MOYASIMON: TALES OF AGRICULTURE, by Masayuki Ishikawa. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2009.
Tadayasu is the son of a yeast maker, who has an unusual gift: he can see microbes, or at least cute, cartoony versions of microbes. He and his best friend/next door neighbor Kei have gone off to Tokyo to attend an agricultural college, with the instruction from Tadayasu's grandfather to find one Keizo Itzuki. Itzuki turns out to be one of their professors who is obsessed with all things gross and fermented. He wants to harness Tadayasu's skill, so he wrangles him and Kei into becoming his assistants. They work under the strict supervision of graduate student Haruka, who prefers tight clubwear and high heels to safety goggles and labcoats and is highly skeptical of Tadayasu's gift. The two boys also end up meeting with Kaoru and Takuma, two older students who try to find ways to use Tadayasu's gift to make money. They too become assistants to Professor Itzuki after an accident involving a still of bootleg sake in an abandoned building. Rounding out the group is Hazuki, who is a germaphobic freshman. Together, this motley gang are ready to confront anything that the professor and the microbial world can throw at them.
Moyasimon is not a staggering work of heartbreaking genius. There's no real overarching plot and there are no villains to speak of. If anything, it's something akin to a combination of Community and The Magic School Bus, where a group of oddball college students get into weirdly funny situations and teach the audience about various forms of microscopic life. This is a combination that should not work, or at least come off as kind of preachy, as most 'edutainment' is. The strangest thing about this series is that it totally DOES work, and is instead both amusing and interesting.
It helps that the cast is a great mix of personalities, from true scientific believers like Itzuki and Haruka, wacky newbies like Kaoru, Takuma, and Hazuki, and Tadayasu and Kei serving as the straightmen in the middle. It's this mix of personalities that brings different perspectives (and sources of comedy) from any situation, be it one of Itzuki's experiments or just a regular part of classwork such as planting a rice paddy or palpitating a cow. The best part is that as outrageous as it can get, everything is based on real science, so from disaster and comedy you can learn how bacteria can ruin a batch of sake, the various weird ways people have fermented food, or why yogurt is good for your gut. There are even author's notes on the side of many pages that explain which little cartoony species of microbe we are looking at, which is incredibly helpful.
Moyasimon is a straightforward, amusing, and educational all at once. It's a combination I would have never expected to find in a manga, but I'm so very glad to have discovered.
The character designs are pretty realistic, with nice shading, realistic hair and proportions, and normal fashion (save for Haruka and her BDSM-Lite wardrobe). The more comedic character do tend to have simpler designs, such as Itzuki with his 5-line mustache or Takuma's perfectly spherical head. You'd think such looks would clash with the others, but it all seems to fit together perfectly.
The microbes are also very simple and cartoony, downright cute with their little smiley faces and round, sometimes anthromorphic bodies. Yet each is visually distinct, so that even without reading the author's notes you can distinguish one species from another. A lot of time and care was put into the backgrounds, as they're not just traced from source material but meticulously textured, which makes them look great and serves as all the better contrast to the microbes.
Overall, this is a great looking manga. Ishikawa put a lot of love and detail in the setting and characters, and manages to make both the mundane look lovely and the microscopic adorable.
As typical for a Del Ray work, there is an honorfics guide in the front and translation notes in the back. There are a couple of omakes about gut flora and and two bacterium discussing the idea of a collectible card game where the goal is to ferment and change foodstuffs into other items. What, it's no crazier than any other collectible card game.
This series was published by Del Ray. This series is ongoing in Japan, but only 2 volumes were released. Both are currently out of print.
You can purchase manga like this and much more through RightStuf.com!