Calling something the "Dark Age" tends to bring about a negative connotation. For example, historians used to refer to the Middle Ages as the "Dark Ages", but as more research & findings have come through modern historians prefer to not use the term, because it really wasn't as "dark" & without importance as it once was considered. On the side of American comics, the Dark Age is sometimes referred to what is presently called the Modern Age, mainly because of the rise of darker-themed & grim storytelling. Others would call it the Dark Age because of things that are now looked at with disdain, like the Speculator Boom or Rob Liefeld. Anyway, why exactly do I consider a short span of three years, 1996-1999, to be the "Dark Age of Jump"? Well, consider what had just happened to the magazine...
In the 27th issue of Shonen Jump's 1996 run, Takehiko Inoue put an end to his debut solo work, Slam Dunk, becoming the third manga in Jump history to be given a full-color final chapter. While it didn't happen over the course of a single week, the magazine lost two million readers from the end of that manga alone, and combined with Dragon Ball's end (the second full-color finale) the previous year that resulted in a 2.5 million loss. At that point it put the magazine's readership at around 4 million, a number Jump had not been at since 1984 (or just shortly after starting the Golden Age). At the end of 1996 came the end of Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibouken, & 1997 saw the finales to Rokudenashi Blues, Captain Tsubasa: World Youth Chapter, & Sexy Commando Gaiden, as well. By the time the new millennium came, Jump's readership reduced even more, averaging out to between 3-3.5 million, i.e. the number that Ring ni Kakero helped bring Jump back to by 1981. Therefore, compared to the massive Goliath that it was just prior, these next few years definitely felt like a much "darker", unsure time compared to the "golden" days just a couple of years ago. Luckily, the Dark Age of Jump, though insanely short, was filled with numerous debuts that would go on to become icons in their own right, some of which are still important to this very day. In fact, the issue of Jump that came right after Slam Dunk's end, #28, got this age of transition started very impressively.
Ryu Fujisaki started off in in 1990 with a one-shot based on The Pied Piper of Hameln, and saw his serialized debut with late 1992's Psycho+, which ended after only 11 chapters. After a few more one-shots, though, he gave serialized manga another try with mid-1996's Hoshin Engi/The Historical Record of the Sealed Gods. Technically an adaptation of the Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi/Creation of the Gods (which isn't technically one of the Four Great Masterpieces, but is definitely up there), the story followed Taikobo, who was ordered by Genshi Tenson (the leader of the Sennin World above the human realm) to defeat the evil fox spirit Dakki, who had charmed Emperor Chu to the point of effectively ruling China. In order to do so, Taikobo is given the task of completing the mysterious Hoshin Project, which requires the sealing or death of any & all evil that inhabits the land. Similar to Hana no Keiji, Hoshin Engi utilized actual people from history (or at least the fictionalized versions from the original novel), with maybe a name change here & there, and Fujisaki reworked it into a shonen action style. The series wound up grabbing a fervent fanbase, though, partially by relying on a lot of strategy behind the fighting. True to the original story, Taikobo became a general eventually, & while he certainly could fight on his own, he was also a smart planner, much more so than most shonen manga leads. Add to all of that a constantly evolving storyline, fun characters, & some very nice artwork from Ryu Fujisaki, & Hoshin Engi became an ideal back-up for Kenshin during this tough time, running until late 2000 & lasting 23 volumes. There was also a TV anime adaptation, Senkaiden/Fairyland Tale Hoshin Engi (released in North America as Soul Hunter), by Studio Deen in 1999 that ran for 26 episodes, becoming one of the earliest TV anime to heavily mix together digital animation with traditional cel animation; the two didn't quite mesh perfectly, but it was a start. In January 2009, Shomei TV had supposed intentions to make a new Hoshin Engi anime if they received 10,000 signatures, but after that was achieved nothing came about. As of today, Ryu Fujisaki's biggest work (though his later Shiki also received an anime adaptation) has become a bit of cult classic.
