Sunday, January 24, 2016

2015 in Manga

2015 retrospective finale!

2015 was the first year entirely encompassed by my Youtube manga reading channel, so, y'know, instead of reading this article, you could just watch like 1000 videos. A good use of time. Like before, I'm too lazy to think of absolutely every series I read for these, and ones that update really infrequently I'll probably skip, also ones that I'm reading tankobons of, instead of regular magazine updates. I'll give each series a rating based on how impressed I was by them overall in the previous year. These don't really mean too much. They're based on the rating system in In the Groove and go from F to A+, then S- to S+, then * to ****. It really doesn't mean much lol, just sorta to get you hyped up or whatever.

Assassination Classroom (chapters 113-169)
2015 ended up being the most thrilling and pivotal year of AssClass yet, as we now directly come to address the central motivating question of the series: what will be the ultimate fate of Koro-sensei? The whole premise is that he's a monster that must be killed, but every development only endeared him further in the eyes of the reader and brought him closer to his class. Like, does the class even want to kill him? This question, always lurking uncomfortably in my mind, was finally addressed head-on, and the subsequent battle was a satisfying accumulation of all those feelings.

Of course, that decision paled in comparison to the long-awaited Koro-sensei backstory that motivated their decision, and that paled next to the completely INSANE but ingeniously foreshadowed twist that motivated his finally confessing. And after that they go into space, of course. It was a fantastic sequence that excitedly moved us into the finale, one that served well as the capstone of the core of the story. However, we never lost the original appeal of the series, and these high-stakes adventures were well balanced by some of the most fun, emotionally-resonant, and endearing side-stories of the chapters... the cultural festival, the little Valentine's arc, Nagisa's development... these stories really show the depth of characterization along the whole classroom, which, combined with the sentimentality we've developed with these characters, makes for some really wonderful chapters. I fully expect the series to end in 2016, and if it manages another year as good as this one, it'll have solidified its legacy as one of the great shonens of this era. *

Berserk (chapters 338-343)
GUTS GOT OFF THE BOAT! GUTS GOT OFF THE BOAT!! He got off the boat and immediately went on hiatus again. Ahh, yes, that is Berserk. The fight in the capital was interesting, and we had some development with Rickert and Griffith, but the main thing is that we're FINALLY OFF THE BOAT! See you next summer! B+

Bleach (chapters 612-656)
Looking back at what I wrote last year, it... doesn't seem like a whole lot happened with Bleach this year, did it? We ended 2014 with the stabbing of the Soul King, which seemed like it would be the trigger for the final battle between Ywach's elite and the remaining Shimigami. And I mean, I guess that's been the case... I just wouldn't have thought it'd take this long! Having said that, it's been a pretty lively year. Everyone from Aizen to Grimmjow is popping back up, giving these final fights a sense of completeness, but also chaos. The myriad of self-interested fighters and factions does a good job of keeping tensions high while Kubo takes his time to slowly depict the long, multi-stage battles between the remaining fighters.

This is the core of Bleach - long fights between two characters with complex and multifacted powers, typically displaying them in escalating flashbacks, motivated by flashback and exposition. That is to say... 
A:"Ahaha, got you at last!" 
B:"Ugh... but I remember now, my childhood... turns out I had ANOTHER POWER!"
A:"Ugh! This new power! But wait... ANOTHER POWER?"
etc, etc. I think if you're complaining about the formula, you probably should have dropped Bleach years ago. Instead I'd encourage you to enjoy the creativity and passion he bestows on each element. The fights against Pernida and Shunsui were some of Kubo's best in recent memory, with enough crazy attacks and forms to serve as the final boss of a JRPG. The flashback between Bazz-B and Haschwalth proved that Kubo can still write compelling short fiction, making us emotionally invested in the past of these characters we barely knew before. Overall, a good year for Bleach, even if we saw Ichigo maybe twice the whole time, lol. B+

Fairy Tail (chapters 414-466)
We got a pretty crazy year for Fairy Tail, even compared to last year's all-out fairies vs demons war. The Tartaros saga, by far Mashima's most ambitious story to date, ended with the disbandment of the titular guild and another timeskip. It felt like a suitably large ramification for developments of that scale, and gave the story a chance to "reset", returning to nakama-gathering, country-exploring simplicity that was a nice change of pace. The insane amount of power they gained during the time skip sorta made whatever "challenges" they faced during this time sorta weirdly trivial.

