Manga Before Flowers -- My Year in Manga

End of semester madness and holiday travel kept me from regular updates on the blog but I can't let the whole of 2009 go without some commentary.  So you all get a list of manga released in 2009 that meant something to me.  It isn't quite a "best of" list, nor it is exactly a "favorites" list either.  It's a little more complicated than that but I find that this format better reflects my experience of manga in the past year.

The Heavy Weight: Ooku: The Inner Chambers by Fumi Yoshinaga, published by Viz.  In a million years I never really dreamed Ooku would be published in the U.S.   And I certainly couldn't imagine that one day Viz would confound all expectations and devote a significant percentage of its monthly output to manga for adults (under the Viz Signature imprint).   Since I first discovered Yoshinaga's work in the aisle of my local Waldenbooks in the summer of 2005 (DMP's over-sized format of Antique Bakery seemed destined catch my eye in those halcyon days when every manga reading experience was a new adventure to me), I feel like I've been on an odyssey that was inspired partly by her distinctive and apparently limitless ability to find something new and remarkable in the most routine aspects of the human condition (eating, talking and sex clearly being her favorite subjects).  I love Ooku for its own and many merits, but I also love it because it feels like a form of personal fulfillment for loving manga for five years now.   (My review of vol 1 of Ooku can be found here, and vol 2 here.)

Entertainer of the Year: Slam Dunk and REAL by Takehiko Inoue, published by Viz.  Inoue's two comics about basketball couldn't be more different and yet each has something unique to offer the reader.  I love Slam Dunk for its silliness, for its sheer entertainment factor, and for making sports fun.  I love REAL for its sensitive portrait of trauma and recovery and for not backing away from the ugliness of suffering.  I love seeing both these books being released together because they showcase Inoue's versatile talent and surprising staying power as a storyteller (Slam Dunk feels so fresh, it is hard to believe it is practically 20 years old now).   However, mostly I love Inoue's works because they never feel bounded by their genre or their category.   I never feel like I'm on the outside, with my nose pressed against a window, trying to see into a dimly lit club where I don't belong (as I sometimes do when I read shonen titles).  (I reviewed vol 5 of REAL here, and volumes 2, 3, and 4 of Slam Dunk here).

The Heart Breakers: Emma by Kaoru Mori, published by CMX, and Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya, published by Tokyopop.  Oh dear, two manga that broke my heart, mended it, then broke it all over again out of the sheer beauty of it all.  Both these series concluded in 2009 and while on the surface they couldn't be more different in tone, narrative and artistic sensibilities, I find that each has left an indelible mark upon me as a comics reader.

Takaya was my first experience with the shojo sneak attack, as I thought I was reading a lighthearted tale about a very strange family with a little "quirk," but ended up reading about overlapping and cathartic emotional journeys to hell and back.  Very few series ever manage to make good on the promise of their premise but Takaya does more than make good -- she makes the gradual unfolding of these character's hearts unforgettable.  And bless her, she can also make me laugh and then cry on a dime and yet never feel badly used as her devoted reader.

In her lovely and often restrained work on Emma, Mori had made it clear from the first pages that she had an uncanny ability to portray a particular time and place.  I was so caught up in the intricacies of Emma's world -- a lace handkerchief, a pair of glasses, even a single wilted flower could keep my attention -- that I found myself completely caught off guard when certain text-less images suddenly made me cry.  It was her careful and delicate way of capturing everyday life -- never has the mirror of how we view the world been both so beautiful and so heart-wrenching.

The Odd Balls -- Detroit Metal City by Kiminori Wakasugi, published by Viz, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei by Koji Kumeta, published by Del Rey, Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture by Mayasuki Ishiwaka, published by Del Rey.  2009 saw the release of three manga with enough attitude and individuality to knock my cute little argyle socks socks clean off.  While I certainly liked each of these titles individually, it is when I consider them as a group that I'm impressed by the sheer amount of quirkiness currently available in English.  I found DMC to be the funniest of the three, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei the most challenging (all those cultural references to keep track of!) and Moyasimon the most novel.   While I find I don't prefer one particular title of the three, I also know that these works offered me a change of both pace and vantage point in ways no other works did in the past year (I reviewed Detroit Metal City vol 1 here and vol 2 here, Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei here, and Moyasimon vol 1 here).

The Contender: GoGo Monster by Taiyo Matsumoto, published by Viz.  I'll be honest -- although I often pick up the award-bait manga releases they rarely speak to me in the way the more commercial stuff does.  GoGo Monster was thankfully an exception.  Tatsumoto creates a fantastical tour de force of pre-pubescent abnormal psychology -- as a storyteller he took me into the strange, claustrophobic, and rather disturbed mind of one Japanese elementary school student and then made me crawl out the hard way.  This work is compelling and challenging but also entertaining...and on that level it succeeds when other artistically-inclined works have left me cold.  It should also be noted Viz did an absolutely fantastic job in its presentation of the work, allowing the material book to contribute to the thrill of this read.

The Sleeper: The Name of the Flower by Ken Saito, published by CMX.   I was overwhelmed by this incredibly touching modern-day version of Jane Eyre. It shares with that venerable classic the basic story of a young, innocent but determined orphaned girl who falls in love with a tormented older man.  But that description only covers the basic similarities, it hardly accounts for the depth of feeling and sentiment Saito manages to convey in her characterization.  While terrible external events happen to characters in this manga, it also shows how humans can end up hurting themselves the most.  Although that is a pretty dark truth, just like in Jane Eyre this story also holds that love for others -- and perhaps for oneself -- is the path out of self-imposed darkness to redemption.

The Supreme Kickers of Almighty Ass -- Black Lagoon by Rei Hiroe, published by Viz, and Dogs: Bullets and Carnage by Shirow Miwa, published by Viz.  Until Black Lagoon I had never really felt much love for an action title -- I was a self-proclaimed shojo girl after all.  But I fell for Black Lagoon and fell hard.  I think this series works so well me because of the charismatic relationship between Rock and Revy.  Rock stands in for the reader as an (supposedly) normal outsider stranded in a violent and crazy world and Revy stands in for the both the beauty and ugliness of this world.  Together they make a whole, if incredibly flawed, person and there's practically an electrical charge when they are on the page together.  In other words, I find that I am perversely into this action title for its characterization.  This love might lead to heart break in the end but right now the title hasn't steered me wrong yet.  In contrast, I feel Dogs is a mess of a title -- confusing, often disconcerting, and yet oddly compelling.  Reading Dogs is like riding a roller coaster -- I'm always a little dizzy and nauseated when I get off this particular ride...but also a little exhilarated.  In the end, any action title that can make me feel anything has accomplished something pretty special, particularly considering that I don't tend to take to these works easily.  (I reviewed Black Lagoon vol 1 here, vol 5 here, vol 7 and 8 here.  I reviewed Dogs vol 0 here, vol 1 here, vol 2 here).

For the Love: Itazura Na Kiss by Kaoru Tada, published by DMP.  Sometimes the designation of "classic" can also mean something that remains fresh in spite of its years.  Kiss made me feel like I was standing at the crossroads of shojo with a creator who seemed to know which way to go and how to get the reader there with relative ease (while entirely too many of her followers fumble in the dark and insult the reader at every turn).  Her humor, her flair, the alternating tartness and sweetness of her characters, make this a remarkable example of how shojo doesn't have to be crazy melodramatic or fantastical to have an impact.  It only has to have something interesting to say about people and certainly this work does much  more than that.  It also charms as it says it.  (My review of volume 1 is here).

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