When many people think about manga (Japanese comic books) they they tend to think in terms of cliches– big eyes, hyperdrama, weird over-the-top sex and violence, and so forth. Of course, what they tend to forget is that ascribing those things to “manga” is a little like saying that all TV is stupid and vapid crap. Yes, it may have some general truth, but in fact there’s a lot of good stuff there that isn’t like that at all you’re mixing together with the crap. Manga is a medium, like TV, or Novels, or Podcasts, it’s not a genre or type of literature. It is neither good nor bad, and covers a huge amount of territory in it’s breadth and depth.
Today I’d like to discuss Historical Manga, or stories that are set in different historical periods than our own. This is a genre of manga that gets very little attention, but which is actually producing some really high quality works that people are really missing out on. Especially since almost all Japanese manga historians (people who do historical manga) tend to be consummate researchers about their periods and topics of choice, and can really bring those times alive in ways that pure text rarely does. I myself had an interest in various historical periods, but reading some of the manga I’m going to list here today has actually changed my perspective on how dry and boring history could be and made me see it as something much more exciting than we tend to portray it as.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some of the best I’ve found:
(Note, that because of the realist nature of these stories, take it for granted they are Mature stories and meant for adult audiences. As such expect realistic and sometimes graphic displays of sex and violence.)
Vinland Saga– An amazing story of a norseman named Thorfinn living through the events of early 11th century England that covers this period in a way I’d never imaged before. It’s foremost an action-adventure-war story, and extremely violent, but the story and art really captures the times and bring them to life in a way that’s more about capturing the times and less about trying to impose some modern filter on history. My regret is that there’s no official translation of if so I can’t buy collections for my bookshelf. (One note, the very first story has a totally unrealistic weird little character in it (you’ll know him when you see him) which is the only time that style of character appears in the otherwise almost hyper-real story so don’t let that put you off.)
Historie– The story of Eumenes, a man who would later become the secretary to Alexander the Great, and his journeys around the ancient world of the Mediterranean in the 3rd century BC (or ACE, for you young folks). The art here is simple, but the story is clear and straightfoward.
The Ravages of Time– A “re-interpretation” of the story known in English as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an epic set in 2nd and 3rd century China during it’s warring states period. This puts a new spin, and a much more human face on the epic war story, bringing the battles of hundreds of thousands of men down to the personalities of the different generals and their retinues. Great art, and a well-told story make it another one I wish someone would officially translate so I could have a bound set.
Vagabond– This one is another re-interpretation of history, but this is in many ways a more realistic version of the story of Miyamoto Musashi than the Eiji Yoshikawa novels it draws from. The artwork here is very lavish, detailed and realistic, and the events are very well told. This one is available here in North America and is a suggested buy if you enjoy it.
Ceasare– Set in Italy, it’s story of a young man and his student life with Ceasare Borgia, one of the most important figures in Italian history. A little bit romantic for my tastes, but an interesting period piece.
Mercenary Pierre– This one is the story of Joan of Arc as told from the point of view of a mercenary in her holy army.
Sidooh– Similar to Vagabond in tone and art style, but about two young brothers trying to become Samurai during the end of the Edo period. Again, real setting, but fictional characters.