Graphic novels — manga — from Japan can be daunting in certain ways. It can be difficult to find an entry point, especially since so many of the talked-about series can be so lengthy. Below are some excellent graphic novels from Japan that aren’t quite so demanding in terms of time or expense. Representing a wide range of subjects and styles, they stand alone, giving readers a glimpse of the category’s possibilities without the difficult prospect of tracking down 30 or more (frequently obscure) paperbacks to get the whole story.
by Fumi Yoshinaga
Eclectic and versatile, Yoshinaga has crafted stories of romance between men — both contemporary and period — taken an affectionate look at the ups and downs of high school, and delved into the glorious world of high-end pastry. She explores the mother-daughter relationship in this collection of interconnected short stories. Women struggle with family, work, and romance, finding solace (sometimes aggravating solace) in those same challenging frontiers. It's a funny, frank, and thoughtful introduction to one of Japan's most endearing and idiosyncratic comic creators.
by Various Authors
Some of Japan and Europe's finest graphic novelists come together in a cross-cultural experiment with lovely and wide-ranging results. The European creators visited various points along Japan for inspiration, and the Japanese creators looked to their home town to tell stories rooted in place. The talent on display, from Iou Kuroda, Jiro Taniguchi, and Moyoco Anno to Nicolas DeCrécy and Joann Sfar, make this an invaluable addition to any comic fan's bookshelf.
by Taiyo Matsumoto
The usual path of a manga paperback is that the story is originally serialized in a magazine, building an audience along the way for eventual collection in book form. GoGo Monster was created and conceived as a graphic novel, which is a testament to the high esteem in which Matsumoto is held. Looking through this gorgeous, surreal tale of schoolboys on the outskirts of a potentially dangerous dream world, it's easy to see why the original publisher let Matsumoto skip the preliminaries. This is a marvelously paced, magnificently drawn allegory for adolescence, and the package itself is as prestige as graphic novels get.
by Hiroaki Samura
Samura is perhaps better known for his long-running swordplay epic, Blade of the Immortal. This concise collection of short stories shows a different side to the blood-and-guts stalwart, namely his skills as a slice-of-life comedian. The titular novella follows a long night of revelry (and mishaps) for a group of just-about-to-graduate college students standing at the threshold of the rest of their lives. Unrequited love, old grudges, and too much alcohol blend to make a story as entertaining as any of the millions of independent films that cover the same territory. For bonus points, Samura throws in a blistering satire of the manga industry and, of all things, an autobiographical travelogue.
by Susumu Katsumata
"Earthy" is the word for these tales of life in a bygone, rural Japan. Katsumata blends hints of the supernatural into his stories of brewers, farmers and loggers who scratch out a living in the wintry countryside. The art is simple but lovely, and the collected tales frankly address topics like sex, jealousy, and greed. The book offers gentle, intelligent magical realism with a sharp emotional edge.
by Kiyohiko Azuma
There aren't a lot of examples of Japanese comic strips available in English. Even if there were, Azumanga Daioh would still probably lead the pack with its frisky, funny look at school life. It follows a sitcom-ready group of classmates as they cope with tests and field trips and their hilariously neurotic teachers. The proceedings range from the laugh-out-loud wacky to the gently observant, and the characters are indelible.
by Hideo Azuma
Lest you think that manga only traffics in fiction, here's a sharply crafted autobiography from a prominent creator who describes his bouts with alcoholism and his intermittent periods when he drops out of his normal life. Normally, this kind of material would invite the worst kind of self-pity or self-justification, but Azuma's "just the facts" approach lets the readers draw their own conclusions. It's got a cute visual style, but that doesn't blunt the impact of Azuma's often inexplicable behavior.
by Natsume Ono
Like the aforementioned Fumi Yoshinaga, Natsume Ono is an idiosyncratic and astute observer of human behavior. In this graphic novel, she follows a young woman to Rome in search of her wayward mother. The daughter winds up at a popular eatery, owned by her mother's new husband and staffed by a handsome and quirky group of bespectacled gentlemen. As the daughter decides whether or not to expose her mother's secret past, readers are treated to a hearty meal of gentle, character-driven comedy and romance.
by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Camellia Nieh
If your familiarity with Osamu Tezuka begins and ends with Astro Boy, then you don't know all there is to know about the man rightly described as "the God of Manga." This is from later in Tezuka's career when he'd added thrillers for grown-ups to his vast comics repertoire. MW is a page-turning potboiler about revenge, sexual identity, and (of all things) national sovereignty. It's completely insane, and some of the content seems dated, but it's got undeniable energy and a twisted sense of the macabre.
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Years after creating this pulp-y thriller, Tatsumi would go on to craft some of the most depressing stories ever to appear in comic-book form. They're excellent, don't get me wrong, but they're relentlessly bleak. So if you're looking for something a little more accessible, I recommend this tale of convicts on the run, cuffed together and pursuing their destinies as they're chased by the law.
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
About David Welsh
David Welsh has been blogging about comics, primarily manga, for almost six years. He’s written weekly columns on comics from Japan for Comic World News and The Comics Reporter. He’s also written on the subject of comics for The Comics Journal and Print.
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