Best Manga and Light Novels of 2017by Rebecca Silverman,
2017 has been a very interesting year for manga, with a greatly increased focus on digital-only releases and an influx of excellent LBGTQ+ literature. We've also seen the release of some anticipated titles in English, as well as an increase in older manga, either in its original form or reworked for a new generation of readers, and as an added bonus, more shoujo and sports titles are making their way into English as digital releases. It's exciting, as is the fact that more light novels are also being translated – definitely a good time to be a bibliophile. That makes it a daunting task to narrow things down, so rather than simply make a list of the ten best manga releases, I've decided to pick ten categories, so as to pay tribute to specific literary genres, best ofs, and in a couple of cases, really well used plot devices. Now, despite the fact that I do read a ridiculous amount, I still couldn't read everything that came out in English this year, so be sure to come over to the forums to tell us your choices for 2017's best manga and light novel releases and your own “Best of” categories!
There was a surprisingly large amount of good historical manga released in 2017, from ongoing gems like Vinland Saga and Kaze Hikaru to new entries like Golden Kamuy. But none of them quite have the emotional impact of Fumiyo Kouno's In This Corner of the World. Possibly that's because World War Two is such a cultural touchstone, both here and in Japan – it's a time that people still living remember, and the horrors of it are seared into our collective memory. Kouno's three volume manga, released her as an omnibus by Seven Seas, taps right into those memories and stories as it tells the tale of Suzu, a young woman raised in Hiroshima and living in the country just outside of it during the bombing. Unlike most WWII pieces, Suzu's story is about the people just trying to live their lives while the world goes to hell around them. Suzu's understanding of the world is shaped by both government propaganda and the sometimes contradictory evidence she sees with her own eyes. She's an innocent character, but not a naïve one, struggling to make sense of a world that has changed drastically over the course of her brief life. Kouno's narrative doesn't shy away from the horrors of what the people in Hiroshima suffered, but it also doesn't harp on it, instead focusing on how Suzu and her family process them. From her childhood sweetheart who doesn't come back from war to the difficulties of finding basic necessities, Kouno's manga is drawn from the memories of the people who lived through this particular wartime – and their stories are strikingly similar to anyone's in any countries. In This Corner of the World captures a time and place with clarity while still allowing us to see the moments of joy and beauty that sometimes pierced through. If historical fiction's job is to bring us to the past to truly experience it, In This Corner of the World more than fulfills that requirement.
While there were a number of good yuri and BL romances that also came out this year (two Milk Morinaga series and Sweet Blue Flowers come to mind), Nagata Kabi's My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and Gengoroh Tagame's My Brother’s Husband stand out for their honesty and refusal to paint LBGTQ+ issues with a rosy brush. Kabi's single volume about her struggles to understand her own sexuality and feelings about her body is excruciatingly honest, and it has the power to resonate with anyone who has ever not quite fit into one of society's molds, be that heterosexual or somewhere on the LBGTQ+ spectrum. Kabi's openness with her attempts to come to terms with herself (and maybe even like herself) are at times difficult to read, especially since she appears to lack some of the vocabulary she needs, but her willingness to share her experiences makes this important. Meanwhile, Tagame's My Brother’s Husband looks at the prejudices people can harbor. Yaichi is raising his daughter alone when a Canadian man named Mike shows up on his doorstep saying that he's Yaichi's deceased twin brother's husband. Yaichi knew that Ryoji was gay, but he didn't expect to be forced to confront his discomfort with that fact so blatantly, and certainly not after his brother's death. When Mike asks for Yaichi's help in learning more about his husband's past, Yaichi feels obliged to invite him to stay – and then he's forced to realize that despite all of his misconceptions about gay relationships and gay men, Mike is just a human being grieving the loss of his beloved spouse, like anyone else. Tagame addresses basic prejudices like the bizarre misconception that gay men prey on children as well as the difficulties of growing up not fitting in – the subplot about a neighborhood boy afraid to come out seeking solace and advice from Mike is very well done. Simply put, between these two books, the authors cover both the insider and outsider perspectives of not fitting in or being accepted (even by yourself) for who you are based on your sexuality. While they'd also pair well with last year's English release of Rokudenashiko's What is Obscenity?, they're also just good books to read on their own merits – and may have the power to help someone feel less alone.
