We’ve reached the final book recommendation post for Pride Month 2021. This time, I’m dipping into another medium I read a lot of, and which is yielding an increasingly varied and exciting platter of LGBTQIA+ storytelling: manga.
The distinction between “queer manga” and manga that falls into romance genres like yuri (which might feature close relationships between women, but don’t always touch on subjects like queer identity—and may even still be floating in the “close, pure, romantic friendship” tropes of the olden days) is somewhat blurry, but for the purposes of this post I’m combining them all under one umbrella. Some of these are more of the fluffy romance variety that brushes over what we might consider queer themes like coming out, and some of them deal with that more directly and poignantly. Some of them are fluffy romances that also talk about the realities of being queer in modern day Japan!
I’ve tried to gather a variety, though remember that this list is merely some of my personal favourites from my personal reading habits: there is plenty more manga with LGBTQIA+ content out there that I have yet to get to! So, as always, please do leave your own recommendations in the comments.
A Tropical Fish Yearns for Snow by Makoto Hagino
Anxious Konatsu moves from the city to a sleepy seaside town, where she finds unexpected solace and friendship in her new school’s aquarium club. The equally shy—but enthusiastic about all things oceanic—Koyuki takes Konatsu under her wing, and the two gradually come out of their shells as they grow closer and closer.
If you’re a fan of slow burn—like, excruciatingly slow burn at times—this one might be for you. The two leads get equal page-time narrating their high school worries and their growing, bubbly feelings for each other, meaning that neither love interest is put on a pedestal and both are as delightfully disastrous as each other. It’s a very sweet and authentic portrayal of being young and anxious, and drops some poetic musings throughout the slice-of-life drama.
After Hours by Yuhta Nishio
Twenty-four-year-old bi disaster Emi is adrift in life, until a fling with a cool lady DJ named Kei sends her headfirst into Tokyo’s music scene. There, she discovers not only a new passion and direction, but the courage to commit to things and Start Getting Her Shit Together. The question is, will it stick?
This is a fun and sometimes very tender quarter-life-crisis story. Given that the characters get together within the opening chapters, the central question of the romance is less “Will they or won’t they?”, and more “Is this relationship sustainable? Is it growing into love rather than something more fun and casual? And of course, how will all of this help Emi develop and grow as a person?” This wraps up at three volumes, which, as I mentioned here, might make it a good bite-sized series to try out if you want to peek into the world of contemporary f/f manga.
Boys Run the Riot by Keito Gaku
Ryo knows he’s a trans boy, but he’s stuck with his friends, family, and classmates reading him as female. He finds solace in fashion, where he can dress to express himself—and he finds an unexpected friend in Jin, the “delinquent” transfer student who likes the same styles as Ryo does. When Jin invites Ryo to start a brand with him, it’s a risk, but it just might be the perfect avenue for these misfit boys to be themselves.
Did I put this post last in the June queue so I would have time to find and read a copy of Boys Run the Riot volume one? It’s more likely than you think. This looks like it’s going to be a fun and moving story, even more about friendship than it is about identity. It’s super rewarding seeing Ryo express himself, and very sweet seeing how Jin supports him unconditionally. Art can set you free, and the people who fall through the cracks can find and uplift each other. A lot of love and care has clearly gone into not only creating, but translating this volume, and I’m excited to see where it goes!
How Do We Relationship? by Tamifull
Shy Miwa and outgoing Saeko are both in their first year of college, and, as they discover in a tipsy heart to heart, are both gay. In this moment of alcohol-tinged queer euphoria, they decide that they should totally date each other—what’s the worst that could happen?
This series has its goofy rom-com moments, but it has a surprising amount of poignancy as well. It delves somewhat into what it’s like being a lesbian in Japan, and the experience of being closeted and preyed upon by casual or more insidious homophobia—both external, and internalised. The characters’ failures to communicate can sometimes be frustrating, but in an authentic way: you want to shake ‘em by the collar and tell them to sort things out because you recognise the realistic folly of being young and wanting to be loved. The series is in its early days now, but I’m excited to see where it takes us.
I Love You So Much I Hate You by Yumi
An office affair between a manager who feels stifled by her marriage and a young career woman who just wants to be close to someone—it’s a casual, fleeting thing, right? So what happens when these co-workers-with-benefits start to develop serious feelings for one another, and start to wonder if there could be more to this than late-night escapism?
This one-shot romance is spicy, yet tender, and pleasantly surprised me. Watching the relationship between these two conflicted adults deepen, and watching them decide whether or not to run, terrified, from their own feelings, ends up a super poignant and interesting experience. There’s commentary woven through about the stifling expectations of womanhood in contemporary Japan, and there’s just enough efficient characterisation to understand both parties and their struggles. Some might argue that the ending is unrealistically neat and too happy, but I say that balancing relatable commentary with escapism is half the joy of romance.
