Wednesday, November 25, 2009

2009 Manga Gift Giving Guide - Seinen edition

This year marked the start of the New York Times' Graphic Books bestseller lists, including best selling trade paperbacks, hardcovers and manga. Now the blogging community rolled its collective eyes a little at the term "Graphic Books" – why not use graphic novels or sequential art if you have to get all literary? The weekly updates include some surprise titles and some not-so surprising ones. Every week the manga readers wait to see if "Naruto" or "Vampire Knight" have dropped off the top spot. But for all its play, manga is rarely even referenced in the introductions. And now manga isn't even included in the gift giving guide. With all the notable books coming out this year from "A Drifting Life" to "Disappearance Diary", they couldn't find something arty to suggest?

So rather than grumble about the unfairness of it all, the manga bloggers came up with a solution – our own manga gift giving guides. I grabbed most of my favorites off my shelves, some recent and some older, keeping in mind that some series are longer than others.

Unlike the other bloggers, I hadn't really intended to make this a list from a particular category. I read what I'm interested in, not necessarily who it was marketed or intended for. So imagine my surprise when I compiled my list and realized all nine manga series I'd picked were all seinen books.

Ed Chavez of Vertical Books pointed out something in a recent interview on Comics Reporter: "The word seinen itself means adult and does not make reference to gender." Hence it's really not a surprise that there's crossover with other genres, especially the female oriented ones. "Emma"'s official subtitle is "A Victorian Romance" and yet it's published in a seinen magazine. "Voices of a Distant Star" is a science fiction series featuring a plucky young female character and has some romantic elements. But again it's seinen.

The real joy I've found with manga is the wide variety covered by the medium. Literally, you can find any story you want in manga. Are you in the mood for a samurai story? Got that. Mecha powered space aliens? Absolutely. Hapless girl falling in love with the right and wrong guy at the same time? By the bushels. You can also learn to play Go, visit Victorian England or simply take a walk around the block. Manga is not all action and adventure for boys and romance for girls. It's much more diverse than that.

So onward to my choices in no particular order:

1. Pluto – Naoki Urasawa's Pluto is at the top of my list for the sheer fact that it surprised me. People kept recommending it, so I gave it a try, half expecting it to be "not my thing". Instead, the mystery lover in me was fascinated with the investigations, while the science fiction fan was intrigued by a world of robots. But what really surprised me was the emotion, especially for the robot characters. Why are the greatest robots being destroyed? What does it really mean to be human? Bonus gift giving suggestion, package the first volume of Pluto with the third volume of the Astro Boy manga which covers the same "Greatest Robot" arc. Your recipient might enjoy seeing the comparisons and differences between the two titles.

2. Oishinbo – Do you have a foodie on your gift list? Are they always dragging you off for sake and sushi? Are they fascinated by the intricacies of Japanese culture? Oishinbo has something for everyone. The story pits father and son in a battle of wills over their respective menus. It's a classic clash of youth vs experience with surprising results. The detailed artwork shows Japanese delicacies of varying degrees of difficulty. The "a la carte" volumes are broken down into specialties so one will be on vegetables or another on rice. You get a whole volume on wine and spirits, so you'll understand the types of sake or what wines work with what dishes. You'll usually get two recipes included in each volume with color pages and instructions. And did I mention the footnotes?

3. Children of the Sea – Are you fascinated by the mysteries of the sea? Do you love the aquarium? This is part nature story and part magical realism, filled with beautiful artwork of fish and wildlife. When Ruka meets Umi and Sora, two unusual boys raised at sea, she's shown a very different world that lives underneath the water. "Children of the Sea" is a relatively new title from Viz through their online magazine Ikki. The first volume was just released in July and the second one due just before Christmas. Chapters are also still available online on

4. Emma – Emma is a Victorian romance featuring a maid Emma who falls in love with a wealthy young man William. The odds are completely against them. Emma and William are from different classes and yet they're determined to be together. Kaoru Mori is so meticulous and detailed with her artwork. Victorian England really comes alive. She also writes some of the funniest omake pages I've read, answering questions on why she included certain topics or images. The last three volumes feature side-stories set in the same universe. The fun is going back and seeing where those characters first appeared. The last volume #10 will be out in time for Christmas sadly. Then there will be no more Emma. *mournful sighs* For those Kaoru Mori fans, CMX has also published her Shirley manga, which is a collection of short stories about another young maid.