If Lemony Snicket reminded parents and publishers of anything, it's that kids like a dark and disturbing story as much as grown-ups. Perhaps no recent manga has built on that quite as much as the first volume of The Promised Neverland, written by Kaiu Shirai and illustrated gorgeously by Posuka Demizu. Like Mr. Snicket's work, Shirai's story focuses on children in danger from the adults in their lives – only in this case, it's not their fortunes they're after, it's their delicious flesh. Set in a future where demonic beings have taken over, the story follows plucky eleven-year-old orphan Emma as she realizes that the idyllic orphanage she's been raised in is actually just a farm for raising tasty children for our evil overlords. When she realizes what's going on after the “adoption” of a younger girl, Emma and her fellow eleven-year-olds Ray and Norman begin plotting their escape - but Emma's not willing to leave any of the orphans behind, meaning that their escape plan needs to be absolutely foolproof. With only one collected volume available in English as of this writing, things are still in the planning stages, but I'll be very surprised if they all make it out alive. (I have the worst feeling about Norman – he's got “bait” written all over him.) This makes the book not only rife with tension, but also gives the adults time to bring in reinforcements, meaning that Emma's got increasingly difficult odds to work with. From the use of a fish-eye perspective to give us the same trapped feeling as the kids have to the scale on which things are drawn, The Promised Neverland is able to appeal to both children and adults as the orphans fight for their right to grow up. It's nightmare fuel in the best way.
One of Kodansha's digital-only releases, Domestic Girlfriend is the most plot-twisty, melodramatic, angst-ridden teen romance since Tokyopop released Mars in the late 1990s. This story has everything: random sexual encounters with girls who turn out to be your new stepsister, inappropriate relationships with older people (one married), jealousy over other people's successes, remarkably unobservant parents and teachers…it's just the gift that keeps on giving, and that's only what's been covered in the volumes released this year! The story follows Natsuo, the only son of a single dad, who is madly in love with his teacher. One night he goes out for karaoke and a girl from another school asks if he'll have sex with her so that people will stop telling her that she couldn't possibly understand things because she's a virgin. Natsuo's not going to turn down the chance to lose his virginity, so he agrees. Flash forward to his dad informing Natsuo that he's getting remarried to a woman who has two daughters. One daughter is of course Rui, the girl Natsuo just had sex with. The other? His teacher. Things absolutely do devolve from there, but what's so good about Domestic Girlfriend is the way that Kei Sasuga uses the melodrama without making it the raison d'être of the series. She makes it clear that it's all in the characters' heads, and that while Natsuo and Rui can be excused for their poor decisions, Hina (big sister teacher) has much less of a leg to stand on – in fact, Sasuga goes out of her way to show us that Hina has a history of making bad romantic choices. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the story becomes near impossible to put down - just because most of the melodrama is in Natsuo's head doesn't mean that it's not still fascinating. There are of course some weird “because manga” situations, such as the scene when Natsuo has to give Rui a suppository medication, but for the most part scenes involving nudity are only sexual because of whose eyes we see them through and sex scenes are pretty tame. That Sasuga is an artist with a good grasp of anatomy and a nice, clean style certainly helps, but really, this is the kind of story you read to see how much more melodramatic and/or ludicrous it can get. It's a true can't-look-away wreck of a story, and since that's clearly what it wants to be, it's doing an awesome job.
On the surface, Mari Yoshino's Peach Heaven is just another shoujo romance with a jerk hero and a plot relying heavily on unlikely circumstances: Momo's father died when she was in middle school, leaving she and her younger brother with not only debt, but also no way to pay their mother's ongoing hospital bills. Well, almost no way – it turns out that Dad had a successful career as an erotic novelist under the pen name “George Aihara,” and Momo valiantly steps up to take it over, despite being a middle school girl with zero experience. Now in her second year of high school, Momo's desperately trying to keep churning out the smut while keeping it a secret from her classmates and teachers. She's doing a pretty good job until she sees Ranmaru, a boy a grade behind her, having an affair with a teacher and uses it as inspiration for her next story. Ranmaru finds out, and thus begins their tempestuous relationship…because he's blackmailing her, of course. Admittedly, this is a fairly creative plot for a romance that wobbles on the border of shoujo and josei, but what really makes it stand out is how creative Yoshino (via Momo) is with her sexual euphemisms. No “manhood” for her – Yoshino tailors the terrible puns for each scenario, so one story involving a priestess has a “log” being offered at her “shrine,” while photography scenarios discuss “telephoto lenses.” It's an amazing case of “so bad it's good,” and that's because Yoshino knows how silly she's being. There's more than a little winking and nudging, and that's what makes this so ridiculously fun. It's also nice to see a romance manga for teen readers handle sex as something that isn't shameful or revered – it's just something that Momo writes about but isn't ready to do herself, and while Ranmaru teases her about it, ultimately he does respect her wishes. In fact, their romance is pretty low-key, forming a nice counterbalance to each ludicrously described sex scene Momo pens, and when they do eventually do the deed, Momo notes that porn is nothing like reality. This is another digital-only release, which may have kept it off some readers' radar, but it's really a lot of fun – and there really is something to be said for a truly terrible metaphor.
