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A Comics Reader's Guide to Manga Scanlations Print
Written by Dirk Deppey   
Friday, 13 October 2006
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A Comics Reader's Guide to Manga Scanlations
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Author's Note: All illustrations used in this essay are "unflipped," and should be read right-to-left. All illustrations ©their respective rightsholders.

For followers of the concurrent boom in more literary American graphic novels, the biggest irony surrounding the popularity of English-language Japanese comics translations is that the manga such readers would be most interested in seeing are also the manga least likely to find its way into your local Barnes & Noble. Instead, bookstore shelves are filled with what seems like acre upon acre of translated manga meant to appeal to young adults. Thankfully, the people buying such books are not the full extent of Japanese comics fandom in this country. As noted in my essay from The Comics Journal #269, "Scanlation Nation," grassroots groups of enterprising and committed manga fans have spent the past few years producing what are known as scanlations, or amateur translations of manga not otherwise licensed for print by one of the many publishers bringing such works to market. These scanlation teams have unearthed and translated an immense number of interesting Asian comics and made them available free for download over the Internet, and it's because of them that manga readers aren't necessarily restricted in their reading habits by what some publisher or other thinks would sell to adolescents.

Astro Boy digs in, in this panel from Naoki Urasawa's revisionist adventure serial, Pluto.
Astro Boy digs in, in this panel from Naoki Urasawa's revisionist adventure serial, Pluto.

There are any number of Japanese comics floating around in scanlated form that might well be appreciated by the more serious Western comics fan. How does one do that, and how would one know enough to find them and read them? It can be done; in preparation for TCJ #269's focus on shoujo manga, I spent the better part of a year getting acquainted with the scanlations scene, and while I won't pretend to be as familiar with it as your hardocre otaku, I did learn enough to navigate my way around, and I found a surprisingly rich variety of good, well-crafted manga. My intention in this essay, then, is to provide an introduction to how to read scanlations, where to find them, and what titles might interest readers accustomed to more esoteric fare.

There are two potential obstacles that newcomers to scanlations may have to overcome in order to read such things. The first, or course, is adjusting to the idea of reading comics on their computer monitors in the first place. Aside from the general strangeness of the concept, there's a technical aspect to it, in that scanlations come in a specific format and require specific software in order to read them. The format is easily explained: The overwhelming majority of scanlations are packaged as JPEG images packaged in ZIP or RAR compression files. It's sort of like a conceptual bag that keeps them all in one compact place. To read them, you'll need a comic-reader program that looks into the files without the need to decompress them. For the Windows operating system, the best such program is the CDisplay Comic Reader, while Mac users' best bet is a program called Comical. (If you're a Linux user, you don't really need me to tell you how to find and use software, now do you?) Both programs offer a relatively easy protocol for reading comics, and playing around with either program for a minute or two will teach you everything you need to know. They even allow you to print the comics out, if you're really dead set against reading such things on a monitor.

An invitation to tune into Reiichi Sugimoto & Shinkichi Katoh's four-volume novel, National Quiz.
An invitation to tune into Reiichi Sugimoto & Shinkichi Katoh's four-volume novel, National Quiz.

Further, one should also note the obligatory warning for these sorts of things: These are "unflipped" comics, which means that the panels and pages read from right-to-left, as is the case in most Asian writing, rather than the more standard Western left-to-right fashion. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

The final potential difficulty isn't so easy to surmount. Comics fans looking to get their hands on the good stuff will likely have to learn to navigate one of the Internet's more finicky protocols: While Web-based archives and BitTorrent links can be found for some scanlations if one searches hard enough, the vast majority can only be found via Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a pre-WWW, command line-based protocol originally designed for conversation, with file-transfer tools seemingly tossed in after the fact. The simplest explanation of how to use IRC to download scanlations can be found at this link.

Assuming you can climb the learning curve, there's plenty of as-yet-unlicensed manga out there, much of it considerably off the beaten path of what you're used to reading -- and thankfully, some of it can be found without having to resort to IRC, as some scanlators do offer easy click-and-download links for their wares. There are an astonishing number of scanlation groups online, and you're not likely to have heard of many of the titles that they offer. What follows is a brief survey of translated manga offered by a relatively small number of groups, all things considered, but it's going to take a while to go through them all nonetheless, and along the way we'll get to know any number of potential candidates for good reading. Let's begin, shall we?


Your first stop should be Mangascreener, one of the oldest scanlation houses, and the one translating works closest to the modern, Western art-comics sensibility in terms of story and maturity. Originally dedicated to translating more popular, mainstream manga when first starting out -- their list of subsequently licensed manga includes such chart-toppers as Naruto and Love Hina -- Mangascreener has gradually moved towards more esoteric fare. As with almost anyone dealing with Japanese comics, there's still a fair amount of genre work in their catalog of offerings, but even here it's usually the quirkier, more individualistic works that come under their attention.

(A side note: I should mention that readers with an aversion to genre should either swallow their distaste or stay well away from the vast majority of manga to begin with. Unlike their Western counterparts, most Japanese comics fall into one genre or another, and while there is a sort of literary-comics movement in Japan, it's much smaller than the scenes in Europe or North America -- as strange as it sounds, art-comics are even more periphrial in Japan than they are in the United States, despite the overall industry being much, much larger. The reason for this has to do with the wider multiplicity of genres in Japan; there are everything from science-fiction and fight comics to comics about golf and mah-jongg. As an American manga-publishing professional once told me, the reason that so many manga cartoonists work in genre is that there are enough available genres (and audiences for same) that a talented cartoonist can find an agreeable topic that allows for individual voices to be heard while still earning something approaching a living without having to reinvent the wheel or restrict your output to small, self-published doujinshi.)

While Mangascreener are perhaps the finest scanlations group around today, there is a drawback to following their output: While the folks at Mangascreener do maintain a mirror page of HTTP downloads, most of their output is only available from their IRC channel (#mangascreener at irc.irchighway.net). In this case, though, there's plenty of material that's worth the hassle. For example:

Natural disasters will have far-reaching political repercussions in Kaiji Kawaguchi's A Spirit of the Sun.
Natural disasters will have far-reaching political repercussions in Kaiji Kawaguchi's A Spirit of the Sun.

  • A Spirit of the Sun: Kaiji Kawaguchi is perhaps best known for the multi-volume series Eagle and Silent Service, comics that tread a fine line between adventure, sophisticated political parable and outright Japan-first nationalist tracts. A Spirit of the Sun is no exception, as it follows the progress of a young boy seperated from his father by an earthquake that literally splits the Japanese mainland, leaving the homeland under international supervision and our hero raised in Taiwan, where he faces racism, gangsterism, and only his innate goodness and sense of identity keeps him alive. If you read either of the two above-quoted series in English translation, you can probably guess that taut storytelling and thoughtful, politically charged subtext is the order of the day here. (Mangascreener has also scanlated another Kawaguchi story, Confession, but I have yet to read it and thus can't offer a recommendation one way or the other.)

Panel from Iou Kuroda's Japan Tengu Party Illustrated.
Panel from Iou Kuroda's Japan Tengu Party Illustrated.
Love, the beauty of rural life... and eggplants. Panel from Nasu.
Love, the beauty of rural life... and eggplants. Panel from Nasu.

  • Japan Tengu Party Illustrated and Nasu: I've already shared my love for the work of Iou Kuroda in TCJ #275's year-in-review section. A quick recap: Kuroda is one of Japan's more idiosyncratic manga storytellers, with a quirky sense of plot and character augmented by thick, impressionistic linework more reminiscent of sumi-e illustration than traditional manga art styles. The two works available here are emblematic of his output: Tengu depicts the trials and tribulations of an ancient race of bird-spirits, revered in olden days but reduced to scavenger status in modern-day Japan, as seen through the eyes of a self-centered, fledgling tengu girl who was abducted from her parents at a young age and replaced with a "mud doll" simalcrum to keep anyone from noticing her disappearance, which in turn becomes a character in its own right as the story progresses.

    Nasu is a wide-ranging collection of short stories, ranging from rural slice-of-life to bicycle-racing adventure to monster/horror comics, all prominently featuring eggplants in one form or another. If that sounds a little too oddball, think of it as a writing exercise -- these stories never feel forced or contrived, and only prove that Iou Kuroda can make anything into grist for the storytelling mill. His sole English-language volume, Sexy Voice and Robo, was one of the most intriguing books produced by a manga-translation publisher in 2005; here's where you'll find more of the same. (There are also a number of miscellaneous Kuroda short stories floating around, including "My Teacher and I" and "Angel.")

Two robots ponder their fate in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto.
Two robots ponder their fate in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto.

  • Pluto: Again, already reviewed in TCJ #275, this is suspense-manga master Naoki Urasawa's radical reinterpretation of the classic Tezuka Astro Boy story, "The Greatest Robot on Earth." While Urasawa's Monster and the forthcoming 20th Century Boys are rightly praised, Pluto is the hidden gem that every comics obscurantist seeks: a deceptively simple concept blown inside-out through sheer talent and ambition. Highly recommended. (You might also want to check out Happy!, a sports manga wherein a young tennis prodigy is given extra inducement to win by her brother's gambling debts, which have yakuza gangsters threatening to pimp her out as a prostitute if she fails to make his payments for him. It's an early work from Urasawa, but you can already see the seeds of the mature creator being sewn.)

Dirty girls and self-centered bastards abound in Naoki Yamamoto's 'Watching TV All the Time Makes You Stupid.'
Dirty girls and self-centered bastards abound in Naoki Yamamoto's 'Watching TV All the Time Makes You Stupid.'

  • "Watching TV All the Time Makes You Stupid": Anyone who's ever read the one available English-language work available from erotic cartoonist Naoki Yamamoto, Viz Comics' seven-volume Dance Till Tomorrow, will tell you that he (A) likes sex-filled comics and (B) seems to treasure an endless contempt for humanity, and not always in that order. In Yamamoto's world, any time someone isn't trying to screw you, he or she is trying to screw you over. Dance Till Tomorrow was the romance genre's deliciously misanthropic evil twin, right down to the "and they all lived sullenly ever after" ending -- self-centered pricks suffer the consequences of their lust and greed, fail to learn anything from the encounter, get back up and do it all over again (repeat until artist loses interest in making them suffer). "Watching TV All the Time Makes You Stupid" compresses Yamamoto's sexual and social philosophies into a short story so vicious and pristine that it's practically a manifesto. I tend to avoid people like these characters in real life, but damn if they don't make for fascinating reading. (Also available from Mangascreener: Yamamoto's two-volume novel Believers, which I really do plan on getting around to reading, one of these days.)

A Japanese minister gets right to the point in Reiichi Sugimoto & Shinkichi Katoh's wicked satire, National Quiz.
A Japanese minister gets right to the point in Reiichi Sugimoto & Shinkichi Katoh's wicked satire, National Quiz.

  • National Quiz: Imagine Terry Gilliam's film Brazil, restaged in a futuristic game show that rules all of Japan. Anything further I say about this series would just spoil it, so instead I'll merely note that Reiichi Sugimoto & Shinkichi Katoh's four-volume balls-to-the-wall satire of television, consumerism, politics and anything else they can think to include may well be the best bet for selling manga to art-comics fans this side of Kan Takahama, Yoshihiro Tatsumi or Yoshiharu Tsuge, if only some far-sighted publisher were to seek out the translation rights. I'd love to own an English-language set of these books, and I bet others would, too.

There's plenty of other treasures to be had in Mangascreener's back catalogue of amateur translations, from the Little Nemo-esque Coo's World, to a couple of short stories by Blue author Kiriko Nananan, to Matoko Yukimura's follow-up to his cult-favorite science-fiction epic Planetes, the Norse adventure fable Vinland Saga. Like I said, if you're an experienced comics reader, Mangascreener should be the first stop in your exploration of the world of scanlations. In a better world, some rich benefactor would give them a blank check and a kickass Japanese licensing agent and say, "Okay, now fill my bookshelf with the good stuff." I have no doubt that we'd all benefit from the results.


While not exactly a haven for literary comics as we've come to know them in the States, our next stop is notable for being an exacting and knowledgable source for a genre that's more fascinating than one might think at first glance: all-girl romance manga, as translated by the fine folks at Lililicious.

A fair amount of attention has been paid lately to the emergence of the boy-love genre, shounen-ai, and its more explicit cousin, yaoi. Slipping in under the radar, however has been the slow growth in interest over their all-girl equivalents, shoujo-ai and yuri. It's an interesting phenomenon, and while a gay man like myself probably isn't the best person to explain it, let's follow the "fools rush in" axiom and try anyway. Like the all-boy version, shoujo-ai and yuri are primarily girl-driven genres with heterosexual females a significant portion of the readership. One could drive oneself crazy examining all the possible reasons for this, but I tend to prefer an evolution-driven approach: Women have a greater capacity for emotional resonance, and thus, even straight women are more willing to explore love's various permutations in a fictional setting. You're not likely to see many straight men digging yaoi for the simple reason that such men tend to find male homosexuality distasteful, due in part to the monkey-brain notion that there's something beta-male (if not outright feminine) about the whole concept. While there's undoubtedly no shortage of heterosexual women who find lesbianism just as off-putting, it's less of a biological imperative than it is among men. (One could also note that there's mildly less cultural opprobrium associated with lesbianism than its male equivalent, at least in the West, if for no other reason than that guys find the former enough of a turn-on to ignore the same-sex implications -- the notion that one might be allowed to join in is presumably too enticing, and all that. How this measures against Japanese culture, of course, is not for me to say.)

