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The Best and Most Memorable Manga of 2015

by Rebecca Silverman,

2015 is coming to its inevitable close, something that we can say for every year but not for every manga series. It's been an interesting year for us manga readers, though – a drastic increase in digital content has broadened the horizons of what gets both licensed and license rescued, long-awaited titles have been announced for next year (The Rose of Versailles! Princess Jellyfish!), and, on a more personal level, I managed to convince my fellow library board members that having a manga section is a Good Thing. So now with all of that behind us, I thought it might be fun to look back at some of the manga that we got to see in English this past year, the highs, lows, and WTFs of 2015. Keep in mind that, despite my insane appetite for reading, I couldn't read everything that came out this year, so your best choices for these categories might not be on here; please feel free to chime in in the forums about what awards you would have given out. For purposes of (my) sanity, I'm only using English-language print releases that appeared from January 2015 through December. Some categories have runners-up as well, when things were particularly close. Don't forget - these are my choices, but I'd love to hear your selections for the best manga of 2015! Please let us know in the forums. And now without further ado...The Manga! (And, of course, some spoiler warnings.)

Sweetest Finale: Whispered Words volume 3
by Takashi Ikeda, One Peace Books, $16.95

I may be the only one who thinks this, but I feel like there's a difference between a “romance” and a “love story” in terms of genre. A romance, to me, focuses solely on the relationship, excluding outside factors and day-to-day life and tends to be raunchier, while a love story looks more at the slow building of a relationship between two people. Takashi Ikeda's Whispered Words is the latter, a love story that follows the coming together of Ushio and Sumika as they move from friendship to romantic love, with the added obstacle of being lesbians in a heteronormative world. For Sumika, that also means accepting her orientation while Ushio has to overcome her fears of being rejected by the girl she loves for being a girl. Ultimately they triumph, and Ikeda ends the series in a quiet way: having found each other, the two young women move in together and simply live their lives with each other. There's a beauty in this calm finale – the lack of fanfare grounds their love in reality and makes Whispered Words a non-fetishized look at a love story that just happens to be about two women. There are more triumphant romantic finales, yes, and those are not without their excitement, but sometimes it's the quieter, sweeter moments that make for the most satisfying conclusions, and Whispered Words' last volume, published in March of this year, is one of them.

Runner Up: Meteor Prince volume 2

Another sweet ending, with rather more “oomph” than Whispered Words, since Hako and Io have to overcome planetary differences and a destiny system that wants to keep them apart. Ultimately, though, there wasn't as much time to develop the two characters beyond the surface, which makes Whispered Words the more satisfying conclusion.

Creepiest Romance: First Love Monster volume 1
by Akira Hiroshimaru, Yen Press, $13

It isn't easy to creep me out with fiction, at least in terms of needing to bleach something from my brain. First Love Monster managed to do it with its romance between high school student Kaho and fifth grader Kanade. It's meant to be a comedy, which really ought to erase the sting, but somehow this series still left me more squicked out than entertained. Kaho, who falls for Kanade before she knows his age, knows that her crush and boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with Kanade is wrong – she frets about it more oft than not over the course of the first volume. For his part, Kanade is a mix of childish and curious about girls, which leads to some uncomfortable situations since he very much considers Kaho his girlfriend. The fact that he looks about ten years older than he is is clearly meant to be funny, and at times the juxtaposition between his appearance and his actions do make for some humorous moments, but then the story jumps back into romance mode and things get creepy again. It's also a premise that felt about worn out by the end of volume one, though having jumped ship (also unusual for me after one volume), I can't actually attest to that. The fact that other residents of their boarding house continually egg the relationship on was pretty much the final straw for me in this already uncomfortable book, but you can decide for yourselves, even if you don't read manga: it's getting an anime adaptation in 2016.

Runner Up: Ani-Imo volume 5

Ani-Imo is a pseudo-incest romance, but that's not necessarily what makes volume five a standout in the creepy category. What tips this generally silly gender-swapping romance over the edge is that in this volume the “twins'” relationship is consummated...and Youta has the uncanny sensation that he's just jumped himself. It's kind of funny, but also leaves this sort of niggling feeling in the back of your mind like, “Oh my god, what did I just read??” It also plays with some tropes about what happens when girls get access to a male body that I'm not fond of, and I feel like it might take it a bit far in this book. But, uh, at least they love each other? Also, kudos (?) to Yen Press for winning both prizes in this category!

