The usual gambit for introducing a year-end list is to remark on the abundance of good titles, acknowledge the difficulty in choosing just ten (or five, or three), and comment on the overall state of the industry. And while I certainly debated what to include on my list, I’ll be honest: 2011 yielded fewer contenders for Best Manga than any other year I’ve covered. The dearth of new titles was attributable to publishers’ financial prudence; companies released fewer books, licensed fewer series, and focused on repackaging older content for budget-conscious consumers. And though I selfishly wish that more new material had been released this year, I think manga publishers have done an excellent job of responding to their biggest challenges: a sluggish economy, digital piracy, and Borders’ bankruptcy.
So what titles made my 2011 list? My top ten are below, along with my list of favorite continuing series, favorite finales, and favorite guilty pleasures.
10. BREATHE DEEPLY (Yamaaki Doton; One Peace Books)
Part sci-fi thriller, part coming-of-age story, this engrossing drama examines the relationship between two young men: Sei, who grew up in a world of privilege, and Oishi, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Both Sei and Oishi fall in love with Yuko, a sickly girl whose incurable illness inspires her suitors to become medical researchers. In less capable hands, Breathe Deeply might have been a mawkish paean to the purity of young love, but the husband-and-wife team of Yamaaki Doton have a keen ear for dialogue; the interactions between Yuko and her two suitors are tinged with an authentic mixture of adolescent anxiety, sexual longing, and braggadocio. Clean, expressive artwork and well-rounded characters help sell the story, especially in its final pages. One of 2011’s best surprises.
9. THE SECRET NOTES OF LADY KANOKO (Ririko Tsujita; Tokyopop)
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. It’s a pity TOKYOPOP didn’t survive long enough to finish this three-volume series, as it’s one of the best shojo titles in recent memory.
8. WANDERING SON (Takako Shimura; Fantagraphics)
In her thoughtful review of volume one, Michelle Smith praised Takako Shimura’s deft use of perspective: “The main thing I kept thinking about while reading Wandering Son… is how things that seem insignificant to one person can be secretly, intensely significant to someone else.” Shimura’s ability to dramatize each character’s unique point of view is one of the reasons Wandering Son never feels preachy, even though the topic suggests an Afterschool Special; we are always exquisitely aware of the subtle but important changes in the way each character views herself, as well as her fears and hopes.
7. PRINCESS KNIGHT (Osamu Tezuka; Vertical, Inc.)
What Osamu Tezuka’s New Treasure Island (1946) was to shonen, his Princess Knight (1953-56) was to shojo: both were long-form adventure stories with cinematic flair. Neither could be said to be the “first” shonen or shojo manga, but both had a profound influence on the artists who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, offering a new storytelling model for them to emulate. Viewed through a contemporary lens, Princess Knight hasn’t aged quite as well as New Treasure Island, as it’s saddled with some woefully antiquated notions of gender. At the same time, however, it’s easy to see why this story appealed to several generations of Japanese girls: Sapphire gets to eat her cake and have it too, having swashbuckling adventures *and* winning the hand of Prince Charming. —Reviewed at Manga Bookshelf on 11/21/11 and The Manga Critic on 12/19/10
6. TANK TANKURO: GAJO SAKAMOTO, MANGA’S PRE-WAR MASTER, 1934-35 (Gajo Sakamoto; Press Pop)
Almost twenty years before Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy took flight in the pages of Shonen Kobunsha magazine, Gajo Sakamoto’s Tank Tankuro enchanted Japanese youngsters with his monster-fighting exploits and cool gadgets. Though the series’ propaganda intent is impossible for contemporary readers to ignore — Tank fights the Chinese, who are portrayed in less-than-flattering terms — Presspop’s new anthology demonstrates that Sakamoto’s artistry has aged more gracefully than his storylines. Sakamoto’s work is packaged in a handsome, hardcover edition that includes thoughtful extras: a contextual essay by translator Sunsuke Nakazawa, an interview with Sakamoto’s son, and an article by Sakamoto himself, discussing the character’s origin.