Kazuki Takahashi (a lot of [completely non-related] Takahashi's in this overview, aren't there?) got into the manga industry back in 1982, but didn't do any serialized work until 1986 when he did the manga adaptation of TV anime Gou-Q-Chouji Ikkiman under the name Kazuo Takahashi. For the next decade he would do nothing but short or failed manga, and it wouldn't be until the very end of 1996, after switching to his real name, that he would find success... And, boy, was it grand slam. Yu-Gi-Oh!/The King of Games! starred Yugi Mutou, a short, timid boy who loved puzzles & games of all sorts. After finally solving an ancient item called the Millennium Puzzle, however, he winds up being the host body of a spirit (called "Yami/Dark Yugi" by fans over time) that loves gambling games. Whenever someone commits a wrongdoing in front of Yugi, the spirit, later revealed to be an ancient pharaoh, takes over & challenges the foe to a "Shadow Game", usually involving some sort of actual game or dare being twisted into something dangerous; the loser would then suffer a "Penalty Game". During the initial seven volumes-worth of chapters, Yugi & the spirit would compete in all sorts of various games, but Chapters 9 & 10 in particular utilized a card game named "Wizards & Monsters". Readers found the game, & rival character Seto Kaiba, very interesting, so Takahashi brought them both back for a rematch later on. Following that, though, Takahashi was encouraged by his editors to make the card game the focus of the entire manga, so he renamed the game "Duel Monsters", tied the various cards & their creation to the spirit's mysterious past, & wound up creating something that would become a multimedia juggernaut.
While he initially conceived Duel Monsters as a mix of Magic the Gathering & Dungeons & Dragons, game company Konami was interested in making it into an actual card game that people could play against each other, so Takahashi simplified everything to a more reasonable & playable form; that's why the Duelist Kingdom Arc's game rules seemed so convoluted. The end result was a Jump manga that, though inspired heavily by titles like JoJo, was unlike any of the others in terms of execution due to its use of a card game, and the fact that fans of the manga could play the actual game themselves was simply unprecedented, doubled by the fact that Takahashi would introduce new cards in the manga, which were then later implemented into the real game. Yu-Gi-Oh! would eventually finish up with a story arc that was more character & plot-focused than game-focused, & would end in early 2004 after 38 volumes. Quite honestly, though, this series (& franchise) has become much more synonymous via anime. There was an initial 27-episode TV series by Toei in 1998, plus a 1999 movie, that is now nicknamed "Season 0" that covered the pre-Duel Monsters story (though the original Wizards & Monsters stuff was adapted), but the one everyone knows about is the 2000-2004 TV series by Studio Pierrot named Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters that ran for 224 episodes, covered the rest of the manga story, & was imported all over the world & became a mega hit. Following that came 2004-2007 side-story manga Yu-Gi-Oh! R, which was drawn by Takahashi's assistant Akira Ito (who would go on to create rival card game franchise Cardfight!! Vanguard), and following the end of Pierrot's TV series came a constant run of sequel anime series, from GX to 5D's to ZeXal to the presently-running Arc-V; there are also alternate manga adaptations of each of these series, too. Today, Yu-Gi-Oh! is a giant behemoth of a worldwide franchise, even receiving a new anime movie this April, and it looks to have no real end in sight. While the manga didn't receive the full-color final chapter, it was still more than worth two paragraphs to cover fully.
