At the 2020 Golden Globes, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho advocated for more Americans to watch foreign films by noting that, “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” A similar argument could be made for manga, if you replace the one-inch-tall barrier with the concept of reading from right to left—which, as most English-speaking manga readers will tell you—requires a lot less mental rewiring than you might think. Manga’s popularity has exploded in the last few years here in the U.S., and for anyone who wants to overcome the manga equivalent of that one-inch-tall barrier but doesn’t know where to start, you only need to look at the 2022 anime season for a couple of perfect recommendations.
This year saw the premiere of two well-received adaptations of popular manga books, Spy X Family and Chainsaw Man (both of which are available to stream on Crunchyroll and the manga is all available digitally on publisher Viz’s app and website), and while the two shows are very different, the fact that they’re pretty faithful and well-produced adaptations of their respective source material makes hopping from animation to comic a much easier task than simply picking something up off of the crowded manga shelves at your local chain bookstore. What we’re saying is that you should check out these anime shows, because they’re great, and after that, you might as well check out the manga.
Spy X Family is arguably the easier sell, if only because it’s playing with tropes and genres that are already familiar to American audiences, specifically spy fiction and sitcoms. Created by Tatsuya Endo, it’s set in a world inspired by Cold War Germany, where two countries (Westalis in the West and Ostania in the East) are enjoying a very tenuous peace after a devastating war. The story focuses on a spy from Westalis called Twilight who needs to infiltrate an exclusive private school in Ostania in order to spy on the leader of a (somewhat implied, if only by the setting and the premise) far-right political party.
To do that, Twilight adopts a daughter, Anya, whom he can enroll in the school while he poses as an Ostanian man named Loid Forger. In order to further sell the con, Twilight marries a woman named Yor who secretly happens to be a legendary assassin, and she agrees to the fake marriage so she can continue assassinating without drawing suspicion (though maybe the two end up developing real feelings for each other?).
Yor doesn’t know Loid’s a spy, he doesn’t know she’s an assassin, and neither of them knows that Anya was forced to undergo mysterious experiments that gave her psychic powers—so she knows everybody’s secrets and thinks it’s really cool that her parents have these double-lives. A lot of the humor comes from Loid trying to adapt his cold and calculating spy skills to trying to be a parent while Yor has to reign in her brilliant capacity for violence in order to seem like a normal person, but most of the humor comes from Anya’s wacky, meme-worthy shenanigans.
The anime, from Wit Studio and CloverWorks, is extremely sweet and adorable, and its jazzy soundtrack and cute opening and closing credits sequences make the Forgers very lovable, but the manga is arguably a little funnier, and the lack of a TV rating it needs to adhere to means it can also be a little more violent—which is usually played for a joke, like with Yor’s Goku-level feats of bad guy-shattering strength.
Each volume of the manga also includes a little note from Endo that is almost always very funny, including this one in the first volume that sums up his sense of humor nicely:
I’m a big fan of movies and anime where the characters are hiding who they really are. I love the tension of “Will they be discovered?” and the anguish of them wanting to reveal their secrets and not being able to.
There isn’t any of that in this manga, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.
The first volume of Chainsaw Man similarly has a little author’s note from creator Tatsuki Fujimoto that sums up the book pretty well: “I love chainsaws!” (volume two says: “I love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!”). A cross between a horror story and an action manga, Chainsaw Man also has a healthy level of economic despair and distrust of authority figures that makes it feel very current—and while it seems a little bleak or cynical on the surface, it is more lighthearted and clever than that.
Chainsaw Man is set in an alternate universe version of the ‘90s that is terrorized by Devils—monstrous representations of specific fears that are bigger and more powerful depending on how many people are afraid of the thing they represent. Denji, a teenager saddled with a crushing amount of debt after his father’s death, survives by selling off his organs and by occasionally killing Devils for the yakuza with the help of his best friend, an adorable little Chainsaw Devil named Pochita.
After being double-crossed by the yakuza after they fall under the sway of the Zombie Devil (which turns them into zombies), Denji is brutally murdered and left to die… until Pochita possesses Denji’s heart and grants him Chainsaw Devil powers that turn him into—dramatic pause—a Chainsaw Man. He has a chainsaw head and chainsaw arms, and it makes him very very good at killing Devils, which he does in gloriously grotesque fashion. It’s like a body horror power fantasy, where this kid can turn into Wolverine but it’s gross and fucked-up when it happens.
Denji then gets enlisted into an organization that kills Devils for the government by a woman named Makima who promises to take care of him and give him food as long as she can treat him like a dog. Having previously been unable to afford to even put jam on toast, Denji accepts. He gets partnered up with Power, a human-like Devil called a Fiend who has blood powers, and having found a job that meets his basic physical needs for the first time in his life, he recommits himself to achieving a different goal: touching a boob.
Yes, the extremely violent story about the boy who turns into chainsaws casually transforms into a pretty clear metaphor about puberty (his body transforms into a different thing that kind of scares and hurts him, and all he wants is a girlfriend). It’s like a more horror-leaning version of iconic coming-of-age anime FLCL, but with a slightly older protagonist who is a little more mature about what he’s going through (even if his response is literally just “I really want to touch a boob”). One of the good things about Chainsaw Man, though, is that it doesn’t take this character turn as an excuse to get gross and objectify its female characters (even when there is nudity). It is generally explicitly clear that Denji is the low-status person in any of these relationships, and it’s actually more tragically funny than pervy that this is the one and only thing he wants out of life now.
And much like Spy X Family, both the anime and the manga versions of Chainsaw Man have their own distinct advantages. From MAPPA, the studio that also makes Jujutsu Kaisen and Attack On Titan (major hit adaptations in their own rights), the anime is gorgeous, with incredible kinetic movement and horrific blood-gushing action, while the manga forces you to sit with the terrifying imagery of the demons a little more.
Once you’ve read Spy X Family and Chainsaw Man, the thrilling world of manga will have opened up to you. Maybe then you can take on the legendary anime/manga franchise One Piece, which started in 1997 and is still going strong today with over 100 volumes. That’s a tall order, but now you’re free to do whatever you want. Either way, you’ve overcome the barrier and can now be introduced to many more amazing stories!