With the exception of Barefoot Gen, most of these manga aren’t great tomes worthy of huge accolades; I’ve just enjoyed reading them enough to share with you. Enjoy the possibilities!
Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen)
As I mention in another blog, “Barefoot Gen” is my first-ever experience reading manga, and it was quite a harrowing and touching one. This is the story of Gen and his life just after the fall of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. If you read this, you simply not be able to turn away. You will see the poverty, sickness and (occasional) triumph that followed him, and feel his pain as your own. Some schools in Japan have banned “Barefoot Gen” for a host of reasons, but it is a manga that demands to be seen. Catch it in English if you can…but try not to read it alone.
I’m not too much of a sports guy…I type a lot, OK? That said, I kind of love “Slam Dunk,” the manga that quite literally put basketball on the map in Japan. It’s the story of Sakuragi, a red-haired misfit who learns how to fit in (sort of) when he joins his high school basketball team. A host of other characters are introduced, each with his or her own “following”–I’ve actually had girls say to me, “I like Rukawa…which one are you?” FYI, Rukawa is the resident male hottie on the team, a category to which I don’t belong! In any case, the team’s enthusiasm for the game and each other is infectious…you’ll cheer at the end. That feeling is probably what makes “Slam Dunk” a bestseller even today.
Takehiko Inoue takes on basketball again in “Real,” a basketball story with a twist: It’s about wheelchair basketball! I love seeing how the characters, whether handicapped or not, deal with their various trials and tribulations to ultimately triumph on the basketball court. We are given a look at sports and disability that is at times almost too clear, but combined with excitement, humor and well-drawn characters, some sadness is well worth it. Your heart will soar with this one.
Kodoku no Gorume (The Lonely Gourmet)
The title says it all. Single, freelance businessman Goro Inogashira traverses Tokyo visiting clients. He’s reasonably successful at his job, but that’s not what makes him happy. The man is a foodie, through and through, and tries new foods and restaurants wherever his feet take him. This manga is thin on plot but thick on great drawings and descriptions of culinary delight. If you’re happiest at lunchtime, this manga is for you! There’s also a popular short drama that’s been made out of this; every 15-minute episode has Inogashira visiting real restaurants in Tokyo. Manga can be about anything, and in this one the universal love of food has been given form. Give it a bite!
Yaou (King of the Night)
You know the story: Poor boy moves to the city, makes big, becomes a male prostitute. No? Well then, you’re in for a treat. This is the story of dueling “host clubs” in Tokyo that are fighting to woo the most female customers and thus win a top award. It isn’t as raunchy or sexist as it sounds; in fact it’s almost wholesome, as told through the eyes of the title character as he advances from humble roots before becoming King of the Night. It’s an intriguing, albeit exaggerated look at Tokyo nightlife that also tugs at the heartstrings. At the height of its popularity, “Yaou” got TV drama treatment and the writer/artist seemed to be going for something bigger; unfortunately, popularity waned and I guess it was cancelled in mid-stream, because the “end” is infuriatingly abrupt. Worth a look anyway.
Uchu Kyodai (Space Brothers)
I devoted a whole blog post to my love for these guys and what they mean in a larger context, and I encourage you to read it! Suffice it to say that this tale of two brothers who go onto fulfill their lifelong dream of being astronauts is awesome and still immensely popular as of this writing. For me, everything about this manga simply works. But then again, writers are just dreamers with pens, so what do I know? Try it and see for yourself.
GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka)
When I first came to Japan, “Great Teacher Onizuka” was sweeping the nation as a drama starring the now-married Takashi Sorimachi (as Onizuka) and Nanako Matsushima. Onizuka is a former gang member who becomes a teacher for his own reasons, too hilarious and spoilerish to reveal here. He doesn’t conform to the classic teacher mold in Japan, eschewing suits and governed by his own rules, and his free-flowing yet surprisingly solid philosophy rubs off on his young charges. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of education and the institutions that surround it in Japan; as a former middle school and university English teacher here, believe me I know! Anyway, this importance and its oft-inflated nature are captured perfectly in GTO’s pages. It has been made into a movie and several TV series, not to mention continued in book form. So many devoted readers can’t be wrong. Check it out!
“Detective Conan” is an ongoing mystery series (yes, the name is inspired by you-know-who) charting the exploits of Shinichi Kudo, a highschool wunderkinde whose sleuthing leads him into the dangerous path of some gangsters who want to make him, y’know, sleep with the fishes. The poison they give him instead turns him into a little boy, and he goes undercover using the name of his favorite mystery author. People love this guy; as of now there are over 80 volumes to his name, and a Conan movie (I’ve seen at least 3!) rakes in the dough every year. I guess the whodunit with a little twist (get it?) really works!