Of course, that was all just a warmup for the Albareth Empire war arc, which is quickly outdoing the Tartaros saga in terms of scale and power level. The sudden expansion of worldbuilding was pretty exciting, as Mashima was able to flesh out the upper tiers of his cast with characters that immediately looked exciting and, so far, have been able to deliver on that promise. We also had many of the major secrets of the plot revealed - the story of the Dragon Slayers, the story of Fairy Heart, etc, etc, and none of these felt forced or floppy. Mashima seems to be handling the idea of a "war arc" well, too, with a nice balance of focal battles and general chaos. It isn't at the level of the Whitebeard war, sure, but I much prefer it to Naruto's generally blundered war arc. And the fanservice was even (mostly) reasonable in 2015, too! B+

Fairy Tail Zero (chapters 7-13 [end])
We saw the second half of this little Fairy Tail side story this year, and I was pretty happy with it, all things considered. I would have happily read it for a long time to come, but I think the one-arc style added a lot to its strength. It was the story of the founding of Fairy Tail, and although it addressed a few other questions from the main series, it largely stuck to that. This sort of scope, where there's a lot of things that kinda come in to play but not to the extent that things get too complicated, makes for good shonen action. We got it in spades, with the final battle with Blue Skull, the giant skeleton dragon... thrills all over the place. The big twist was genuinely moving, and seeing the foundation of the guild was pretty powerful too - it worked through the significance of 450+ chapters of the original series. So yeah, good stuff. I haven't read the other Fairy Tail spinoffs - since they aren't by Mashima, I'm not as confident - but I might have to if they're on this tier. I'd like to start watching the anime for this too. S

It's Not My Fault That I'm Not Popular (chapters 71-89)
WataMote keeps on chugging along, managing even after four years to retain the shocking degeneracy and underlying charm that brought it to widespread renown. It seems like the premise might exhaust itself, but the authors manage to develop Tomoko's character and experiences just enough to keep her compelling without really changing her many, many flaws. Like take this year's school trip arc, for example. Spanning 10 chapters, it was by far the largest story the series had told, and it properly built on that potential, introducing new characters and showing Tomoko push her personal limits. At the same time, though, it also featured some of Tomoko's most embarrassing mishaps... that poor girl will be traumatized for life.

And after that, it settled back into the same old routine of misguided ambition and devastating failure, but now with a slightly wider scope and cast of characters. These sort of developments might seem standard, but executing them without it seeming "forced" or "lame" is actually pretty nuanced and delicate... the number of sitcoms that end up completely flopping on their face when they try to simply add a character is astounding. So let's see what 2016 brings for Tomoko with cautious optimism! Will it be the year she makes a friend? *

Mob Psycho 100 (chapters 77-90)
Mob Psycho was devoted entirely to the sprawling "Claw" arc this year. It was a major shift for the series: before, arcs worked on a sort of duality, where there was the "real world" problem, and then the "espers" problem, and the resolution came from an unexpected, and often humourous, intersection between them. What I mean by that is that before, it would either be some esper-related problem that was solved through real-world social skills, or it would be a real-world problem that would come about or become complicated because of Mob's esper status. With this, that's all thrown out the window: the two worlds have been irreversibly entwined, buildings are being crushed, esper on esper fights, there is no longer any "innocence" or "alternative". With almost all the allies and antagonists from previous arcs coming back into relevance, it really feels like a "final showdown" sorta thing, which justifies this tonal shift. And although it isn't quite on the tier of Monster Association (but what is??), ONE does a good job making a thrilling multi-faceted battle arc. It isn't what I was expecting from the series, and it feels like we could never go back to the charming early arcs, but it's a satisfying conclusion. My pet theory is that the series will end after 100 chapters, but I guess we'll see. S+