5. STARGAZING DOG (Takashi Murakami; NBM/Comics Lit)
Consider yourself warned: Stargazing Dog is a five-hanky affair. The two interconnecting vignettes that comprise this slim volume explore the bond between Happie, a shiba inu, and Daddy, his owner. When Daddy loses his job, his home, and his family, he and Happie hit the road in search of a new life. Though the outcome of Happie and Daddy’s journey is never in doubt — we learn their fate in the opening pages of the book — Murakami draws the reader into their story with an honest and unsparing look at the human-dog compact that may remind cinephiles of Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 12/23/11
4. ONWARDS TOWARD OUR NOBLE DEATHS (Shigeru Mizuki; Drawn & Quarterly)
In this blistering indictment of Japanese militarism, Shigeru Mizuki draws on his own experiences during World War II to tell the story of a platoon stationed in Papua New Guinea. The soldiers face a terrible choice: fight a hopeless battle, or face execution for treason. Like many war stories, Onwards Toward Our Noble Deaths documents the tremendous human sacrifice of modern armed conflict: gruesome injuries, senseless deaths, devastated landscapes. What lends Mizuki’s narrative its special potency is his depiction of the senior officers; their perverse dedication to their mission turns them into tyrants, more concerned with saving face than saving their own soldiers’ skins. Essential reading for anyone interested in World War II.
3. THE DROPS OF GOD (Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto; Vertical, Inc.)
As Oishinbo handily demonstrated, a skilled writer can fold a considerable amount of educational detail into a story without reducing it to a textbook. The Drops of God follows a similar template, imparting highly specialized information about wine with the same natural ease that Law & Order illustrates the inner workings of a crime investigation. At the same time, however, Drops is a delicious soap opera, filled with domineering fathers, mustache-twirling villains, evil beauties, eccentric oenophiles, and down-on-their-luck restauranteurs. Even if the reader isn’t the least bit interested in wine, he’ll find the drama as irresistible as an episode of Dynasty. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 12/16/11
2. A ZOO IN WINTER (Jiro Taniguchi; Fanfare/Ponent Mon)
Drawing on his own experiences, Jiro Taniguchi spins an engaging tale about a young man who abandons a promising career in textile design for the opportunity to become a manga artist. Though the basic plot invites comparison with Bakuman, Taniguchi does more than just document important milestones in Hamaguchi’s career: he shows us how Hamaguchi’s emotional maturation informs every aspect of his artistry — something that’s missing from many other portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-young-man sagas, which place much greater emphasis on the pleasure of professional recognition than on the satisfaction of mastering one’s craft. Lovely, moody artwork and an appealing cast of supporting characters complete this very satisfying package. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/28/11
1. A BRIDE’S STORY (Kaoru Mori; Yen Press)
A Bride’s Story, which takes place on the banks of the Caspian Sea, explores the relationship between Amir Halgal, a nineteen-year-old nomad, and Karluk Eihon, the eldest son of sheep herders. Though their marriage is one of political expedience, Amir is determined to be a good wife, doing her utmost to learn her new family’s customs, befriend the members of their extended clan, and earn her new husband’s respect. Kaoru Mori is as interested in observing Amir’s everyday life as she is in documenting the growing conflict between the Halgal and Eihon clans, yet A Bride’s Story is never dull, thanks to Mori’s smart, engaging dialogue; as she demonstrated in Emma and Shirley, Mori can make even the simplest moments revealing, whether her characters are preparing a manor house for the master’s return or skinning a freshly killed deer. By allowing her story to unfold in such a naturalistic fashion, A Bride’s Story manages to be both intimate and expansive, offering readers a window into life along the Silk Road. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/24/11
As in previous years, I had difficulty limiting myself to just ten titles, so I compiled a list of manga that didn’t quite make my best-of list, but were thoroughly enjoyable:
- OTHER AWESOME DEBUTS: The Book of Human Insects (Vertical, Inc.), Tesoro (VIZ)
- BEST CONTINUING SERIES: 20th Century Boys (VIZ), Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Chi’s Sweet Home (Vertical, Inc.), Cross Game (VIZ), Ooku: The Inner Chambers (VIZ), Twin Spica (Vertical, Inc.)
- BEST NEW GUILTY PLEASURE: Blue Exorcist (VIZ), Oresama Teacher (VIZ)
- BEST REPRINT EDITION: Magic Knight Rayearth (Dark Horse), Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (Kodansha Comics)
- BEST MANGA I THOUGHT I’D HATE: Cage of Eden (Kodansha Comics)
- BEST FINALE: Black Jack, Vol. 17 (Vertical, Inc.)
So now I turn the floor over to you, readers: what were your favorite new manga of 2011?