Back at it with another manga list! From focusing on messy Josei manga titles to coming-of-age manga series to even manga that teaches us about the creation of and the industry behind manga, I am back writing away about manga. This month I wanted to focus on the historical genre. It is a favorite of mine in literature and especially manga and other comics around the world. So often people think this is a niche genre in manga when truly it overlaps with some many genres–Demon Slayer (Shonen) would fit in this genre as would My Happy Marriage (grouped together with Shojo and Josei). Classic Shojo like Red River and more or less classic Shonen like Inuyasha would for sure fit in these categories as well because of their defined time periods within their stories.
I sat down and thought about some of my favorite historical manga series that I adore and recommend. In cutting down the longer list, I had enough for a part two! In the end, I created a short list that included titles that are one: hopefully more accessible and easy to read and includes digital releases; two: more or less recent and ongoing manga runs; three: nothing out of print and only series with official translations–like yes, Cesare by Fuyumi Soryo would be a dream to finally read…once a publisher picks it up!) and here’s my list:
My Dear Detective: Mitsuko’s Case Files
Creator: Natsumi Ito
Age Rating: 16+
Setting date: 1930’s Japan
Available Formats: Digital
Ongoing or Completed: Ongoing (3 volumes collected so far)
Adapted To Anime: No.
Localization Team: Samuel R Messner (Translator), Barri Shrager (Letterer), Adela Chang (Production Manager)
I wrote in a bit more detail about My Dear Detective: Mitsuko’s Case Files, a newer manga series last year. I am happy to recommend the series with such an intriguing premise: the fictional adventures and misadventures of Mitsuko, Japan’s first fictional woman detective in the turbulent 1930s, again. Despite the infuriating comments from small-minded folks all about not quite outdated gender roles, she’s keen on impacting lives one way or another–that’s her job. Saku, a young charming college student, becomes her new assistant as he shows up with a case to be solved that links them together as a pair. This older woman/younger man duo find clients and cases that no one else cares about or will entertain, and that’s the magic of this series.
With my reread, I reminisced on my favorite cases that Mitsuko and Saku take on: from misunderstood children, seemingly scandalous actresses, friends who hurt each other deeply accidentally–there is more plot than filler here. Readers will read stories of people who need help changing their lives for the better in the Showa period (1930s) of Japan where ideals are changing society. Technological advances are sweeping the country and people are moving away with the flow or change or doing their best to resist it. Along the way we get more and more hard-earned glimpses of not just Mitsuko and Saku’s respective backstories. The lady detective had a terrible falling out with family because of her career aspirations that did not align with what father wanted and her college aged assistant faces trouble at home as well, but his background surprisingly comes from one with much more privilege.
What best comes across in these pages detailing Mitsuko’s case files is heart. There’s a reason why she’s good at her job and how her meddling and attention to detail allows her to find what others miss. She mentions to Saku, her trusty assistant detective, that as detectives, “their job is to stay true to the client’s request.” This translates to truly listening to people and being an active listener and using all the emotional intelligence she has to do the impossible. Sometimes families are reunited, other times people are able to gain closure, gain new agency or allies to follow their dreams but every case–some more than others–reveal a Japan that is full of narrative rich stories that are more in depth and worth reading than originally presented.
Recommended for: Fans of detective stories, for folks who love odd ball duos in manga, lovers of DRAMA
Creator: Makoto Yukimura
Setting date: 1013 AD (Starting in Iceland)
Age Rating: 16+
Available Formats: Digital & Physical
Ongoing or Completed: Ongoing (13 volumes)
Adapted To Anime: Yes, Two seasons.
Localization Team for Vol 1-5: Stephen Paul (Translator), Scott O. Brown (Letterer) Ben Applegate (Editing)
As a child, young Thorfinn sat at the feet of the great Leif Ericson and was thrilled by wild tales of a land far to the far-off west. But his youthful fantasies and childhood were shattered by traveling mercenaries. Raised by the Vikings who murdered his father, Thorfinn became a terrifying warrior. His main goals in life soon became to one day kill the band’s leader, Askeladd, and avenge his honorable father. Sustaining Thorfinn through all these years were the memories of his dear family, his pride, and his dreams of a fertile westward land: a land without war or slavery or the hopelessness he had been dealt–the land Leif called Vinland.
When I first picked up the oversized volume one (some nearly five hundred pages) of Vinland Saga back in maybe 2015, I thought to myself–THIS IS STORYTELLING. As verbally mentioned and demonstrated first by Thors, Thorfinn’s father in the first volume: eventually everyone in life has to face their past. If a person or people’s past is filled with violence and tragedy–it will eventually be revisited before their life ends. In many ways during my reread of the first few volumes of Vinland Saga I remembered that someone’s past often is a factor in their future.
Young Thorfinn lives on attempting to figure out what it means to be a warrior and to have a spirit of one that transcends one’s days. In an age of changing leaderships and territories, the young man learns what misfortune and greed are among men across borders and religions. This is a series to behold to see the pains and growth of a character who learns what being complicit looks like in the raising of the lives of others all while he seeks retribution and peace. Vinland Saga is a long-running series that you should pick up for not just the fleshing of Viking History but for a moving, cathartic tale on legacies, mortality, sacrifice, and surviving and thriving in a world not built for you. Many Vinland Saga characters are based on real historical or semi-historical figures which is a fun realization. (It makes for the end book notes and researching on your own a fun task, if you’re into that.) Lastly, I have to mention that the father-son (and adopted father like-son) relationships carried throughout the series are some of my favorite in all of manga, period.
