By: AC Recio
The entertainment industry is one of the fields most affected by the recent COVID-19 pandemic. With movie theaters empty, concerts cancelled and TV stations doing reruns, most people went back to binging old favorites or opted to go with the literary route by picking up a book series or two. But how about trying something different that combines a bit of both? Japanese comics or manga are a form of entertainment and literature that keeps on going, even during these trying times. What better way to overcome quarantine fatigue than by bringing excitement and a bit of escapism into your life with beautiful illustrations, heartfelt stories and relatable characters? In this article, we share High Five ongoing manga that you can enjoy this quarantine.
[Note: the manga scans in this article are read from right to left. Minor spoilers up ahead so be warned.]
Runway de Waratte (Smile Down the Runway)
One thing everyone has a soft spot for is a good underdog story. We all want to root for a protagonist who fights against all odds and gives it their all to pursue their goal. Runway de Waratte gives us a story of not one, but two underdog protagonists who want to reach the biggest stage of the fashion world – Paris Fashion Week.
Fujito Chiyuki is the seventeen year old daughter of Fujito Kenji, founder and president of modelling agency Mille Niege. Because of her upbringing, she grows up as a child model and prepares to be a full-time model when she becomes an adult. Over time, Chiyuki develops into a teenager with all the skills needed to achieve her aspirations, except she lacks the one thing that most people deem to be the most important and obvious trait of a top model – height. At 5 feet 2 inches or 158 cm, Chiyuki has a hard time getting accepted for runway shows and fashion shoots, and could not even get accepted into her own father’s modelling agency. At this point, her dream to be part of Paris Fashion Week, let alone to make a living as a model, seems nearly impossible. Despite all this, Chiyuki presses on with her goal clear in her mind.
In her quest to be a top model, Chiyuki crosses paths with Tsumura Ikuto, a classmate who secretly aspires to be a fashion designer. Ikuto has an intuitive eye for design and a natural talent in patternmaking, but because of financial struggles, he has had to put his dream on hold to work part-time jobs and pay for his sisters’ studies. Together, Chiyuki and Ikuto make a pact to help each other achieve their dreams.
What makes Runway de Waratte unique is the subject matter; for a manga aimed at teenage boys, it explores the fashion world with an energy and earnestness that you would not expect. The art captures the gesture and expressions of the models, the structure and texture of the clothes, and the reaction of the audience as they watch in awe. And despite the protagonists having incredible skill in their field, it always feels like they’re fighting an uphill battle. Every story arc is resolved in an unexpected manner that shows Chiyuki and Ikuto’s talent while giving them room to grow. Runway de Waratte may not receive as much praise or hype as its current manga contemporaries, but it’ll take you a long time to find dual protagonists who you want to root for more than Chiyuki and Ikuto.
Every weeb knows that you don’t need to like sports to enjoy sports manga. The proof is Haikyū!, the most recent sports manga to capture the hearts of the general public. The series followed Hinata Shōyō in his journey to become the “Little Giant” of volleyball with the Karasuno High School Volleyball Team. The last chapter of Haikyū! hit shelves this July, solidifying the series’ place as one of the modern greats in manga history and in pop culture as well, with characters from the manga regularly trending on social media sites even after the series ended. But as Hinata and Karasuno’s story comes to a close, people can’t help but wonder what’s next for sports manga. Haikyū! was considered by most as a pure distillation of the genre, with its focus on teamwork, friendship, passion, respect and hard work. After reaching its most recent pinnacle in Haikyuu!, what more does sports manga have to offer? Enter Blue Lock.
What makes Blue Lock different from other sports manga is its focus on ego and selfishness – two things that are usually portrayed as negative, but are the keys to improving your skills in this fictional world. Blue Lock centers around the Japanese Football Union’s Player Improvement Project, a soccer program developed to create the best striker in the world. 300 high school soccer forwards were selected to enter Blue Lock, a facility created specifically for the purpose of training and testing the participants until only one person remains – the world’s greatest egoist striker.
