Best New Series
2013 was not the best year for new series. A worrying tendency has developed recently, where debuting series try to cram as many plot elements as possible in the first few chapters out of a desperate hope to capture an audience immediately, lest the series be canceled early. What results are series that try too hard, look worse for doing so, and often ironically end up canceled more quickly than if their authors had been confident. World Trigger is no exception to this unfortunate trend; despite having an interesting premise at its core, it started poorly, with its first chapter filled with unneeded narrative boxes over-explaining the invasion of the Neighbors rather than events providing such an explanation naturally. Unlike many other new series, though, this one found its stride, combining a capable cast, punctuated by the equally humorous and enigmatic Kuga Yuuma, and steady science-fiction storytelling, a relative rarity in shonen. World Trigger hasn’t cleared every hurdle yet; its plot does meander a bit too much, taking months to showcase the inner workings of Border when the Neighbors clearly deserves more attention. Still, no other 2013 debutant has been as consistently engaging as this one, and while its competition may not have been the best, World Trigger deserves the nod on merit, not convenience.
Honorable mention: Iron Knight
Best New Character
Mask de Masculine (Bleach)
For as much as some authors break the mold, shonen is a demographic largely characterized by routine. Most stories manage to twist the archetypal hero’s journey enough to stand out, but rarely does an author completely break from the routine of his or her own creation to such a degree as Kubo Tite has done with Mask de Masculine. Bleach is defined by its style, with Bankai reveals and chic designs lending themselves to the series’ overall desire to be “cool.” With that as an established backdrop, the introduction of Mask de Masculine has reinvigorated the series by providing a point of contrast. Unlike the passive, suave characters around him, Mask is a preposterously straightforward would-be hero who draws clear inspiration from the world of professional wrestling. This Shinigami-bashing manifestation of Hulk Hogan clashes with his surroundings wonderfully; those same “cool” characters now look more stylish than ever, thanks to Mask serving as a point of comparison. More than anything, though, Mask de Masculine has been a welcome addition to the series because of how unreservedly over-the-top he is. Bleach may epitomize manga trying to take itself seriously, but Mask is a reminder that manga is also meant to be fun.
Honorable mention: Hitoka Yachi (Haikyuu!!)
Best Love Interest
Ayasaki Hayate & Suirenji Ruka (Hayate no Gotoku!)
Ruka’s involvement in Hayate no Gotoku! is no recent occurrence; she has featured in the series since a subtle debut appearance at the end of chapter 266, back in 2010. Still, 2013 is when she blossomed, transforming from a complementary cast member into a crucial one. Her love for Hayate added depth to her character, namely in the way those feelings forced her into a crisis of identity, as she decided between the life she wants and the one that defines her. These impressive, relatable human emotions are mirrored on the other side of the romance; thanks to Ruka, Hayate showed more independence than usual. His own emotional struggle, between the promise of an easy life with Ruka and his loyalty to Nagi, gave readers a rare glimpse at a more complex side to Hayate. As such, the beauty of this romantic tension wasn’t all that much about the two of them actually growing closer together and following through on their feelings. Instead, it was that these two brought the best out of each other. By showing interest in her, Hayate legitimized Ruka and all her personal conflict, and in turn, she gave him the opportunity to be more than his perfect butler persona. This excellent character development, as well Nagi’s development on the periphery of this relationship, made every interaction between Hayate and Ruka unmissable.
Honorable mention: Aoshima Hitoshi & Wagatsuma Ai (Wagatsuma-san wa Ore no Yome)
Endings are difficult. The perspective of an entire series is subject to change thanks to a mere few chapters; a good ending can solidify a series as a favorite, while a bad one leaves an irreparably bad impression. As it turns out, 2013 served up examples of both extremes; whereas the catastrophic finale to Cage of Eden showed how to ruin a series, Medaka Box demonstrated how to send the fans home happy. For years, this series thrived on excess, with everything from abilities to dialogue elaborated to ridiculous levels. What a refreshing change it was, then, for this supremely complicated series to cut to the chase with its final arc, which saw Medaka effortlessly run through a gauntlet of the entire cast, reliving the entire series as she went. Elements of the series’ trademark excess were still present, but they served only to emphasize Medaka’s own inherent absurdity. This final arc was a celebration of itself, a deliberate farewell tour, and one that finally made the best use of its bizarre cast. Only Medaka Box could pull off such a strange, self-serving climax, and that’s why it worked.
Honorable mention: Shinmai Fukei Kiruko-san
Area D – Inou Ryouiki
Producing quality art for manga seems an obvious necessity, yet an unfortunate number of new mangaka are placing less importance on such elements as character designs and backgrounds. Of course, not all creators shirk their artistic responsibilities, and at the forefront of the visual vanguard is Yang Kyung-il, who previously worked his magic with Shin Angyo Onshi and Sunday series Defense Devil. His capacity for amazing detail continues in Area D – Inou Ryouiki, an action series replete with all the supernatural abilities and fierce combat Yang could ever ask to bring to life. Battles in this series are simultaneously gorgeous and gruesome, as Yang’s style falls somewhere between eras, combining today’s fashionably crisp edges with the shading and precision of yesteryear. The plot of Area D – Inou Ryouiki, written by Nanatsuki Kyouichi, is a rather by-the-book affair, but the art is anything but standard. Yang is exceptionally talented, and he makes the series worth reading all on his own.