Recommended for: Long-running thrilling sagas via manga, Seinen flavored battles and rivalries, and epic storytelling
Creators: Writer: Takahiro Matsui / Artist: Ryo Konno
Age Rating: 16+
Setting date: Later 1800’s
Available Formats: Physical and Digital, but more accessible Digitally for English translation.
Ongoing or Completed: Completed (ten chapters)
Adapted To Anime: No.
Shout-out to fellow contributor Mikkel for originally putting this manga on my radar a while ago. I remember briefly reading the first chapter online and remembering it for this list and coming back to revisit the manga. Getting back to this story meant exploring the life of polyglot doctor, novelist, and painter Jose Rizal. Born on the outskirts of Manila during a period when native Filipinos were oppressed, exploited, and stripped of their rights, he came to understand the grip of power that Colonial Spain used as they ruled the Philippines. What I came to see while reading through the chapters was the start of a life where Rizal’s family experienced great injustice and how he framed his life going forth in such a way to fight against it.
When searching the internet to see if any physical copies of the manga exist, I found this wholesome tweet with photos of The Philippine Embassy in Japan unveiling the signed copies of the Jose Rizal manga, which entails the key events in the national hero’s life. I adore the fact that The first volume and the first chapter online was released on Rizal’s birthday, June 19th. The creative team of Takahiro Matsui and Ryo Konno actually traveled to the Philippines and visited the many places where the titular character of their work once lived. The Jose Rizal manga, while short, introduces a man of marvelous means who sought to educate himself and learn about the world around him in his fight to make his people’s life better against the backdrop of colonization. I believe this manga glimpses into not only his Filipino identity but also his surefire dedication to incite change.
Recommended for: Manga centered on real life historical figures, really striking artwork, shorter works in the historical manga genre
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
Creator: Fumi Yoshinaga
Age Rating: 16+
Setting date: Tokugawa period, also called Edo period, (1603–1867)
Available Formats: Digital and Physical.
Ongoing or Completed: Completed. (19 volumes)
Adapted To Anime: YES. One season.
Localization Team: Akemi Wegmüller (Translation & Adaptation) Monalisa De Asis (Touch up Art & Lettering)
So this is not my first time writing about Ōoku: The Inner Chambers here on the site. In the Edo-period of Japan, there’s a strange new disease called the Red Pox that has befallen just the men of the country. Within eighty years of the first outbreak, the male population has fallen by seventy-five percent. Thus, women have taken on all of the roles traditionally granted to men, even that of the Shogun. Society continues to turn on its head with a severe gender reversal and the men are carefully protected and sought after. And the most beautiful of the men–the most alluring are sent to serve in the Shogun’s Inner Chamber. Once the final volume of the manga was published, I wrote about the series again upon rereading and finishing it. I also did mention the newer anime adaptation here.
Most alternative history is not built the same, and most fictional media that floats around strikes me as boring (we don’t need another ‘what if Hitler won,’ and I wish people would let that rest). So for me, alternative history has to stand out and give me something. Fumi Yoshinaga, one of my favorite mangaka in the game and a highly acclaimed and decorated one as well–brought it and so much more. This is a manga that I refuse to stop talking and writing about as it is a thrilling historical saga that literally spans generations with enough characters major and side that fills in a master. I once wrote that I kept coming back to this series for the incredible stories that are interwoven with each other: touching upon heart break, obligation, chaos, sincerity, and happiness of a life worth living. This alt-version of Japan is certainly worth reading for an enduring and long running saga that will entertain you while breaking your heart presenting generations upon generations looking for purpose and hope in a troubled time.
Recommended for: Folks who love subversive alternate history stories, fans of the incredible storyteller that is Fumi Yoshinaga,
Creator: Tatsuya Ihara
Publisher: Starfruit Books
Age Rating: 16+
Setting date: 1959’s Japan
Available Formats: Digital, for now. You can read it on Azuki.
Ongoing or Completed: Completed.
Adapted To Anime: No.
Localization Team: Dan Luffey (Translator), Aidan Clarke (Lettering and Retouching), Matt Haasch (Project Manager)
Toki is set in 1959 and follows the story of a midwife named Toki Ihashi, living in Yashio village, Saitama just outside of Japan‘s capital. She has been providing childbirth assistance to the village for many, many years. However, in 1948, after the war, the GHQ promoted American-style hospital births. This was a move that put midwives, whose livelihood was home birth, in danger of going out of business and relevance. There’s only one chapter of Toki, yet at fifty or so pages, it is a one shot that goes the distance when I found myself online looking for comics that focused on pregnancy and midwifery. The manga starts with a page detailing this certain time in history in Japan: where the Tokyo Tower was being constructed and how the Emperor first attended a baseball game.
The old world, the old Japan was starting to be washed away in more ways than one and the midwives who tended to all the many villages and small towns were starting to feel the change. So many little nuances were at risk of disappearing like certain festivals. There are a set of panels in the middle of this work that share Toki’s inner monologue: “Children are born through a natural process. A natural process that should not be controlled or bent according to for the sake of human convenience.”
As much as there is an incredible line of dialogue on the medicalization of birth that gives much food for thought, I was stunned by the emphasis on the love of this female labor that literally helped create the bridge for new life to prosper. Women’s work is never to be underestimated, and the midwifery at this time was seen to be an honored line of work that I’d love to read more about translated in English if possible. Toki also demonstrates a sincere care to serving how wartime trauma, mourning, and survivor’s guilt play a part in the work that people do, especially in this era of Japan that should not be missed.
Recommended for: Fans of fantastic one shots, manga with female protagonists, manga elaborating on and focusing on childbirth and midwifery history, slice of life lovers, indie manga
Love manga? So do we! Check out more manga reviews and related content here!