Best Treatment of a Real-Life Issue: A Silent Voice volumes 1 – 4
by Yoshitoki Oima, Kodansha, $10.99 each

If you haven't been bullied, it's hard to imagine the way it scars you. Those scars aren't always on the outside, and it's a horror you never quite get over; rather, you get through it and try to be as whole as you can on the other side. No book, manga or prose, has quite captured that the way Yoshitoki Oima does in his series A Silent Voice. Following a protagonist who goes from bullier to bullied, Oima shows us both sides of the story as Shoya uses his discomfort and immaturity as excuses to torment Shoko, a deaf girl who joins his class in elementary school. When adults (finally) put a stop to his actions, the entire class, who had played along with him, turn on him, and Shoya spends middle school in the same hell he put Shoko through. As a high school student, he decides to make amends before committing suicide, but by renewing his relationship with Shoko in a healthier way, he comes to understand that he can get through and maybe live after all. The story is remarkable for not just Shoya's repentance, but for the way it gives us a more complete picture than we might expect: reasons for the bullying that we can understand. What the characters do is wrong and terrible, but Oima is equally tender with Shoya when he's the antagonist as when he's the protagonist, and Shoko's ability to forgive and work through what happened to her (thus far at least; the complete series is seven volumes) paints an alternative picture for both Shoya and the readers. A Silent Voice reminds us that nothing is as clear and simple as it first appears and that there are nuances to every story, a feat not achieved by most mainstream “topical” middle grade and young adult fiction. This really belongs in every school library.

Runner Up: Wandering Son volume 8
In case you've forgotten, Takako Shimura's wonderful and sensitive series about LBGTQ kids is still running and is still amazing. Volume eight is no exception as the kids get older and both puberty and gendered expectations start to rear their ugly heads, making hiding who they are harder and harder.

Who Knew This Would Still Be Good?: Fairy Tail Tartaros Arc
by Hiro Mashima, Kodansha, $10.99 each

Long-running shounen series often outlive their plotlines. While no mangaka is as guilty of that (in English, anyway) as Rumiko Takahashi, with most of the series that run to 40+ volumes, there comes a point where you have to wonder why you're still reading – is it because you're still enjoying it, or has it simply become habit? I was beginning to feel that way about Fairy Tail during the Grand Magic Games, and, to a lesser extent, during the start of the Eclipse Gate arc. But then all of a sudden mid-way through that last one, Hiro Mashima seemed to kick it back into high gear. The stakes rose, the characters grew, and something just seemed to click about the combination of the plot, characters, and world building. With the advent of the Tartaros Arc (volumes 46 – 49 came out in 2015), everything really came together. Characters like Lucy and Gray got more development as their relationships with their specific magics were explored, even more daddy issues than Lucy's were resolved or opened (seriously, there are a lot of father problems in this series), and even Erza/Jellal fans got thrown a bone at the arc's conclusion. The story also managed to mix humor, fanservice, and action with real emotional content as well, most specifically reminding us of what lies behind Lucy's Celestial magic and her bond with the spirits and Natsu's relationship with Igneel. Sure there are still the usual issues that plague the series, but with Tartaros it looks like Mashima really got to where he wanted to be to truly move the story forward, and suddenly, Fairy Tail looks more like a series to read out of enjoyment rather than force of habit.

Runner Up: Skip Beat volume 35
Much as I loved the early volumes of Skip Beat, I never expected it to be able to last this long. Volume 35 have not only managed to keep what feels like one of the weaker arcs moving, but also finally really put us in Ren Tsuruga's head, showing the torment hinted at that lurks inside the series' hero. I'm not sure how much longer Yoshiki Nakamura can drag this particular story arc out, which is why Fairy Tail got the major mention, but this book certainly renewed my faith in her and the series.