After switching over to a seasonal schedule in 1989, Kazushi Hagiwara's Bastard!! continued on in that format until the start of 1997 following the cancellation of the seasonal specials, which were merged together with Akamaru Jump, which later became Jump Next!. At this point, however, something bad happened with Hagiwara's plans. Due to a freak accident, all of his pre-production work on what would immediately follow the previous 18 volumes worth of content got lost and/or destroyed, making him unable to continue on like planned. Hagiwara's solution was to simply invoke a sudden time-skip, with the new Immoral Laws Chapter's start appearing in Weekly Shonen Jump's combined #5-6 issue; the arc also goes by the name of Defenders of the Faith. It focused on the battles between the angels of Heaven & the forces of Satan in a post-re-apocalyptic Earth, with Dark Schneider eventually becoming so powerful that he may honestly be one of the most overpowered main characters in all of manga, if not fiction in general. This was Hagiwara's intention, supposedly, in order to stop senseless "Who's the most powerful?" debates among fandoms. Even though Bastard!! returned to the main magazine for the first time in roughly eight years, however, it was far from returning to any sort of regular schedule. Instead, Hagiwara would publish it irregularly, averaging 5-7 chapters every year from 1997-1999. The year 2000 saw only a single chapter, released early in the second half, before Shueisha finally decided that Bastard!!'s hyper-violent & overtly sexual content was too much for Shonen Jump. The decision was made to move Hagiwara's fantasy epic to the adult-oriented seinen magazine Ultra Jump at the start of 2001, which is where it still runs to this very day on a hyper-irregular schedule, i.e. a new chapter comes out whenever Kazushi Hagiwara feels like it. The switch from Shonen Jump to Ultra Jump happens in Volume 22, beyond what Viz Media released up to in North America, and presently is at 27 volumes, with the most recent volume starting the arc named Number of the Beast, which will fill in the missing gap between Volumes 18 & 19. Similar to Kinnikuman & Otoko Zaka, new volumes of Bastard!! utilize the Jump Comics labeling in order to maintain continuity with the original Shonen Jump-serialized volumes. Unfortunately, said new story arc started in 2009, & Volume 27 came out back in March of 2012, which means that Bastard!! has been on hiatus for nearly four years, at the very least. Luckily for Hagiwara, his sole serialization still sells well to this very day.
The first notable debut of 1997 came from the serialized debut of Kazumata Oguri, a former assistant to Shinji Hiramatsu (shockingly enough). Hanasaka Tenshi Tenten-kun/Tenten, The Angel that Made Flowers Bloom was a gag manga that followed Hideyuki Sakura, a young boy who wound up meeting & interacting with Tenten, an ultra-selfish, single-haired, partial angel who only got the title he has because God instituted a "No Child Left Behind" policy for Heaven Elementary. While there were some longer stories told, the manga tended to be focused around telling self-contained stories every chapter, and Oguri's comedy erred much more on the side of absurdity & toilet humor. Featuring other child angels that represented concepts like love, knowledge, & luck (the last of which, Fukujin, was named after the Japanese word for the adrenal glands), the series may be next-to-unknown outside of Japan, but in its home country it wound up running until mid-2000 for 17 volumes, making it into another perfect rep as a Dark Age Jump manga, i.e. it ran during a rough time, but wasn't unpopular by any means. It also received a TV anime adaptation by Nippon Animation from 1998-1999 that ran for 43 episodes & featured an opening theme that utilized word play in order to make anyone that sings it wind up saying "chinko/penis" & "unko/feces" repeatedly during the chorus of each verse. At least the anime seemed to properly understand the kind of humor Oguri utilized; seriously, this guy worked for Shinji Hiramatsu?!
After seeing varying levels of success with Video Girl Ai & DNA², Masakazu Katsura made another shonen romance manga with early 1997's I"s (pronounced "eyes"). The manga detailed the love triangle between high school student Ichitaka Seto, his crush Iori Yoshizuki, & old friend Itsuki Akiba, who harbored a crush on Ichitaka. Compared to Katsura's previous rom-coms, which featured some sort of fantastical elements, I"s was a completely real-world romance manga, featuring no unrealistic elements at all. While such a simple & mundane (compared to everything else in Jump) concept would have likely failed with other writers, though, Katsura had already established himself as a pro in this genre, which kept people reading long enough to have the manga run until mid-2000 & last 15 volumes. Well, I would guess elements like nudity, specifically the use of bare breasts, also helped keep people reading, too; said nudity would be censored out for most of the North American release. While there was no TV anime ever made from I"s, there were a pair of OVA series, 2002-2003's I"s & 2005-2006's I"s Pure, made by Studio Pierrot & ARMS that totaled for eight episodes. This wound up being the final manga Masakazu Katsura ever did for Shonen Jump, ending a 17 year run with the magazine. While he started off with superheroes via Wingman, Katsura's legacy with Jump was obviously in showcasing that romance as a genre can definitely work with a male-oriented audience.
