Top Five Manga 2019

sailor moon cast reading manga movie

Manga’s great.

In the past I haven’t done yearly top lists of manga (she says, when she hasn’t done the same, either, for anime recently), as whereas most anime zips by in a season or two, manga tends to serialize over a longer timescale – it feels to a degree more artificial to pick out one’s favorite manga from a single year than to do the same with anime. And then there’s the logistical matter that, even given that publishers like Viz and Yen have “simulpub” offerings, manga remains less instantaneously available for foreign fans than do most anime. But I wanted to take a hack at it this year, partly because the genre diversification of the anglophone manga market over the past five years has lead me, slowly but surely, back to reading more manga than I had been in the aftermath of all the publisher collapses ~2008-2011. I suppose another way of putting it would be – its a good time to be an anglophone manga reader! And because it is such a good time for that, I want to take the time to highlight the best offerings I encountered over 2019.

This is, admittedly, a somewhat messy list, in that most of the titles I mention can’t be neatly partitioned into 2019 alone. I’ve also opted to solely include titles which have had legal English language releases in 2019, which does mean that some of them were series you could’ve read much sooner if you were reading it in Japanese (or if you were reading scanlations… and if you were, I implore you that if you haven’t already to pick up the legal releases; its tough to eke out a living as a manga author without folks not paying for their work). So, some of these started this year, some of these ended this year, and some of them had volumes from the middle of their run released… and some of them did all three. (Linked titles, by the way, lead to the respective publishers’ pages for each manga.)

blue morning vol 1 cover

Blue Morning

Once upon a time, having read a couple of excellent reviews, I picked up the first volume of the yaoi Blue Morning. That was 2013. In 2019, at long last, the final volume came out from this dense, difficult, and enthralling tale of a young aristocrat in a rapidly changing Meiji-era Japan as he struggled to both live up to the expectations of his peers and to somehow grasp happiness in love. Blue Morning is a deeply adult work in a way that remains relatively unusual for yaoi available in English; if anything, the sort of story its telling reminds me a bit of Edith Wharton’s novels set in Gilded Age New York City, peopled with characters whose privileged place acts as the means of their entrapment. Mixed in with the political machinations and intimate yearning, too, is the question of whether its a good idea in the first place for Viscount Kuze to carve out a life with his repressed lover, as theirs is a relationship irrevocably colored by their different social stations and the twisted familial ties which have left the latter, once the heir presumptive, as the butler of the former. And all this against a backdrop of a Japan which is slowly, unwillingly coming to realize that it isn’t possible to simply take on the trappings of the Industrial Revolution and expect society to remain otherwise unchanged. Oh, yeah, and there’s a fair bit of fairly sensuous sex. Now that’s it’s finally wrapped up, I can say that if there’s only one yaoi manga you ever pick up, it should absolutely be this one.

land of the lustrous vol 9 cover

Land of the Lustrous

Land of the Lustrous continued to torment me in 2019, but in a good way; volumes 8 and 9 were published in English. If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it takes place in an odd world in which there are living beings made of minerals who spend much of their time fighting off unknowable creatures they call Lunarians. Phosphophyllite is a relatively young gem who dreams of fighting the Lunarians but who is much too weak to do so; Land of the Lustrous ends up following their quest to become strong, a task it turns out with a heavy toll which may be as much as of Phos’s own self. For a tale that begins relatively light-heartedly, Land of the Lustrous carefully works toward far darker territory, as what began as a quest for strength ends up calling into question absolutely everything Phos knows about their world and their existence. Simultaneously fascinating and grueling by these volumes, it took me a while to work up to get over being a weenie and read volume 9. Land of the Lustrous remains a unique manga well worth a read.

maiden railways cover

Maiden Railways

Centered around the Odakyu-Odawara Line, which connects Shinjuku to Odawara, this is a collection of sometimes loosely connected stories which involve people on the train, waiting for trains, trying to catch trains… and suffering the pangs of romance. Of the various manga which made the cut for my favorites of the year, it is probably the weakest, as while the climax of the best one took my breath away, a couple weren’t much to my taste (sure, its amusing for a train guard and a fare dodger to become interested in one another, but not so much when the fare dodger is a high schooler he’s threatening to throw off the train). Nevertheless, it still ranked as a favorite, and I was thrilled that we got some queer love in among all the heterosexual tales. Unlike is often the case, I wasn’t left with a sense when I finished each story that it had cut off just when it had gotten good. It also made me want to go ride the Odakyu-Odawara Line again. As I read, I wished author Asumiko Nakamura had kept up with the theme for more stories; she did end up expanding one of the stories in a couple subsequent volumes, but my preference was for these glimpses.

o maidens in your savage season vol 5 cover

O Maidens in Your Savage Season

So, before I touch on anything else, the title is great, isn’t it? O Maidens in Your Savage Season is about teen girls experiencing puberty and becoming horny, which is somewhat a simplification but nevertheless accurate. It is also frequently screamingly funny, due to a general lack of misunderstanding about sex itself paired with teenage exuberance… and that, unlike a lot of would-be sex comedies, the narrative fully respects its cast as they flounder about in their hormonal fog. And the cast is great – I would struggle to make up my mind if pressed on who is my favorite, as between wannabe novelist Hongo (who makes some jaw-droppingly terrible choices), queer Momoko (who, poor thing, is having to figure out her queerness while surrounded by straight girls), and oft-overwhelmed Kazusa (who starts off the manga thrown into a tizzy when she accidentally catches her childhood friend jerking off), as well as others, its hard to choose. While a couple of the subplots following individual girls give me a bit of pause (oh, Hongo, sweetie, hot for teacher is never a good idea, especially if you think you’re the one in control), on the whole its so funny and well-executed that I’m willing to see how it plays out. And, since there’s a general dearth of this kind of material to begin with, I’m glad to see one that’s handled this well. Girls deserve comedic dramas about discovering sex, too!

our dreams at dusk vol 4 cover

Our Dreams At Desk – Shimanami Tasogare

When Seven Seas announced that they’d licensed Shimanami Tasogare, I was a little surprised but also fairly excited – I had been entering the title into their monthly license surveys for a while, after all. Our Dreams At Dusk is a manga about a group of actual queer people with queer identities, who are at various stages of their lives dealing with the realities of living their lives in a queerphobic society. Chiefly, the story follows Tasuku, a teenager who at the beginning of the narrative has yet to have admitted to even himself that he is gay. The most powerful thing in this manga is the fact that it depicts a community of queer people, lovingly supporting one another as everyone tries to live truthfully to themselves. In particular, one thing that felt so important in the early going is how lesbian Haruko helps Tasuku break through his shell of repression. Speaking of which, the visuals are fantastic here, as author Yuhki Kamatani does a great job of illustrating the ways their characters are feeling. This is not always an easy read, but its a really good one, and I am so, so glad that it got released in English.

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4 Responses to Top Five Manga 2019

  1. Travis says:

    Thanks for the recs list. Definitely going to check out a couple of these I hadn’t heard of before.

    Just a heads-up, Kamatani Yuhki is nonbinary, so when writing about them in English, best to use gender neutral pronouns.

  2. Raith says:

    Nice picks. Did you happen to check out Beastars? Based on your list, I think you might really enjoy that one. Really nice art and gripping drama. Once you start to get into it you can find yourself just wanting to keep reading and reading lol.

    • A Day Without Me says:

      Thanks for the recommendation; its going to sound a bit silly, but I found the fact that the animals have human-style hands to be so visually off-putting that I didn’t get very far with it.

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