I’ve been writing about shonen for the past 2 weeks of this competition, and Keima only knows if I’ll make it out of the first round, so I might as well use the freedom I’ve got to coin a term that’s been percolating in my head for a while and talk about seinen (and some shonen, as well) while people are listening. I’ve taken to calling some manga Mid-Major because they’re great in a way that screams “improbable” and “unsustainable”, but because of that are even more fun to watch than consistently great ones. Clearly not top-tier, but clearly blessed with enough potential to make a little legend, like Dunk City FGCU demolishing Georgetown in this year’s NCAA Tourney.* There’s an appeal to watching the little engine that could suddenly transform into a giant robot and dropkick a galaxy, and nowhere (other than sports) does this phenomenon happen more often than in the world of monthly manga.
You’ve all probably heard at least one story of a wannabe mangaka with little to no success to their name working long hours to try and get serialized, usually while going hungry.** There’s a very large, very competitive pool of people trying to become mangaka, and the fact that there are plenty of replacement up-and-comers ready to steal their slot in a publication has to keep young mangaka awake at night. And it ought to. Young/mid-tier mangaka need motivation to make a splash, and not all of them are as internally motivated as the never-misses-a-deadline Rumiko Takahashi. The stick of instant termination with failure works with the more obvious carrot (potentially earning a fortune and a ton of popularity doing what you love). But there are some issues with that fear as a motivation, as it can cause mangaka to tense up and be too narrow/generic with their initial story ideas.
Another factor leading to increased pressure on mid-tier manga artists is the paper it’s printed on. Compared to weekly shonen manga, which get much of their serialization in weekly (obviously) magazines, monthly seinen manga and less-popular monthly shonen series only get to put out chapters at. This has huge implications for an author on the brink. One might be able to get away with a bad chapter in a weekly manga, between the short memory cycle of your readers and the opportunity to redeem yourself with something awesome. The problem, as before, is that it causes mangaka to tense up early, fearing launching into far-reaching, ambitious stories with no immediate reader-satisfaction payoff.
But once an author gets a little success, after spending a year or so in the middle of a magazine cranking out decent-quality chapters and getting positive feedback? They’re in a situation that both allows for more storytelling freedom both financially and encourages it structurally. And that can yield some very amazing results.
I think the end result of this pressure is that monthly manga end up with structured (if gripping) beginnings, then go on mad-hot runs once the author realizes he or she has logged enough success to start getting funky and making use of prior continuity and long-running arcs.*** Here’s one arbitrary categorization I don’t have to reach one millimeter into my myanimelist account to pull striking examples of.
I’ve been talking about sports a lot early, so it makes sense to open with something at least tangentially related – Masahiro Totsuka and Aguri Igarashi’s full-hearted kendo comedy Bamboo Blade. The series opens in a fairly typical sports-movie fashion: down-on-his-luck everyman Ishida needs to assemble a capable kendo team in order to win against a kendo team coached by his old rival and get his hands on something (free sushi in this case), and ends up building a winning squad around hard work and a quirky genius named Tamaki. The series opens up as a fairly solid comedy, working with a fun cast of amusing characters.
However, after getting the win against a fairly skilled kendo club thanks to said hard work, said genius, and some old-school trickery, Ishida is denied his free sushi, as the fairly petty rival coaches a second team and now insists he must beat them both. Once the team in question is introduced, this insistence is obviously a formality; they don’t ascribe to basic principles like “practice” and “effort”. The Kamasaki team ends up losing quite handily, but the interesting thing is how it happens.
The best-of-7 match opens like an ordinary serious match, with each clash between contestants getting individual focus on the characters involved. But after the first two battles are lost, the presentation changes gears. It begins to pay only passing attention to the match, instead focusing on the thoughts of the losing team. The next four matches are shown through the eyes of team captain Iwahori, a former talent who hit a wall and gave up on serious kendo, and the Ishida’s rival, who purposely scheduled the mismatch as a tactic to motivate his squad. It’s a downcast, deflating narration, trying to conceal a mounting sense of frustration and helplessness, that’s depressing because it occurs in a generally motivational series.