Mid-1997 saw the debut of two important series, one of which would go on to become the true successor to Dragon Ball in terms of importance, while the other could have become a mega hit but got screwed over by its own creator. We'll start with the latter title, which was the debut of a young man named Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro. Seikimatsu Leader-den/Tale of the Leader at the Century's End Takeshi! starred Takeshi, an elementary school student who had the face & stubble of an old man & dreamed of becoming a great leader, like his deceased father was among salarymen. Seemingly being able to switch between absurd gag manga & both a traditional "MAN-ga" action series as well as a parody of it (at the same time), Takeshi! still seems utterly difficult to properly explain. Even looking at the couple of random volumes I've managed to obtain still confound me as to what exactly this manga was trying to do. Whatever is truly was, it was a smash hit with Jump readers, quickly becoming a true-blue successor to what had ended just before it; it was consistently one of the highest-rated titles in the magazine year after year during its run. Though an anime pilot by AIC in 1998 didn't result in any sort of TV anime, likely because of how weird it really was, it did eventually win the Shogakukan Manga Award for children's manga in 2001, something that only Kinnikuman & Midori no Makibao had done prior for Jump (though, admittedly, most award winners for Jump won for shonen manga, not children's manga). Without a doubt, Seikimatsu Leader-den Takeshi! could have very well become one of the biggest names in the history of Jump... So why is it so relatively unknown now? Well, on August 7, 2002, Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro was arrested for paying a 16 year old girl to perform lewd acts for him on November 12, 2001; he was sentenced to two years in prison, but said sentence was suspended. About a month later, Shueisha put an abrupt end to Takeshi!, ending a five year run that lasted 24 volumes. While manga in Jump had been forced to come to an end due to non-ratings reasons before, this was something else entirely & hasn't happened a second time yet. It was a wild fall from grace for Shimabukuro, who was looking to be one of the biggest new manga creators in the industry, though Shueisha did eventually allow him to return to manga via 2004-2005's sports/comedy series Ring, which ran for three volumes in Super Jump. In fact, if it wasn't for the good word from a friend that he made during Takeshi!'s run, Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro's overall importance in the history of Shonen Jump would have ended right here, but that's for another age...
One week after Takeshi!'s debut came the serialized debut of Eiichiro Oda, a former assistant to both Masaya Tokuhiro & Nobuhiro Watsuki. About a year after his initial one-shot Romance Dawn appeared in Jump, Oda debuted a reworked version of the tale with One Piece, which follows Monkey D. Luffy as he chases his dream of becoming a pirate, reaching the equatorial circumference of the world known as the Grand Line, & finding the titular treasure of the late Gold Roger, King of the Pirates, because finding One Piece will make that person the new King. What helped make the manga an instant hit was its ability to balance silly comedy with absolute seriousness, an intriguing world filled with all sorts of fantastical islands to explore, constantly memorable characters that the readers could easily care for (or vehemently hate for villains), and a drawing style that could be kid-friendly for the most part yet also be able to properly deliver harsh & violent fights, without having to become hyper-violent. Another intriguing piece of the manga is how Oda can constantly mention something innocuous in passing at one point in the overall story, and then years later showcase how that seemingly unimportant detail is in fact super important to the grand scheme of things; it showcases just how planned out the entire manga is. Oda has since admitted that he, more or less, took entire elements of Jungle King Tar-chan when creating One Piece, and he coincidentally hasn't spoken with Masaya Tokuhiro for a good number of years, but regardless of that, this series has essentially become the second-coming for Jump. It still runs to this very day, having just passed the 80 volume mark, and is the best-selling manga ever, at approximately 320 million volumes sold (a Guinness World Record as of 2015), nearly 100 million more than Dragon Ball (which is #2); Kochikame is #3 at 156.5 million. One Piece also holds the record for longest-running Jump anime, which debuted in 1999 by Toei (following a 1998 pilot by Production I.G. alongside Takeshi!'s) & is still running to this day with 728 episodes (as of this post), 11 feature-length anime movies (with a 12th on the way), various TV specials, OVAs, short movies, & even crossovers with Dragon Ball & Toriko. If fact, One Piece may have even surpassed Dragon Ball as being the most important manga in the entire history of Shonen Jump, because even though Oda debuted in a dark time in Jump's history, & even today readership numbers are nowhere near what they were during the Golden Age, One Piece has gone on to become not just a new pillar for Jump, but it's also seemingly reached a status that only Kochikame has maintained: It's become something to simply expect from a new issue of Shonen Jump.