Among the participants is Isagi Yoichi, a second year student who played for the Ichinan High School football team. In his last soccer game before entering Blue Lock, Isagi came face to face with the opposing team’s goalkeeper and had the chance to score a goal and take his team to the National High School Tournament. However, believing in the importance of team play and not having the confidence to make the decisive shot, he chose to pass the ball to a nearby teammate who had no one guarding him at the time. As a result of Isagi’s indecision, his teammate missed the shot and their team lost their chance to go to Nationals.
Shortly after losing the game, Isagi receives an invitation to the Player Improvement Project. Isagi and the rest of the participants were then convinced by the project head Jinpachi Ego to join the program by explaining how soccer is a sport about scoring goals even at the expense of teamwork. In Blue Lock, all 300 participants fight amongst themselves in rigorous tests to develop their own egos and improve as strikers.
Blue Lock offers a drastically different approach to sports compared to traditional manga by making it all about the self. And even when the basic premise of soccer is about playing in teams, each player attempts to evolve mid-game and one-up one another, stealing the spotlight and making all the important shots count. This selfishness makes for an entertaining read filled with unexpected plot developments and supported by dynamic and impactful art that will leave you at the edge of your seat.
Dungeon Meshi (Delicious in Dungeon)
While there are manga that are considered groundbreaking and era-defining, there are also those with a simple premise and solid story that can be just as enjoyable, or even more so. Dungeon Meshi is one such manga, combining fantastic elements of roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons with the reality of food preparation to create a hidden gem of a fantasy comedy series.
Dungeon Meshi starts with a group of adventurers led by Laios exploring the deepest level of a dungeon, when a red dragon attacks and eats Laios’ sister Falin alive. Before being eaten, Falin transports the remaining members of the party out of the dungeon to safety, but cannot transport herself and most of their belongings as she is starting to get swallowed by the dragon. After a few members leave the group, Laios, Marcille and Chilchuck remain, penniless yet determined to go back into the dungeon to rescue Falin, who they deduce still has a month until she gets digested by the dragon. With practically no money to buy food and supplies, the party decides to eat the monsters they defeat on their way back down to the deepest level of the dungeon, and with the help of new party member Senshi, they find a way to cook monsters in practical, nutritious and delicious ways.
Dungeon Meshi is a treat to read, with the main star being the ecosystem of the dungeon itself. The dungeon’s inhabitants vary in shape, size and other physical and anatomical attributes, but each of the mythical creatures featured follow a believable internal logic and shows us the possibilities available within the world’s lore. The joy of this series comes from the interactions among the different characters and learning more about the world around them and the food they prepare. Food is treated as a necessity throughout the series, with dishes being planned by putting their availability and nutritional value first. The food is drawn with painstaking attention and care, with each dish feeling unique while looking like an actual photo you can see from a magazine or food blog. Dungeon Meshi masterfully balances character development with worldbuilding, topping it off with lighthearted fun, comedic and tragic swerves, and meticulous food preparation that makes each new chapter more interesting than the last.
Do you want to erase the disappointment from getting too heavily invested in Game of Thrones? Look no further than this manga of epic proportions. Vinland Saga is a historical manga series loosely based on the Viking rule of England, and will surely give you the satisfaction and hype that Game of Thrones could not live up to.
Vinland Saga follows the story of Thorfinn as he seeks to avenge his father and find out what it means to be a true warrior. The series dramatizes Canute’s rise to power as king and Thorfinn’s journey from childhood to adulthood, eventually becoming an explorer who looks for the titular Vinland.
With art that depicts the brutality and glory of its world in striking detail, Vinland Saga is violent, dark and beautiful. The series is primarily character driven and filled with emotion, focusing on the journey and growth of Thorfinn as he faces adversity, meets allies, and changes his worldview over time from a wide-eyed child, to a vengeful teenager, and finally a peaceful adult. This series shows the harsh reality of the 11th century in an unapologetic light, but is never violent just for shock value or virality. Violence is a reality in this world and navigating it successfully is Vinland Saga’s greatest strength, grounding this highly stylized historical epic and giving it a sense of danger, making its most touching and emotional moments all the more beautiful and fleeting.
