No doubt about it, this was a great year for manga, with the return of some classic older series and the debut of some fascinating new ones. While I was thinking about the best new series of 2015, I was looking for stories that push the boundaries of the standard genres—or step outside them altogether. At the same time, each one had to be a compelling read. If reading it felt like work, it got tossed off the stack. Here, then, is my list of the top 14 manga I couldn’t put down in 2015.
Tokyo Ghoul, by Sui Ishida
Tokyo Ghoul pits ghouls, creatures who must eat human flesh to survive, against a team of human investigators in a supernatural action story set in the streets of Tokyo. Standing between the two worlds is Ken Kaneki, a human who became a strange hybrid when he received an organ transplant from a ghoul. The story follows Ken as he tries to find his way through this new reality, torn between his human attachment to others and his new and urgent physical needs, and Ishida plays it out nicely with a carefully constructed subculture of ghouls as well as the increasing threat from the human investigators.
One Punch Man, by ONE and Yusuke Murata
One Punch Man sends up superhero and giant-monster comics but also delivers the genuine goods with plenty of solid action sequences. Saitama, a laid-off salaryman, is inspired to become a superhero after he rescues a child from a monster. After three years of training (with a regimen so intense he lost all his hair), he can now dispatch any monster with a single punch. Unfortunately, this makes life boring again, so with his cyborg sidekick Genos, he goes after greater and greater challenges, and the creators come up with weirder and weirder creations for him to fight. Saitama is an odd protagonist; his superpowers come strictly from hard training and willpower, yet he often seems disengaged from the action, even when Genos and the monsters are going at it. His aloofness is emphasized by the fact that he is drawn as a simple cartoon character, while the rest of the comic is done in superb shonen-action style by Eyeshield 21 creator Yusuke Murata.
Kill La Kill, by Ryo Akizuki, Kazuki Nakashima, and TRIGGER
The student clubs at Honnouji Academy are pretty extreme, even by manga standards: as new student Ryuki Matoi walks up the steps, she passes the body of someone who didn’t quite meet expectations and was strung up by his superiors. The elite students at the academy wear special clothes, called Goku Uniforms, that protect them from harm, which is just as well, because they do a lot of fighting. Ryuki comes to the school in search of her father’s murderer, carrying the murder weapon—half a giant pair of scissors—that turns out to be the only thing that can penetrate the suits. Based on the anime of the same name, Kill la Kill is an action-packed manga that doesn’t take itself at all seriously. The violence is extreme but cartoony, and the characters are larger than life.
Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? by Fujino Omori and Kunieda
This Yen Press series is set in a monster-filled dungeon and features a 14-year-old adventurer, Bell Cranel, who is fighting his way through this strange world while having romantic adventures. Based on the light novels of the same name, it offers often hilarious, over-the-top fantasy action and plenty of bumbling romance.
Planetes, by Makoto Yukimura
The name “Planetes” literally means “wanderers,” and that’s a good description of this sci-fi series, which is more soap opera than space opera. Yuri, Hachi, and Fee float through space, scooping up loose debris to keep their fellow travelers safe, but the stories Yukimura weaves around them all deal with different facets of life away from earth, from a girl who was born on the moon and has never lived on her home planet to terrorists who use violence to push humans out of space. This comes most sharply into focus with the stories about Hachi’s family: He is working the garbage route in hopes of saving up enough money to buy his own spaceship; his father is a renowned astronaut whose long absences have had a profound impact on the family; his brother is a scrappy youngster who is building his own rockets. Yukimura is the creator of one of my favorite series, Vinland Saga, and while this manga has a quieter feel, it is just as compelling. Planetes was originally published by Tokyopop and has been revived by Dark Horse in a deluxe omnibus format that makes reading it even more of a pleasure.
Yowamushi Pedal, by Wataru Watanabe
My favorite sort of high school story is the one where the misfit slowly gains acceptance, and that’s basically what Yowamushi Pedal is—with bikes. Lovable otaku Sakamichi Onoda is happy to be starting high school and looks forward to joining the anime club and finally making friends with the same tastes he has. Alas, there is no anime club, but Onoda starts meeting people for another reason—his biking prowess. Once a week Onoda rides to Akihabara and back on his single-speed, totally non-streamlined “mommy bike.” Compensating for his bike’s shortcomings has led him to develop some great cycling skills, and that catches the eye of Imaizumi, a classmate who is training to be a competitive bicycle racer. With some prodding from Imaizumi and a bit of technical help from a girl who is a bike enthusiast, Onoda starts taking cycling more seriously and ends up joining the school’s cycling club. Watanabe’s expressive, energetic art really pulls this story together, and he’s kind enough to stop along the way and explain the more abstruse elements of biking, so even those of us who have never encountered a derailleur before can enjoy this manga.
Seraphim: 266613336 Wings, by Mamoru Oshii and Satoshi Kon
It’s kind of cruel to include Seraphim: 266613336 Wings in a roundup like this, because it’s incomplete and will always remain so, but the fragment that we have is so beautifully drawn and so well told that it can’t be left off the list. It has oddly mythical elements—a mysterious disease that causes people to see visions and grow wings, then harden and die; a trio of “magi,” two men and a dog, who are sent to investigate; and a silent girl who accompanies them, for reasons that aren’t clear—yet the story is set in modern times and filled with concrete details. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a deeper meaning beneath it all, but that deeper meaning will never be made clear, because Kon and Oshii had creative differences, and Kon (best known as the director of the anime Paprika) died in 2010. Nonetheless, this is a book that deserves to be read for the experience alone, and this single volume is a magnificent addition to any manga collection.
