This week, I thought I’d try something different and take a look at three series that… share a lot of common ground. To give you an idea of what I’m getting at, each of these series was published by one of the three major and highly competitive Japanese publishers (to the list, this is respectively Shueisha, Kodansha, and Shogakukan). The first series appeared in 1997, the second in 2002, and the third in 2006.
Often, series that appear in the wake of a mega-hit are forgettable imitations, but all three of the series I mention below are very much worth reading, regardless of which came first.
One Piece – Eiichiro Oda (65+ volumes)
One Piece is likely the most popular manga in Japan right now, and it’s not done so badly for itself in America, either. It’s likely that anyone reading this knows about the high seas voyages of Monkey D. Luffy and his crew of Straw Hat Pirates. The series follows the standard Shounen Jump action format pretty closely, but it does it so well that you really do want to keep reading 60+ volumes in. Oda’s imagination seems limitless when it comes to new areas (islands made out of soap bubbles), new characters (like giant living skeletons with afros spouting terrible puns about being dead), and new and very unusual powers (everything from locking people up to turning into bison, lightning, or what have you). Granted, these powers have started to get a bit complicated in later volumes, but power escalation probably mandates that. Oda’s art is also very dynamic and cartoony, and he’s very good at facial expressions. The strange action scenes look good, each character is truly individual, and he does an amazing job illustrating the world. The characters may travel to new areas and battle a new set of enemies, just like in every other action manga that exists, but One Piece does it with so much style and humor that it really is one of the best of its type.
In terms of the subject of this column, One Piece itself borrows a lot of its charm from Dragon Ball. Anyone that’s read both can see the similarities, both in terms of art (both Oda and Toriyama are great at drawing unusual characters and great settings) and quirkiness. But One Piece only takes inspiration from Dragon Ball, and has more or less surpassed it in most areas.
Fairy Tail – Hiro Mashima (35+ volumes)
Fairy Tail started its run 9 years after One Piece, and owes… something of a debt to that series. Mashima’s art and character designs look a lot like Oda’s, and the quirkiness of character personality, the humor, and setting also feel a lot like One Piece. This is dangerous ground to tread, as I understand that Mashima is rather sensitive about the similarities. But Fairy Tail is still a great series, and has a stronger fantasy flavor than One Piece. The two main characters are a gifted fire magician named Natsu and a summoner named Lucy who is searching for the different “keys” that allow her to form her summoning pacts. The title of the series is taken from the legendary and very eccentric wizard guild that the two become a part of, and the storylines tend to focus on the quests that Lucy, Natsu, and other characters take as jobs. Usually these are ridiculously dangerous quests, since those bring in the most money, and they often end in battles with things like giants locked in blocks of ice for ages. The sense of humor, fun art, and imaginative magic powers make it a fun read, though I wasn’t swept up in it the same way as I was with One Piece. Fairy Tail also has a few too many breast jokes for my taste, but that’s a fairly minor quibble.
Law of Ueki – Tsubasa Fukuchi (16 volumes)
Set up as a huge tournament from start to finish, carefully selected students are, much to their surprise, granted a power of their choice to battle each other with, and the winner is more or less the new King of the Cosmos. The main character is a somewhat stoic and carefree boy named Ueki who choses the power to turn trash into trees. Ueki doesn’t seem to know or care about what’s going on around him most of the time, but he always manages to win his battles, and by the end of the series is determined to win so that other greedy individuals can’t become the King for evil. This one is a bit less dimensional and a whole lot shorter than the other two series I’ve mentioned, but it really is a lot of fun watching the one-on-one battles of trash-into-trees vs. every-two-pounds-of-cake-you-eat-makes-your-opponent-gain-two-pounds. The fights aren’t ever about who has the better power, as you might have guessed from that description. Most of the fights are puzzles that require a good way to come at a person, or a way to stop them from doing whatever insane thing they’re doing. That’s always a refreshing change of pace in a tournament manga, and it’s so rare that the only other series I can think of off the top of my head that does this is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Law of Ueki is a lot of fun, has a wonderful sense of humor and, again, very kinetic and cartoony art. It’s definitely a departure from One Piece and Fairy Tail, but it’s still good for some of the same reasons, and worth a read if you’re a fan of this type of story. This is one that passed far under the radar of most, but deserves to be noticed.