Honorable mention: Shokugeki no Souma
Takeda Ikki vs. Lugh (History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi)
The competition for best fight of the year is easily the most hotly contested, given how central combat is to the shonen demographic. 2013 featured many exciting conflicts, but none were as gripping as the one between Takeda and Lugh in History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi. The success of this fight is slightly surprising, not least because the participants are far from what could be considered main characters, not to mention that, while it is consistently enjoyable, Kenichi is hardly part of the top tier of currently running action series. However, none of that mattered for a four-week span early in the year, as a boxer and a submission specialist traded blows to great effect. Clashes between different disciplines of martial arts are the hallmark of combat in this series, and it showed here; the contrasting styles on display in this bout naturally created tension, complementing the excitement of the precise strikes and counters. Interestingly, this fight stands out even more because it was fairly sudden, and thus lacked the benefit of plot support. This wasn’t a culmination of arcs’ worth of back-and-forth spars, nor was it the satisfying release of years of tension. Instead, it was excellent action that simply told a story, the story of a fighter pushing himself to new heights when faced with death. What an enjoyable story it was.
Honorable mention: Zaraki Kenpachi vs. Unohana Retsu (Bleach)
Most Improved Series
Kimi no Iru Machi
First and foremost, the obvious must be addressed: Yes, given its sordid history of unconvincing angst and laughably strict adherence to harem sensibilities, Kimi no Iru Machi would have struggled to do anything besides improve. That said, this is not as backhanded an award as it might seem, because finally, the series-that-just-won’t-die actually introduced new conflict for the protagonist to face. While the usual “new girl falls for Haruto, who is flustered but loyal to Eba” routine still popped up occasionally, it was no longer the primary content, instead serving as filler between the actual plot of a young man trying to learn how to grow up into a proper adult. Haruto’s job search and slow understanding of what it means to have responsibilities were an amazing step up from the regular harem monotony. The long-standing criticism of this series has been its pointlessness, given that the main character’s primary goal was attained ages ago, yet the series just kept going. For the first time in years, this series found purpose, and reaped the rewards of having such a basic cornerstone of storytelling. Granted, the final chapter of the year was an ugly reminder of the author’s tendencies, but however anomalous it might be, 2013 will be remembered as the year that, for a brief moment in time, Kimi no Iru Machi was readable.
Honorable mention: Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
How the mighty have fallen. After a 2012 that saw Magi cement itself as a major player in the shonen world, the future couldn’t have looked brighter. The pieces were all in place for sustained quality; the series features a strong cast of diverse characters, an interesting magic system, a setting different from any other major competitor, and most of all, a superbly structured universe of politics and social struggle. It therefore beggars belief that author Ohtaka Shinobu could have missed the mark so badly in 2013. Rather than playing to the strengths of her series, she instead devolved the story into an unintelligible mess of overused stereotypes. Between the amorphous Dark Spot undeservedly taking the mantle of arc villain, full pages devoted to outfits and attacks more ostentatious than effective, and formerly subtle humor being overblown into cringe-worthy tripe, Magi threw away most of its goodwill. Fortunately, the last few chapters of the year were a considerable improvement, hopefully hinting that a return to form could be on its way in 2014, but thanks to the Magnostadt arc, the road back to respectability is longer than it ever should have been.
Dishonorable mention: Toriko
Story Arc of the Year
Makunouchi Ippo vs. Alfredo Gonzales (Hajime no Ippo)
Fans of the premier boxing manga have endured trying times in recent years. Gone are breathtaking, genre-defining bouts like Takamura vs. Hawk, replaced by disappointing substitutes like the practically supernatural Woli fight or the utter irrelevance of anything to do with Itagaki. Just as Hajime no Ippo has wandered aimlessly, so too has its namesake floundered. After the aforementioned Woli disaster 3 years ago, Ippo has barely featured in his own series, with only a brief contest against Kojima Hisato keeping him active in the ring. Furthermore, the Kojima fight went to great lengths to emphasize how Ippo has become weak, a plot tactic that left the hero in a precarious place. With so many question marks looming over him, Ippo’s next fight had to be a great one, not just for himself, but for the sake of the whole series.