In the seventh match, Tamaki predictably ends up wiping the floor with Iwahori after scoring a clean body hit. But due to a combination of the sour atmosphere in the room and a deeper internal frustration, Iwahori demands a rematch, insisting his equipment malfunctioned. And he gets beat again. And again, and again, each time failing to get Tamaki to break a sweat, until he literally can’t lift his sword.
It’s like watching a trainwreck. And not a figurative trainwreck, but a real traffic accident variety trainwreck, and one made incredibly poignant for how the other athletes, winners and losers alike, look on. The scene is wicked powerful, and speaks profoundly to a lot of thoughts about passion and effort and why failure causes people to grow.
It’s also not the kind of scene you can put in the first few chapters of a manga; themes need to be established, characters need to be built for it to have real significance. And that, in a nutshell, is why Bamboo Blade transcends its premise. The series’ next arc is a drawn-out idol subplot. Mid-major glory is the really unstable kind.
One of manga’s big advantages as a serial medium is its ability to respond to feedback from readers, as it runs over the course of several years and has plenty of time to adjust itself. This advantage can manifest itself in a number of ways. Particularly compelling is the changing of the importance of different characters in a story over time; annoying characters can be gently worked out, and interesting characters can get more screentime. And occasionally even superpowers! Yoshitaka Ushiki’s Dreameater Merry rides this advantage with considerable flair. The series’ male lead, Fujiwara Yumeji, starts out as a friend/helper for the titular Merry, a dream creature who fights off nightmares while he stands by. Due to his intelligence and role in the story, Yumeji’s not entirely useless, but is often reduced to the role of a cheerleader during the fights in the series. At least, until he realizes he’s just in a dream and can manipulate it by summoning up powerful weapons from his memories. This expands the range of paths battles in the series can take, as while Yumeji now has some fighting strength, he’s still a guile hero at heart.
It’s personality that makes great characters great. Lupin III would still be great if you swapped him out with pretty much any other anime character in any other situation just by sheer force of how entertaining he is. In a sense, superpowers in battle series are one of the main impediments to interesting characters being at their best; it’s disappointing when a series’ greatest character is forced out of the plot for a while due to lack of arbitrary strength.**** Given time, good authors can realize this and find a way to keep the best of the cast relevant. Especially when they’re in that creative freedom sweet spot.
Kawachi Izumi’s Enchanter, the story of a skilled machinist who gets dragged into a world of demons and supernatural technology, also uses its characters (namely, their convictions) to surpass its premise. Enchanter is the story of Haruhiko, a high school kid who’s good with machines because his childhood friend and now-chemistry teacher, Yuka, is bad with them and he’s been infatuated with her since he was twelve. One day, a demon who looks just like Yuka, Eukanaria, comes around looking for a body for her old lover, Fulcanelli, a legendary genius inventor who happens to look just like Haruhiko. Due to some complicated shenanigans, Haruhiko acquires Fulcanelli’s powers but not his soul, so Eukanaria is constantly trying to pull Haruhiko’s soul out so she can put Fulcanelli’s in. This is made more hilarious by the fact that the one method of soul extraction is the old hanky-panky, which leads to a number of very awkward situations (but thankfully very few true misunderstandings). Once in a while, a demon will show up that they have to fight. That’s an amusing manga already, but not a great one yet.
Near the midway point of the series, there’s an arc featuring a character named Mercurio in a similar situation to Haruhiko’s; she’s possessed by a demon and is trying to take her body back. What makes things interesting is that we meet the demon first (she’s a regular character for about 5 volumes prior to the arc in question), and she’s a very, very kind person. Not to mention a friend of Haruhiko’s. This puts him in the moral dilemma of deciding whether to help his friend and admit his hypocrisy (his rationale for keeping his own body is that it was originally his) or hold fast to his convictions and watch her disappear. It’s a tough decision, and one that legitimately rips him apart inside. The arc ultimately ends in a fashion about as morally ambiguous as it gets, bringing in several characters involved in Mercurio’s life and expressing their respective stances on a complicated issue. It’s an arc that was both very thought provoking to the readers and had a profound effect Haruhiko’s character going forward. And it’s an arc that needed established characters and philosophies to work; you can’t build a skyscraper without laying some solid foundations.