Kase-san and… by Hiromi Takashima
Yamada, a shy member of the gardening club, develops a tremulous crush on Kase, an impossibly cool girl from the track team. But wait, what’s this? Kase likes Yamada back, and this tale of adorable one-sided pining quickly turns into one about navigating your first relationship.
Kase-san is maybe a modern classic, or at least, a definite fan favourite—and it gets that high praise for a reason. It’s downright adorable, a healthy mix of fluffy first love shenanigans with more down-to-earth adolescent struggles like deciding what university to apply for (and how that might affect your relationship). It also deals with adolescent sexuality in a frank way, which many have noted is pretty unusual and refreshing for the high school yuri genre. Even more refreshing, the series follows the girls out of high school and into university! Overall just one of the cutest teen romances out there.
Land of the Lustrous by Haruko Ichikawa
In a distant post-human future, living gems are doing their best to eke out their immortal existence without being captured and turned into jewellery by the sinister hunters who descend from the moon. Phosphophyllite (Phos) is the youngest, rowdiest, and most fragile member of the crystal community, and is desperate to prove their usefulness. Their optimistic search for knowledge and purpose soon leads them into dangerous territory, where everything they knew about their life on earth and their sense of self starts to unravel…
Does Lustrous qualify as having “queer content” if the non-binary characters are all non-human rock-people? Well, that’s a little complicated—in fact, I wrote a whole article about it a few weeks ago. For our purposes here, I’m going to include it: it’s a sci-fi exploration of identity and how it’s tied to the body that resonates with the trans experience in a lot of fascinating and tangled ways. It’s also just gloriously bizarre and beautiful, and I want to draw people’s attention to it. The art is striking and captures movement and atmosphere extremely well, and Phos is a great main character. CW for non-human, though admittedly still freaky, body horror.
Manly Appetites: Minegeshi Loves Otsu by Mito
Minegeshi is an annoyingly perfect co-worker: good at his job, strikingly handsome, and always bringing in delicious food to the office. Otsu can’t stand him… but damn, his cooking is good.
If you’re in the mood for something sweet and profoundly silly, give this cooking-based comedy a try. It’s notable because Otsu is one of the few plus-sized manga characters I’ve come across (not to mention plus-sized and not straight), and his weight isn’t treated like the butt of a joke. Minegeshi defends him against fatphobic digs from his co-workers, and the food-based bonding between them begins, in part, because Minegeshi wants to make sure Otsu’s eating properly rather than going on crash diets. It’s not the deepest commentary in the world, but I appreciated it, and found their shenanigans sweet and funny in volume one and am looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Otherside Picnic by Iori Miyazawa
Uni student Sorawo stumbles into a strange, liminal landscape populated by monsters and cryptids from urban legends and net lore, and quickly finds herself pulled into a partnership with a mysterious young woman named Toriko. Toriko is looking for her missing mentor, Sorawo is looking for a break from the “real world”, and they’re both looking for cash. As their explorations take them deeper into the Otherside, however, will they be able to deal with the horrors they find there?
Disclosure: I’ve enjoyed the novels and the anime, but have not yet read the manga adaptation of this one, though I’ve heard good things. This is a spooky, weird, and deeply fun series where two young women slowly fall in love while fleeing from ghosts and mythical creatures. It’s a comparatively rare example of spec-fic on this list (and in yuri in general), and I definitely think it shines—though, as I mention here, you might get something different out of the books than the TV show.
Our Dreams at Dusk by Yuhki Kamatani
After being outed in class, Tasuku feels his life is over… but is distracted from his suicide ideation when he spots a mysterious figure, seemingly floating through the mountain air. Following her finds him at a drop-in centre, a strange little sanctuary where queer kids and other misfits can find solace.
Definitely one of the heavier titles on this list, but also one of the most beautiful. The visual language of the art is gorgeous, and invites you into the characters’ inner worlds as well as the lush, cluttered, half-abandoned hilly setting of the story itself. This delves into homophobia and queer identity in a frank way that’s still pretty rare for manga, and provides an intergenerational cast, giving them all a home and a cathartic narrative. Big CWs for suicide ideation, self-harm, and homophobia internalised and external. Admittedly at time of writing I haven’t finished the four-book series yet, since I’m going through it slow-and-steady, but the first two volumes make a strong impression.
Yuri is My Job! by Miman
High schooler Hime is intent on using her natural cute looks (which don’t match her personality) to con her way to financial security as the trophy wife of a billionaire. In order to maintain her façade, she ends up roped into a job at a themed café where she must play the part of a dainty, ladylike schoolgirl… only to run headfirst into an old friend who knows her dark secret.
If you like secret identity shenanigans, the workplace comedy generated by actors being the opposite of the personas they play, childhood-friends-to-enemies-to-maybe-lovers, and playful takes on established genres… you may enjoy Yuri is My Job! The comedy of the themed café will land more certainly if you’re familiar with the tropes of Class S and old-school yuri—which the series is lampooning very lovingly—but even if you’re not there’s still plenty to enjoy here.