I almost left out this category, because there were some particularly strong final volumes released this year, from the perfect happily-ever-after of So Cute It Hurts!! to the unsettling end of Goodnight Punpun. But Tokyo Ghoul's final volume really does stand out, not only because it organically leaves room for the sequel series, but also because it does such a good job of tying all of the previous books' themes together. Sui Ishida made it clear in ways both subtle and not that he was working with the base themes of Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein as he explored Kaneki's changes over the course of the story, and volume fourteen not only brought those issues to a head, it also called to mind specific quotations from the novel itself. Kaneki becomes both Victor Frankenstein and his creation as the final battle rages on, a person created and then battered about by conflicting views of who or what he should be. Ultimately Kaneki is unable to decide for himself if he is the monster or the man, and that's what sets up for a sequel where it has been decided for him. Ishida's ending is a blend of literary themes and horror/terror tropes that works on several levels, and that's not only not easy to pull off, but also an ending that can stick with you, even as the sequel begins to tell its tale.
Again, this is a category where there are multiple contenders – the new iteration of Devilman deserves mention, and Grimms Manga Tales also did some really interesting things with established stories. (Plus technically Tokyo Ghoul could fit here.) But the two Parasyte anthologies brought together both shounen and shoujo creators to craft a series of short stories that both played with and played in Iwaaki's original world, and the variety of relevant tales is pretty astounding. All of the creators were able to keep the story's world recognizable even if they ultimately went off and did their own thing with it, while others were adept at keeping both characters and plot intact. (Yuri Narushima's story in f, about Shinichi's father, is particularly good on this front.) While it certainly does help to actually be familiar with the original Parasyte story, the pieces that don't directly deal with Iwaaki's characters make the basics of the world clear enough that you could just pick these up as short story collections, which also speaks to their strength. We don't have to recognize a source or tribute to see it as a good read, and that's the case in more than just a few of these pieces. Retelling is an art, as is writing in a shared world. Most of the creators in these two volumes have a firm grasp of both of those arts, and that's really something.
I guess it was a decent year for graphic memoirs, because this is the second on the list. Yeon-sik Hong's multi-volume recounting of how he and his wife moved to the countryside after only having lived in the big city (published as an omnibus by Drawn & Quarterly) is part Green Acres and part absolutely relatable. Both are struggling author/artists in Seoul, trying to make it financially, when they realize that maybe what they really need is good, fresh air. So they rent a house above a remote mountain village in the provinces, pack up their cat and their art supplies, and off they go! It's a dream trip for them both, but one that at times can feel like a nightmare, from having to deal with obnoxious day-trippers who leave litter in their yard or eat the vegetables from their hard-won garden to simply figuring out how to heat the house over the long, cold winter, which of course brings them to the always-joyful decision about what heating material to use based on both efficiency and cost. They're definitely fish out of water (or maybe fish on a mountain), but each small triumph, like finding the perfect swimming hole or adopting their first dog, is recounted with clear, delighted innocence that reaffirms for both them and the reader that they've made the right choice. Over the course of their tenure on the mountain they begin to find professional success as well as personal happiness, and Hong's cartoony figures on realistic, detailed backgrounds are reminiscent of the work of Shigure Mizuki, a comparison that holds up in the general feel of how he depicts the deep forests of his new home. Uncomfortably Happily doesn't have the wide-ranging, exciting plot appeal of other manhwa releases like Give to the Heart or Void's Enigmatic Mansion, but it is a thoroughly good book about one couple's decision to leave it all behind.