It Grew On Me Like a Fungus: The World's Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera volumes 1-3
by Shungiku Nakamura, SuBLime, $12.99 each

You know those series that you can't quite bring yourself to stop reading, even though you know you probably should? It's not quite a guilty pleasure, but it's close. It's the series that grabbed you in spite of yourself, and for me this year, that was The World's Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera. It has plenty of the issues that plague other yaoi titles I've put down: a nonconsensual sexual relationship between the “romantic” leads, the feminine-looking uke, art that really isn't all that great and has no idea how the male body is put together...but...there's a need to keep reading, a vague hope that maybe Ritsu will tell Takano to cut it out and that Takano will listen. It's like the yaoi version of Miki Aihara's Hot Gimmick in its compulsively easy readability. The nonconsensual elements do increase from volume one to volume three, which is a major strike against the series in general...but somehow not quite enough to make me throw the series itself away. Nakamura has created a romance that is the antithesis of Whispered Words, a grocery store bodice ripper that is impossible to put down. I'm not sure I'm enjoying it – but like mold on the wall, it's a series that has proven difficult to get rid of, which means that it must be doing something right.

Runner Up: Bloody Cross volumes 6 – 9

By volume six, I still have no idea what is going on in this convoluted tale of vampires, half-vampires, gods, and who knows what all else. I keep reading anyway, devouring each volume as it comes out. Someone help me.

Best Reworking of an Old Genre: Idol Dreams volume 1
by Arina Tanemura, Viz, $9.99

Magical girls have gone through a lot of changes over time. From girls who can use magic to elementary students who become teenage idols to superheroines and mysterious thieves to dark re-imaginings of all of those, it seems like there is nothing the genre hasn't been subjected to in order to stay relevant. Now Arina Tanemura has changed it again, but in a way that older readers may find particularly interesting: she's changed the genre into Magical Women. Idol Dreams focuses on a woman in her thirties who feels like youth passed her by – she sees herself as unfulfilled, sabotaged by her own personality. After a middle school reunion, she has a chance to take a magical serum (or experimental drug) that will regress her back to fifteen to let her do it over again, only with her thirty-year-old maturity to provide wisdom. It is a theme we've seen in other stories, yes, but Tanemura really poses it as a magical girl story – she isn't regressing, she's transforming. She's following the same path as other idol magical girls like Fancy Lala or Creamy Mami, just in reverse: she ages down, not up. It's thought-provoking like other modern magical girl stories, and it also has special relevance for Tanemura's older readers. As a genre, I feel like magical woman stories have potential to reach a different audience than magical girls or straight fantasy or romance for older readers. Idol Dreams feels like an interesting step in that direction for a genre that has been evolving all along.

Runner Up: Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer

In the world of comics and manga, superhero stories are, if not a dime a dozen, at least close to that. Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer introduces an element of yearning and sadness that the genre doesn't often get – plus it's about destroying the world rather than saving it, which is enough of a genre change to garner attention.

Train Wreck: (tie) Umineko: When They Cry volumes 10 and 11; Nisekoi – False Love volumes 7 – 12
by Ryukishi07 and Akitaka, Yen Press, $20.00 each; by Naoshi Komi, Viz, $9.99 each

I couldn't decide which of these to put in first place and which in runner up, so I was forced to conclude that both Nisekoi – False Love and Umineko: When They Cry have disappointed me equally in 2015. The former, a shounen harem love story, began as a simple love triangle between a boy, the girl he actually liked, and the girl he had to pretend he liked so that their rival yakuza families didn't kill each other. It was a lot of fun when it was that simple – not innovative, but entertaining nonetheless. Then Komi began adding in more girls, more mysterious locks and keys, and just generally heaping on the shounen romance tropes until it has become a festival of mediocrity. Perhaps Nisekoi has simply outlived its plot – it should have been ended books ago. As it stands, it's a skeleton of itself, living on in a zombie-like state as it tries to keep itself going by ever-stricter adherence to the anaphora of its genre.

