more demanding teaching schedule or a longer commute; I’ve been vowing to “bring back” The Manga Critic for years. Reading other bloggers’ year-end lists, however, inspired me to get back in the saddle and take stock of the manga I loved—and didn’t—in 2022.
Best New Manga: Shuna’s Journey
By Hayao Miyazaki • Translated by Alex Dudok de Wit • First Second
In this deceptively simple work, Hayao Miyazaki creates a richly detailed world filled with beautiful, strange imagery that invites the reader to contemplate where and when the story takes place without definitively answering those questions. Miyazaki’s hero is just as mysterious as the landscapes he crosses; Shuna’s odyssey is not a journey of self-discovery but a practical quest that, despite its myriad hardships, leaves him fundamentally unchanged. Is a he a folkloric hero or a witness to environmental catastrophe? Miyazaki leaves that question unanswered as well, creating a work that’s more ambiguous and less didactic than Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke, but similar in its emphasis on the complex relationship between humans and the natural world.
Best Archival Project: Talk to My Back
By Yamada Murasaki • Translated by Ryan Holmberg • Drawn & Quarterly
“For six years now, I’ve never walked at a pace that was mine,” observes Chiharu, the protagonist of Yamada Murasaki’s sharply observed Talk to My Back. First published in the 1980s, Murasaki’s thirty-six vignettes chronicle the small pleasures and intense disappointments of a middle-class Japanese housewife. Through spare linework and judicious use of blank space, Murasaki conveys Chiharu’s quest to define herself outside the role of mother and wife, documenting Chiharu’s anger, frustration, and alienation in a restrained fashion that suggests how stifled and powerless Chiharu often feels. In a thorough, thoughtful companion essay, translator Ryan Holmberg explores Murasaki’s trailblazing role as an alt-manga creator; Murasaki was one of the first women artists to be featured in the pages of COM and Garo magazines, opening the door for creators such as Akino Kondo and Junko Mizuno. Here’s hoping that Drawn & Quarterly decides to publish more of Murasaki’s work in English.
Best New Sci-Fi Manga: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou
By Hitoshi Ashinano • Translated by Daniel Komen • Adapted by Dawn Davis • Seven Seas
I’m not sure if I would have been as receptive to Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou five or ten years ago, as its low-key depiction of life in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe might have struck me as hopelessly twee. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, however, I found the series’ emphasis on small, everyday moments more resonant; Hitoshi Ashinano convincingly evokes the rhythm of everyday life in a world of scarcity, minus the Hobbesian emphasis on violent competition. Alpha, the main character, is an android who divides her time between running a small cafe and roaming the coastline on her scooter, photographing the empty roads and submerged towns as well as the small, vibrant communities where people still find time to hold rowdy association meetings and stage elaborate firework displays. Her efforts to document humanity’s final chapter offer a wistful—and hopeful—meditation on what it means to persevere in the face of uncertainty and change.
Best New Romance: Kowloon Generic Romance
By Jun Mayuzuki • Translated by Amanda Haley • Yen Press
The aesthetic of Kowloon Generic Romance is pure 80s manga—think City Hunter or RG Veda—but the story and characters suggest the work of filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, as Kowloon focuses on an intense but unconsummated flirtation between Reiko, a real estate agent, and Kudou, her brash, horny colleague. Like Kar-Wai, manga-ka Jun Mayuzuki is as enamored of settings as she is of characters, leading the reader on a languid tour of Kowloon’s shopping districts, cafes, back alleys, and apartment blocks, conveying how densely settled this city-within-a-city truly is. Though there are some minor elements of science fiction in play, the main attraction is the artwork and pacing; Mayuzuki devotes an entire chapter to depicting, in rapturous detail, Reiko’s evening ritual of enjoying a cigarette on her flat’s meager balcony, allowing the reader to experience the moment as Reiko does: a brief, wordless respite from the hustle and bustle of Kowloon.
Best New Comedy: Phantom of the Idol
By Hijiki Isoflavone • Translated by Max Greenway • Kodansha
In this delightfully bonkers series, a grumpy male pop star swaps bodies with the ghost of a former teen idol whose discipline and talent help transform Yuya into a charismatic, telegenic performer. The twist? Yuya’s been possessed by Asahi Mogami, a perky girl whose budding career was cut short by a car accident. The physical slapstick takes the humor in some unexpected directions as Asahi navigates the complexities of inhabiting the lazy Yuya’s body, while the dialogue offers plenty of sly pokes at the music industry, as well as some not-so-subtle reminders that pop stardom can be as grueling as it is exhilarating.
Best Manga I Thought I’d Hate: The Men Who Created Gundam
By Hideki Ohwada, Hajime Yatate, and Yoshiyuki Tomino • Translated by Jason Moses • Denpa
Of all the ways you could tell the story of Japan’s most famous robot franchise, it seems only right that Gundam creators Hideki Ohwada and Yoshiyuki Tomino opted for an over-the-top manga that dramatically recreates key moments in the series’ early history. The prevailing tone is reminiscent of a VH-1 Behind the Music special, complete with sudden reversals and last-minute triumphs; every line of dialogue is delivered with the kind of urgency usually reserved for a nuclear crisis, even when the conversation is focused on the more mundane aspects of creating a hit television show. Interspersed among the chapters are brief but useful essays connecting the storylines to real events, offering readers a more nuanced explanation of how Gundam helped the create the template for modern pop-cultural fandoms around the globe.
Worst Manga I Thought I’d Love: Crazy Food Truck
By Rokurou Ogaki • Translated by Amanda Haley • VIZ Media
On paper, Crazy Food Truck sounded like a blast, a cross between Mad Max: Fury Road and The Great Food Truck Race. In practice, however, Crazy Food Truck was surprisingly dull, serving up fight sequences as unimaginative as the food its hero serves his few paying customers. The central joke might be funnier if Gordon’s menu was so good that people would risk life and limb for his gourmet sandwiches, but when a BLT with mustard is his signature dish, it seems more like a failure of imagination than a real attempt at humor, especially when creator Rokurou Ogaki frequently reminds us that Gordon has mounted a cannon on top of his truck to ward off bad guys. Gordon’s sidekick Anisa is a one-note character, inserted into the narrative primarily for fan service that’s so indifferently executed it’s hard to muster any outrage. I have no doubt this series rocked some reader’s world, but I found it flavorless. (Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 6/7/22)
Worst Manga I Read in 2022: Rooster Fighter
By Sou Sakuratani • Translated by Jonah Mayahara-Miller • VIZ Media
Rooster Fighter is a disappointment: the premise is too slight to sustain a long series, the script is strenuously unfunny, and the storylines are numbingly predictable. In every chapter, the nameless hero wanders into a new town, antagonizes and befriends the locals in equal measure, then kills a grotesque demon that’s been terrorizing the community. About the only good joke in whole series is how the rooster kills demons; anyone who’s lived on or near a farm will enjoy a rueful laugh or two at the hero’s superpower. Otherwise, this series is a total Cock-a-Doodle-Don’t. (Reviewed at Manga Bookshelf on 8/16/22)