After putting an end to Rokudenashi Blues in early 1997, Masanori Morita took a year to plan out his obviously anticipated follow-up. Using a similar sports/delinquent mix that his debut had, Rookies started in early 1998 & mixed together the delinquent genre with Jump's oldest sports friend, baseball. Specifically, the manga starred Koichi Kawano, a new teacher at Futako-Tamagawa High, who becomes the coach of the school's baseball team that was just coming off of a year suspension for causing a brawl during an official match. Indeed, the baseball team was filled with nothing more than women-chasing, heavy-smoking, good-for-nothing delinquents, but through Kawano's guidance the team members all learn to truly love baseball & slowly yearn to make it to Koshien. It's interesting to think that, for slightly over a year, Jump actually had two school-based manga that actually starred teachers instead of specific students, Nube & Rookies, as the former would end in mid-1999. In the end, though only reaching half the length of his debut work, Morita was able to do Rookies until mid-2003 for 24 volumes. There was never any sort of anime adaptation for Morita's second series, not even movies like with Rokudenashi Blues, but in 2008 came a J-Drama adaptation that ran for 11 episodes & a TV special, followed by a theatrically-released movie finale, Rookies -Graduation-, in 2009. Masanori Morita would follow up Rookies with Beshari Gurashi/A Stepped On Way of Living, a tale of stand-up comedians, in late 2005, but in mid-2006 the series was moved to Weekly Young Jump, where it continued to run until mid-2015, lasting 19 volumes. Presently, Morita is in-between series, so who knows what he'll be coming out with next, but today he may be one of the most successful-yet-underrated Jump manga creators out there.
With Captain Tsubasa ending in mid-1997, Jump no longer had a notable soccer manga once again. While it didn't exactly become the international sensation that Yoichi Takahashi's icon was, female artist Daisuke Higuchi filled in the gap with early 1998's Whistle!. Created in homage to the World Cup that was happening that year in France, the manga followed Sho Kazamatsuri, a small high school student who hopes to be able to show off what he can do on the pitch with a new team, as his old team kept him down due to his stature. Sadly, due to his lack of play at his last school, Sho isn't exactly a great player, but his drive to be as good as possible could be enough to make him worthy of playing alongside his teammates. Compared to its Bronze/Golden Age spiritual predecessor, Whistle! handled itself very realistically, which helped endear itself to readers who may have been getting tried of how stylistic & over-the-top Captain Tsubasa operated. The series would end up running from one World Cup to another, in essence, as the final chapter would appear in Jump in late 2002, the year of the Japan/South Korea-held tournament, lasting 24 volumes. It also inspired a 39-episode TV anime adaptation from Studio Comet that ran from 2002-2003, where it eventually ran against the anime adaptation of Yoichi Takahashi's Hungry Heart - Wild Striker, another soccer series. Sadly, while it had prime timing in both filling a gap & running between World Cups, Whistle! today has become nothing more than a minor cult classic.