One Piece (chapters 773-811)
Alright, I have a lot to say about One Piece in 2015. Like Bleach, it looks on paper that... not a whole lot happened. We began the year in what seemed like the endgame of the Dressrosa arc. All-out brawling had engulfed the island, many major characters had already fallen, Doflamingo himself had come into play, and we'd already seen two major flashbacks... it really seemed like, after 70+ chapters, Dressrosa was almost over. Ha ha. But no. It wasn't until chapter 801, in September, some 100 chapters after they had landed, that they sailed away from the longest arc in One Piece history.

Now, I had some beefs with this arc, sure. The absence of a chunk of the crew was painful. Any chapters where it was just sort of indiscriminate fighting around the island weren't very satisfying to read week to week. By the end, powers like Bartholomew's barrier and the King punch, which were so hype to begin with, had become weirdly routine. All these shocking characters became less shocking as time went on, and more jarring. And there was such a weird sense of space, especially as the birdcage contracted... like, sometimes there'd have to be exposition as to how a character got from one place to another, but sometimes not, and sometimes people were in danger of peripheral attacks, and sometimes they weren't... you got the sense that Oda had a very detailed understanding of what was happening, probably via reference diagrams and models, but it was very hard for anyone else. Stuff like Mansherry's and Sugar's powers seemed so contrived and made it hard for readers to get a sense of definite tension, as things could swing back and forth at any moment. I guess the bottom line is that there was a whole lot of this arc, and that in itself was fatiguing.

BUT, the payoff? Was it worth it? Oh yes. Oh HELL yes. Awakened devil fruits? Gear four? The final triumph of Lucy? Oh my lord. And then the requisite "between arcs arc", proportionally extended to match Dressrosa's insane length, once again turned everything on its head by making us sure that the next few arcs are even crazier. I mean, the Straw Hat Armada? Kaidou!??! Big Mom!?!? We're dealing with stuff at the pinnacle now. Zou started off crazy and hasn't let up yet, taking its sweet time to give us any sort of clue, but that's just typical Oda... The very idea of the giant elephant is so amazing that I'll give him a pass to take as long as he needs to tell us whatever story he wants. He's promised that 2016 is the "year of Sanji", where we finally find out his backstory, one that will make us cry... I can't wait to see! **

One Punch Man (chapters 97-105)
The aftermath of the Monster Association arc - probably one of my favorite arcs in all of shonen, now - has been sorta slow, sorta steady, but 100% great. Like One Piece, we get a scope-widening checkup "mini-arc" between the big events, taking a look at the ramification of the major events on the greater world. These are the arcs where the mangaka's worldbuilding skills are put to the test, but the benefits of good worldbuilding are most fully realized. The stories of Saitama's "pets" and his new neighbours are short and silly, but the interwoven stories of Sweet Mask and Metal Knight get us hyped for developments to come. Then there's the "Rescuing Psykos" arc, which lead into the climactic battle between Tatsumaki and Saitama - them flying around and disrupting other stories was one of my favorite scenes in the manga so far, it really shows the wacky richness of ONE's world. So yeah, maybe not the most progress, and we still don't have a solid direction on where the series is going, but the world has only become livelier. *

One Punch Man (remake) (chapters 43-54)
We started really diverting from the original in 2015, for better or worse. Sure, the remake had always added some content, with ONE's writing and supervision, but this year we started getting brand new arcs, fights, and developments that are incompatible with the original's story... On the one hand, every new addition has been great - the tournament is silly and exciting, all the additional Garou battles have been hype, and Metal Bat has become probably my favorite S-class hero (sorry, Zombieman!). On the other hand... Ahh, I really want to see Murata's Monster Association arc!! There's so so much he can do with it!! Murata please!!! *

