During my teenage years, anime & manga had a huge impact on my developing art style. I enjoyed the mainstream favorites (Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Escaflowne, Princess Mononoke and regrettably even Pokemon) and began exploring my local comic and basically judging books by their covers! Because of the wonderful art displayed, I was instantly drawn to Oh! My Goddess! and Magic Knight Rayearth, two manga with strong female characters with detail-heavy gorgeous artwork. Though I’m not as much of an otaku as I used to be, recently I’ve been completely taken in by Ai Yazawa’s works.
I started with Gokinjo Monogatari (aka Neighbourhood Story), about a group of coming-of-age high schoolers trying to make their way in the art world. In Japan, their high school is more of an equivalent to our colleges and many high schools require entrance exams. You can even begin specializing in a career at that age; the characters in this manga attend a local art school. We mainly follow the story of Miwako and her adventures through Fashion Design as she contemplates her feelings for long-time best friend and neighbour, Tsutomu. The art is very bright and cheery while still containing a ton of intricate detail necessary to show off the fashion works of the main character.
Though I followed that up by the manga Paradise Kiss, I’ve actually already seen the anime version prior to reading (there’s also an anime version of Neighbourhood Story but I haven’t been able to find it, subbed at least). The storyline is quite similar to Gokinjo, but instead of focusing on art school students we follow Yukari aka Caroline as she struggles to write entrance exams to a prestigious high school, all the while being swept up in a world of creativity inside herself she didn’t know existed. The art style here is comparatively matured to Gokinjo. Yazawa has eased off on the huge eyes and the body shapes are more pronounced and fleshed out. The story is a bit more mature as well with nudity and sexuality being fairly up-front in the storyline. The anime is only 12 episodes and the manga is 6 volumes, easily done in a weekend!
Yazawa’s most popular manga by far is known as Nana and has a first season in anime form to match. This manga follows two lead characters, both named Nana, as they follow their dreams, whether it’s to find a husband or be a rockstar. The “find a husband” bit may sound a bit sad and I’ll be honest, Nana #1 (aka Hachiko) is easy to hate at first. She makes a lot of bad decisions and is generally very whiny and hesitant to grow up. But at a gargantuan 20 volumes this manga has lots of space for character development and as tedious as she can be, it’s worth reading to watch her grow. The other Nana is much more head strong and ambitious with solid goals and a take-no-shit attitude, a very refreshing contrast to Hachiko. Is she willing to sacrifice her own love life to achieve her dreams of singing? This is the most mature of Yazawa’s manga that I’ve read so far due to the rockstar material (sex, drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll baby!) but is also the most deep. This is a story of ambition, dreams, and of learning how in life actions have consequences.
What attracted me to read more of Yazawa’s work is her attention to detail and wonderful creativity. It turns out that before she became a mangaka, she attended fashion school for awhile which is obvious in her work. I look forward to each page in her manga because each frame is another work of art, from the delicate expressions to the well-thought-out hairstyles and of course, the amazing outfits. All of the works I’ve read of hers have many characters and yet she has no trouble coming up with consistently beautiful costumes and outfits for all of them! Just talking about this makes me want to go back and re-read/watch all of it again. Her worlds are so full and rich that I find myself instantly immersed in them… especially the ones concerning art school.
In addition to all the manga she’s written (there are many more than what I’ve described here) she’s also released some art books with color illustrations. I’ve been unable to find them so far but would love to get my hands on them. Images from these books have been floating around online and can be found with good ol’ Google Image Search.
Probably the biggest selling point for me in these stories are the strong female leads, even if they don’t begin that way. Growing up I was used to a lot of male main characters with females being left as secondary or side characters. In these works the females are front and center and are, for the most part, strong-willed, creative and beautiful all in their own way. I think it would be difficult to read these and not want to chase after your own dreams. I recommend them all, though if you’re puzzled on where to start, Nana seems to be the most accessible.