If 2014 Jason could go back in time and talk to 2010 Jason, my present-day self would probably say “You’re paying $2.99 for iTunes manga apps with only three or four chapters of manga?! Seriously?! Are you crazy?” It’s a good time to like free (or super-cheap) manga. Crunchyroll‘s online manga service is reasonably priced and keeps adding new titles, Viz has Weekly Shonen Jump, and now DeNA, a Japanese company, has launched a free Japanese and English manga app, Manga Box, with a ton of never-before-translated titles.
The first thing you notice about Manga Box is that, unlike some other manga services (such as the ones that use Flash), it’s actually designed for smartphones. Available for Android and iOS, Manga Box is basically a pseudo-magazine format, with approximately 28 manga titles you can read in-app-only. You flick from page to page, but can also pinch and zoom. Each manga is listed episode by episode (chapter by chapter), and every week a new ‘volume’ of the magazine becomes available, with new titles. The old manga seem to expire as time goes on—a note in the app says volume #3 will stop being available on March 11, volume #4 on March 18, etc.—but so far, four months after launch, nothing seems to have expired yet and you can still view every manga from chapter 1 by clicking on “Digest” mode, essentially the Table of Contents.
Some interface elements are a little confusing (the English text confusingly tells you “Currently, ep. 1 and beyond are available” when it means that particular manga is only one episode long) and not all Japanese titles are available in the English version, but mostly, it’s a good manga experience. New chapters/episodes are added every week, and if you want to read one a few days in advance, you can unlock it simply by sharing the link on Facebook, Google or Twitter—a smart way to give readers incentive to advertise Manga Box. (You can say whatever you want next to the link, so I could theoretically unlock more “Horizon” by tweeting “The Horizon manga… SUUUUUCKS”, but pageviews are pageviews.) The lineup ranges from story manga to yon-koma, from titles published in big-circulation weeklies like Weekly Shōnen Magazine to obscure oddities that could never have been published in a mainstream magazine, either because they’re too weird, too crude or—GASP! WEBCOMICS!—they’re in color. DeNA claims to have both Shogakukan and Kodansha licenses, but most of their recognizable titles are by Kodansha creators, such as Seimaru Amagi and Fumiya Sato‘s Kindaichi Case Files: Takato’s Side (a spinoff starring the antagonist from the Kindaichi Case Files mystery series); Hiroaki Agano and Kaya Tsukiyama‘s The Knight in the Area (a soccer story); and District Hakkenshi (a shonen sci-fi version of the Hakkenden story, from Getbackers author Rando Ayamine and some unknown artists).
With Manga Box and Crunchyroll, Kodansha is now the most digitally savvy Japanese publisher in the U.S. market, and if the titles on Manga Box are a little “B-roll” compared to the ones on Crunchyroll, that doesn’t mean they’re bad. There’s shonen, shojo (just a little), a yaoi title (just one), lots of strange yon-koma manga, and a lot of dark, creepy (but never quite 18+) manga that print publishers might be leery to release. Here’s the first 10 Manga Box titles that I read, in the order that I read them…picked randomly, with no criteria other than my own taste, exposed embarrassingly for the entire Internet to behold…
Green Worldz (Yusuke Osawa)
In an instant, Tokyo is taken over by plants. Emerging from a Tokyo subway after a sudden power outage leaves their train stopped in the tunnel, the horrified passengers find the streets overgrown with grass and trees, people turned into ivy-covered corpses, and giant pitcher plants stalking the streets sucking up human prey. Teenage Akira and a few dozen survivors cower in the subways, hiding in the dark, the only place where the plants cannot reach; but when their supplies run low, Akira must venture into the urban jungle to find food, and perhaps to rescue Yui, the girl he left behind at home. But the hapless few soon discover that there are other dangers than plants in their now-alien world…
An interesting twist on the apocalyptic survival genre, Green Worldz delivers more action than horror. It’d be easy to imagine as a much grittier manga if it had darker, more restrained art, but despite all the death, it’s super shonen: our hero has spiky hair, there’s lots of speedlines, and all the main group of survivors are young, cute and big-eyed, except for badass, chainsaw-wielding, Wolverine-like oyaji Iwatobi (“I hate it when people do things out of order! So don’t any of you die before me!”) Sadly, the plant theme gets watered down fairly early on as the heroes encounter anthropomorphic boss enemies (aliens? mutants?), such as a giant man-eating baby with mouths for eyes. (Apparently plants don’t have enough personality to be the main bad guys in a shonen manga.) In one scene where the heroes are fighting giant sunflowers whose flowers are made up of the shriveled faces of their victims, I couldn’t help but notice the obligatory margin note “*This is a work of fiction. It does not depict any actual person, group or event”—phew! What a relief! Mythbusters should do an episode to see if you can save yourself from falling off a skyscraper by chainsawing through the side of an adjacent wall to slow your fall. Basically, a competent popcorn action manga.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: Cage of Eden.