Saki (chapters 136-153)
2015 gave us the rest of the oppai battle and 99% of the final round. I was pretty hyped up for the final round... Saki is my favorite character (lame, I know), Kyouko is probably my 2nd favorite (awesome, I know), and Nelly was the one I was most hyped up to see. Sawaya proved to be interesting, too - the contrast between the "Christian" school and her Ainu Gods was cool, and the Gods themselves had pretty amazing effects. The other girls didn't disappoint either... Kyouko's anti-Saki strategy, Saki's adaptations, and the overwhelming force of Nelly were all exciting. It wasn't on the tier of the finale against Koromo, or even the previous round, maybe because Saki kinda got trunched instead of making the miracle comeback. Oh well, it has to happen sometimes, and it really drove home Nelly's power. Let's look forward to the finals! And the obligatory "other teams crying between games" arc D: D: D: D: A+

Saki - Shinohayu
(chapters 13-27)
Okay okay let me just make sure I'm understanding something: Shinohayu is a Saki spinoff meant to tell the story of how the pro players in the original series - the adults - rose to prominence, right? And that's super cool, 'cause finding out about how the upper echelons of the Saki power levels became so godly is really hype. I hope my futurepod pro's visceral image beamer captures this satisfying feeling in 2062 when we get to their adult years, lel. I dunno it's just... this series has been coming out for 2.5 years now and we've passed much less than that amount of time in-universe. We're just now ending the elementary school arc, and it seems like middle school, and then high school, will pass at an equally leisurely pace. To be fair, we did get some real development this year, with the entire nationals arc - it was super hype to see some characters we recognized from the original emerging, and proving threatening even at this age. Moreover, although the distance of "adult pro adventures" is frustrating, the relaxed pace and focus on everyday moments of contentedness is honestly my favorite aspect of the series. Igarashi's beautiful landscape drawings and the friendship between the girls gives this series as much a heart as any other. A+

To Love-Ru Darkness (chapters 51-62)
Ahhhahaha, this is one that you wouldn't have seen Youtube videos for. This is one that I don't even usually talk about in these blog posts, cause, like... what can you even say about it? Like it has for five years now, and, in a more safe for work way, for three years before that, each chapter is just another excuse for ecchi accidents to expose some subset of the steadily expanding cast of girls. You'd think after all this time, Yabuki would be running out of setups, but it seems like his wellspring of perversion is infinite - the number of fetishes he pandered to that would otherwise go neglected, or even things he outright invents! And although there was nothing on the level of the titular "Darkness" incident, there was some slight developments - a kiss!?!?? - that feel all the more powerful because of long interludes of perpetuity. But it was in the intersection between novel fetish and plot development that the series achieved brilliance in 2015, brilliance so powerful that I could not help but discard my shame and praise it here: the "Shinobufication" of Nemesis, that is, making Nemesis ride around inside Rito, is hands down the definitive manga development of 2015. Take that, Guts getting off the boat! Take that, secret history of Fairy Tail! S

Yotsubato! (chapters 87-89)
Although we're not back to anything resembling regularity, 2015 was a notable step up from the single chapter of 2014. And oh man, what chapters they were! The somewhat adversarial element of Yotsuba's grandma, a new and judgmental perspective, allowed us to see Yotsuba's world in a new light, while also subtly changing the routines and relationships that defined it. Although Yotsuba's "everyday" feel has always been one of the most blissful in the medium, the way it depicts the passage of time and the changes it brings is sublime. The art is better than ever. The depth of the characters, better than ever. The dialogue and humour and realism, better than ever. It remains an absolute treasure, and we must cherish our luck in coinciding with it. ****

Alright that's it
Probably forgot some series I could talk about but whatever. Let's enjoy manga together in 2016!

No comments: