Discovering new manga through manga awards

There are people who solely watch ‘award-winning’ movies: those that have won (or been nominated for) the Oscars, Globes, BAFTAs, and the like. While it may seem a rather narrow practice, there is some merit to the idea. Nomination for an award guarantees a baseline of quality. While below-average movies get nominated for awards every now and then (some even go on to win them), you will rarely find anything shockingly poor from among the list of nominees. Award committees, rather than caving in to popular demand, are often motivated to choose a title on the basis of its themes or the ideas it communicates, which more often than not results in the nomination of good or interesting works. It is no different with manga. There are quite a few notable manga awards, and they can be a good guide on what to read next. They are especially good for introducing manga newbies or skeptics to the medium, who might not have the patience to sift through a ton of manga before finding one that they deem good. That won’t do. You need one guaranteed ‘hit’. The works nominated for these awards tend to be easier reads for those unfamiliar with the standard tropes of popular shonen and shojo manga. Unfortunately, some of the oldest and largest manga awards (like the Shogakukan Manga Awards) are awarded by publication houses like Shogakukan or Kodansha, who tend to favour manga from their own magazines. There are, however, some that are both prestigious and neutral. I will cover the three most important general manga awards, as well as a couple of more niche awards for niche fans.

The Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize trophy, created in the likeness of Astroboy

Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize

The Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize has been awarded by the Asahi Shimbun (one of Japan’s most prestigious newspapers) since 1997. If the name and Astroboy-shaped trophy weren’t enough of an indication, the award was instituted in honour of the late Osamu Tezuka, the God (with a capital G) of Manga. The award categories have changed over the years, but there has always been a Grand Prize, awarded to the year’s best work. As of now, in addition to the Grand Prize, it also awards a New Creator prize, a Short Story prize, and a Special Award given to an industry personality who has made a significant contribution to manga. The winners and nominees tend to be gritty or mature works, in the vein of Tezuka’s own gekiga (serious comics) work. One will recognise such fabled names as Monster, Vagabond, Berserk, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Kingdom from among its winners. One can also find less heralded titles like Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, a psychological horror manga about an aging model and her unnatural beauty standards.

Tsubasa Yamaguchi, in a frog mask, accepting her Manga Taisho for Blue Period

Manga Taishō

The Manga Taishō has been awarded since 2008 to manga with eight or less volumes published, in order to promote relatively newer works. It is awarded by the Manga Taisho committee, composed largely of bookstore employees. The Manga Taishō balances more literary works with ones with broader appeal, and can be a great reference for getting into manga. The list of nominees spans a wide variety of manga, from mainstream blockbusters like Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia, to offbeat favourites like Delicious in Dungeon and Golden Kamuy, to critically acclaimed works like What Did You Eat Yesterday? and (surprise surprise) March Comes in Like a Lion. 2020's winner, Tsubasa Yamaguchi’s Blue Period, about a delinquent who wants to get into art school, is the perfect example of this balance of popularity and artistically innovative themes.

Horror manga legend Junji Ito posing with his Eisner Award for Frankenstein in 2019

The Eisner Awards

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, named after pioneering comic artist Will Eisner, have been awarded each year at San Diego Comic Con since 1988. The awards are decided through voting by comic book professionals.

Though primarily created for the recognition of achievements in the American comic book industry, the Eisner Award for the “Best US Edition of International Material” has been presented since 1998 to international works released in English in the US. Due to the dominance of this category by manga works, a separate Japan/Asia category was created from 2007 onward. The Eisners can be a bit of an 'old boy's club', with a bias towards seinen stalwarts like Osamu Tezuka or Shigeru Mizuki, but the 2019 awardee, Akiko Higashimura's Tokyo Tarareba Girls, defies this, becoming the first manga written by a woman to win an Eisner. 2019 also saw the legendary Junji Ito's manga adaptation of Frankenstein taking home the award for Best Adaption from Another Medium, becoming one of the few manga to win an award in a general category.

The aforementioned awards are a great way to discover a wide variety of new manga to read, including ones you’ve never heard of before. For genre fans or readers looking for something more outside the norm, here’s a couple more awards that deserve to be spotlighted.

The 2019 Seiun Award for Best Comic went to Girls' Last Tour by Tsukumizu (who was not in attendance)

Seiun Award

The Seiun Award recognises the best works and achievements in science fiction, both in Japan and beyond. Organized and overseen by the Science Fiction Fan Groups’ Association of Nippon (SFFAN), it has been awarded each year at the annual Japan Science Fiction Convention since 1970. The Seiun Award has a separate category for manga, called the “Best Comic” award. Past winners include pillars of sci-fi manga like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte, Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes, and Hayao Miyazaki’s (yes, that Miyazaki) Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Some now-forgotten classics not well known outside of Japan can be found among the older awardees, such as Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, Keiko Takemiya’s Towards the Terra, and the works of three-time winner Moto Hagio. Last year’s award went to the excellent Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu.

The 2016 winners of the International Manga Award, with Gold Prize winner Xavier Dorison (front row, 4th from left)

International Manga Award

In 2006, Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Aso gave a policy speech in Tokyo’s famous otaku district, Akihabara. In this speech, he spoke for the need of ‘cultural diplomacy’: marketing Japan’s popular culture to the world to improve the nation’s image. The result of this speech was the establishment of the International Manga Award in 2007. Awarded annually by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is considered the most prestigious award for manga artists outside of Japan. After an initial call for entries, a panel composed of well-known manga artists awards a Gold Award to a single work, a Silver Award to three works, and a Bronze Award to works that just missed the cut. Unfortunately, most winning entries are not available in English. However, a decent number have been translated, like Belgian duo Xavier Dorison and Joël Parnotte’s Le Maître d'armes, or The Divine, by the Israeli team of Boaz Lavie and Asaf and Tomer Hanuka.

It is quite interesting to see other countries’ takes on manga, as well as what kinds of works the Japanese consider to be ‘manga’. For instance, the 2011 award went to I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, a work that Western or Indian fans would dub a ‘comic’ and not a ‘manga’, although this distinction of terminology is not made in Japan. It's great that there is an award to recognise manga artists from outside Japan. This can only result in the expansion and broadening of the manga industry and community. Who knows, the next winner could be you, dear reader!

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