Sporadic Sequential
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Funny, I Don't Remember Any of These Characters from Wizard's List

Inspired by this (which was inspired by this), I tried to assemble a list of my picks for Top 25 Manga Characters. Of course, what I really came up with is a list of My 25 Favorite Manga Characters, presented here in the order they occurred to me:
  1. Rukia (Bleach) - Oh, Rukia, how I love your decisive, commanding spirit. Just don't ever cave in and roll over to die again just because it's the honorable thing to do, 'kay?
  2. Ichigo (Bleach) - To be honest, Ichigo is in danger of becoming a cipher in his own series, since all he ever seems to do anymore is grimace and fight. But looking back at the beginnings of Bleach, it's obvious that Ichigo has what it takes to be a great, memorable character — the seeming street tough who has a soft side and still manages to get good grades — but that potential still needs to be actively developed, otherwise it's just a wasted opportunity.
  3. Natsumi (Sgt. Frog) - Whether she's breaking the bones or the hearts of our amphibious alien invaders, Natsumi represents Earth's last, best hope at continued freedom. The fact that she's a fiery-tempered, red-headed teenage girl with a penchant for physical violence only makes me glad I'm not in the Keronians' shoes.
  4. Keroro (Sgt. Frog) - The incompetent, self-absorbed leader of the Keron Invasion Force, Keroro would rather engage in gunpla than military maneuvers. His dishonest, untrustworthy, self-serving tactics should serve to alienate him from everyone he knows, but somehow he manages to charm his way back into everyone's hearts.
  5. Dororo (Sgt. Frog) - The pacifist alien ninja, the invader who feels more at home at the planet he's supposed to conquer, the cool secret agent who still gets depressed when his ungrateful friends abandon him — Dororo's many contradictions continue to intrigue me.
  6. Giroro (Sgt. Frog) - The resident weapons and military strategy expert in Keroro's troop, Giroro finds himself helpless in the face of the one threat he didn't train for: the battlefield of love. Can he bring himself to conquer the Pokopenian female who has captured his heart, or will he be vanquished by his conflicting loyalties?
  7. Miyamoto Musashi (Vagabond) - Another compelling mass of contradictions, Musashi is a warrior who wants nothing more to be "invincible under the sun" but who still frequently experiences overwhelming fear and panic in the midst of battle. Often described by his fellow villagers as a "wild beast," Musashi is also capable of great compassion and sensitivity. In a strange way, I admire Musashi's lust for life, even if his quest means that his life won't be a long one.
  8. Tokine (Kekkaishi) - Like Rukia, Tokine is a spiritual warrior whose talents are often overshadowed by her flashier, more forceful male counterpart, but in the end it's generally the women who are holding things together by thinking things through.
  9. Yoshimori (Kekkaishi) - It took me a long time to warm up to Yoshimori, but I'm finally starting to appreciate his positive traits, such as his loyalty and his overarching desire to protect his friends from harm.
  10. Kei (Akira) - Easily the most competent character in Akira, Kei keeps the cast from becoming completely annoying. Plus, I'm a pushover for a strong woman in androgynous jumpsuits.
  11. Emma (Emma) - The epitome of quiet resilience, Emma shows a silent strength that carries her through the trials and tribulations of serving the stiff upper class in Victorian England.
  12. Skuld (Oh My Goddess!) - A pure ball of energy, Skuld is the quintessential youngest sister, always sticking her nose in her older sisters' business but at the same time trying to assert her independence. Skuld's inventions are also a great source of amusement, as none of her marvelous technology ever seems to work quite as intended.
  13. Urd (Oh My Goddess!) - Sure, she's part demon, but Urd only uses her dark powers for mischief, not out-and-out maleficence. Most of the time she's really just trying to help, even if her efforts mainly seem to benefit herself and inconvenience everyone else.
  14. Reiji Akiba (Mail) - I'm a sucker for a mystery man in a trenchcoat, and Akiba is as enigmatic (and effective) as they come.
  15. Yotsuba (Yotsuba&!) - The most adorable thing in black and white and two dimensions.
  16. Shinichi / Migi (Parasyte) - Surely it's not cheating to count them as one since they share a body? I'm really enjoying the struggle Shin faces as he tries to hold on to his humanity while also becoming more integrated and efficient with his Parasite.
  17. Sakuragi (Slam Dunk) - The perfect example of a lovable lunkhead. Sakuragi's pig-headed persistence undoubtedly frustrates everyone else around him, but his frantic flailing about is the frequent source of comedy gold from the reader's perspective.
  18. Nausicaä (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) - To be honest, my memories of Nausicaä are a bit hazy, but I remember her being a likable, capable, dignified protagonist. And even though she's one of them liberal environmentalist tree-huggers bug-huggers, Nausicaä is a skilled fighter, on land or in the air. Plus, as the precursor of Miyazaki's pattern of strong female protagonists, Nausicaä deserves special recognition.
  19. Haruo (Club 9) - Sigh, how I miss Haruo's unintentional, backwater charm. Innocent and irrepressible, "Miss Hello" is like a more tolerable version of Forrest Gump.
  20. Hoshino (Love Roma) - A guy so open, honest, and transparent, everything he says is bound to embarrass his girlfriend [see next entry]. Yet, despite his lack of social graces, Hoshino can be utterly endearing, perhaps because he so frequently forces you to look at everyday things in a completely new light.
  21. Negishi (Love Roma) - The not-so-long-suffering girlfriend of Hoshino, Negishi is in many ways his opposite: Emotional, prone to physical violence, more hesitant and tentative in her feelings and beliefs. Yet this is one of those cases where you really do believe that two very different individuals truly complement each other rather than it just being a forced, clichéd case of "opposites attract" bad romance writing.
  22. Nico (Sexy Voice and Robo) - Nico is Velma if Velma had been allowed to be cool. Reading Nico's adventures, you can almost believe that a teenager could travel the country and solve crimes.
  23. Sho (The Drifting Classroom) - Perhaps the biggest surprise on this list. Initially I couldn't stand Sho's bratty behavior and constant shouting, but his gradual maturation into a clever, decisive leader in a futuristic wasteland showed that sometimes it takes the stubbornly strong-willed to get through terrible times.
  24. Michael (What's Michael?) - Not so much a character as a collection of feline archetypes, but I love this comical cat no matter what form he takes.
  25. Near (Death Note) - Of all the talented misfits in Death Note, Near is the one I find most compelling. I know many fans never forgave Near for replacing L, but I thought Near had much more dramatic potential than his revered predecessor. Perhaps it's because Near not only had to contend with Kira, but also had to compete and/or cooperate with his bitter rival Mello in order to solve the case. Near also seemed to have better organizational skills, commanding the underground SDK unit in the midst of global chaos.
Some additional thoughts:

