Japanese Manga, Anime, and Culture for the School and Teen Librarian Crowd
Ashley Hawkins is a school librarian working in Brooklyn, NY. She is married to Matthew Hawkins, video game expert and archivist. Ashley has a BS in English Language Arts Education from UCF, and an MA in English Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English as well as an MSLIS from Pratt Institute. Ashley also has been engaging in Japanese popular culture since she was a small child watching Sailor Moon, and has read hundreds of manga, light novels, and popular novels originating in Japan. In her teen and early adult years, she was involved with cosplay and lolita subcultures. If you are interested in a more formal critique of Japanese culture, you can read her article on Japanese death culture in relation to horror for CineNation.
Before I jump in, let me be straight with you: you should watch any piece of media you’re going to show before you show it. Every school, every district, every region has varying levels of what’s acceptable to be shown to students. What flies in my Brooklyn high school library would probably not have been acceptable in my Kissimmee middle school classroom. What I want to share are several newer anime that are fairly surefire hits that I feel are low on fan service and gratuitous violence.
So, you have an anime club. You want to show students anime, but also don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation with your principal. The key of course is to be aware of titles that are appropriate, but you personally are not really into anime. It’s crazy to expect a non-fan to sift through the exponentially growing catalog of anime with no guidance.
I plan to make this a recurring list, so these are picks from what’s currently popular.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Official Description: First year high schooler Midori Asakusa loves anime so much, she insists that “concept is everything” in animation. Though she draws a variety of ideas in her sketchbook, she hasn’t taken the first step to creating anime, insisting that she can’t do it alone. The producer-type Sayaka Kanamori is the first to notice Asakusa’s genius. Then, when it becomes clear that their classmate, charismatic fashion model Tsubame Mizusaki, really wants to be an animator, they create an animation club to realize the “ultimate world” that exists in their minds.
Currently streaming on Crunchyroll and VRV, this is the safest of all possible anime. The series is a love letter to animation, with stunning sequences. The characters are the truest to real life high schoolers I have EVER seen depicted in anime. The three girls who run the club are dedicated and imaginative, and not sexualized. The series isn’t finished yet, but it’s a fairly safe bet that this anime is going to be a classic. The show comes from Science SARU, the same company that made Night is Short, Walk On Girl and (debuting tonight, 2/19) Ride Your Wave. It also has one of the best opening sequences in years.
Fruits Basket (2019)
Official Description: Tohru Honda thought her life was headed for misfortune when a family tragedy left her living in a tent. When her small home is discovered by the mysterious Soma clan, she suddenly finds herself living with Yuki, Kyo, and Shigure Soma. But she quickly learns their family has a bizarre secret of their own: when hugged by the opposite sex, they turn into the animals of the Zodiac!
This is the remade anime for the classic manga of the same name, and it is an absolute treat. The original anime was a bit rushed and was also made well before the manga was completed, which complicated the series quite a bit. The new anime has higher production values and is taking its time to really explore the characters and their relationships. It’s a sweet and powerful series, which lends itself to rich discussion and great activities.
Ascendance of a Bookworm
Official Description: Avid bookworm and college student Motosu Urano ends up dying in an unforeseen accident. This came right after the news that she would finally be able to work as a librarian like she had always dreamed of. When she regained consciousness, she was reborn as Myne, the daughter of a poor soldier. She was in the town of Ehrenfest, which had a harsh class system. But as long as she had books, she didn’t really need anything else. However, books were scarce and belonged only to the nobles. But that doesn’t stop her, so she makes a decision… “If there aren’t any books, I’ll just create some.”
Isekai series have been incredibly popular recently, and this series is one of the better ones. The premise, of a book lover reborn into a world where access to books is limited, is really interesting, and segues perfectly into the library. The series is based on light novels of the same name, rather than a manga. There’s a lot of talk about how books have been made historically, and it works quite well with book making workshops. I showed it to my club members before having them make books for the Ezra John Keats Bookmaking Competition.
The Promised Neverland
Official Description: The one adored as the mother is not the real parent. The people living here together are not actual siblings. The Gracefield House is where orphaned children live. An irreplaceable home where 38 siblings and Mom live happy lives, even with no blood relations. However, their everyday life suddenly came to an abrupt end one day…
A psychological thriller, this is one of the darker series on this particular list. That said, it’s mostly about the children having to outwit the adults, and actual violence is fairly minimal in this season of the anime. It’s reminiscent of many dystopian novels popular with teens, and is a frequently requested viewing.