Best Use of a Bear: Golden Kamuy
by Satoru Noda, Viz, $12.99
Okay, I know this is a weird one, but if you've read the first two volumes of Satoru Noda's historical fiction series, you'll understand. With a style reminiscent of the great adventure pulp storytellers of the early twentieth century and a deep respect for native Ainu culture, Noda's story follows Russo-Japanese War vet Sugimoto as he ventures into the Hokkaido wilderness in search of a treasure to pay for his first love/best friend's widow's eye treatment. Once there he teams up with Asirpa, a young Ainu woman whose father was killed over that very same treasure. Together he and Asirpa set out to stop the evildoers who would repeat the Ainu killings to get their hands on it as Sugimoto learns about how to survive and Ainu culture. And of course they fight bears. We're not talking about a simple “shoot the bear” kind of fight, either – Sugimoto (and later one of the bad guys) straight up wrestle with not one, but two massive, enraged ursine creatures, relying on skill, luck, and, in Sugimoto's case, Asirpa's cultural know-how to take down the beasts who would be perfectly happy to crush their skulls. In fact, the second fight results in a guy getting his face literally ripped off and it hangs by a flap of skin for the rest of the fight, bare muscle and bone showing through. If it sounds gross, it absolutely is, and I certainly don't condone random animal violence. But the way Noda handles both fights is breathtaking and it really drives home the whole man-is-also-an-animal theme of wartime cruelties. Sugimoto's fights against the bears is not only good action writing/drawing, but it also reminds us of what he went through on the battlefield, where the only difference was that the bears were dressed like soldiers. This is driven home by the fact that Sugimoto takes in the orphaned cub of the second bear – he didn't want to have to kill the momma bear, but he also didn't want to die himself – and at least he can ensure that her cub has a chance of survival.
Anime based on novels or manga don't often have the chance to fully cover their source materials, so getting the chance to find out what happens to the characters after the anime ends can be a major treat. In the case of the moe schoolgirl/zombie horror mashup School Live, that almost feels like it goes double. The show ends with the girls heading out into their brave new world with no idea of what they'll find, or even if there are any other survivors, although it is implied that there are. Volume six of Norimitsu Kaihō and Sadoru Chiba's source manga takes us beyond that point. The “graduation journey” that the girls embark on not only forces them to really accept and come to terms with what's happened to their world, but it also opens up new vulnerabilities. Is Yuuri really okay, or are her nerves and grip on reality beginning to fray? How long can Yuki keep suppressing her understanding of what's going on? And did Kurumi's cure work as well as everyone else assumes it did? These questions, not addressed in the anime, begin to come to the fore as the true horrors of what happened to those without a safe haven begin to become truly evident. Bringing the story out of the high school takes it to new levels for both the plot and the characters, and while other contenders for this category are also strong, School-Live! really takes the cake with its careful execution.
Maybe Charlotte's Web, E. B. White's classic 1952 children's novel, predisposed some us of to be more open to the idea of a spider as the protagonist of a story, but despite the fantasy elements present in White's tale, I doubt even he saw this one coming. Okina Baba's take on the now-ubiquitous isekai genre (reborn-into-a-game-like-world version) stars a heroine who drew the short end of the reincarnation stick and ended up as a spider monster deep in the world's largest dungeon. Kumoko (not her real name) isn't entirely sure what happened, but she's determined to make the best of it, and through a series of trial and error survival techniques, she manages not only to survive, but to thrive as a young hatchling. It definitely helps that she's got her human mind in that spider-monster body, to say nothing of her sense of humor and sarcasm and a history of playing RPGs. Thus she's well-positioned to make a go of her new life, and we're similarly in luck, because her adventures are both funny and exciting. The novel also intersperses the voices of some of her more fortunately-placed reborn classmates, but to be honest, those experiences pale in comparison to Kumoko's travails. Baba's use of humor and ability to make a spider a real character keep this novel standing out when the shock value of its unusual heroine wear off, and since the plot is anything but wish fulfillment (which many isekai novels either are or feel like), this is one of the most fun and interesting light novels to be released in 2017.
