I’ve been on a big manga kick lately, and have managed to suss out some I’ve quite enjoyed. Inside: Orange, Aqua/ARIA, The Gods Lie, Teppu, Pandora Hearts
I really liked Orange, which kind of surprised me, because on its surface it’s nothing too special, but it manages to handle its premise competently and the characters are full. Takamiya Naho is in her last year of high school when she gets an odd letter claiming to be from her future self, warning her that new-student Kakeru is going to die and she needs to stop it. As it turns out, Kakeru doesn’t just die, he commits suicide, and none of the people in their group of friends ever forgive themselves for letting it happen. I thought Kakeru’s feelings were really well-handled — to the point that I wonder if the author has some experience with this, because of lot of the small details felt very familiar to me. Most importantly, though, Naho and her friends are good people who I want to root for, and the message of the story — that even tiny things can mean a lot, so always tell those around you that you care for them — was a really nice one. I was also pretty impressed how it managed to avoid the rote cliches you get in a lot of high school manga. It’s relatively short — two big volumes — and plotted very tightly. Solid story if you’re someone who likes manga that explore relationships.
(Also, while it was sad, I didn’t find it triggering to read or anything, so if you’re like me and tend to avoid suicide/depression stories you will likely be able to handle this one. YMMV, though, obviously.)
Aqua and ARIA
Two-tankobon Aqua and its long-running followup, ARIA, are (on the polar opposite end of the spectrum) the kind of manga that just make you happy manga exists. It’s a bright, optimistic story about people getting a lot out of life, but it’s never eye-rollingly saccharine, just the kind of thing that makes you smile. The series follows Akari, a teenage girl from Earth in the year 2301, who travels to a terraformed Mars to start a new life. When Mars was terraformed, there was more ice-cap melt than intended, causing some established towns to become flooded and boats to become the major mode of transport. Akari moves to the city of New Venice with a dream of becoming an Undine, or someone who gives gondola tours. Mars, now called Aqua, is about a century behind the technology of Earth, and Akari loves the comparatively quaint, quiet lifestyle she finds there. The slice-of-life manga is part sci-fi, part fantasy, and just so damn lovable. It’s about finding joy in the mundane and enjoying time with your friends and yourself. Also loving cats. It’s very much about loving cats.
The English translation was a casualty of Tokyopop’s crash, but there’s a 10th-anniversary edition of the series being released in Japan this year, so hopefully it will come stateside in full soon. It’s such a great, positive comic.
The Gods Lie
I hate that I liked this manga. It was hammy, melodramatic, over-the-top and 100% Lifetime movie… and I found myself enjoying it anyway. I loved the art and composition, which was clean, crisp, and easy to follow. The characters were likeable. It was short — just five chapters — and went by quickly. And there was nothing literary about it whatsoever. If ever anyone feels like sometimes our standards are to high, just tell them I put this on a recs list.
It’s about a young boy whose life gets complicated after he befriends a girl in his class who lives alone with her little brother. I’m surprised Hallmark hasn’t picked this up for an adaptation yet. I expect one soon.
Back with art, Teppu is a sports drama about a fucked up, highly athletic teenage girl who gets into MMA as a way to take revenge on a classmate for how good her life is. Teppu is a character drama, and it takes a long time to get moving while you get to know anyone, and then unfortunately cuts off at climax due to the author’s illness. The end result is that it’s kind of boring and then as soon as it starts to get interesting it ends, which… sucked. That said, the ride is worth it for the people. It was like one of those zoo safaris where you’re on an uncomfortable hot vehicle with tourists but god damn for a second you were ten feet away from a giraffe and damn, it was so cool.
The character design in this manga is AMAZING. The women are strong, unique-looking, and drawn with an eye toward individuality, not attractiveness. Look at these girls! The main cast is entirely female, with (I think) three male characters who matter at all? The only romance subplot is even between two of the girls. I also appreciated the author’s exploration of the way women’s fighting is treated, that no matter how awesome they are they still get sidelined, and I thought it was very clever to have spectators going on and on about how women never have KO fights before showing fight after fight with hard-hitting KOs. I also thought the scene where Natsuo asks Karin why there are tons of round girls at a women’s match and Karin replies that it’s to cater to the presumed-male audience was a nice moment of commentary. More than anything though, I just loved seeing all the different body types, and that not a single panel was male-gazey.