A lesbian cartoonist ponders the risks of putting it all down on paper in Ebine Yamaji's Free Soul.
A lesbian cartoonist ponders the risks of putting it all down on paper in Ebine Yamaji's Free Soul.

Because female sexuality affords a greater apetite for emotional and relationship-oriented components in erotic fantasy, as opposed to the nearly all-physical nature of male sexual fantasy, there's more room for character interaction and plot -- that is to say, literature -- in female-oriented romance comics. There are male-centric girl-girl manga available as well, but it tends towards more straightforward sexual encounters rather than relationship-oriented storytelling; the notorious semi-lolicon, all-girl hentai series Shoujo Sect being an excellent if socially problematic example. There's sex in yuri stories, of course, but as we'll see below, even the most explicit examples also feature an attention to character that goes beyond the simplistic, "she's the glasses girl, she's the wild one" two-dimensionality of most male readership-oriented hentai manga. That the all-girl setting and less than fully sexual themes of shoujo-ai allow heterosexual men to explore homosexual themes and issues without worrying about stumbling across boys kissing boys is probably worth mentioning, as well.

Lililicious is easily the foremost of scanlators dealing with the genres in question. Their attention to comics history is especially noteworthy: Starting with the gender confusion found in Osamu Tezuka's Princess Knight and Ikeda Riyoko's The Rose of Versailles and leading into the Forty-Niner stories and thereafter dealing with "intense friendships" among its female protagonists, shoujo manga has explored such themes from the beginning, and in ways not necessarily acceptable to some Western readers -- it's worth noting, for example, that some scenes in the animated version of the breakout hit Sailor Moon were edited for American cartoon release precisely because two of the principal female characters fell in love with one another.

Lililicious offers a wide array of manga offerings from past to present, and some of the signature works of the shoujo metagenre are included in their offerings. Further, one needn't brave the deep waters of IRC to acquire manga translated by the group, as direct HTTP downloads and BitTorrent streams are all accessible directly from the Lililicious projects page. So where should one begin? I'd recommend the following:

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They're both proud women, actually. Page from Ikeda Riyoko's classic shoujo series, The Rose of Versailles. (Click image to enlarge.)

  • The Rose of Versailles, Claudine and Oniisama E: Ikeda Riyoko was a contemporary of the Magnificent Forty-Niners, if not a fellow traveler, and her Tezuka-esque Rose of Versailles was the first shoujo title by a female creator to hit it big with a readership of young girls. Her old-fashioned storytelling sensibilities has fallen out of favor in the decades that followed, but that hasn't dimmed her importance as the link between Tezuka's original girls'-manga template and the liberating release of genre and subject-matter personified by the Forty-Niners.

Guess which one's the suspicious lesbian? Sequence from Maya's Funeral Procession, a classic story by Yukari Ichijou.
Guess which one's the suspicious lesbian? Sequence from Maya's Funeral Procession, a classic story by Yukari Ichijou.

  • Maya's Funeral Procession and Shiroi Heya no Futari: Like early gay-and-lesbian literature in the West, early stories involving gay themes tended to be written from a viewpoint of fear and social stigma, and Japanese comics were no exception in this regard. Both of Moto Hagio's earliest shounen-ai stories, November Gymnasium and The Heart of Thomas, were tragedies, as one boy's love for another was misunderstood both by the male object of desire and, ultimately, the culture surrounding them, in each case leading to poignant deaths. So too in shoujo-ai: Yukari Ichijou's Maya's Funeral Procession is actually a horror story, the lesbian invader a threatening and unwelcome presence striding a landscape of dead bodies. Ryouko Yamagishi's Shiroi Heya no Futari, by contrast, is a romance tragedy more along the lines of Radclyffe Hall's landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, with its affair between a rebellious young girl and her more sedate paramour ultimately unable to survive the heterosexual expectations of fate and the world around them. Again, these are well-told stories, but in the end they're more interesting as manga history than as honest depictions of lesbian desire.

Two lovers sit around talking about sex in Ebine Yamaji's sophisticated lesbian graphic novel, Indigo Blue.
Two lovers sit around talking about sex in Ebine Yamaji's sophisticated lesbian graphic novel, Indigo Blue.

