City Pop. It’s the sound that’s light, refreshing, and retro (and oft exoticized because thanks to its association with anime and Japan). Emerging during the late 1970s, and running through the 1980s, City Pop as a music genre assimilated aspects of yacht rock, funk, jazz, and pop to create a highly produced, unique sound. And today it’s just about synonymous with Japanese pop culture. Around the same time during the late 70s and 80s, popular manga saw a break from the grim and scratchy style of gekiga. Many series veered towards an aesthetic that favored clean like work and pop imagery. In the spirit of the music that goes so well with it, here’s list of poppy and stylish manga from the 1980s that’s perfect to read along with your favorite Tatsuro Yamashita playlist. All of these titles are currently in print and/or can be purchased on digital platforms, too!
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Art & Story: Rumiko Takahashi
Rumiko Takahashi is one of the all-time greats of manga. She graced us with Ranma ½, Inuyasha, and Maison Ikoku. However, Urusei Yatsura is where it all began. Ataru Moroboshi, a not-so-lovable loser, is betrothed to alien princess Lum Invader after winning a game of tag that decided if Lum’s family would invade Earth. Ataru is beset by angry neighbors, swindling aliens, vengeful demons, and greedy monks — along with a wife that can fly and electrocute him.
Much like how City Pop music still has one foot in the realm of 70s funk sounds, Urusei Yatsura began in 1978, so this is a world still tinged in disco and astrology. Takahashi’s manga is known for being a sci-fi gag book, but it’s also deeply stylish. Lum sports tiger striped cowboy boots with fur lined denim jackets, cheongsam dresses, high waisted pants, and the shortest of shorts. You may have seen her iconic look online and just not known the character. Lum would look right at home on the cover of any Mariya Takeuchi album. And she’s the covergirl for a lot of pop playlists on YouTube. If you find yourself still craving 80s Takahashi, and want something a little more mature, Maison Ikoku is also getting a new collector’s edition release from Viz in September 2020.
Art & Story: Makoto Kobayashi
What’s Michael?, by Makoto Kobayashi and published by Dark Horse, is part of a long lineage of cute cat manga. Except this title encapsulates the consumerism and growth of 1980s Japan. What’s Michael? is a series of somewhat interconnected vignettes about a chubby orange tabby that is seemingly disinterested in lasagna. Yet he brings out the foibles and eccentricities of his human owners while getting into mischief himself.
City Pop is the music of emerging affluence and commercial electronics; What’s Michael? echoes some of this consumer imagery. Michael interacts with the likes of yakuza with expensive taste (a yakuza can only be seen driving a Mercedes!), a family’s new television set (that he poops on), a brand new hi-fi stereo and record player (that he yanks the wires out of), and expensive wicker furniture (that he shreds). What’s Michael? is practically an 80s style guide — with all men wearing Hall & Oates perms and women topped in Tomoyo Harada bowl cuts. Makoto Kobayashi’s style is extremely clean, not unlike his contemporary, Hisashi Eguchi, but Makoto goes for over the top, cartoony expressiveness. His facial elasticity has more in common with Tex Avery than Osamu Tezuka. Kobayashi knows when to let the panels have some breathing room between all the pratfalls and jokes, creating the ideal quiet atmosphere for a lazy cat.
Honorable mention goes to Kobayashi’s Club 9, also published by Dark Horse, about a country girl that gets a job as a Ginza hostess. Bawdy and stylish, this manga is unfortunately out of print, but what says “City Pop” better than a woman driving a hot pink Ferrari Testarossa?
Transformers the Manga
Story: Masumi Kaneda
Art: Ban Magami
Nothing says 1980s Japan quite like transforming robot toys. Transformers the Manga, with story by Masumi Kaneda, art from Ban Magami, and published by Viz comes from a world that is bright and candy-colored like a new Sanyo stereo. I’m going to put aside all pretense to let you know this comic is a big toy commercial (just like most Transformers stuff) It’s still a madcap and skillfully drawn toy commercial, though. There’s a level of mechanical detail from Magami that honestly surprised me the first time I read it. Meanwhile, the characters get a degree of expressiveness that the original TV show could never achieve.
The story is about the never-ending war between Autobots and Decepticons, and occasionally the Japanese children that get recruited to fight alongside them. In addition to the comic portion, it also includes an extensive art gallery section depicting promotional artwork for the Transformers show and comics from Japan. If you get the digital edition, then the gallery section makes for some great tablet wallpaper. City Pop is the music of easy breezy freedom and commercialism. A sleek toy robot car cruising through Tokyo elegantly encapsulates that.
Story: Tetsu Kariya
Art: Akira Hanasaki
During the 1980s, Japan underwent an international gourmet craze. Women began practicing the “proper” way to eat Italian food and business meetings went down in expensive French restaurants. Riding that craze was the culinary manga Oishinbo. The manga follows Shiro Yamaoka, a seemingly layabout reporter only interested in food, as he sets out on his quest to create the “Ultimate Menu.” This all occurs while butting heads with his father, a cold-hearted artist and ceramicist that thinks Shiro isn’t up to the task.
Shiro gobbles his way through Japan, examining the nuances of the humble onigiri (riceball) and witnessing the most wanton culinary desires of Japan’s economic elite. Nothing says Bubble Era excess like a CEO having a tank full of fish just for sushi rise from the floor of his dining room… A beloved series in Japan, Oishinbo clocks in at over 100 volumes long. Due to the size of the series, the US release from Viz is a sort of sampler plate of chapters. Each redone volume is themed around a different kind of food. The comic is fairly episodic, too. If you’re more invested in the human drama that revolves around food than an ongoing story arc, it can be a little jarring to see a character single in one volume suddenly married in the next.
The art style of Oishinbo doesn’t look to dazzle, but it has a simple charm — like the work of Fujiko F. Fujio. The artistic simplicity of the characters belies the little details of city living that come out through the work — the minute details on every bowl of ramen and cup of sake.
Cut from a similar cloth, but in the realm of cinema, is the 1985 Juzo Itami film Tampopo, which examines everyday human relationships and experiences. Plus how they’re affected by food. All this comes with trucker cowboys, lustful gangsters, studious widows, and ramen scholars.
Art & Story: Akimi Yoshida
City Pop is the music of, well, cities. And it just wouldn’t be a city without a little danger and tragedy. Banana Fish, by Akimi Yoshida, is a stylish crime drama meditation on the trauma of war, and queer romance rolled into one.
Ash Lynx is a beautiful but ruthless New York street tough who crosses paths with an equally beautiful (but gentler) Japanese photographer named Eiji. The two men become embroiled in a world of conspiracy, drugs, crime, and budding romance.
Like many of the authors on this list, Yoshida’s art style is clean and reminiscent of pop art, but that makes the world of crime in Banana Fish held up to a stark light where nothing is hidden. Be warned that this is one of the darker books on this list, too. It deals with issues of racism, drug and sexual abuse, and some aspects of the book haven’t aged particularly gracefully. Discretion is advised when looking it up. The recent anime adaptation has led to Viz reprinting its old release of Banana Fish (unfortunately they kept the 2002 era cover designs), as well as a digital release.