The best books to investigate literary manga

Sean Michael Wilson Author Of The Minamata Story: An Ecotragedy
By Sean Michael Wilson

Who am I?

I am a comic book writer from Scotland now living in Japan. I have had more than 40 books published with a variety of US, UK, and Japanese publishers. I am the only professional manga writer from Britain who lives in Japan. In 2016 my book The Faceless Ghost was nominated for the prestigious Eisner Book Awards, and received a medal in the 2016 'Independent Publisher Book Awards'. In 2017, my book Secrets of the Ninja won an International Manga Award from the Japanese government – I was the first British person to receive this. In 2020 I received the ‘Scottish Samurai Award’ from an association linking Japan and Scotland.

I wrote...

The Minamata Story: An Ecotragedy

By Sean Michael Wilson, Akiko Shimojima (illustrator),

Book cover of The Minamata Story: An Ecotragedy

What is my book about?

A true story of environmental damage and deeply moving personal tragedy in Japan due to mismanagement and cover-up.

A graphic novel /manga on ‘Minamata disease’, which looks at the devastating effect of mercury poisoning by a chemical company of coastal communities of Japan, especially the fishing village of Minamata. Following the college research of a young student, Tomi, and his grandmother we discover a tale of corporations evading responsibility, government cover-ups and the very moving story of the local people who suffered the consequences with bitterness, pain but with deep strength and courage. With the recent news that the Japanese government is planning to release Fukushima Daiichi nuclear waste into the sea this story about the tragedy of Minamata's poison sea has renewed importance.

The books I picked & why

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By Shigeru Mizuki, Zack Davisson (translator),

Book cover of Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939

Why this book?

A key cliche which comic book writers like myself are trying to get over is that comic books and manga are just for kids. That has never been true. This Showa book is an excellent example of that, as the four volumes range over a 63 year period (1926 to 1989) in Japanese history in which we learn about the war, Japanese society, the changes over time, and Mizuki’s personal story. Such comic books and manga, or graphic novels to give them their fancy modern term, are an excellent way to learn about a wide variety of topics with both text and visual working together in an engaging dance. Mizuki was one of the key figures in Japanese manga but for me, this book on history and culture, told in a personal way is his most impressive work.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo

By Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Yuji Oniki (translator),

Book cover of Abandon the Old in Tokyo

Why this book?

This book is a classic 1960s/1970s style gekiga book, which means more sophisticated literary manga. These are wonderful moving and funny stories from the street, about everyday people dealing with the pain and disappointment that we all must face throughout life. If you have never read any comic books beyond superhero ones this book will open your eyes to how subtle and intelligent comic books can be. I was lucky enough to meet and work with Tatsumi before he died.

The Swamp

By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Ryan Holmberg (translator),

Book cover of The Swamp

Why this book?

Tsuge is another of the early gekiga greats, who only recently allowed English translation of his classic work from the 1960s and 70s. Tsuge pushed the boundaries of what manga stories were about, into more abstract and surreal areas and visual presentation. This book is, like Tatsumi’s books, a glimpse of a little-known Japan beneath the common stereotypes. Its stories are told in an understated and sophisticated fashion. Literary manga indeed. Wonderful stuff, personally I love it.

Cigarette Girl

By Masahiko Matsumoto,

Book cover of Cigarette Girl

Why this book?

This is another of the early gekiga greats coming out in a big English edition for the first time. Matsumoto worked alongside Tsuge and Tatsumi in the late 50s, to push manga into more mature territory of what I’m calling literary manga. This book is from early 70s strips which show how people relate to each other in a big city in a simple, understated style. Again, it’s a balance to the image of manga being all about exaggeration. He considers alienation, longing, aimlessness, but with humour and a lightness of touch. It also shows various onomatopoeia which Matsumoto was careful to create, and he made many originals ones.   

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness

By Nagata Kabi,

Book cover of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness

Why this book?

One of the great things about comic books and manga now is the much greater range of subjects they go into. This book is such an example. It’s a memoir of self-discovery which follows the artist’s life for ten years after school, looking with brutal honesty at her bouts with depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. It doesn’t end in a fairy tale way, like so many Hollywood movies do. Which is another reason why manga and comic books are so good now: they can go into issues with more sophistication than movies often do. Instead, it considers the problem in a realistic way, making the point that recovery is a long process.

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