I’ve often said that the best romance series are the ones with organic characters, characters who grow with time as people would and experience romance as a part of that growth. My last and favorite example of a manga that goes on a mad hot streak is one such specimen, Takashi Ikeda’s Sasameki Koto. Sasameki Koto is a yuri romance featuring an openly lesbian girl Kazama and her best friend, tall karate expert Sumika. Sasameki Koto opens as a half-lighthearted, half-heartbreaking comedy focused around the fact that Kazama is into girls whose personalities are the opposite of Sumika, who, naturally, has a huge unspoken crush on Kazama. This is how the series starts out, and how it spends about two years of runtime. However, eventually Ikeda starts getting ambitious, and Sumika and most of the rest of the cast start a girls’ karate club. The rest of the cast, that is, except Kazama. As Sumika gets more involved in karate, which she quit in middle school, she drifts further away from Kazama. Both the karate plotline and the lonely Kazama plotline intertwine and eventually result in this striking sequence of blended simultaneous-events that manga can do so well.
Now, all writing choices aside, these pages a great example of how to use manga to tell a story in ways that pure text can’t. The contrasting full-pages that blank out the other storyline, the little bubble of normal dialogue inserted into Kazama’s tantrum, the way the tantrum is open-borders on the first page while the clubroom scene is closed-borders, it’s all absolutely brilliant stuff. But there would be no call for such sublime manga tricks if not for a story that got ambitious enough to run those two plotlines together. Thank goodness for the moderate financial success of Comic Alive.
Just because a series seems cut from mid-major cloth and has a solid beginning, that doesn’t mean it’ll have a hot streak. Long-running arcs don’t always improve a series. Generally, when a decent average-level series gets great really quickly, there’s some driving theme behind it that people can relate to. When a long running arc in a previously fairly episodic manga just introduces a generic rival who takes several chapters to go down, it may actually cause a decrease in series quality unless the rival is an effective foil to one of the main characters. Such is the case with Ueshiba Riichi’s Mysterious Girlfriend X, a decent if weird romance manga. Mysterious Girlfriend X’s long-running arcs mainly consist of very shallow NTR plots, and thus underperform the small quirky one-chapter snippets of romance that make up the core of the series.
Nor does having a well-developed continuity and expansive cast guarantee an eventual spike into greatness. Yasunori Mitsunaga’s Princess Resurrection, a supernatural mystery series where a phoenix, zombie, android, werewolf, and vampire encounter and deal with all manner of supernatural phenomena. The series distinguishes itself both for the creativity of some of the supernatural mysteries and the deliberate B-movie approach to its artstyle.
It’s very swamp-thing
Princess Resurrection also has an overarching storyline, with other pheonix-led paranormal groups vying for the succession of their clan. However, this continuity never really causes the series to change or evolve. It was in chapter 10 where it is in chapter 80 – having the characters solve a supernatural mystery in episodic arcs, with the overarching plot never much more than background flavor. In theory, this approach could be seen as world building, but it really comes across as just a fear of abandoning the episodic approach at all. Princess Resurrection is still consistently good in the way that episodic series are, but it’s never ambitious enough to claw itself into temporary greatness the way some of the earlier examples have.
It’s not and it shouldn’t be entirely clear when or to whom these glorious hot streaks will happen. It spoils the fun of being able to hope for them constantly. Mid-major manga shine both for how gratifying it is to see one succeed and just how often they really do, and are one of the chief reasons current manga never gets boring to follow.
*I won’t belabor the sports comparison. Plus, this video speaks to how awesome that was far better than I can.
**I’ve come to know these stories as a function of their being the focus of every single oneshot compiled in Takako Shimura’s The Devil is So Cute.
***Earlier, I called this phenomenon the “fake genius zone” in a terrible article that I’m not linking to.
****One of the main constraints for our upcoming charactology project is that who would win in a fight is not a valid way of comparing how good different characters are.