High-Rise Invasion (Tsuina Miura (story), Takahiro Ohba (art))
Yuri, a teenager, regains consciousness to find herself in a mysterious building, running from an axe-wielding, masked killer. As she flees to the roof, she realizes not in Tokyo, or indeed in any city she knows: she’s in a bizarre, seemingly endless world of towering, empty skyscrapers connected by rope bridges, with the ground far, far below. In each building, masked maniacs hunt their victims, normal people like Yuri who have somehow been transported to this world. Trapped like rats in a trap, each victim is given a choice: to die at the hands of a murderer, or to jump off the building and kill themselves…
Fear of falling + fear of masked psycho killers = a manga that wants to scare you two ways. Running from the blood-splattered madmen, trying not to slip and fall, Yuri must cling to a series of increasingly perilous perches as she tries to survive and escape the urban nightmare. Unfortunately, our heroine is a weak protagonist, whose main trait is that she believes if she holds on long enough her brother will save her (“Ugh, what should I do? I wish I had my brother’s brain…”). The art is inappropriately cheesecakey—short-skirted Yuri runs delicately like she’s skipping around volleyball class, with her bust thrust forward—and did one of the other ‘normal’ humans in this high-rise Purgatory have to be a creepy rapist? It’s a shame, because for all its flaws this has the potential to be a scary, if slightly one-note (or two-note) manga. This is also one of the few Manga Box titles with a not-always-natural-sounding translation (“How can I be in a right state of mind?! I’m trapped in a world of tall buildings and suspension bridges!!”).
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: B-TOOM!, the movie Cube or your choice of “trapped in a mysterious place with killers and deadly traps” story.
Horizon (Takuya Okada)
It’s Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the shonen manga! Go to the Wikipedia link and look at the picture of Genghis Khan there, then come back and look at the picture of the blonde, giant-haired manga version of Genghis in Horizon. I’ll wait. Set when the future conquerer of Asia is apparently about 14, the standard shonen hero age, Takuya Okada‘s manga depicts young Temujin (Genghis’ original name) as a superboy who can do anything and fears no one. The narrator is impressed by him (“This was a man who lived an unparalleled life…the greatest hero in human history!”). The side characters are impressed by him. His father is impressed with him. Even a giant wolf spirit, that haunts Temujin like the demon fox haunting Naruto, is impressed by him.
The manga depicts the great plains of Central Asia as a place where people wore furs, died a lot and shouted a lot. As the son of the chief of the Mongols, young Temujin is surrounded by treachery, danger and war, but even as a kid he rides horses and kills adults and catches arrows in his teeth, never afraid for an instant. (“Get him! It’s only one kid!”) And that’s the problem of this manga: even, say, Naruto, a manga I consider to be excessively fawning towards its protagonist, depicts Naruto as an underdog and an emo boy once in awhile, but Temujin is a one-dimensional super-optimist of noble blood, without any flaws or interesting personality traits except the usual habit of inspiring the plebs with nonsensical speeches (“If we’re the descendants of the wolf, then our swords are our fangs!”). Boring to read and generically drawn, even the impressive amount of bloodshed can’t save it.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: Counting this one and Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and the Sea, Genghis Khan manga are now zero for two.
I Was Human (Hyakurai (story), Kikonomi (art))
In the year 2222, life is much the same as today except for “soul transplants,” an experimental technology which allows human souls to be put in new bodies. Manami, a girl in the gardening club, has a crush on Kazusa, a boy who likes soccer, but Kazusa is rude. But one day when Kazusa has an accident, his soul must be temporarily transplanted into the body of a hamster until his body can be fixed.