After seemingly testing what exactly he could get away with via Level E, Yoshihiro Togashi took another year off the prepare for his next work. He would return a week after Whistle!'s debut with Hunter×Hunter (the title was inspired by a Japanese game show that required answers to be stated twice, so one does not pronounce the "×" in the middle). The manga follows Gon Freecss, a young boy whose father Ging was often not home. After finding out that Ging worked as a "Hunter", which is this world's equivalent to a multi-purpose hired hand, Gon decides to become one himself as a way to find & reunite with his father. What made the manga different from the other action manga in Jump was simply in how smart it handled itself. While fighting between powerful combatants was there to be found, Togashi instead established that smart thinking & quick reactions were just as important to winning a fight as sheer power & grit. In fact, at first Gon wasn't even much of a fighter, instead relying on a little misdirection & his trusty fishing rod to "beat" his foes. Eventually, though, a type of inner power called Nen was revealed, but rather than simply be an inner aura-style of a power, like the Cosmo in Saint Seiya, Togahi gave Nen the ability to be nearly anything he wanted it to be on a character-by-character basis. Overall, Hunter×Hunter just felt different from the rest of the pack, which is why the manga is still technically running to this day. I say "technically", though, because this manga is the biggest proof of "Togashi-ism", the seeming special treatment I alluded to when I brought up Level E in the previous piece.
As indicated by this image made by fans, Togashi initially did his latest manga on a relatively normal basis from 1998-2005, but starting in 2006 he suddenly took numerous hiatuses, often close (if not over) a year in length. This resulted in the story arc that he was telling, the Chimera Ant Chapter, taking literally years to get through. Traditionally, Japanese companies rely on the old standard of "illness" to explain hiatuses, even if that isn't the case, so most fans have come to various conclusions regarding Togashi's wild hiatuses, ranging from wanting to live a normal life with his wife (Naoko Takeuchi, creator of Sailor Moon) & child to him possibly not caring about manga anymore to even his supposed love of all things Dragon Quest keeping him busy. In the meantime, Hunter×Hunter has remained popular enough to receive two separate TV anime adaptations, following a 1998 pilot by Studio Pierrot, directed by Yu Yu Hakusho, Ninku, & Midori no Makibao's Noriyuki Abe, that was made alongside the One Piece & Takeshi! pilots. The first series from 1999-2001 was by Nippon Animation and ran for 62 episodes & covered roughly the first 11 volumes (plus three OVA series from 2002-2004 that continued the adaptation for another 30 episodes [ending at volume 18]), while the other was by Madhouse, ran from 2011-2014 for 148 episodes, & adapted all the way to the latest hiatus (plus two anime movies in 2013). Even though Hunter×Hunter has been on hiatus since August 2014 & will likely continue to run highly irregularly for the rest of Yoshihiro Togashi's life, it will still go down as one of the smartest & most iconic Shonen Jump manga of all time.
Something that was interesting about Rurouni Kenshin's serialization was that Nobuhiro Watsuki had a number of assistants during it that would go on to create iconic works of their own. The first of the "Watsuki-gumi", as they were nicknamed, to go pro wasn't actually Eiichiro Oda, but rather it was Hiroyuki Takei, whose debut work Butsu Zone debuted & was cancelled in the second quarter of 1997 after only three volumes, all before One Piece debuted. Takei would return in mid-1998, however, with Shaman King, which starred Yoh Asakura, a young shaman who enters the Shaman Fight, a tournament that is held every 500 years to determine who will be the Shaman King, the one who can communicate with the Great Spirit & reshape the world as they see fit. Mixing together shonen action with shamanism (something that manga generally didn't tackle), Takei was able to bring in all sorts of various cultures & beliefs into his storytelling, which helped give his second series a style that was all its own, and even though the overall message of the manga was one that was against fighting, it was still welcomed by fans as a superbly told