5. The Walking Man – Jiro Taniguchi is my most recent manga discovery. Ponent Mon publishes utterly gorgeous editions of his works in thick paper. His artwork renders crisp and clear. They're treated as works of art, rather than disposable entertainment. Hence they may be a little pricier than the average manga volume, but so worth it. "Walking Man" is a slice of life story about stopping to appreciate the beauty in life. A man walks around his neighborhood, sometimes accompanied by his dog, and we see his delight in birdwatching or climbing a tree. It's light on plot, but big on atmosphere and mood. Slight male nudity for a swimming/bathing scene, but otherwise nothing too offensive.

6. A Distant Neighborhood – What if you could go back in time and relive your life when you were younger? Would you change things? Should you try to? Ponent Mon published Jiro Taniguchi's two volume "A Distant Neighborhood" with exactly that premise. Hiroshi Nakahara is thrown back to when he is 14 years old with his adult memories intact. He knows what's coming, he knows what happens to his friends, and he knows his father will be abandoning his family soon. What does he do with this knowledge? While "Distant Neighborhood" is nominally science fiction in that it includes time travel, really it's about a quiet story about a man trying to understand his family and their choices.

7. Planetes - Whenever science fiction shows humans going to space, it's always these grand adventures with space ships and aliens, guns blazing. So imagine a hard science fiction series where the main characters are trash collectors. Space debris retrieval and disposal people if we must be specific, but basically they collect the flotsam and jetsam of space travel, the oddments that have been left behind in our rush for the stars. "Planetes" has both a big picture and a smaller one. The big one shows space exploration in all its glory, the good and the bad, the costs and consequences. There are multiple references and homages to earlier periods of space exploration from. The smaller one shows the people who actually live and work in space and what it's like. This is the type of hard science fiction I like – technical but with a heart. Planetes is available five volumes from Tokyopop with the last "phase" split over two parts.

8. Voices of a Distant Star – Makato Shinkai's short anime film "Voices of a Distant Star" is one of my favorites, so I was excited when Kodansha announced it was doing a manga adaptation in Afternoon, illustrated by Mizu Sahara. Tokyopop released the single English volume soon after. "Voices" isn't your stereotypical science fiction story though. Mikako goes off to join the US Space Army as a pilot in a war against an alien race, while her friend Noboru stays behind. They maintain the friendship through a long distance series of emails and text messages across interstellar space. The manga expands on the anime's storyline, even adding additional characters.

9. 2001 Nights – Before "Planetes" captured life in space so spectacularly, there was "2001 Nights" written and drawn by Hoshino Yokinobu. "2001 Nights" is made up of a series of loosely connected short stories, a fusion of "Arabian Nights" and "2001: A Space Odyssey". I loved it for the same reason as "Planetes" afterwards. Whenever we saw space travel, I always saw either grand space operas with aliens from other worlds or we'd already made it to the stars. "Planetes" and "2001 Nights" focused on getting to the stars and how we lived there in a more realistic way. Viz originally published "2001 Nights" in 10 squarebound issues, before collecting them into the three trade paperbacks. Amazon still lists all three volumes in stock, so they're still available.

10. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics – Okay, this one isn't a seinen book. In fact, it's an older non-fiction book written by Frederick L. Schodt that served as my gateway into the world of manga. It provides a good basic introduction to the history and development of manga. The book is filled with artwork, covers and more of various titles, some familiar and some not. The book also includes translated story samples for four series, including the shojo classic, Rose of Versailles. His Dreamland Japan covers the more recent developments in the genre. If you're interested in more Tezuma & Astro Boy, he's recently written the Astro Boy Essays.

Shopping note: "Voices" and "Planetes" are both officially out of print from Tokyopop, but you might still be able to find copies somewhere, either new or used.


Melinda Beasi said...

I really love your choices here. Especially nice to see Children of the Sea on another list! What a fantastic guide!

Ed Sizemore said...

Marvelous list. I love all the titles in it. I like the angle you approached it from.