» Despite the oft-repeated mantra that "it's the characters that give a manga its heart!" several of my most beloved series (e.g., Short Cuts, Uzumaki) aren't represented on the above list because they don't really have any breakout characters. Instead, the manga wins readers over on the strength of its concept or art or some other combination of factors. I think Dragon Head is an example of this. As much as I enjoyed the series, it's really more a story about the events than its characters, who, to be honest, are a bit bland in retrospect. Perhaps this is intentional, so that readers could project themselves onto the mostly blank slates of the leads. (If it weren't for Kei, I'd almost include Akira as another example of this. To me, Akira is notable for the world-building and storytelling prowess on display, while the character development is almost nil.)

» Many manga series benefit from a strong ensemble cast. For some series, the ensemble is so tightly knit that it's hard to pluck out one or two standout characters that "make" the series what it is. Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Genshiken, Flower of Life, and Azumanga Daioh are all like this. While the assorted cast members are all entertaining and memorable, there isn't really one that stands out on his or her own. Each character needs the others to play off of. Even in series with standout leads, such as Bleach or Sgt. Frog, there is often a very large supporting cast that can either prove daunting or rewarding, depending on how it's juggled.

» When I was dreaming up the list, there were a number of pairings that were almost impossible to split up in my mind: Ichigo and Rukia, Yoshimori and Tokine, Hoshino and Negishi — in all of these cases, the loss of one member from the duo would irrevocably change the dynamic of the book.

» In contrast to what a list of of my favorite Marvel and DC characters would look like, the manga version of the list doesn't contain any bad guys. Is this because manga generally shy away from the black-and-white good vs. evil dichotomy prevalent in superhero comics? Is it because manga portray villains more sympathetically, with ambiguity and complexity? Is it because, as every shonen manga teaches us, your greatest opponent is always yourself?

» Based on several of the above points, I'm wondering if there's a difference in way character appeal and series loyalty is generated in manga vs. Western superhero comics. Because superhero comics run for decades under multiple authors, there's more time for the main characters to build up little personality quirks that fans find so endearing. Manga, on the other hand, are usually finite and the vision of one author, so there's less opportunity to graft on additional detail if the initial concept isn't catchy. Is this why many manga series seems to have a pretty well-developed supporting cast from the get-go — to cover their bases in case readers don't latch on to the main character? "You didn't care for our hero? OK, well, here's another great character with a completely different set of winning traits that we just know you're going to love!!" (Hmm, in the case of Kekkaishi, Tokine probably held my interest in the series until Yoshimori could grow on me.) With Western superhero comics, however, the supporting cast is often underdeveloped and can drop off the face of the earth at any time (especially when a new creative team comes on board), so it makes sense that under that model you'd put more of your eggs into one basket. (I wonder if there's any correlation between those runs on superhero comics that are considered classic and the depth/breadth of the main hero's supporting cast? Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, Frank Miller's Daredevil, Neil Gaiman's Sandman... those all had pretty well-developed supporting casts, didn't they? Maybe that's what more superhero comics need, rather than bigger and brasher mega-crossover events.)

» Finally, I'm clearly a sucker for certain character types, especially females who fall into the dark-haired, strong-willed, spunky-spirited category. At this point I could probably generate an outline for a manga I'd find irresistible. "Scene one: We're introduced to our female lead, a kick-butt, no-nonsense martial artist with an idiosyncratic outlook on our modern society..."

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