In Praise of Female Mangaka: 10 Must-Reads

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Recently, I realized that the majority of my favorite manga were created by female mangaka. Usually I discover the anime first, but often after watching the anime I then go back to read the manga because I can’t get enough of the art and story, otaku that I am. Consistently, though, when I go from watching the anime to reading the manga, I discover that the mangaka is a woman, with only a few exceptions.

Hold on. Wait. Back up. Let me start over with some terminology:

  • Manga: Essentially, Japanese comics.
  • Mangaka: A Japanese comic writer and/or artist. (Many mangaka do both story and art.)
  • Anime: Refers to Japanese animation, the majority of which is based on manga.
  • Otaku: Basically, an obsessive fan. Me, for instance. I really, truly love manga and anime. In fact, I’d like to sincerely apologize in advance if I write with excessive excitement during this post.

Right, back to the main topic. Female mangaka have claimed a special spot in my heart. Sure, I’m fond of some male mangaka, such as Tite Kubo. However, women mangaka dominate my list of favorites.

Why? Because they’re made of rainbows and chocolate and baby koalas. They offer strong female characters I can relate to. They create stories with depth that leave me thinking and wondering long after I take in the last word. I could reread their manga or rewatch the related anime over and over — I have, in fact, done just that with many of them.

Manga on display

If you have ever thought to yourself, “Gee, I’d like to discover stories by talented female artists and writers from Japan, but I don’t even know where to start,” as I’m sure you have on many occasions, here are a few of my favorites. Please bear in mind that I’m unashamedly biased in favor of fantasy stories.

1. Fullmetal Alchemist, by Arakawa Hiromu: (Male lead character) This is my ultimate, my favorite. It’s a story of devoted brothers, Ed and Al, young alchemists who have committed a horrible taboo and paid a price they never expected. They seek to recover what they’ve lost by finding the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. This story involves condemnation and redemption, comedy and tragedy. The philosophy behind it challenges me, and the spirit of it delights me. The cast of characters is rich and diverse, and although the brothers take the lead roles, the supporting females show some amazing complexity, particularly Izumi Curtis, who fills the role of teacher to Ed and Al. She made my jaw drop time and again.

2. Skip Beat!, by Nakamura Yoshiki: (Female lead character) Skip Beat! is a lighter tale, a romance/comedy. Kyoko, a teen who devoted herself to supporting her childhood friend and ideal “prince,” Shoutaro, and helping him achieve his dream of stardom, discovers that he sees her as nothing more than a stepping stone and has been using her. She swears to get revenge, but the only way to do it is by entering the entertainment industry. I adore Kyoko. She’s smart, complicated, and wonderfully flawed. She could so easily have been a two-dimensional character, another lackluster Cinderella. Instead, this hollow girl goes on a journey to find her true self. I can’t give enough praise to this mangaka for the way she shows Kyoko’s difficult and joyful growth.

3. Mushishi, by Urushibara Yuki: (Male lead character) If you’ll pardon my loose translation, the name Mushishi basically means master of bugs. Here, though, “bugs” isn’t used literally. They’re primeval creatures, and only a few humans can see them. Ginko is a Mushishi, and he travels the country solving mysterious problems with the mushi, small beings that are neither good nor evil but which occasionally cause unusual problems for humans. Set in rural Japan, this is an episodic story, and it reads like a series of introspective explorations into human nature. It has a slow, gentle pace, which stands out to me in this age of fast stories. The tone is often melancholy.

4. Ouran High School Host Club, by Hatori Bisco: (Female lead) This manga is another romance/comedy. However, it probably isn’t ideal for the uninitiated. In fact, I’m sure it would confuse someone who’s unfamiliar with the standard tropes in shoujo manga (manga written for a young female audience). This story is a brilliant satire of shoujo manga, but even as it lampoons the readers, it completely satisfies the genre, which tickles me with its cleverness. I wish I could give you a brief summary, but at the same time, the mangaka includes a quirky twist at the very beginning that I wouldn’t want to spoil.

5. Natsume Yuujinchou (Natsume’s Book of Friends), by Midorikawa Yuki: (Male lead) Natsume is a troubled young teen. Not only was he orphaned as a child, but he has the misfortune to be able to see demons and spirits, which leads to no end of misunderstandings. When he goes to live with distant relatives in rural Japan, he discovers his grandmother Reiko’s Book of Friends, a book containing the names of demons she defeated. Natsume decides to return the names. This is a gentle, episodic story, not entirely unlike Mushishi, but with more innocence and a more connected overarching thread to it. I loved watching Natsume’s slow growth throughout the series.

6. InuYasha, by Takahashi Rumiko: (Female and male dual leads) This comedy/action/romance was one of the gateways addictions that lead me toward becoming an otaku. Kagome is a 15-year-old girl whose family owns and runs a shrine. She falls down a well, and when she climbs out, she’s in Japan’s feudal era. She discovers she’s the reincarnation of a priestess, and she revives Inu Yasha, a half-demon who....okay, I realize I can’t summarize this without it sounding ridiculous. It’s like trying to summarize Alice in Wonderland. The mangaka describes it as a feudal fairy tale, and that’s an ideal summary for it. It’s told from Kagome’s perspective, and one of the things I love most is the way her modern sensibilities clash with the feudal era.

7. Kekkaishi, by Yellow Tanabe: (Male lead) It’s a comedy/action with just a dash of a love story thrown in. Every night, as part of their family heritage, Yoshimori and Tokine protect the grounds of Karasumori, which becomes infested with power-seeking demons after sunset. The grounds also happen to be where their school is located. The main character, Yoshimori, is a blunt, brute-force kind of guy, straightforward and honest. He’s a very normal hero for a shounen manga (manga written for a young male audience). In fact, he’s such a classic shounen lead male that readers are often shocked to find out the author is female. I wasn’t shocked by the discovery — I was delighted by it.

8. Her Majesty’s Dog, by Takeuchi Miku: (Female and male dual leads) If you guess that this manga involves demons, you’re right. This is mainly a romance/comedy with some action. Amane Kamori is a spiritual medium who can control creatures by using their real names. Hyoue is her guardian, a demon, and he develops feelings for her that he shouldn’t have. Then her family gets involved and attempts to break their bond. This is a shorter story compared with the others in this list. I like the heavier stuff, but sometimes short and sweet is exactly what I need, a quick treat.

9. Fruits Basket, by Takaya Natsuki: (Female lead, two male supporting leads) This story is a mystery/comedy. I admit that Fruits Basket just barely made it onto the list. The reason is because I’m not fond of the female lead character, Tohru. She isn’t very bright, which I find irksome in female leads. Still, she has a lot of heart, and the plot is delicious and fun. The story starts when Tohru encounters three members the Sohma family. Certain members of the Sohma family are cursed by the spirits of the zodiac — when weakened or hugged by a member of the opposite gender, POOF, they turn into their zodiac animal temporarily. Despite the fact that this seemed to be a light and fluffy shoujo manga, the story showed unexpected and impressive darkness as the plot thickened, for which I give it big props.

And number 10 comes from my to-be-read list:

10. D.Gray Man, by Hoshino Katsura: (Male lead) This is a popular series that I intend to read/watch when I get the chance. I don’t know much about it except that it’s about exorcists (probably because there are so many demons in manga that need exorcising). I look forward to finding out more.

In conclusion, these women mangaka rock my socks, and demons are everywhere.

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