Manami, of course, ends up as Kazusa’s caretaker, and has to take care of the boy she likes in the form of a talking hamster. (“How am I supposed to look after him? If it were a sunflower or a sage flower, I’d know what to do.”) Luckily, in hamster form he turns out to be much cuter and less grumpy than he was before, or maybe the grump is just more adorable now. Hamster-Kazusa is annoyed at first to be stuck in a hamster’s body when he needs to be preparing for the finals, but he practices soccer with a fruit pit, learns to say “please” and “thank you,” and generally becomes a nicer person. Meanwhile, Manami finds herself wondering things like “This is my first time going out with a boy…is this a date?! He’s a boy, but…he’s a hamster now!” A pleasant, mild romantic fantasy, I Was Human doesn’t have a lot of kisses, but it has lots of warmth, plants, sunset scenes, and drawings of the elegant Soul Foundry building looming surreally above the city.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: The Lizard Prince, Fruits Basket, other shojo manga where grouchy guys turn into huggable animals.
Kurosu, a depressed, shut-in college dropout, tries to kill himself. But when he tries to hang himself with his belt, the hook gives way and tears a hole through the cheap apartment wall, through which he discovers he can see the girl in the next room. Soon he’s watching her obsessively, masturbating as he observes her normal, quiet life…until one day he sees her invite a man over, start to have sex with him, and then slash his throat with a box cutter. He passes out from shock, and wakes up to the sound of someone knocking at the door: it’s the girl, all smiles and charm, inviting him over for dinner. “Living alone…cooking for one…it’s kind of lonely,” she says. Was it all a hallucination? Or does the pretty girl next door have a dark secret that makes even a voyeuristic, jerk-off hikkikomori seem sane?
Spoiler: she is a psycho, and peephole-watching Kurosu becomes the witness as his serial-killer dream girl, Rio Miyaichi, catches and slaughters a variety of (invariably gross, ugly, thuggish) men. Before he can do something like go to the cops, she reveals that she knows that he knows, and then things start to get interesting as he becomes the murderess’s confidante. (“To live is to kill…that’s homo sapiens. I’m just a cute little thing next to Mao or Pol Pot.”) Somehow, his friendship with the lovely serial killer even gets Kurosu out of his shell, and before too long he’s taking college classes again, going out to restaurants, and pretending to be her ‘boyfriend’. What kind of twisted relationship can form between a suicidal boy and a homicidal girl? And how long before he becomes just one more victim…?
I had trouble getting through the first two chapters of this manga: I don’t mind twisted material, but I could have done without the hero’s bare ass sticking out of his pants as he whacks off, the strategically blocked view of Rio’s spread legs, Rio licking her fingers prior to her masturbating, etc. etc. But although Peephole isn’t the classiest, it’s interesting, and I’ve never seen this particular type of twisted relationship in a translated manga. The cartoony, sometimes crude art emphasizes (correctly) that this is all supposed to be a bit over-the-top, the cliffhangers keep you reading, and a little originality goes a long way.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: Like a tsundere version of Dexter. Or Hannibal.
Schoolgirl Landlord Honoka (Toshihiko Kobayashi)
Original Japanese title: Sailor Fuku, Tokidoki Apron (“Sailor Suit, Sometimes Apron”). Honoka, a cute and plucky teenage girl, moves into an apartment built by her grandfather to take his place as the caretaker/landlord. She is startled to discover that the tenants are all hot girls who are nudists, perverts or both: frequently bottomless Mariko Izumi (“She’s a little weird…but stunning!”), Kaori Mochikura, bondage-gear-wearing adult comic book artist (“That’s sexy comic book artist!”), and Yukiko Sahara, nurse. “I’ve always wanted to live in a house with a lot of people,” thinks Honoka, but she finds it annoying how her new housemates are always trying to take off her clothes.
The best thing about this manga is that, unlike Kobayashi’s excruciatingly soppy shonen manga Pastel, it doesn’t pretend to have a ‘plot’ to be anything other than just soft-softcore pseudo-yuri cheesecake. Frankly, it’s awful…but the art’s not bad (Kobayashi’s draftmanship has improved and tightened up since Pastel), so if this is your thing, go nuts.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: The fanservicey-est fanservice manga you’ve ever read. Except this is on iTunes, so without full-frontal.
First Love Suicide Pact (Yosuke Suzaki)
Mizukawa is in high school, and he has no reason to live. He watches silently, shyly from his desk as his classmates laugh and talk; on Christmas Eve (a “lovers’ holiday” in Japan) he wanders gloomily, alone, watching the couples in the park. Finally, he decides to kill himself, but just as he’s about to jump off the roof, he sees Yaegashi-sensei, his teacher, about to throw herself off the building next door. They lock eyes, and they make a double-suicide pact, but after their suicide attempt is improbably foiled, Yaegashi makes an even more startling proposal. “Why don’t we spend one year traveling around, doing fun stuff? Then, next Christmas, we’ll die together, but this time we’ll do it right!”
