There’s never been a better time to be reading manga in English (or any language) – as, in spite of the physical printing problems of the last months, there’s a wonderful range of titles and mangaka to read in digital or paper versions. Our writers at AUKN are always keen to review the latest volumes but we also have favourite titles from the last few years that we haven’t been able to share – till now! Although it’s been hard narrowing our choices down to just two titles each, we’ve forced ourselves to make some difficult decisions and are here to share some great manga to add to your TBR lists!
One series I have become particularly fond of the last couple of years is A Side Character’s Love Story published by Coamix/Comixology in English. This is a josei title by Akane Tamura that began in Japan in 2017 and is currently at eleven volumes, with eight available in English so far. You’d be forgiven for never having given this one a second glance since neither the Volume 1 cover nor synopsis does much to stand out in this busy market, but if you do pick up the first book, you’ll find that there is a real gem here.
The story follows Nobuko Tanaka, a part-timer who sees herself as nothing but a “side character” in life. She’s someone with no real ambition and who believes she will be forever overshadowed by those who stand out from the crowd. But one day our young protagonist finds herself falling in love with coworker Hiroki Irie and now has to navigate these new feelings, which is no easy task for someone as shy as she is! Hiroki is also on the quiet side, so if Nobuko wants to get to know him better, she’s going to have to put herself out there and talk to him if they’re ever to become more than coworkers.
What I like about this one is both the fact it’s focused on adult characters and how uplifting Tamura’s storytelling is. Nobuko may be shy and struggle to put herself out there, but rather than leave her in despair, the author builds her confidence up slowly over time and shows that even someone who considers themselves a side character can have a fulfilling and happy life. The romance is also incredibly sweet thanks to both Nobuko and Hiroki being characters you want to root for. The series reminds me a great deal of Sweat and Soap, for its realistic depiction of everyday life and relationships. Definitely. one to pick up if you’re looking for a new josei title, although it’s worth noting the title is currently only available digitally.
Sticking with the romance theme here, my second recommendation is In the Clear Moonlit Dusk by Mika Yamamori (Daytime Shooting Star). This one is a shojo series that follows the story of Yoi Takiguchi who is known at her school for being a “prince” thanks to her long legs and masculine face. Yoi’s world changes for the better when she meets Ichimura, a senpai who’s also known as a prince of their school and who tells her that even if she’s not a girly girl, there is nothing wrong with being princely. The two begin to bond as they spend more time together and Yoi begins to wonder if she’s falling in love and if she is, is it even okay for her to be treated like the shojo heroine she dreams of being?
While there is a fairly stereotypical romance story on the surface here, underneath Yamamori is trying to convey the message that no matter your gender or appearance, you should be able to both love yourself and find those who will love you (be it as friends or romantic interest). Although Yoi describes herself as having a masculine appearance, the design Yamamori has gone with for the character is very androgynous which I appreciate. I like this manga both for Yoi’s journey to accepting herself and her appearance but also for the fact it’s giving us a better representation in the genre. I’m not a particularly feminine woman myself, so I find it easier to relate to the way Yoi dresses and acts than I do most protagonists of a given romance series.
Yamamori’s experience as a mangaka is certainly a gift for this series too. Her artwork is very polished and clean, with an emphasis on character expressions and depicting their inner thoughts in humorous ways (something I loved seeing in her earlier works as well). But perhaps most importantly, Yamamori isn’t afraid to change up the designs of Yoi and Ichimura at will, putting them in different clothes and hairstyles, which adds a level of realism that other series often miss.
The series has been ongoing in Japan since 2020 and is currently at three volumes, all of which Kodansha has released digitally in the West.
Junji Ito is a manga artist that you might have heard of; he’s done a ton of well-known horror series and all have been adapted multiple times. Despite being a horror fan myself, I only started reading his work last year. A friend of mine gifted me a bunch of omnibus editions of his work years ago, and I decided last year (Halloween, obviously) to finally give him a go. TOMIE is his first ever work so I started there.
Tomie is a stunning girl, who seems to make every male fall in love with her within moments of meeting her. But their love quickly turns to violence, having an uncontrollable urge to kill her in the end, yet Tomie always comes back. The omnibus doesn’t follow a strict over-arching storyline, per se, it’s more like a collection of short stories, all with the same premise: Tomie turns up, makes someone fall in love with her, and then murder happens. But what I liked about this book was that every story, despite containing the same ingredients, explored a different side of Tomie and the fatal attraction she inspires. In the way she’s killed, how she comes back, and when people fall for her – everything is examined and re-examined in such horrific and fun ways. The art is also very detailed and gory; every story has at least one memorable page-spread that will stay on your mind, long after you’ve finished the book. If you’ve yet to explore Junji Ito’s work, I recommend starting here; it’s a very thick volume, just to forewarn, but because of how the story is told, it’s very easy to pick up and drop if the weight becomes too much after a while. I plan to checked out the rest of Junji Ito’s work, also out in omnibus forms, in the near future.
Another series I recommend is Monster by Naoki Urasawa; it’s a series that got a lot of attention on the US anime sites when the DVD came out, and more so when the release got cancelled due to poor sales. The premise looked very interesting to me, so I was thrilled to learn that the manga would be released in the UK in a set of omnibus editions several years back.