“Manga is sexist. The way it treats women is horrible!”
“I just can’t get into it. It’s only for teenage boys.”
“It all looks the same.”
“It’s fine for the kids, but I can’t stand it!”
Listen, listen. You’ve been reading the wrong stuff. Do you think I sit here, in my precious free time, and read Attack on Titan or One Piece? No way!
Here’s the secret about manga, that most of the industry doesn’t tell you, because it’s not the big booming business of the high octane shonen titles: there are infinite genres and categories that encompass as wide a variety as any fiction section in your library. Most of what our students read is what’s directed at them. The list I’m about to share with you is either not appropriate for your school library, or just wouldn’t circulate very well. I’m going to introduce you to some of my favorite series written for adult women (as a target audience… dudes, you can and should read these titles too!). Largely, these are josei titles, but some aren’t. It’s my belief that anyone can enjoy manga, because it’s so diverse. As an example of how granular it can get, I collect (mostly in Japanese) cat manga. So, manga about cats. Raising cats, playing with cats, cats’ daily lives. But, I don’t just read cat manga. I also read…
Yurika Namba is hung up on her ex… well, at least the idea of him. After she broke up with Makochi five years ago, she dated a bunch of less-ideal guys, and realized that he might just be the best she’ll ever get! So, she instead becomes fixated on the Makochi in her head, who’s super supportive and sweet and never lets her down… Until she gets a job at a real estate agency and winds up working alongside her ex! At the first opportunity, he… shows her a real estate listing he thinks is perfect for her?
Ex-Enthusiasts is incredibly hilarious and in many ways relatable. Yurika is even aware that she’s fixated on an idea, and is hurt to realize Makochi has changed in unexpected ways. There’s a lot of women’s anxieties carried in this title, with little of the “doki-doki” type of love scene. It’s wacky and awkward, kind of like real life.
This title is a recent discovery of mine, and is excellent in so many ways. It’s an episodic manga wherein the Shigeta twins take young women looking for apartments to neighborhoods that aren’t the highly desired Kichijoji (actually one of my favorite neighborhoods in Tokyo). Each episode is an insight to a different woman’s life and personality, as well as providing deeper insight into the lives of the twins. It also is an amazing insight into various neighborhoods in Tokyo and their attractions. Every place visited in the manga exists. Also, and this is pretty remarkable, the women are drawn the way women actually look, with different body shapes and styles that reflect their personalities. It’s a casual and enjoyable read.
Before I met my husband, I was a himono onna (干物女) like Hotaru. Himono means “dried fish”, so himono onna is a “dried fish woman”. It’s a term for women who are not interested in dating or having children. They put on a perfect face at work, but go home and laze around. Hotaru’s Way is a great title that explores Hotaru’s anxieties and what’s led her to lead her life as a himono onna, as well as the stress of switching from living life solely for yourself to taking on a dating life and all of its messiness. It’s funny, but also heartfelt and sympathetic. It’s an older title, which definitely paved the way for titles that deal with the topic of single life with care.
This is one of only two books on this list that aren’t josei titles. This title, honestly, is just a great manga for librarians! Magus of the library is a high fantasy about the core elements of librarianship: collection, access, curation, preservation. The main character is a young boy named Theo who isn’t allowed in his town’s library because he is poor and different. This all changes when Kafna and her fellow librarians come to town. It’s a tale of what it means to be a librarian, guided by some of the core philosophies of our profession, and you should ABSOLUTELY read it.
This is a josei masterpiece, written by the mangaka for Princess Jellyfish. The story is of Rinko, a 33 year-old woman who has sworn to get married by the time the Olympics roll around in 2020. She finds that this task might be more cut throat than she ever imagined! It’s a hilarious series, with depictions of realistic women. Society’s expectations weigh heavily on Rinko and her friends, in a way that is all too relatable. I highly recommend it- and if you’ve noticed that 2020 is this year, you should know that Kodansha is publishing the sequel series this year.
Cats of the Louvre is a manga published… by the Louvre. It’s a gorgeous fantasy tale that jumps through the artwork in the museum. And it has CATS! It’s a little dark, a little weird, and incredibly emotional. To describe it is to potentially ruin it, but it’s well-worth an exploration.
This is a collection of stories about women weighing whether being single is as terrible as society is telling them it should be. This is, honestly, a pretty feminist work. It depicts real women’s lives with sensitivity and honesty. Even better- these women don’t need marriage to find happiness. It’s refreshing and different.
Note: A lot of these titles are digital only. As such, you may have difficulty finding them at the public library.