action series. It would also receive a TV anime adaptation by Xebec that ran from 2001-2002 for 64 episodes. Eventually, though, the manga wound up suffering one of the most infamous finales in manga history, which resulted in the final chapter in late 2004 ending with Yoh & his friends heading off for the final battle; the series ended with 32 volumes. Takei has since explained that he purposefully ended the series due to "fatigue" & a feeling that it was becoming too "normal" due to fans eventually wanting a more traditionally-told action series, but what is now often called the "Princess Hao" ending is still such a bizarre & sudden way to stop telling a story. Also, the fact that Shueisha revealed that it would only release the final volume if it received enough orders from fans (which it did) gives an indication that the end wasn't just Takei's decision alone. Regardless, from 2008-2009 Shaman King received its kanzenban/"perfect edition" re-release, and with that version of the manga came those final chapters that Takei had planned out; the general reaction by fans has been absolute praise for the true ending. Since then, Takei has done more with his biggest work, like the two-volume prequel Shaman King Zero from 2011-2014 & the six-volume sequel Shaman King Flowers from 2012-2014. There's always the possibility that Hiroyuki Takei will return once again to his world of shamans, though, and in the end Shaman King is proof positive that an infamous finale isn't always the end of a tale. (If you want more proof of that, just look at Masami Kurumada's Otoko Zaka, which came back 30 years after its own infamous non-ending)
The final issue of 1998 & one of the first issues of 1999 would feature the debuts of two sports manga that utilized games that were next to unused in Jump. Though golf manga did occur on rare occasion in Jump back during the Bronze Age, like with 1977-1979's Hole in One, it had not seen anything notable with the sport until Rising Impact, the serialized debut of Nakaba Suzuki. The series followed Gawain Nanaumi, a boy who loved baseball & how he could send the ball flying, and how he decided to move to Tokyo's Camelot Academy after meeting Kiria Nishino, who showed him that golf can allow a ball to fly even farther. While the concept of the lead character going from baseball to golf wasn't a new idea by any means (Dan Doh!! used the same concept three years prior), Suzuki's use of Arthurian names & mythos, which was fitting since the modern version of the sport originated from Scotland, helped differentiate itself from the crowd. While it wouldn't quite become a major name for Jump during these tougher times, it still wound up running until early 2002 & lasting 17 volumes. It did experience an odd "cancellation" in early 1999, though, only to return three months later & run to the end; it wasn't the first manga that this happened to, either (see Hareluya & it's reboot, Hareluya II BØY). Sadly, Rising Impact would never receive an adaptation or any sort, anime or live-action, leaving this manga more or less unheard of outside of Japan.
As for Nakaba Suzuki, his follow-up, 2002-2003 MMA manga Ultra Red, would end after only four volumes, & he left Shonen Jump afterwards; he would still work with Shueisha here & there, though. Suzuki would then move to Shogakukan's Shonen Sunday, where his ice-skating manga Blizzard Axel would run from 2005-2007 for a respectable 11 volumes, while his 2007-2010 follow-up, the manly, over-the-top action homage/parody Kongoh Bancho, would last 12 volumes & become a cult favorite. Suzuki would then move again, this time to Akita Shoten's Shonen Champion, but his manga with the magazine, 2012's action/comedy/romance series Chiguhagu/Irrelevant Lovers, would bomb after only two volumes. It wouldn't be until Suzuki's third move, this time to Kodansha's Shonen Magazine, that he would finally create a manga that would be able to top Rising Impact. Like his debut manga, late 2012's The Seven Deadly Sins utilizes a lot of Arthurian lore and, coincidentally, has become a big success for Suzuki. It's still running to this day, having recently passed Rising Impact in terms of length (18 volumes & going), won the Kodansha Manga Award for shonen in 2015, & even received a TV anime adaptation from 2014-2015. Still, it was Shonen Jump that gave Suzuki his first taste of success & gave himself a goal to pass with his later works.