As for Umineko: When They Cry...when the series began, it was an interesting mystery with many possible solutions, inspired by some of the greats of mystery fiction. Now? When author Ryukishi07 decided to give Knox's Commandments (ten guidelines for mystery writers) a moe personification, that was it. All along the author had been taking a supercilious tone in his commentaries and using Beatrice as his voice in the story, but with the most recent story arc to see English translation, “The End of the Golden Witch,” the plot has gone from an intriguing mystery to flat-out obnoxious as Ryukishi07 tries to taunt readers with his increasingly silly devices and annoying characters. Had this stuck to actually following Knox's Commandments instead of making then fanservice, it might have been a worthwhile read for mystery buffs. But the farther Umineko strays from its genre roots, the less interesting it is. Maybe a better analogy than “train wreck” would be that Ryukishi07 jumped the tracks entirely and is just running his train in circles on the grass, his head out the window while he crows about how awesome he is.

It Came From Left Field: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches volumes 1 – 4
by Miki Yoshikawa, Kodansha, $10.99 each

It's less that I didn't expect this series to be good and more that it really took its time getting there. Volume one didn't mention witches at all, much less seven of them, and looked like just a silly body-swapping story that was better done than the norm. As the series has gone on, however, the title and main plot have revealed themselves in ways that don't just make the overall series make more sense, but also develop the initial characters, provide humor, and just generally lift it above its starting point and other series in its genre. It playfully explores the reasons why people might want to be put under the witches' mysterious powers while staying largely away from tried-and-true shounen romance fixings that can backfire on a series, making it just generally more fun with every volume. Since most of this was barely hinted at in volume one, that makes the releases of subsequent books more exciting as Yamada-kun keeps evolving. It's the best kind of surprise – a mediocre start that blossoms into something worth anticipating.

Comfort Food: LDK volume 1
by Ayu Watanabe, Kodansha, $10.99

This is likely to be the category most people disagree with, because we all have our own genres that make us feel relaxed. For me, that genre is shoujo romance, and LDK is reassuringly enmeshed in the basics of it. There's really nothing particularly special about it: girl dislikes popular boy at school, boy ends up living with her through a series of contrived events, they start to like each other as we readers realize that he's really had a thing for her all along. It's a formula that dates back before shoujo heroes were evil jerks and has been retold at least a thousand and one times. It's the grilled cheese of shoujo manga: warm, comfortable, and not all that good for you if you consume too much of it. Ayu Watanabe sticks close to the norms in the first volume, keeping things light and familiar with the romance generated mostly from our knowledge of where things are likely to go in future books. It's an uncomplicated read, and when the day has been long, the dog has thrown up a sock you didn't know he ate, and you just want to curl up and escape, it really fits the bill.

WTF Did I Just Read?!: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood volumes 1 – 3
by Hirohiko Araki, Viz, $19.99 each

Despite the fact that I've written multiple reviews of this manga, there really are no words to describe it. Hirohiko Araki's classic shounen/seinen epic should feel like a bad parody of adventure stories: it's got ludicrously over-powered villains who get their magic/immortality from a deranged Aztec cult's evil mask, it plays fast and loose with history, and the primary antagonist loves to announce his name every time he voices, well, anything. Add to that the fact that Araki's characters have sweet little faces atop bodies bulging with muscles, that women look like men with breasts wearing skirts, and the frantic amounts of both action and sound effects, and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure looks like it should be the least comprehensible manga ever. But it isn't – somehow, all of these strange things combine to make a whole that is totally addictive from page one, even if every few pages you have stop and say, “Wait, what just happened?” JoJo's offers a bizarre adventure indeed, and one that, despite its numerous oddities, makes its mark on your brain. You may not always think you got it, but somehow, that ends up not really mattering at all.

Runner Up: Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto volume 1

Nami Sano's series about superhuman (or non-human?) Sakamoto doesn't quite hit the same highs on the What-The-Hell-Ometer that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure does, but it's still got plenty of odd head-scratching moments as you watch high school student Sakamoto do his thing. Who is he, really? What is he? As the volume gets weirder and weirder, about all that you can clearly discern is that you're definitely going to be reading more of it.

And that wraps things up for me. There were obviously many more titles that were noteworthy this year, and doubtless different ones stood out to you. Come tell us about them in the forum and have a happy, manga-filled new year!

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