The Best Manga of 2010: The Manga Critic’s Picks

For all the upheaval within the manga industry — the demise of CMX, Del Rey, and Go! Comi, the layoffs at VIZ — 2010 proved an exceptionally good year for storytelling. True, titles like Black Butler, Naruto, and Nabari no Ou dominated sales charts, but publishers made a concerted effort to woo grown-ups with vintage manga — Black Blizzard, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories — edgy sci-fi — Biomega, 7 Billion Needles — underground comix — AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga, The Box Man — and good old-fashioned drama — All My Darling Daughters, Bunny Drop. I had a hard time limiting myself to just ten titles this year, so I’ve borrowed a few categories from my former PCS cohort Erin Finnegan, from Best New Guilty Pleasure to Best Manga You Thought You’d Hate. Please feel free to add your own thoughts: what titles did I unjustly omit? What titles did I like but you didn’t? Inquiring minds want to know!

10. Cross Game
By Mitsuri Adachi • VIZ Media
In this sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy coming-of-age story, a family tragedy brings teenager Ko Kitamura closer to neighbor Aoba Tsukishima, with whom he has a fraught relationship. Though the two bicker with the antagonistic gusto of Beatrice and Benedict, their shared love of baseball helps smooth the course of their budding romance. To be sure, Cross Game can’t escape a certain amount of sports-manga cliche, but Mitsuri Adachi is more interested in showing us how the characters relate to each other than in celebrating their amazing baseball skills. (Not that he skimps on the game play; Adachi clearly knows his way around the diamond.) The result is an agreeable dramedy that has the rhythm of a good situation comedy and the emotional depth of a well-crafted YA novel, with just enough shop-talk to win over baseball enthusiasts, too.

9. AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga
Edited by Sean Michael Wilson • Top Shelf
The next time someone dismisses manga as a “style” characterized by youthful-looking, big-eyed characters with button noses, I’m going to hand them a copy of AX, a rude, gleeful, and sometimes disturbing rebuke to the homogenized artwork and storylines found in mainstream manga publications. No one will confuse AX for Young Jump or even Big Comic Spirits; the stories in AX run the gamut from the grotesquely detailed to the playfully abstract, often flaunting their ugliness with the cheerful insistence of a ten-year-old boy waving a dead animal at squeamish classmates. Nor will anyone confuse Yoshihiro Tatsumi or Einosuke’s outlook with the humanism of Osamu Tezuka or Keiji Nakazawa; the stories in AX revel in the darker side of human nature, the part of us that’s fascinated with pain, death, sex, and bodily functions. Like all anthologies, the collection is somewhat uneven, with a few too many scatological tales for its own good, but the very best stories — “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “Push Pin Woman,” “Six Paths of Wealth,” “Puppy Love,” “Inside the Gourd” — attest to the diversity of talent contributing to this seminal manga magazine. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/21/10

8. Neko Ramen
By Kenji Sonishi • Tokyopop
If you’ve ever lived with a cat or dog, you know that no meal is complete without a pet hair garnish. Now imagine that your beloved companion actually prepared your meals instead of watching you eat them: what sort of unimaginable horrors might you encounter beyond the stray hair? That’s the starting point for Neko Ramen, a 4-koma manga about a cat whose big dream is to run a noodle shop, but author Kenji Sonishi quickly moves past hair balls and litter box jokes to mine a richer vein of humor, poking fun at his cat cook’s delusions of entrepreneurial grandeur. Taisho is the Don Quixote of ramen vendors, dreaming up ludicrous giveaways and unappetizing dishes in an effort to promote his business, never realizing that he is the store’s real selling point. The loose, sketchy artwork gives the series an improvisational feel, while the script has the pleasant, absurdist zing of an Abbott and Costello routine. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 6/2/10

7. Ayako
By Osamu Tezuka; Vertical, Inc.
Combining the psychological realism of Dostoevsky with the social consciousness of Tolstoy and Zola, Osamu Tezuka uses conflicts within the once-powerful Tenge clan to dramatize the social, political, and economic upheaval caused by the American occupation of post-war Japan. No subject is off-limits for Tezuka: the Tenge commit murders, spy for the Americans, join the Communist Party, imprison a family member in an underground cell, and engage in incest. It’s one of Tezuka’s most sober and damning stories, at once tremendously powerful and seriously disturbing, with none of the cartoonish excess of Ode to Kirihito or MW. The ending is perhaps too pat and loaded with symbolism for its own good, but like Tezuka’s best work, Ayako forces the reader to confront the darkest, most corruptible corners of the human soul. As with Apollo’s Song, Black Jack, and Buddha, Vertical has done a superb job of making Tezuka accessible to Western readers with flipped artwork and a fluid translation.

