Some stories are so out of the mainstream they're easy to skip -- but you'll be missing something if you do
ASK ANY manga fan to rattle off which publishers are releasing their favorite series, and the first few answers will probably come quickly: Tokyopop, Viz, Del Rey Dark Horse, CMX, ADV. Some of the harder-core fans might even mention some of the publishers with smaller market shares, like DrMaster, Broccoli Books and Go!Comi.
And then there's Fanfare/Ponent Mon. If manga are considered "alternative comics" by some members of the American comics world, then Fanfare/Ponent Mon's stuff could well be considered alternative alternative. Their books are generally bigger and are more expensive than a good chunk of what's currently available in the manga market -- the books we're looking at here cost anywhere from $17.99 to $23.99 retail.
But it's a bit like wine in a sense: Sure, there are products for the masses, but there are also products that true connoisseurs can enjoy even more.
Here, we offer a look at three books that most manga fans probably missed on their way to picking up the latest volume of "Fruits Basket" or "Naruto."
It's Kayoko Kirishima's senior year at her all-girls high school, and she finds herself sitting behind Masami Endô, who was suspended the previous year. Kirishima has always been fascinated by Endô, so a few days later she takes a chance and invites the girl to eat lunch with her and her friends.
Their friendship only grows stronger from there, and the two girls discover they really like each other. But Kirishima's adulation for the other girl and Endô's secrets prove a barrier between them. When Endô disappears near the end of term, Kirishima comes to understand more about herself and what it means to love someone else.
The first thing striking about this manga is its minimalism. There are no elaborately drawn backgrounds and no distracting colors, allowing the focus to remain on the teens. The only faces we see are the main girls'. Almost everyone else -- Endô's parents, the school nurse, their teachers, other students -- consist of disjointed dialogue bubbles with short sentences that convey the essence of their personalities. You feel as though the only ones who exist are the girls, their problems, their emotions.
Kirishima and Endô's relationship remains platonic despite the direction the story seems to be heading. The girls hold hands and kiss, but there's nothing sexual in their actions, no vague feeling of illicitness in their intimacy.
"Blue" is a honest story of the love between close friends and the hurt caused when secrets and mistrust get in the way. It's a reminder that friendship can be every bit as fulfilling -- and as painful -- as romantic love.
Arguably no one is more qualified to write a manga about spending time in prison than Kazuichi Hanawa. That's because the main character of this manga is Hanawa himself, in an autobiographical piece.
A commentary written by manga critic Tomofusa Kure and included with this book explains: Hanawa, a collector of model guns, was arrested in 1994 on firearms violations after he was caught trying out some of his remodeled guns in the hills. He was sentenced to three years in prison without probation.
The fruits of his stay are reflected in meticulous detail, page after page, illustrating every aspect of life behind bars, from the strict order that the guards impose on inmates to the inmates' everyday routines to the food served at meals.
In contrast to "Blue," the way Hanawa renders his environments is so detailed that one could easily reconstruct a prison room in real life based on his drawings alone, accurate right down to the number of tatami mats lining the floors.
Granted, it can get a bit maddening at times, like in one two-page spread depicting every last piece of food the prisoners got for meals over one week. Still, it's admirable to see how precise Hanawa is in sharing what he saw.
There really is no beginning or end to any of it; the reader never sees Hanawa entering prison or leaving it. Except for a few instances when Hanawa comments on how he feels about certain events, he also remains remarkably detached from his experience, choosing not to comment directly about jail conditions or his fellow prisoners' crimes.
Rather, each chapter is more a stand-alone narrative where the author analyzes an experience he had, or the behaviors of his cellmates, or even the rooms he goes to. In Hanawa's eyes, he and his fellow prisoners are there for some reason and cope however best they can. Nothing more, nothing less.
Adding value to the package aside from Kure's commentary is an interview Hanawa did with playwright Kyoko Abe and manga critic Yukihiro Abe.
Kan Takahama's collection of pure slice-of-life stories takes on everything from business relationships to family squabbles to childhood friendships. It's not brutal, but neither is it kind -- it is full of weary cynicism that can't be condemned because the stories are so plain and real that we can't help but feel that's just the way life is.
As with "Blue," the art in "Kinderbook" sets itself apart from typical manga. It too has a vague style, but one that blurs rather than focuses. Takahama eschews the distinctly Japanese look for most of the characters, even though the stories take place in Japan, softening facial features into more neutral rounded ones.
In reading the stories one right after the other, one might get to wondering whether they have any real storytelling merit. Each one meanders, introducing people and engaging in dialogue that seems to lead toward some moral pronouncement but instead just abruptly ends.
But in a more careful perusal, the reader starts to notice subtle messages, saying that no matter what happens or how it happens, life goes on.
You feel as though you're reading the simple story of people's lives, being made privy to the little details that allow them to endure, without the embellishment on which memoirs thrive.
"Kinderbook" is a volume whose impact will not be immediately felt, its straightforwardness inviting easy acceptance while hiding some small but important lesson.