I liked Natsuo a lot — I really found myself rooting for her character, not as an athlete but as someone headed toward personal growth. I think at the end what she does learn is that even people who seem happy can be messed up, and I don’t think it’s antithetical to that for her to resolve to come back, train harder, and beat Eyebrows. The very fact that she does come back says tons about how different a person she is at the end than the beginning. I do wish we’d gotten more about her backstory before the manga ended, though.
Pandora Hearts is the most plot-heavy entry on this list. It stars a 15-year old boy named Oz, who at his coming-of-age ceremony is ambushed and thrown into a dimension known as the Abyss. The Abyss is populated by creatures called Chains, who are constantly trying to trick humans into pulling them into the mortal realm, where they devour people. While he’s trapped, Oz meets a girl named Alice whom others call the Black Rabbit. She appears to be a Chain but it also oddly human, and Oz is convinced he knows her somehow. He agrees to bring her into the mortal world with his power, and she helps him escape on the condition he help her find her lost memories. Things quickly spiral into intrigue, mystery, and fantasy. Pandora Hearts is delightfully complex without ever being complicated. There’s rarely not something happening, some element of mystery being revealed, but I never found it confusing or hard to follow.
I’m 7 of 24 tankobon into it right now and am still completely enthralled by the world and the story. It is something of a sausage party — Alice is really the only major female character, though there are a handful of female side characters — and it has an issue with Evil Is Sexy that pops up somewhere around the 30th chapter, but honestly it was compelling enough it didn’t really bother me (also, the mangaka is a woman which helps maybe?).
The only thing about it is that a hunk from about chapter 10 – 20 is done by an absolutely abysmal scanlation team and the thing starts to become a real slog because of it. It’s honestly a huge credit to Mochizuki’s writing that I didn’t have trouble keeping up, and I’m probably just going to buy the whole series and then reread the early tankos.
So I just finished PH and spoilers spoilers spoilers:
a) Holy fuck that was amazing
b) The ending was… cruelly sad, almost unnaturally so — surely terrible things don’t have to happen to literally the entire cast? It was all bitter, no sweet. It was certainly a powerful and literary ending, but it almost felt… unfair, as a reader? I think it falls kind of under the “grimdark is just as unrealistic as superfluff” clause. Surely there was a happy medium between the tea party fluff endinig and “everyone who doesn’t die which is like 2 people is an emotional wreck for a century at which point the only two still alive get to be happy for 15 minutes before they die too.”
But man, this whole thing was tightly, brilliantly plotted and even the villains were compelling, full characters.
I think a better ending would have been: have Oz die, and Alice finally get to have a normal human life. Vince + Ada, Gil + Alice, and sure, Liam + Sharon (this was a weird choice; it was basically trauma bonding in the grimdark ending, where they were both so miserable they clung to the only other survivor of the whole ordeal), and then as the years pass we see them all enjoying life but missing Oz, and then it ends with Gil getting to see new!Oz once before he dies, and then we can see Gil and Alice’s son or grandson with new!Oz, showing that even though they had to wait a lifetime, in a way they’re all together.
I also think that if Vincent had brought back everyone instead of just Alice and Oz it would have worked really well. So he shows up with the reincarnations of Break, Elliot, Leo, Oscar, etc., as well, and then Gil tells them all the story, and they’re all together again finally, and Gil gets to die happy, having had the tea party at last. It’s still sad, but it’s also hopeful.
The whole Shakespearean Tragedy ending is such a… letdown, in a way. It’s just not satisfying; the authorial hand is too apparent, and it feels less like a natural conclusion than a way to spite readers.
Doesn’t really change my overall opinion though.