“I mean, great characters are the heart of great manga!! Just once, I want to see a character that really gets me right here, in my chest.”
These wise words were uttered by Ms. Hinata, neglectful mother but dedicated manga editor in Mine Yoshizaki’s hilarious Sgt. Frog (Tokyopop). It’s kind of a risky thing for a manga character to say. It’s clearly true, but if it’s part of a manga without that critical ingredient, you’’ve just reminded your readers of what they’re missing.
Fortunately, Sgt. Frog is packed with great characters, none surpassing the title amphibian, Keroro. Leader of a hapless squad of Muppet-ish alien invaders, Keroro is a gem. He’s narcissistic, cowardly, easily distracted (particularly by Gundam models), oddly exuberant, and utterly, lovably insane. Better still, he doesn’t have to carry the load by himself. With a platoon of distinctly imbalanced associates, dubious human hosts, and an ever-expanding circle of oddballs, terrestrial and extra, half of the fun of Sgt. Frog is watching the motley personalities ping against each other. It’s like an orchestra of quirks making beautiful, chaotic music.
One of the great pleasures of manga is the abundance of character-driven titles and the vast spectrum of approaches their creators apply. From the wildly eccentric to the heartbreakingly identifiable, manga’s vast cast of indelible characters is a constant source of discovery.
Take Hot Gimmick (Viz) as an example, with its delicate, incremental character development. Creator Miki Aihara executes a rather daring balancing act by putting two potentially unsympathetic characters at the heart of her swirling soap opera. Let’s face it: Hatsumi is a doormat, and Ryoki is a brute. But Aihara somehow invests them with such specificity and vulnerability that you can’t help rooting for them. They experience the tiniest of epiphanies about themselves and each other, and they get it wrong more often than right, but each inch they move in the right direction is absolutely thrilling.
Another memorable entry in the unsympathetic protagonist category is jerky chef-in-training Jan Akiyama from Iron Wok Jan! (Dr. Masters, formerly Comics One). Shinji Saijyo takes an extremely familiar story structure – young man wants to climb the highest heights in whatever – and puts a creep at the center. Jan is aggressive, egocentric, insulting, and emotionally removed from the people around him. (Blame his bastard grandfather and the old crank’s sadistic training regime.) Jan places himself in opposition with virtually everyone, particularly fellow trainee Kiriko Gobancho. Jan and Kiriko have significantly different philosophies of cooking, which are informed by their conflicting temperaments. Kiriko is dutiful, meticulous, and outwardly focused. But Saijyo saves her from being a hopeless pill by giving her her own flavor of Jan’s ego; it gives the opposing chefs a level, lively playing field. The best part of Iron Wok Jan! is Saijyo’s willingness to let the reader decide whether they root for or against the manga’s lead.
Speaking of familiar structures, is there one more well-trod than the odd couple/buddy cop genre? Without a very specific and engaging chemistry between the partners, familiarity can breed all kinds of contempt, or at least disinterest. In the case of Sanami Matoh’s Fake(Tokyopop), bad-boy Dee and by-the-book Ryo absolutely crackle from their first scene. Their rapport – contentious, blatantly sexual, and slyly romantic – transcends the formulaic nature of the story. (That’s a good thing; as a writer of police procedurals, Matoh leaves a lot to be desired.)
Character chemistry is equally critical in Ai Yazawa’s cutting-edge fashion shôjo, Paradise Kiss (Tokyopop). For the story to work, Yazawa’s group of young designers have to be charismatic enough to make the reader believe it when good-girl Yukari leaves her old life behind. There has to be a vibe among the eccentric group that draws Yukari in and makes her yearn to connect with them, to be a part of their eccentric and creative “family.” Yazawa succeeds both individually and collectively. Instead of relying simply on distinct visual design, she gives each member of her cast an inner life. At the same time, she creates a complex web of interpersonal relationships, warm and playful and engaging. It’s easy to see how Yukari falls under their spell, because it’s happening to the reader at the same time.
Sometimes protagonists need to take chemistry into their own hands. That’s very much the case with Tanpopo in Yû Watase’s Imadoki! (Viz). Tanpopo has all of the requisite ingredients of a shôjo heroine (optimism, pluck, an open heart), but Watase delivers a nice change-up by making those traits a detriment. Sweet, average Tanpopo is dumped into a setting where her best qualities make her a target for the social-climbing sharks of her new high school. Then Watase pulls another switch by having Tanpopo refuse to adapt to the icy sterility of her environment, opting instead to crack its veneer and try and remake at least part of it in her own outgoing image. In a field of sometimes sickly shôjo heroines, Tanpopo is a refreshing and hilarious alternative.
Some genres don’t seem to lend themselves to depth of characterization. One of those is horror, at least in my opinion. For all of the gory, unsettling glories of Junji Ito’sUzumaki (Viz), the characters aren’t particularly essential. The horror here is watching decent, unremarkable people caught up in a swirl of awful circumstances. Nothing is their fault, particularly good-girl lead Kirie, and Kirie and her neighbors are facing a situation that seems impossible to fight. There’s an inevitability (effectively horrific in its own right) that puts the characters in a secondary position. Much more successful are the varyingly unsavory victims of Ito’s Tomie (Comics One). By playing up his cast’s individual failings – greed, lust, anger, what have you – Ito lets the reader wonder just what these people have done to invite the terror that comes into their lives in the form of beautiful, cruel Tomie. It gives the proceedings a nasty, ambiguous kick.
Mystery, on the other hand, can rise or fall on the strength of a sleuth. Kindaichi Case Files (Tokyopop) offers wonderfully constructed fair-play mysteries. Writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato populate them with richly detailed suspects who would be interesting even if you weren’t wondering which of them was dispatching their family, friends and neighbors (or who was next to be dispatched). Involving as the stories are, they’re better for the presence of the detective trying to decipher them. Hajime Kindaichi is an undeniably brilliant sleuth, but he’s easy to underestimate with his slacker disposition and disrespectful attitude. Skilled as he is in the art of detection, Kindaichi also has an unexpectedly humanistic streak that gives the puzzles weight and heart. He functions on a number of levels, both in driving the plot and in personalizing it.
There are so many great examples of the notion that character counts: Hikaru in Hikaru No Go (Viz), Shô and company in Whistle! (Viz), the quirky inhabitants ofMaison Ikkoku (Viz), all the way back to Osamu Tezuka’s sweet (slightly creepy) boy robot, Astro Boy (Dark Horse). I could (and arguably have) go on and on. It’s just so central to manga’s appeal, and I think it’s a fundamental reason why these comics have cracked such a large audience.