  • Free Soul and Indigo Blue: For those seeking a more modern sensibility, Lililicious' greatest offering is undoubtedly the contemporary lesbian novels of creator Ebine Yamaji. While Yamaji's women must still deal with the uncertainty of what those around them may think, they're far less concerned with that than the contents of their own hearts, and there is no Cruel Fate waiting around the corner to ensure that social equilibrium is restored at story's end -- instead, their actions and motivations propel the story, and the chances for successful romance are balanced accordingly. Yamaji's linework is a treat, and her storytelling skills are first-rate, but more than that, she presents an honest and nuanced look at lesbian life in modern Japan that will resonate with the reader like few other cartoonists of any nationality. If you're looking for the Great Lesbian Graphic Novel, well, here are two ready for download. If they did nothing else, the amateur translators at Lililicious have done us all a great favor in bringing the work of Ebine Yamaji to Western readers.

Young love blooms in Erica Sakurazawa's romance story, Love Vibes.
Young love blooms in Erica Sakurazawa's romance story, Love Vibes.

  • Love Vibes: Readers who've wanted to see more comics from Erica Sakurazawa after the six volumes released by Tokyopop a few years back can take heart, as Lililicious has translated her recent graphic novel, Love Vibes. Unlike the subtle Fatal Attraction-like overtones of Sakurazawa's Between the Sheets, this book depicts a straightforward dawning of same-sex attraction in a young woman whose heterosexual affairs have always left something missing in her heart, a situation that presents almost as much of a challenge to her would-be paramour, who got over her own coming-out drama years ago and doesn't necessarily want to have to deal with it again by proxy. More adult romance literature by a master of the form.

Unrequited obsession burns in 'Kisses,' a short story from Kiriko Nananan's collection, Water.
Unrequited obsession burns in 'Kisses,' a short story from Kiriko Nananan's collection, Water.

  • Water: Kiriko Nananan's graphic novel Blue, about an intense friendship between two high-school girls that bordered on obsession, was something of a minor cult hit among indy-comics fans when translated and released by the cutting-edge collaborative team of Fanfare and Ponent Mon back in 2004, leading some to wonder if they'd ever get the chance to see more of Nananan's obsessive stories and sparse, elegant linework. Wait no more: Lililicious has generously supplied you with two short stories that provide further evidence of her mastery over the comics form. Like Blue, the stories found in Water deal with romantic obsession and its tortures, balanced with the hopeful longing that leads us ever onward into uncertainty.

Above and below-right: A less explicit sequence from Torajiro Kishi's erotic series Maka-Maka.
Above and below-right: A less explicit sequence from Torajiro Kishi's erotic series Maka-Maka.

  • Maka-Maka: I mentioned earlier the difference between girl-oriented yuri and the more male-oriented girl-girl stories found in hentai manga. Sure, the former can get explicit, but while it exists to titillate its female readership, it also finds context for the relationships it depicts, and presents characters with more complex and nuanced personalities that the sex robots who frequently populate the latter. So is there a dividing line where the two sides meet? Or, as I hear my straight male readership asking, is there female-centric lesbian porn that's likely to appeal to male readers as well? Lililicious has heard you're cry, ladies and gentlemen, and Torajiro Kishi has indeed created a story that will appeal to both sets of readers. The brief erotic vignettes that make up Maka-Maka depict an increasingly intense "friendship with benefits" between two college girls, Jun and Nene. Drawn in full, sumptuous color, the stories herein begin like many treasured relationships, with relatively mild, teasing foreplay leading eventually to more intense erotic activities as the relationship moves forward.

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    I actually tried to sell this one to Eros Comix editor Michael Dowers some months back, giving him copies of the first dozen or so scanlations. He ultimately rejected it because the series didn't get explicit enough early on in the series. That changes later on, but I suspect male readers will likely see the opening chapters as more of a tease than will female readers -- I'm not sure I'd quite call Jun and Nene well-rounded characters per se (aside from the obvious physical sense), but their relationship nonetheless has non-sexual components, and Kishi does spend time in their development. It is a female-oriented sex comic, after all, but it's a sex comic all the same, and male readers willing to accept that instant gratification isn't always the best kind of gratification will nonetheless find much to enjoy in these pages.

Once again there's plenty more on offer (if you want to see two girls from Sailor Moon make out and stuff, the first story in this doujinshi is what you've been waiting for), and I haven't myself made even close to a thorough exploration of the site's contents, but I think you get the idea. While the all-male equivalent tends to be a mirror through which one gender can explore its fascination for the other -- while it does exist, actual gay-male manga is a fairly rarified genre in Japan, and hasn't really been explored by scanlators so far as I'm aware -- yuri is where reflection by Japanese women upon their own sexuality can be seen in its most concentrated form. It's also the most accessible outlet for first-person gay-themed cartooning in manga, though as we've noted, it's a form just as likely to be created and read by straight women as any other kind. If that sounds like something of a psychosexual conundrum, well, what about sex isn't a conundrum, one way or another?



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