“I feel so incredibly free!” Mizukawa thinks at one point, while he’s playing UFO Catcher games or doing some other fun stuff with Yaegashi, and of course that’s the point of the manga: live every day like it might be your last. Theme-wise, it’s an oldie but a goodie, but it’d be better if Mizukawa and Yaegashi had more personality apart from being suicidally depressed; do they have a family, friends, hobbies, any ray of light? The other problem is, Suzaki’s art is so shockingly amateurish, you stop reading in mid-sentence to marvel at how badly a face or a bodypart is drawn. It’s one of the rare cases when I’ve seen art in an online manga that would have been unthinkable in a professional print magazine. At times, like the scene when a 40-year-old homeless rocker jams out in a sewer, the crayon-like artwork is so surreally bad I almost suspect Suzaki (or his editor) is going for some kind of “art naïve” effect, but either way, yuck.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: The manga that guy in your high school art class (who can’t draw) is always talking about drawing.
The Chronicle of Akoya (Shō Satō)
On the slopes of the serpent-shaped mountain rests Iron Village, a place of furnaces and foundries. Akoya, a rough-and-tumble girl whose dress is always flipping in the wind, learned how to forge from her father, a master blacksmith. (“That hoe is a real piece of junk! I can tell just by looking at it that it used the wrong ore! And I’ll bet the water used to quench it when it was tempered was totally the wrong temperature!”) Like her father, Akoya is a pacifist, but scheming chief Ikifuki wants to use his ironworking skills to make weapons and go to war with the neighboring villages. When Ikifuki tries to steal her father’s skills, Akoya flees, taking three of her father’s finest swords as she journeys into the lowlands where new people and new dangers await.
The Chronicle of Akoya is a prehistoric adventure story, set in Japan in the distant past when Dogû Figurines were new and bronze and iron were high-tech. I’m a sucker for Bronze Age tales, but this is a well-told manga by any standards, mixing the standard shonen heroic tropes (with a female protagonist) with lots of strange details from an ancient culture. Tattoos and facial paint, animal sacrifice, fertility rituals (complete with mass orgies)…it’s all part of Akoya’s world, and through her it becomes interesting to us, too. Some fairly gnarly and crazy-looking adult characters (everyone is tattooed or painted) coexist with a likable cast of teenagers in a world of stone, wood, mud and blood.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: Manga set in the Jomon Period are rare, but Yu Terashima and Kamui Fujiwara‘s Raikais set only a few hundred years later.
Billion Dogs (Muneyuki Kaneshiro (story), Naoki Serizawa (art))
Naoki Serizawa, whose drawings are so hyperdetailed he makes Takeshi Obata look like Charles Schulz, is the artist of ultra-realistic seinen manga such as Biohazard: Marhawa Desire. This badass, tough-guy manga drops us into the streets of Ichimatsu City, “ruled by politics and yakuza”!!
Ichiru Mizunuma is the high school student president and son of the mayor, Nozomu Mizunuma, a corrupt politician with yakuza ties. Rich, handsome, charming, he seems to have it all…but inwardly he’s a ruthless, cold-blooded manipulator. (“It’s hard being the president. I need to keep up my good image.”) His vice-president is his polar opposite: Kyosuke, a hot-blooded thug who only trusts his fists, his knife and his gut. Kyosuke hates Ichiru (“I was just part of his political game. He uses people like money bags or chess pieces…he’s a real piece of shit!”) and as the manga begins he stabs him in the gut right in front of the entire student body. Now, Kyosuke is the Most Wanted Man in Ichimatsu, and perhaps the only one who can stop Ichiru’s scheme. In a battle between the two toughest teens in Japan, who will win?
SPOILER: they both will, or neither. In chapter 3 it’s revealed that Kyosuke and Ichiru are secretly working together, and their real target is the corrupt older generation that’s ruined their town! They’re not out for justice, however, just out to steal the yakuza’s 3 billion yen (about $30 million). Clever twists plus great artwork makes this manga a must-read…just don’t read too much of it at once. That Serizawa art’ll fill you up, like cake.
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: People say it’s like Death Note, but if you’re into the classics, it’s more like a heist movie crossed with Sanctuary (or perhaps even like Ryoichi Ikegami‘s 1970s banchô manga whose manly tradition it folllows).