The story follows a Japanese brain surgeon working in Germany, Dr Kenzo Tenma, who has grown disillusioned with the political bias of the hospital he works for. One fateful night he’s given a choice: perform an operation on the mayor at the director’s request or save the lives of fraternal twins who are on the brink of death. Tenma decides to throw his career on the line and save the twins, but several years in the future, he comes to learn that one of the twins he saved has grown up to be a serial killer, and Tenma decides to spend the rest of his life correcting his mistake. The manga is the ultimate extreme representation of the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. In any other story, Tenma would be the hero, but here he inadvertently saved someone who ends up destroying so many more lives in the process, and seeing this slowly destroy and rebuild him over the course of the series is heartbreaking to watch. The story is also set in a location and time period not covered much in manga: Germany during the late 80s when there was much political unrest due to the Berlin Wall. It makes the story unique, and admittedly a lot of it went over my head as I’m not familiar with the time period enough to get the full extent of the world Monster is set in, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the series, and I really hope one day Guillermo del Toro manages to get his version of the TV series off the ground. But until then, the whole series is out now via VIZ Media.
It’s always a real pleasure to read a manga that’s written and drawn by a mangaka who knows how to tell a story in a unique and meaningful way. Here are two page-turners that have impressed me recently.
Kei Miyama is a 17-year-old with three secrets: he can talk to cars, he can’t handle pretty girls, and he works as a private investigator.
We first meet Kei as he’s driving through the spectacular and lonely landscape of Iceland – and ends up in a ditch. Kei (seventeen, going on twenty-something, much as Ichigo in Bleach is ‘fifteen’) is working as a private investigator and now has to watch the target he was pursuing driving further and further away…With his beloved car on its side, it looks as if he’s stuck there for the night (with sleeping bag, camping gas stove and supplies, he’s not unprepared) until he can flag down another car for help. He’s utterly oblivious to the fact that he’s being watched by a long-haired young woman – and when it starts to rain and he’s fast asleep inside the car, she creeps in beside him, taking his blanket. Is she a ghost? Or has this all been a dream?
Kei is Japanese but lives with his French grandfather in Reykjavik; his parents are dead and his only living relation is his younger brother Michitaka who is still – as far as he and his grandfather know – in Japan. However, a brutal encounter with an older man leaves Kei badly beaten up and confused by what the stranger tells him: “Michitaka Miyama killed my best friend. Michitaka Miyama is a murderer.” The stranger refuses to believe that Kei has no idea where his brother is, insisting that the younger boy is in Iceland. Now Kei has a mystery to solve that affects him personally – in fact two mysteries, for he also meets at last the enigmatic long-haired young woman: Lilja, a cellist. Is there a link?
Go With the Clouds, North-by-Northwest (16+) is by Aki Irie (best known for her mind-blowing fantasy series Ran and the Gray World ) and mixes a compelling and dark psychological murder mystery intrigue with a more light-hearted pinch of magic realism (Kei really does communicate with his car!) …but perhaps the real star of the series is Iceland itself – or the way that Aki Irie portrays it, seen through Kei’s eyes, the wide-open empty spaces, the natural hot springs, the dramatic changes of weather. There are plenty of lovely little touches sprinkled throughout the manga, not least the use of the Icelandic language: the back cover of each volume (and these are very nice volumes indeed from Vertical Comics) shows objects that are used in the story with the names in Icelandic beneath in neat, glossy black print. But it’s the desire to watch Kei unravel the twisty mystery at the heart of the story – and also the way his relationship with the enigmatic Lilja slowly evolves – that will keep you coming back to this manga to find out what happens next! (Go With the Clouds, North-by-Northwest is ongoing at five volumes.)
If you enjoy slice-of-life BL stories that focus on interesting, complex characters trying to make a fresh start, then Cocomi’s Restart After Coming Back Home (and its sequel Restart After Growing Hungry) from Seven Seas comes highly recommended. Kozuka Mitsuomi has been fired from his city job at twenty-five and with nowhere else to go, he ends up back at his parents’ home in the country village where he grew up. Depressed and angry, he is distracted from his feelings by a young neighbour, Kumai Yamato, the adopted son of an elderly farmer whose outwardly sunny nature nevertheless hides a certain sadness and insecurity. It takes a while, but Yamato’s good humour and companionship eventually help Mitsuomi to come to terms with his predicament and find a new direction in his life. And, in return, Mitsuomi determines to be there for Yamato when he takes the brave move to try and find out about his unknown birth mother – and why he was abandoned as a baby. The little glimpses of village life in this part of Japan are convincing and add to the charm of the story, although the problems being in a single-sex couple and of not providing parents with the expected and long hoped-for grandchildren inevitably arise and are not airbrushed away.
Sympathetically portrayed by Cocomi’s naturalistic graphic style, the story of the two young men slowly growing closer to one another is told in a nuanced and realistic way. Mitsuomi is especially relatable, hiding his hurt and disappointment at his failure to make a success of his business career behind a prickly manner – but gradually thawing and finding a new meaning to life under Yamato’s irrepressibly cheerful influence. This is a manga that doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of being gay in a small community but nevertheless puts across a positive and hopeful picture of a nascent relationship that will touch readers’ hearts.