What if I told you that one of the most popular and critically acclaimed manga aimed at teenage girls is about an obscure 17th century card game? Chihayafuru is about competitive karuta, a traditional Japanese card game revolving around the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a collection of 100 poems spanning some 300 years of Japanese history. In karuta, players must have all 100 poems memorized by heart. The game starts when 50 cards randomly chosen from a shuffled deck of 100 are arranged face up in the playing field between two opposing players. These cards all have the second verse of the 100 poems written on them, while the first verses are written on another set of 100 cards, shuffled and placed face down in front of a third party “reader.” As the reader draws a card and reads the first verse written on it, the players race to find the corresponding second verse written on one of the cards on the playing field. Sounds complicated? That just might be the reason why karuta wasn’t so popular – that is, until Chihayafuru arrived.
Chihayafuru starts with Ayase Chihaya, a 6th grade girl who dreams of her sister becoming the most popular model in Japan. Because of a fateful encounter with Wataya Arata, a karuta prodigy who dreams of becoming the meijin or the best male player of competitive karuta, Chihaya realizes that her dream should be about herself and not about another person. After being told that she has the potential to be a great karuta player by Arata, Chihaya takes on a new dream of becoming the queen or the best female karuta player. Chihaya, along with Arata and their classmate Mashima Taichi, strive to become stronger at karuta together, growing closer with each other and considering each their best friends. After graduating the 6th grade, the friends had to part ways, with Taichi being accepted into an elite middle school one and a half hours away that takes up most of his time, and Arata moving to Fukui Prefecture with his family to take care of his sick grandfather. But despite being separated, each of them try to improve their karuta in their own ways in the hopes of being together again.
Flash forward three years and Chihaya is now a high school student at Mizusawa High School, where she is reunited with Taichi. The pair start a competitive karuta club and invite different people to join – Ōe Kanade, the daughter of a kimono shop owner with a taste for Japanese traditional culture; Komano Tsutomu, an intelligent and anti-social boy second only to Taichi in test scores; and Nishida Yūsei, a former top karuta player who quit after suffering loss after loss against Arata in middle school. The five of them compete to be the best karuta team in Japan and to improve their individual skills as well, with Chihaya and Taichi hoping to be reunited once again with Arata.
The series itself is a sports manga foremost, but it also blends literary and traditional elements by highlighting poetry, proper etiquette and traditional clothing. The art captures these elements in beautiful detail, using visual metaphors like blooming flowers when a poem is being read by a particularly good reader, creating a calm and serene atmosphere as Japanese traditions are observed in earnest, and detailing particular folds and textures as kimonos and hakamas take the shape of the players wearing them. And while you grow to appreciate these little tidbits about Japanese culture as they pop up from time to time, it’s really the characters that you fall in love with and make you want to read more. All characters, including the protagonists, suffer unpredictable losses, and more often than not are thrown into slumps that they have to overcome. And in the process of learning how to deal with loss, they also learn more about themselves and grow.
Chihayafuru is often credited for karuta’s return to popularity, especially among high school students, and you’ll immediately know why once you’ve read it. The series portrays different perspectives on karuta, itself a unique game because of its dual nature that can be played in both team and individual game formats. Another quirk of the game is that it can be played by anyone, regardless of age or gender; a high school girl can face off against a middle aged mother of three, a sadistic high school boy or a speedy 6th grade girl, all in one tournament. This lends itself well to the manga, which shows the motivations, skillsets and determination of each player, from the protagonists to even the most minor of characters.
And while most manga will try their best to highlight and often exaggerate the importance of their subject matter, Chihayafuru shows that almost no one outside of the karuta world cares for the game at all. It’s a struggle for Chihaya and Taichi to even get the high school karuta club started, let alone to get the support of their teacher-in-charge when joining tournaments. Just as the characters are striving to become better players, they also strive to make other people outside their circle recognize the legitimacy and beauty of competitive karuta as a sport. And with that overflowing love for karuta and for the people who play it, Chihayafuru draws in its readers and makes them care for the sport just as much as the characters from its pages.
While we spend our time at home waiting for this crisis to pass by, it’s important to find things to take comfort in. And with manga releases being a weekly occurrence, new chapters are something you can regularly look forward to. We hope at least one of these manga can keep you company or lead you to more wonderful stories and gorgeous art as we all stay on standby and prepare to brave this new normal together.