In middle school and high school, aside from school assignments, I almost exclusively read manga. While I have several nostalgic favorite and dramatic favorites, this is not a list of those. Instead, this is a list of the top five manga that convinced me that storytelling in comic form is an art.
- Oboreru Knife 溺れるナイフ (The Knife That Dropped in Water)
2005, 17 Volumes
Story and art by George Asakura
Natsume begins her story narrating “I’m only 12 years old. I can know everything. I can get anything in my hands. To be able to push everything onto him and forget about it by laughing. I didn’t understand that it took confidence to do that. What I want, for example, is the feeling of a thunder splitting in my body. The shock, the heat, and the light. More, More. As if the eyes would turn all the way back, as my breath would be cut, or as much as the body will tremble.” Natsume is only a sixth grader, but she’s a model, amateur photographer, and aspires to more than she feels the world has for her. When she moves from Tokyo to a smaller town, she feels out of place and at odds with her new environment. On her first night, she meets a mysterious boy by the ocean. She mistakes him for a god, the way he appears from nowhere, shining in the moonlight. Later she learns his name is Kyou and he is a notorious “bad boy” at her school. However, this isn’t a typical romance of good girl and bad boy. It brims in dark overtones and the ambiguities of growing up. George Asakura’s visual style is unique, wistful, and dramatic. His writing is practically poetry at times.
- Children of the Sea 海獣の子供
2005, 5 volumes
Story and Art by Daisuke Igarashi
Ruka, a disgruntled middle schooler who doesn’t get along well with her peers takes a solo trip to Tokyo and sees a boy jump into sea. She later learns he and his brother were raised in the ocean by dugongs and have had difficulty assimilating to life on land. Ruka also feels a connection to the oceans. She saw something strange in the aquarium when she was younger. How do she and the brothers, Umi and Sora, fit into the mystery of fish disappearing in aquariums across the world? The first volume sets up an exciting, subtle mystery of discovery on a personal and global scale. The beautiful watercolors that begin each volume and the amazing hatching give Igarashi’s work an atmospheric feel of people, and a world, in transition.
- My Girl マイガール
2007, 5 volumes
Story and Art by Mizu Sahara
Masamune is mourning over the news of the death of his former lover Youko, who moved abroad years ago, when he learns she had a daughter named Koharu. Although she never told him about her, Masamune realizes the child must be his. After meeting Koharu, he decides to take custody of her and try his best as a single father. This short series is heart-warming and full of beautiful, precisely drawn and screen-toned pages. The watercolors used to begin chapters are either vibrant and saturated or muted and nostalgic. The story, art, and pacing combine in an unforgettable way. I was so enamored of the series when I first read it, that even when I couldn’t find a published English translation, I ordered copies of the series in French for my bookshelf.
- Bleach ブリーチ 2001,
73 (and counting) volumes
Story and Art by Tite Kubo
This may come as a surprise, as most of the others on this list didn’t experience the wave of popularity Bleach did. It’s a really well-known series, but no other series has had the staying power of beautiful and startling execution (especially of chapter opening pages) that Bleach has. The experimentation with typography, panel pacing, play between white and black (with limited use of gray screentones) make this series a standout, meandering storyline aside.
- Goodnight Punpun おやすみプンプン
2007, 13 volumes
Story and Art by Inio Asano
Punpun is a regular Japanese elementary student with a dysfunctional family and love interest…or is he? He kind of looks like a weird ghost-bird. What’s up with that? Other than Punpun and his family, the art is almost hyperrealistic. It’s easy for the reader to initially connect with the cute and simplified Punpun. Because he doesn’t look like anyone in particular, he can kind of stand in for everyone (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more on the subject of simplified characters and reader connection). The reader follows Punpun as he grows up. The story explores a lot of deep themes about failure, love, and family. Inio Asano has created a lot of stirring works, but Goodnight Punpun is perhaps the most upsetting. Asano said “I wanted [to] take the readers coming to the book because they thought Punpun was cute, and upset them…Look at what kind of depths of reality manga can plumb.”