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Six Fantasy Manga

By Rosamund Hodge (@rosamundhodge)

Over the past twenty years, manga has changed from an obscure fringe of geekdom to something nearly mainstream. But there are still plenty of people who have never tried it. So if you’ve never crossed your mental wires trying to read right-to-left, here’s a list of seven great manga—all written by women!—that I have helpfully divided into categories.

 

The Classics

These are the best-of-the-best, the series that I would absolutely recommend to everyone.

FullmetalAlchemist 1. Fullmetal Alchemist, Hiromu Arakawa

It’s a cliché to start describing stories with “in a world where,” but sometimes it’s absolutely appropriate. In a world where people use alchemy, which works on the principle of Equivalent Exchange—“to obtain something, something of equal value must be lost”—two young brothers, Edward and Alphronse, attempt to break the ultimate taboo and bring their mother back from the dead. When they fail, they pay a terrible price: Ed loses his right arm and left leg, while Al remains alive only as a soul attached to a suit of armor. (That sounds hilarious. It’s not.) They set out to regain their original bodies by finding the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, which can supposedly allow alchemists to circumvent the law of Equivalent Exchange; but it soon becomes apparent that the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t come without a price either.

I don’t have enough words to praise this series. The art is gorgeous, the characters are fascinating and lovable, and the 27-volume storyline is tightly plotted. It’s an epic story that deals with ancient plots and conflicts between countries, but is propelled forward by intimate, human connections. It’s one of best stories that I’ve seen at redeeming characters who have done really terrible things, without minimizing what they’ve done or having them be easily forgiven by their victims. It’s got a “revenge is bad” plotline that doesn’t reduce it to matter of ritual purity, but makes it clear that your choices still matter even if you’ve already got blood on your hands. And while the two brothers are the main characters, there’s a huge ensemble cast that includes a lot of women, who are not only all strong in very different ways, but are also all feminine in very different ways.

If you read one manga, read this one. (Or Fruits Basket.)

 
FruitsBasket 2. Fruits Basket, Natsuki Takaya

Here’s the premise of Fruits Basket: an impossibly good-hearted teenaged orphan girl meets a rich, reclusive family, some of whom are cursed to turn into the animals of the Chinese zodiac when hugged by somebody of the opposite sex. Several of them are attractive boys who go to her high school. Hijinks ensue.

You would think that this would be the fluffiest, most saccharine story imaginable. You would be wrong. There is a lot of fluff in Fruits Basket, and a lot of sweetness. But the wacky premise of the zodiac curse quickly becomes a poignant exploration of isolation and familial dysfunction; while the heroine, Tohru, is not a simple icon of sweetness and light, but a complex and poignant character trying to cope with her own traumas. (And yet her kindness is still depicted as a form of strength, not naiveté.) It’s a story about how loving and being loved are learned behaviors, very precious and very difficult, desperately needed and never guaranteed. And it’s a story about hope, and how nobody can save you, but people can help you.

(Tragically, this series is out-of-print due to the publisher going out of business. However, since it was massively popular, it’s pretty easy to find at the library.)

 

If You Like Young Adult

Manga does not exactly map onto USA category classifications, but a lot of it is about and/or aimed at teenagers. Here are a couple series that will feel a bit familiar (as well as a bit strange) to any fans of YA.

Rasetsu 3. Rasetsu, Chika Shiomi
If you enjoy YA paranormal, then you absolutely want to read this series. Rasetsu is a psychic who was marked by a demon when she was fifteen years old. He’ll take her away on her twentieth birthday–unless she can find true love first. By the time she’s eighteen, Rasetsu has given up on love, and is instead using her powers to work with an agency that exorcises ghosts. She has two partners: Kuryu, the cheerful one hiding a dark past (that won’t be explained for several volumes), and Yako, the cranky one hiding a tragic past (that involves unrequited love for a ghost who coincidentally looked exactly like Rasetsu).