6. Bunny Drop
By Yumi Unita; Yen Press
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a thirty-something bachelor unexpectedly becomes a parent to a cute little girl, leading to hijinks, misunderstandings, and heart-tugging moments. That’s a fair summary of what happens in Bunny Drop, but Yumi Unita wisely avoids the pitfalls of the single-dad genre — the cheap sentiment, the unfunny scenes of dad recoiling in horror at diapers, runny noses, and tears — instead focusing on the unique bond between Daikichi and Rin, the six-year-old whom he impetuously adopts after the rest of the family disavows her. (Rin is the product of a liaison between Daikichi’s grandfather and a much younger woman.) Though Daikichi struggles to find day care, buy clothes for Rin, and make sense of her standoffish behavior, he isn’t a buffoon or a straight man for Rin’s antics; Unita portrays him as a smart, sensitive person blessed with good instincts and common sense. Clean, expressive artwork and true-to-life dialogue further inoculate Bunny Drop against a terminal case of sitcom cuteness, making it one of the most thoughtful, moving, and adult manga of the year.

5. Black Blizzard
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi • Drawn & Quarterly
Written in just twenty days, this feverish pulp thriller plays like a mash-up of The Fugitive, The 39 Steps, and The Defiant Ones as two convicts — one a hardened criminal, the other a down-on-his luck musician — go on the lam during a blinding snowstorm. The heroes are more archetypes than characters, drawn in bold strokes, but the interaction between them crackles with antagonistic energy; they’re as much enemies as partners, roles that they constantly renegotiate during their escape. Evocative artwork — slashing lines, dramatic camera angles, images of speeding trains — infuses Black Blizzard with a raw, nervous energy that nicely mirrors the characters’ internal state. Only in the final, rushed pages does manga-ka Yoshihiro Tatsumi falter, tidily resolving the story through an all-too-convenient plot twist that hinges on coincidence. Still, that’s a minor criticism of a thoroughly entertaining story written during a crucial stage of Tatsumi’s artistic development. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 9/9/10

4. House of Five Leaves
By Natsume Ono • VIZ Media
Timid ronin Akitsu Masanosuke can’t hold a steady job, despite his formidable swordsmanship. When a businessman approaches him with work, Masanosuke readily accepts, not realizing that his new employer, Yaichi, runs a crime syndicate that specializes in kidnapping. Masanosuke’s unwitting participation in a blackmailing scheme prevents him from severing his ties to Yaichi; Masanosuke must then decide if he will join the House of Five Leaves or bide his time until he can escape. Though Toshiro Mifune and Hiroyuki Sanada have made entire careers out of playing characters like Masanosuke, Natsume Ono makes a persuasive case that you don’t need a flesh-and-blood actor to tell this kind of story with heartbreaking intensity; she can do the slow-burn on the printed page with the same skill as Masaki Kobayashi (Hara Kiri, Samurai Rebellion) and Yoji Yamada (The Twilight Samurai) did on the big screen. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 8/20/10

3. Twin Spica
By Kou Yaginuma • Vertical, Inc.
Asumi Kamogawa is a small girl with a big dream: to be an astronaut on Japan’s first manned space flight. Though she passes the entrance exam for Tokyo Space School, she faces several additional hurdles to realizing her goal, from her child-like stature — she’s thirteen going on eight — to a faculty member who blames her father for causing a fiery rocket crash that claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Yet for all the setbacks she’s experienced, Asumi proves resilient, a gentle girl who perseveres in difficult situations, offers friendship in lieu of judgment, and demonstrates a preternatural awareness of life’s fragility. Twin Spica follows Asumi through every stage of training, from physics lectures to zero-G simulations, showing us how she befriends her fellow cadets and gradually learns to rely on herself, rather than her imaginary friend, Mr. Lion. Though Twin Spica was serialized in a seinen magazine, it works surprisingly well for young adults, too, an all-too-rare example of a direct, heartfelt story that’s neither saccharine nor mawkish.  —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 5/3/10

2. All My Darling Daughters
By Fumi Yoshinaga • VIZ Media
The five vignettes in All My Darling Daughters depict women negotiating difficult personal relationships: a daughter confronts her mother about mom’s new, much younger husband; a college student seduces her professor, only to dump him when he tries to court her properly; a beautiful young woman contemplates an arranged marriage. Like all of Yoshinaga’s work, the characters in All My Darling Daughters love to talk. That chattiness isn’t always an asset to Yoshinaga’s storytelling (see Gerard and Jacques), but here the dialogue is perfectly calibrated to reveal just how complex and ambivalent these relationships really are. Yoshinaga’s artwork is understated but effective, as she uses small details — how a character stands or carries her shoulders — to offer a more complete and nuanced portrait of each woman. Quite possibly my favorite work by Yoshinaga.

1. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
By Moto Hagio • Fantagraphics
Not coincidentally, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories was my nomination for Best New Graphic Novel of 2010 as well. Here’s what I had to say about the title over at Flashlight Worthy Books:

Moto Hagio is to shojo manga what Will Eisner is to American comics, a seminal creator whose distinctive style and sensibility profoundly changed the medium. Though Hagio has been actively publishing stories since the late 1960s, very little of her work has been translated into English. A Drunken Dream, published by Fantagraphics, is an excellent corrective — a handsomely produced, meticulously edited collection of Hagio’s short stories that span her career from 1970 to 2007. Readers new to Hagio’s work will appreciate the inclusion of two contextual essays by manga scholar Matt Thorn, one an introduction to Hagio and her peers, the other an interview with Hagio. What emerges is a portrait of a gifted artist who draws inspiration from many sources: Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishimonori, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, Frances Hodgson Burnett and L.M. Montgomery.

For the complete list — including nominations from David “Manga Curmudgeon” Welsh, Brigid “MangaBlog” Alverson, Lorena “i heart manga” Ruggero, and Matthew “Warren Peace Sings the Blues” Brady — click here. To read my full review of A Drunken Dream, click here.

Done because there are too menny… great manga, that is, to confine myself to a traditional top ten list. With apologies to Thomas Hardy, here are some of the other titles that tickled my fancy in 2010:

16 thoughts on “The Best Manga of 2010: The Manga Critic’s Picks”

  1. CJ says:

    Man, I should be getting Ayako and A Drunken Dream by the end of the week, my only dilemma is which one to read first! And this still isn’t by big manga order where I plan to fill in the Hikaru no Go gaps and get a bunch of other stuff too. I might just look into your guilty pleasures list too, everything I read online seems to be telling me to get Dragon Girl (though from the same author as Oyayubihime Infinity helps a lot too). So many manga, so little time and/or funds!

  2. Michelle Smith says:

    There are many things on your list that would be on mine if I were motivated to make one. Of the new manga, I especially loved House of Five Leaves and Cross Game and my love for the continuing series Itazura Na Kiss is practically all-encompassing.

    Interestingly, I am also entirely with you on Best Manga You Thought You’d Hate. I’d heard good things about the Higurashi story but the moe approach completely put me off. The different art style of the Beyond Midnight Arc made it more appealing to me and, once I checked it out, I enjoyed it a good bit. I’ll be checking out the second volume in the near future.

  3. Katherine Dacey says:

    @CJ: Read A Drunken Dream after Ayako: it will restore your faith in humanity!

    As for guilty pleasures, the nice thing about both Demon Sacred (or Demon Scared, as I must have typed about 20 times before getting it right) and Dragon Girl is that they’re packed with budget-conscious folk in mind. The first two volumes of DS are $5.99/each (the better to get you hooked!) and Dragon Girl is a three-volume omnibus that’s about 500 pages of material for $19.99. Yen will release a second omnibus in February that wraps up the story. I hope it catches on — I think it’s a great idea!

    @Michelle: Best Manga You Thought You’d Hate was one of Erin’s most inspired categories! I was really taken aback by the later Higurashi arcs; I’d read the very first one when it appeared in Yen+ and thought it was awful, so I never anticipated enjoying any of them. It hits the same sweet spot as Case Closed, IMO.

  4. Michelle Smith says:

    I can definitely see the Case Closed comparison. I write often about “atmosphere,” but both of these tales certainly have it. I’m worried what will happen with Higurashi once the moe takes center stage again, though.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Make that two of us, Michelle; the moe factor squicked me out in some of the earlier installments of the series!

  5. CJ says:

    When I watched the Higurashi anime, I’ll admit it took me a little while to get used to the character designs, I mean, it made it kinda hard for me to take it seriously. But then I think it only made the creepy scenes creepier. Of course this was for the anime, not sure how it’d translate to the manga.

    Also I believe I shall take your suggestion and read Ayako first, I’m equally excited for both manga after all!

  6. Jade says:

    I thought the moe style was good for Higurashi. More than a mystery, the series is pretty much about deconstructing the creepy underbelly of otaku fantasies and the discontent in being wrapped in the ennui of that paradise. It’s a dark satire of a thousand dating sims, foregoing the style just wouldn’t work.

    Now I’m wondering…when can we expect the Hall of Shame to hit, hee? I’m predicting The Adventures of Breast Vampire as a strong contender.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      @CJ: Some of the earlier volumes of the manga used the moe element to unsettling/creepy effect, so I think that translated from screen to page reasonably well. I haven’t seen any of the anime, though, so I couldn’t say for sure.

      @Jade: That’s an interesting take on Higurashi; I never thought about it that way, but it certainly makes sense that the moe elements would be juxtaposed with extreme, bizarre violence. As for The Manga Hame of Shame, stay tuned… I’m actively working on it at the moment, and hope to have it posted before Friday. I’m just waiting for my flame-retardant suit to arrive…

  7. Captain America says:

    It’s good to see a top manga list which isn’t just dominated by Akira for a change

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