I’ve heard that in Japan there is manga for everything, but as I do not read Japanese or live in Japan, I have to wait for the library to purchase English translations. And while we don’t have manga for everything, we do have manga for some mighty odd things. For instance!
Agriculture – Moyasimon – College student Tadayasu can see (and talk to) bacteria. This leads to all sorts of adventures involving fermented seals, sake brewing, athlete’s foot, food poisoning, mushroom cultivation, and more. There’s a good deal of science sprinkled throughout the series, and the bacteria are adorably drawn. Who knew that an agricultural college would be such a crazy place?
Autism – With the Light – This series follows the Azuma family and their autistic son Hikaru from his birth to his middle school years. It’s hard to describe fully, because there’s a lot going on here. My favorite parts aren’t about Hikaru; they’re the chapters that show how Japanese society treats people with autism. Unfortunately, this series was forced to an early conclusion by the author’s death, which is a loss for all of us.
Becoming a Manga Artist – A Zoo in Winter – The mostly autobiographical tale of Hamaguchi, a young man who joins a manga studio in Tokyo in the 1960s, when everything was done by hand and moved at a different pace – well, except the deadlines. Apparently deadlines haven’t changed much.
The Bombing of Hiroshima – Barefoot Gen – This is quite possibly the most depressing manga I’ve ever read, because it’s a true story. Gen’s older brother is in the army. Gen’s father is ostracized for opposing the war. Half of Gen’s family burns to death in the fires started by the atomic bomb while Gen and his pregnant mother are watching. And then it gets bad. Seriously – even Maus is a cake walk compared to this one. (Bonus: movies!)
Chinese Food – Iron Wok Jan – The first example on our list of the “son of a famous blah blah blah displays his knowledge and triumphs over adversity” genre. It’s about a cocky young fellow named Jan (who is the son of a famous chef), and apparently takes place in a part of Japan that has an awful lot of Chinese cooking competitions. Also, the female lead’s, erm, assets, increase dramatically by the end of the series. I don’t know how she can even see what she’s cooking.
Football – Eyeshield 21 – Sena, a scrawny kid who’s good at dodging bullies, accidentally develops some impressive running skills and is drafted by (read: forced to join) his school’s failing football team. Will they be able to rebuild the team? Will they make it to the fabled Christmas Bowl? Well, of course they will – it’s that kind of manga. But you’ll learn lots and lots about football along the way. This is the first “underdog sports team triumphs over adversity” title on our list. (Also, “Eyeshield 21” is a pretty dumb nickname. Maybe it sounds better in Japanese.)
Japanese Food – Oishinbo – Number two in the “son of a famous dude” genre. Shiro (our hero) is pitted against his father, who is apparently the Best Food Critic Ever. The two work for rival newspapers, and are competing to create the ultimate Japanese menu (sure, why not). Anyway, each English-language volume is based on a theme (sake, pub food, rice) which is mighty educational but chronologically confusing. Why is the main character meeting his future wife in volume one, dating her in volume three, and getting married in volume two? But still, any book that claims to bring lovers together with the powers of asparagus is worth a read.
The Silk Road – A Bride’s Story – Twenty year-old Amir and her twelve year-old husband settle down with his extended family somewhere in central Asia. It’s fun to see the cultural differences between Amir and her new family, especially since you’re learning about both cultures at the same time. Throw in a Brit for some slapstick comic relief, fill it with appallingly beautiful and detailed artwork, and you’re good to go.
Tennis – The Prince of Tennis – This one combines the “underdog sports team” and “son of a famous dude” genres quite nicely, and has lots of pretty high school boys, too. Alas, I gave up on it halfway through the series, because the tournaments just go on forever – do I really want to watch poor Ryoma swat at balls for 42 volumes? Hell no. But there’s scads of tennis vocabulary and it’s obviously well-researched. Good enough, if tennis is your thing (or you get it for free from your library).
Victorian England – Emma – Being a maid is hard work. Really hard work. Even if you’re Emma, and you have a super liberal employer who buys you glasses and teaches you how to read. And then, you get abducted and shipped to America because your boyfriend’s fiancée’s dad doesn’t like you. Maybe you would have been better off in that brothel. (No, not really.) But the artwork is amazing (same author as A Bride’s Story), and the history is spot on. (Bonus: anime!)
Wine – The Drops of God – Another “son of a famous dude” manga. This son, Shizuku, is competing with his adopted brother in a contest (“son of a famous dude” manga almost always has a contest in it somewhere) to see who will inherit famous-wine-critic dad’s wine cellar, which is worth scads of money. I’ve never learned so much about France from a Japanese book. So yeah, the format is predictable. It’s the content that really sets this one apart.
Window Washing – Saturn Apartments – Okay, I’m kinda faking it with this one, because there’s not much window washing instruction in here. But it is a manga about a group of window washers and their newest hire, the adorable teenager Mitsu. And they work on a space station, too. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Trust me, it is.
Those are just a few of the titles that have been translated into English. I’m almost afraid to see what will cross the ocean next.