Of course there’s a love triangle. If you’re dubious about love triangles, rest assured that it’s a well-executed one. But that’s not the main point of the story—the real attraction is in the lovable, oddball family that’s formed among all the psychics at the agency, and in Rasetsu herself, who’s a brash, vulnerable, courageous heroine. (Who loves eating cake.)

 
FushigiYugiGenbuKaiden 4. Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden, Yuu Watase
If you enjoy high fantasy adventures, particularly of the “teenaged girl must save a kingdom” flavor, then you will probably love Genbu Kaiden (the prequel to Watase’s more famous Fushigi Yugi series.) Takiko has watched her mother die of tuberculosis while her scholarly father ignored them to keep translating a mysterious book. Enraged, she tries to destroy the book . . . only for it to transport her into a magical world where she is hailed as the priestess who can save the kingdom. All she has to do is gather the “seven celestial warriors” who were born to serve her. For a lonely, neglected girl, it’s like a dream come true—except that the second of the warriors is working for the enemy, and the quest only gets more difficult and dangerous from there. This series has adventure, magic, humor, and star-crossed romance in compulsively readable proportions.

 

The Id Vortex

One of the things I really love about manga is how very often it seems to be written straight out of the creator’s id. This can sometimes create really uneven results, but it can also give the stories a kind of freshness and gleeful imagination that I haven’t often found in Western novels. Here are a couple series that really exemplify that.

PandoraHeartsVol1 5. Pandora Hearts, Jun Mochizuki

I’m not going to try describing the plot for this one. I could start burbling about the pseudo-Victorian setting, and the cheerful young nobleman named Oz Vessalius who is suddenly seized by cloaked strangers, informed that “Your sin is your very being!” and cast into a terrifying dimension known as the Abyss, whence he escapes by making a magical contract with a cranky, mysterious girl-but-also-giant-black-rabbit-wielding-a-scythe called Alice, who is a terrifying supernatural being called a “chain,” which gets them picked up by an organization called Pandora that hunts down rogue chains and those who make illegal contracts with them, plus there’s also the ongoing mystery of the ominous Baskerville family and the “tragedy of Sablier” that happened a hundred years ago . . .

I could tell you all those things, but that would be a terrible way to sell you on this manga. The convoluted plot is actually not that hard to follow when you’re actually reading it, but it’s also not the point. Here’s what this manga really excels at:

(1) A deliciously dark, brooding, Gothic/Victorian atmosphere with lots of random Lewis Carroll references thrown in.

(2) Intense friendship. If you live for Platonic love stories, then this is the manga for you, because every character is driven by obsessive loyalty to somebody, and for most of them it’s not romantic.

 
SakuraHime 6. Sakura Hime: The Legend of Princess Sakura, Arina Tanemura

Sakura is a carefree fourteen-year-old girl in Heian Era Japan, whose only problem is that she’s betrothed to Prince Aoba and she doesn’t want to get married yet. Well, and she’s always been forbidden to look at the full moon, which she finds out in the first chapter is because she’s the granddaughter of Princess Kaguya, the legendary moon-princess. When Sakura inevitably looks up at the full moon, she becomes visible to youko—monsters from the moon, basically—whom she must slay with her mother’s sword.

The phrase “id vortex” is especially appropriate for this story, because it sometimes whirls through plot points and even genres so quickly that it can feel like being caught in a vortex. Historical! Fluffy romance! Historical fantasy! Magical girl! Star-crossed romance! High melodrama! And somebody’s in love, and somebody’s attempting murder, and somebody’s been turned into a frog, and somebody’s made a vow of loyalty, and SURPRISE somebody isn’t actually dead!

You are probably going to love or hate this series. I love it, and I can admit that it’s kind of a mess sometimes. But what I find its saving grace—besides the shameless, full-throttle melodrama—is how much of the story revolves around female friendship. Sakura spends a lot of time blushing at Aoba and angsting over their romance, but she also has multiple really intense friendships (some of them inter-generational) with other girls and women, and those relationships shape the story. If you want a sparkly romantic melodrama set in a world where women are important to each other, this might be the manga for you.

 

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