Enter Alfredo Gonzales, whose impressive stature in the world of boxing is exceeded only by what he represents, that being Ippo’s long-awaited transition into the world stage. This is a moment that has been in the works for years, and while the weight of expectation can be a heavy burden for many series, Hajime no Ippo has so far passed the test. All those doubts over Ippo’s readiness to take on a higher class of opponent translated into a strong sense of reaffirmation the moment he asserted himself in the fight. The combat itself has not been particularly special, though the fighters have yet to let loose, but to judge this arc solely on the quality of its boxing would be missing the point. This arc is not about choreography or fluidity; it’s about the series returning to what made it such a success in the first place. All the extraneous players are out of the way, and Ippo is finally back where he belongs, in the middle of the ring and trying to prove himself against the best in the world. It’s about time.
Second Place: Brother Octopus (Assassination Classroom)
Third Place: America (Beelzebub)
Chapter of the Year
Hayate no Gotoku! 431
Feigning surprise at the ability of Hayate no Gotoku! to change direction away from its usual humor would be pointless. After all, author Hata Kenjiro proved his writing range, as well as the adaptability of his cast, back in the stellar Athena arc. Still, changing the tone of a series requires equal parts skill and confidence, so high praise must be directed towards Hata for pulling off another masterstroke with chapter 431.
For being such a radical departure from the norm, it was still delicately assembled. Rather than jumping straight to the point, tension crept into the chapter from innocent beginnings, as Hayate and Ruka each awkwardly hid their embarrassment behind playful comedy. Such immaturity was the main theme of the chapter, as well as the overall theme of their entire relationship. Despite mutual affection, neither character was ever able to fully commit to the other because of what they didn’t want to leave behind. Ruka in particular was characterized by her naive desires, expressed through one last desperate plea before being interrupted by fireworks marking love’s glorious failure.
Even more amazing is that these emotions were so strong despite little preparation. In terms of time investment, this was not a major loss for either party involved. Hayate and Ruka were never too close for too long; this was concentrated emotion, their story packed into a handful of chapters throughout the year and concluded in one brilliant flash. Perhaps their romance might have meant more with further development, but in a way, what Hayate lost is more frustrating because it isn’t tangible. He willfully closed the door on an opportunity, a glimpse of a life that will never be realized, and the resulting emptiness is more haunting than the loss of something previously gained. Whatever happens to Hayate in the future, doubts will linger over what could have been. Chapter 431 was powerful, charming, meaningful, beautiful, tragic, and lasting; no other chapter of 2013 can claim half as much.
Second Place: Gintama 456
Third Place: One Piece 731
Series of the Year
Manga world, take notice: Assassination Classroom is no fluke. Indeed, this is a swift rise to the top for a series that debuted halfway through 2012, and while Jump readers were receptive to the quirky school manga from the beginning, series in alternative genres can find difficulty retaining reader interest. Forget merely surviving, though; this series has thrived, consistently staying at or near the top of the fan-ranked Jump table of contents, not to mention selling the seventh-most volumes of any manga in Japan in 2013.
Consistency is the most impressive aspect of Assassination Classroom, and nowhere is it better represented than in the story. An octopus-like alien teaching students how to kill him is certainly original, but even such a unique premise would wear thin if not supported by varied scenarios, and these have never been in short supply. The core concept of the series is quite simple and prone to repetition, but author Matsui Yuusei has branched out beyond simple formulaic content and kept the plot engaging at all times.
Matsui draws inspiration from interesting sources. Assassination Classroom views humanity through the same cynical perspective typified by the author’s previous work, the delightfully twisted Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro, yet this negative portrayal of certain human tendencies is now supplemented by a familiar school setting. In an odd way, this series shares certain similarities with harem series. Obviously, romance is nowhere to be found here, yet the basic structures are the same: The outcome is determined – the boy picking a girl, the students killing Koro-sensei – and the real interest comes from how creative the daily school life is along the way.
To that end, Assassination Classroom excels, keeping the goal in focus at all times yet helping the students reach that goal in diverse ways. In fact, for a series predicated on action, it doesn’t actually need to show action often. The gulf in class between Koro-sensei and everyone trying to kill him means the focus can stay on the rapidly improving students being put through the paces of the latest malevolent creation to escape Matsui’s head. As a bonus, the skill gap between Koro-sensei and his class avoids tarnishing the students when they fail in their latest assassination attempt.
Matsui constantly uses the best part of different influences while avoiding their perils. With regard to the harem comparison, Matsui never wastes time or loses sight of why the series works. Also, Koro-sensei is far from the first overpowered prominent character, but he does not overwhelm the series because he is not technically the main character; the story is told through the perspective of the students, meaning Koro-sensei’s incredible abilities are only a positive, in that they promote growth among his students, rather than being flashy but potentially damaging to the balance of the series.
Perhaps the greatest compliment of all is that Assassination Classroom didn’t win any other award. It didn’t need to. Other series shone brightly for moments, then faded; this series was bright all year long, an unwavering beacon of quality towering over all its rivals. For a series to achieve that in its first full year of publication is scary, nearly as scary as a tentacled murder instructor.
Second Place: Gintama
Third Place: Beelzebub