Man’s Bestest Friend (Hiroyuki Tamakoshi)
Hiroyuki Tamakoshi, a cute-girl mangaka, drew Boys Be……, a long-running shonen love-comedy anthology which occasionally had some interesting stories. (It’d be hard not to be good once in awhile over the course of 52 volumes.) But the good stories were probably written by his collaborator Masahiro Itabashi; get Tamakoshi alone and he draws Gacha Gacha and Gacha Gacha: The Next Revolution, two of the stupidest fanservice manga ever to shame pieces of paper. Luckily, Tamakoshi’s new manga Man’s Bestest Friend (a completely un-Googleable title) shows that he can still at least sort of keep it together long enough to deliver the adorably-insane rom-com goods.
When the hero is dumped by his girlfriend on the very day that he tries to give her a pet Jack Russell Terrier, he goes home with only his broken heart and the puppy for a consolation prize. Except that as soon as the pup crosses the threshold of his apartment, BAM! it transforms into a short-skirted teenage girl with dog ears. Luckily, “Wanko” (who turns back into a dog whenever she leaves the apartment…and also shows up as a dog in photos—spooky!) turns out to be a good friend, with a dog’s natural curiosity, friendliness and constant desire for food. It’s fairly fanservice-light, but amusingly kinky stuff, at least in the early chapters I’ve read; so far Tamakoshi hasn’t buried the premise beneath an avalanche of new gimmicks like he does in his other manga. (P.S. The original Japanese title is Wanko Number Wan—get it?)
OBLIGATORY COMPARISON: Guru Guru Pon-chan. Your preference in “transforming dog-girl” manga will depend not just on whether you prefer shojo or shonen, but whether you prefer big dogs or little dogs. As for me, I have a wire-haired dachshund and I’M PROUD OF IT.
This is just a sampling of the Manga Box manga; there’s plenty more to read (at least while the in-app-only reading service keeps on chugging). I wasn’t very impressed by the four-panel manga, although Jeff aka botoggle on Twitter pointed out that Too Much Booty (original title “Onimote”)is one of the greatest localized manga titles of all time (just for the title, that is—the actual manga completely sucks). Whoever came up with that title should have also worked on The Knight in the Area, a cool-seeming long-running sports manga I haven’t read enough to review yet. Wait, there’s more: there’s a manga about a 1995 police car that secretly has a soul, but it’s a sexist and it doesn’t like working with the rookie female police officer assigned to drive it! There’s Shinjuku DxD (not D&D, alas),a manga about a Black Jack-esque handsome genius doctor who plays by his own rules and befriends a shirt-straining detective, only to immediately grab her breasts, but wait! He’s not a pervert! (“You have a lump on your left breast. I can tell the left one feels tight just by looking at it.”) Alas, there’s only one chapter available of that one, and only one chapter of the mediocre shonen manga Destroyed Century Joker (picture Pokémon in the desert with Ash using a machine gun, then make it bad). The app/magazine’s shojo offerings are sadly limited, and there’s only one yaoi title, the wistfully romantic but not-very-well-drawn In a Heartbeat. (“Deep in my heart, a shy hope awoke again…”) But then there are the really weird titles: The Great Phrases Women Fall For, a kind of meme-humor series of one-panel deadpan captioned gags, with an added level of hard-to-translate cultural “is this supposed to be humor?” strangeness. My Grandpa’s Stories Can’t Be This Weird!, a bunch of Bobobo!-esque Fractured Fairy Tales which grabbed my attention with the first one about a boy with a QR code for the head. And The Tawara Cat, a one-shot about a girl and a cat that I really wish would be continued, because it’s cute and the full-color art is so atypical for manga.
I like Manga Box, but I’m sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, because it’s obviously going to have to change a lot over the next few months. “Put out a ton of manga for free with no advertising” is not a business model, so I assume that to monetize, the app will eventually have to take some of the manga off the site and either sell some kind of ebooks, or offer a paid premium subscription service of some kind. But even if the whole site collapses next week, I won’t regret a second I spent reading it: hey, it’s free. And there’s a lot of it. The boom of new manga content on licensed digital devices makes the Tokyopop Manga Boom of 2002 look like a trickle, and even if there’s a few bad ones and badly drawn ones in the lot, that’s totally fine. Good manga are interesting, but so are really bad manga and weird and rugged and “not ready for prime time” ones. Manga should be surprising, and the best compliment I can pay to Manga Box is that I was surprised.