Prophecy, by Tetsuya Tsutsui
Prophecy mixes up the old-fashioned police procedural with a very modern tale of online mob justice. A mysterious character called “Paperboy” posts videos on the web announcing a victim and a crime, and when the sentence is carried out, the elite cyber crime squad is left fumbling for clues. All the victims have done awful things, from spreading food poisoning to opining online that a rape victim was asking for it, and the retaliation ranges from public humiliation to beatings and arson. One of the fascinating things about this story is watching the cyber squad’s horror as public opinion shifts and the vigilantes become heroes. The story has surprising emotional pull—there’s a particularly poignant moment when Paperboy condemns an online poster who made fun of a 32-year-old job seeker—and that, along with the cleverness of the plot twists, makes it an engrossing read. The art is clear and easy to follow, so it’s as great a choice for fans of Law and Order as it is for fans of Death Note, and it’s complete in three volumes.
The Demon Prince of Momochi House, by Aya Shuouto
A determined girl is thrown in with a group of hot guys and a supernatural menace. Fruits Basket? Nah, but The Demon Prince of Momochi House has a lot of the same ingredients. Orphan Himari inherits a house in the woods on her 16th birthday, but it turns out to be a portal into the world of the spirits called ayakashi. Not only that, there are three guys living in the house already, the human Aoi and his two ayakashi companions; Aoi has accidentally become the guardian of the house, transforming spectacularly into an ayakashi when called upon to defend Himari from the evil spirits. With high emotion, uncanny supernatural sequences, and beautiful artwork, this a shoujo manga lover’s shoujo manga.
Tokyo ESP, by Hajime Segawa
At its heart, Tokyo ESP is a superhero story, but there are a lot of layers to it. The superheroes—and supervillains—acquire psychic powers such as telekinesis from a stream of flowing goldfish who fly through the skies of Tokyo. One of the first to be touched is Rinka Urushiba, a teenager who is just concerned with putting the next meal on the table for herself and her father, a former detective and raging alcoholic. Rinka’s power is a disconcerting one—she can pass through solid objects, including her school uniform and the floor of her apartment—and she’s still trying to figure out what that’s all about when an oddball schoolmate, Kyotaro Azuma, comes along and starts urging her to be a superhero. Rinka resists, but the situation soon spins out of control when a superpowered group tries to muscle in on the local yakuza—and takes her newfound friend Murasaki hostage. Segawa glories in action scenes, from fights to exploding buildings to a huge pileup of cars and trucks, but he also takes the time to show the characters awkwardly learning their powers and just as awkwardly learning to trust one another. Adding to the richness of this world is the surrealistic imagery that pops up from time to time, from the glowing fish in the sky to a hippo that goes flying down the street in a cube of water.
My Hero Academia, by Kouhei Horikoshi
The superhero-school story My Hero Academia is set in a world where almost everyone is born with a superpower (called “quirks”). Izuki Midoriya is one of the unlucky few who was born without a quirk, and he gets picked on a lot by the school bully, but he is also fascinated by superpowers and has made a close study of them. Things turn around when the greatest superhero of all time, All Might, decides to bequeath his power to Midoriya and secretly train him to be a superhero. This helps Midoriya get into an elite superhero high school, but of course that is only the beginning of his troubles. What makes the story interesting, and gives Horikoshi plenty of scope for plot twists, is that the powers are narrow and limited—each character can basically only do one thing, and only within certain constraints. That makes for entertaining reading and pushes the story beyond the standard shonen tropes.
Requiem of the Rose King, by Aya Kanno
Aya Kanno’s story of family, war, and revenge, set during the Wars of the Roses, is based loosely on Shakespeare’s Richard III. Rejected by his mother but beloved by his father, Richard fits uncomfortably into his family for reasons that become clear in volume 1 (no spoilers here!), but he has an important part to play in the battle for the throne. Kanno’s storytelling here is far from the breezy comedy of her earlier series, Otomen; it’s dark and sometimes elliptical, drawing on real historical events and figures as well as elements of her own creation. At the same time, though, it draws on a theme that runs through much of her work, that of self-determination and finding one’s own place in the world, totally apart from the expectations of others. Dark and fascinating, Requiem of the Rose King is a complex and difficult story but also a fascinating read.
Inuyashiki, by Hiroya Oku
Aging salaryman Ichiro Inuyashiki can’t get any respect, even from his family—when he brings them to the new house he has just bought, they complain it’s too small and then ditch him to go out for dinner. He can’t even get them to pay attention to him long enough to tell them he’s dying of stomach cancer. And then he gets killed by aliens. To correct that mistake and cover the tracks, the aliens recreate him, but not having any blueprints for humans on hand, they transform him into a massively superpowered weapon instead. Inuyashiki first taps into his new powers when he catches some teenagers bullying a homeless man, and his administration of justice is spectacular and very satisfying. The first volume is all about Inuyashiki and his realization that he has the power to right some of the wrongs in the world, but he wasn’t the only human killed and revived by the aliens that night, and the other person who got new powers isn’t anywhere near as benign. Oku is also the creator of Gantz.
A Silent Voice, by Yoshitoki Oima
A story of bullying told from the bully’s point of view, A Silent Voice stands out among high-school manga for the absolute authenticity of the emotions it depicts. Shoya is a compulsive thrill-seeker whose cheery but oblivious mother does little to rein him in. When Shoko, a deaf girl, transfers into his school, she becomes his target, but after the bullying goes too far and she leaves the school, he realizes that he is a target too. Years later, at a dead end, he reaches out to her to make amends—and the story gets even more tangled. Everything about this manga is a breath of fresh air: The art is expressive, the characters feel solid, and the story is original and unpredictable. Most remarkably, Oima is able to portray the inner world of a bully convincingly, without making us sympathize with him or hate him.