They say that art imitates life, and while there's some art I'd challenge on that front, Shiden Kanzaki's Black Bullet series has been treading ever-closer to current political climates. Since it passed the manga back in volume five, the series has also gotten progressively darker, and while volume seven lacks in the kind of brutal battles and grim descriptions of books five and six, it's still one of the darkest thus far…because a lot of it feels so eerily familiar. With only 112 pages, it's also clearly set up for what's to come in the next volume, but that's almost scarier, because what it appears to be setting up for is nations manipulated into war by one or two unscrupulous parties. Rentaro spends most of this book trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on, while Lady Seitenshi tries desperately to stop the flow of misinformation while still keeping state secrets guarded. That an outside force previously thought neutralized is still very much in play comes as a horrible surprise, and they're enough of a rogue figure that even when the plan and identity are revealed, there's still a sense of real hopelessness that they can be stopped. Add to this the re-emergence of themes of prejudice as Enju enrolls in yet another new school, where she once again faces anti-Cursed Children bias and the ludicrous rumors about their origins, and you've got an alarmingly familiar picture of the world – just, you know, with giant mutant beasts of unknown origin trying to kill all humanity. The Bullet That Changed the World as a title is a reference to the first shots fired that kicked off major wars – the battle at Lexington and Concord and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, for example. Whether that's a literal bullet this time isn't yet clear, but Kanzaki makes it feel worth our while to find out.
Who knew harems involved so much paperwork? Dojyomaru's grounded take on the isekai (summoned-hero version) novel is getting a print release in 2018, which will hopefully draw more attention to this oddly engaging hybrid of resource management and fantasy novel. When a social science/history major is summoned to a fantasy kingdom to act as their hero, the king quickly realizes that the college student has a much better grasp of government than he ever will, and instead of sending the hero into battle, the king betroths him to his daughter and abdicates the throne. Now Kazuya is stuck trying to avert war, stop a famine, and reunite arguing factions, all while also hoping that the demons don't decide to invade. It's a tough job, and one that can only be done with a skilled staff and reams of paperwork. Actually, “reams” doesn't quite cut it – most of Kazuya's time is spent pushing paper, at least when he's not out building infrastructure or making sharp decisions that draw even more beautiful women to his side in this conveniently polygamous society. Along with all of this are references to the great nation builders of our world, or at least the books that tell you how to do it; you've never seen so much Machiavelli in a light novel. While there are moments where things slow to a crawl, for the most part Dojyomaru is a good enough writer to keep everything interesting, despite the among of bureaucratic red tape Kazuya lays down. (In part he does this by switching narrators and perspectives fairly often.) If you've ever wondered why there aren't more summoned heroes mentioning how good roads would really help a Medieval kingdom thrive, or if you'd just like a little practicality with your fantasy, this is the series for you.
The Faraway Paladin is probably one of my favorite book series I've read in 2017, never mind distinctions like “light novel” or “for work.” Kanata Yanagino's sword and sorcery series (three novels out in English as of this writing) is simply well-plotted, good fantasy; that it comes with the illustrations of a light novel and happened to be written in Japanese are secondary. The first novel does begin with the familiar conceit of protagonist William being reborn from modern Japan into a fantasy world, but that's where things stop – the tale of how the child is raised by three undead heroes from a long-ago war in a ruined city to become a paladin is a well-crafted work, and the subsequent books, with William taking on the surname “Maryblood” for two of his adoptive parents and heading out into the world to continue their legacy of doing good, are, if not quite as beautiful, still excellent examples of old-school fantasy novels. The characters are well drawn, the world fascinating, and the story unfolds naturally. There are a few awkward stumbling blocks (like William coming to sexual maturity or some of the conversations in book two), but these really are just good novels. Hopefully they'll get a print release somewhere down the line, because they deserve to be read outside of just the light novel community.
It was a tough call between this and I Became the Secretary of a Hero!, but at the end of the day, The Combat Baker and Automaton Waitress' title was the one that gave me a little less hope for a good book. And how happy I am to have been wrong! Following the adventures of a soldier turned baker, SOW's novel pays attention to how its hero was actually affected by being in combat for so long. He's an uneasy person, and some of that comes off in how he carries himself (to say nothing of how he looks), so his bakery isn't doing particularly well. That's when the waitress enters – the oddly named Sven's cute good looks are just what Lud needs to get his wares to sell. But there's more to Sven than at first appears – she's actually born of the AI Lud used to pilot his war machine back in the day, and she has feelings for the man who was kind to her even when she was just a weapon of war. This sets the series up to talk about not only Lud's lingering PTSD (well-portrayed in general), but also about the nature of emotions and how they affect both people and “things,” as Sven was regarded back in the day. It's a surprisingly thoughtful novel (the second one has recently come out as of this writing, though I haven't read it yet), and it mixes that with lighter moments and some pastry that sounds delicious. The stumbling block for some readers may be that it's only available on BookWalker's site and can't be downloaded to an e-reader, but it's a good enough story that it's worth the (slight) trouble it takes to access it.
And that's the list! Thanks for reading, and don't forget to come by the forums to add your categories and nominations.
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