American manga fandom is an outgrowth of anime, and as such the titles that get licensed over here tend to be the most anime-like. That's changed somewhat in the last few years as publishers have taken chances with the likes of Inio Asano, Shuzo Oshimi, and Nagata Kabi, but by-and-large when you go into the manga section of a bookstore, most of what you're going to see are covers that look similar to what's popular in anime.
This is the exact opposite of Japan, where manga is the mainstream and anime is a niche. There are tons of manga that will never get animated because they aim at a different audience from the folks who stay up late to watch Trapped In Another World with My Grandmother Who Is a Sword. One of the major reasons I'm learning Japanese is so I can read stuff like that, because, quite frankly, modern anime has gotten hella boring. Most of the stuff I want to read is still way beyond my reading level, but with a bit of digging I've managed to find some stuff that's up my alley.
One of those is Change! (Search for Flowers in Parts Unknown to Me) by Masahito Soda. This is published in Gekkan Shounen, the same magazine as Your Lie in April, Norigami, Alive and Beck. That last one is significant, as in many ways Change! is Beck's spiritual successor. It's set in the same sort of gritty Tokyo music scene, with people wearing realistic fashion and listening to the sort of music people in the real world listen to. But this is 2019, not 1999, so instead of alternative rock, our protagonist is on the road to becoming a rapper, and instead of a teenage boy, our hero is a girl.
Shiori is a rich girl attending one of those prestigious all-girls schools that rich bastards send their daughters to so they grow up to be good wives for other rich bastards. She's been so inculcated with submissive attitudes that when we first meet her, she's not just a goody-goody but a full-on narc.
When she catches a classmate named Miki listening to music between classes, Shiori tells her she's supposed to keep her phone in her locker during school, thankyouverymuch, and as a duly appointed hall monitor, she'll have to report Miki if she catches her doing it again.
Miki is one of the school's few rebellious students and does not take this well. She tells Shiori, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it."
Shiori, who lives such a perfect little princess life that she's never been called a bitch before, is deeply bothered by this and can't stop thinking of it in class. Later, when she goes to the office to file her daily narc report, she overhears a couple teachers talking about a rumor that a student from the school has been seen working at a Shibuya nightclub, which is a big no-no for this kind of school.
Shiori deduces that the student in question must be Miki, and that night she goes out to Shibuya to warn her, thinking that this will prove she's not the school's lapdog. The club in question turns out to be hosting a freestyle rap battle that night, and when Shiori walks in, she's instantly entranced by what she sees. She imagines herself on stage, laying the perfect disses on Miki.
For her own part, Miki is none too enthused to find Shiori there, and the two get into an argument right away. When the MC announces that a last-minute cancellation has opened a slot in the next rap battle, Miki shoves Shiori onto the stage with a shout of "Ojou-sama represent!"
Now, you might think at this point Shiori is going to tap into some previously unknown talent and prove herself a brilliant rapper. If you do, you're way wrong. Shiori completely bombs. She doesn't start off too bad, but without any training she can't keep up with the beat or land her disses at the right moments. To make matters worse, her opponent savages her, calling her flat chested and telling her to go home and make him dinner because rap battles are no place for kittens. In the end, Shiori gets so flustered that she tells the audience none of this matters because rap is meaningless.
You can pretty well guess who the audience picks as the winner.
But even if she's a girl, Shiori is the protagonist of a shounen manga, and that means defeat inspires her. Lucky for her, Miki is also a shounen character, and seeing Shiori get owned is enough for her to let bygones be bygones. She agrees to become Shiori's Obi-Wan and teach her the ways of hip-hop.
I said earlier, I picked Change! to read because I'm looking for manga that's different from what gets published in the US, and that is true enough. But I'm also still learning Japanese, and almost as important as a good story is whether the text will hone my skills. There've been a couple times when I've started a manga and had to stop after a few pages because the writing is over my head. I don't mind a challenge, but too much of one and reading becomes a slog.
In that regard, Change! is a strange beast. This is the most difficult manga I've gotten through so far, in large part because of the hip-hop slang and the fact that a large part of the book consists of rap lyrics, but also because Soda is the sort of writer who likes to play around with language in ways that can be frustrating for newbs.
For instance, Japanese has this weird thing where a word can be written with different kanji to provide different connotations, as with the verb kiku, which can be written as 聞く (to listen, to hear, to ask), 訊く (to ask) or 聴く (to listen). The first form is taught in second grade and is far and away the most common, but Soda is the sort of writer who likes to drop in variant kanji, so for example, when the MC wants the audience attention, he shouts for them to listen up using the 聴 form, which means a word I should be able to read easily needs me to look it up instead. And because JP->EN dictionaries don't always disambiguate the different connotations for kanji like that, I then have to do a Google search to figure out why that particular kanji was used over the normal one.
Soda's writing style can also leave his meaning elusive. For instance, I mentioned earlier that when Shiori catches Miki listening to music between classes, Miki comes back, "You know how I can tell you're a bitch? They've got you in a collar and you don't even know it." But that's a very loose translation on my part. The actual line is something like, "Shitdog, invisible collar attached." I spent twenty minutes trying to figure out what Miki meant before I gave up. It wasn't until a day later that it suddenly hit me.
But despite all that, I blew through this manga in two nights. That's in large part due to the fact that Soda uses lots of big panels and splash pages. The layout above is pretty typical. Even in talky scenes he never goes above five panels on a single page, and about as many speech bubbles; during a rap battle, most pages only have a single panel and no more than two lines. So even if I was struggling with each sentence, it only took me a couple minutes to get through a page.
Of the manga I've tried so far, this is definitely the best. I mean, Sayonara Miniskirt is really good, but it's a bit heavy on the Very Important Message. Change! has similar themes of girls defying societal expectations, but it's fun, too. Even if it isn't very anime-like, I hope a publisher picks it up. I mean, we've finally got the last twenty volumes of Beck, and this would be the perfect follow-up.
-by Sean O'Hara