The other sports manga to debut didn't exactly utilize a "sport", but competitive board games like chess or shogi can certainly follow a lot of the same strokes, making them a kind of sub-genre to sports. In Part 2 of the Golden Age I brought up that Nobuhiro Watsuki had been an assistant to an man named Takeshi Obata, who at that point was essentially a no-name manga artist that was a former assistant to Makoto Niwano. That's because his debut work, 1987-1989's Cyborg Granpda G, didn't go anywhere, and his follow-ups where he worked with various writers, like 1991-1992's Arabian Lamp Lamp & 1995-1996's Karakuri Zoushi Ayatsuri/Doll Puppeteer Sakon, also gained no real traction. It wouldn't be until he teamed with writer Yumi Hotta that Obata would start to receive real notoriety via early 1999's Hikaru no Go/Hikaru's Go. Inspired by a pick-up game of go that she played with her father, Hotta's story that was originally named Kokonotsu no Hoshi/The Nine Stars, after the "star points" on a go board, focused on Hikaru Shindo, an elementary school student who found go to be a game for old people. After finding an old go board in his grandfather's shed, though, Hikaru becomes possessed by Fujiwara-no-Sai, a Heian era ghost who only wishes to play go; the last time he did was via Honinbo Shusaku, one of the best go players of the Edo period. Though initially annoyed by Sai's insistence, Hikaru eventually learns to love playing go, especially after finding a rival in go prodigy Akira Toya. While the relationship between Hikaru & Akira is a downright imitation of Ring ni Kakero's Ryuji Takane & Jun Kenzaki, possibly an influence from Obata (who was in the perfect age range for RnK [8-12] during its run), it was Hotta's love for the game, supported by the supervision of 5 Dan go player Yukari Umezawa (now Yoshihara), combined with Obata's intensely detailed artwork that helped make Hikaru no Go not just a major hit for Jump, but also a real life inspiration. Similar to what Slam Dunk did for basketball, Hikaru no Go is widely credited for starting a go boom that ran from the late 90s to the early 2000s. Just like Hikaru himself, real life young children who found go to be boring & for old people now found the game to be intensely strategic & intriguing to play.
The manga would eventually come to an (infamous) end in mid-2003 after 23 volumes, but its impact was a strong one for Takeshi Obata. After a decade of going nowhere as an artist, Obata was now looked at as one of the all-time greatest manga artists in the industry, and his next work would simply cement his legacy (but, like many others, that's for another age). As for Yumi Hotta, she would team up with artist Kei Kawano (a student of Hiroyuki Takei's) for 2005's Yuto, a three-volume series about long track speed skating, before taking a break to live a simple married woman's life. She would return to manga in 2013, however, with Hajiman - Challenge! Hajimari no Manga/My Starter Manga, a gag manga that Hotta draws herself that's all about her trying to make a manga herself in her own hyper-simplistic style. As for Hikaru no Go, the manga received a TV anime adaptation by Studio Pierrot that ran from 2001-2003 for 75 episodes, plus a New Year Special in 2004, & the manga's instant success actually resulted in Ayatsuri Sakon receiving its own 26-episode TV anime adaptation by TMS from 1999-2000; talk about taking advantage of something popular as soon as possible.
1999 would only feature two more notable debuts before the manga that began the next age started, but the next one would be not just one of the super long-runners, but also a true advancement of the "Neo-Shonen" movement. After seeing quick failure in his debut serialization, 1997-1998's Cool - Rental Body Guard-, Takeshi Konomi (a former assistant to both Koji Kiriyama & Yuko Asami) would hit major pay dirt with his second series, The Prince of Tennis. Having had prior experience as a tennis instructor, Konomi told the story of Ryoma Echizen, the prodigal son of tennis pro "Samurai Nanjiro" Echizen, as he enrolls in Seishun Academy & join the school's tennis team, which is known for excellence. The manga detailed the team's journey towards eventually reaching the National Tournament, facing off against other school's tennis teams, which resulted in the characters having to come up with new, more impressive techniques. When it came to what style of sports manga Prince of Tennis aimed to be, it was definitely on the more fantastical side, with special returns that made a tennis ball do all sorts of things, like wind around the outside of the net or execute a reverse spin upon hitting the ground, or even having the players do completely absurd things, like being able to hit a tennis ball in such a way that the opponent's return always heads to the same spot on the field. For some readers the feats featured were way beyond the realm of suspension of disbelief, but for others it didn't really matter. You see, Konomi's art style was very stylistic, & his way of drawing the primarily male cast resulted in a very "bishonen/pretty boy" look, which resulted in the manga gaining a gigantic female fanbase. In fact, every Valentine's Day (almost), Konomi's studio receives chocolates from fans meant for their favorite characters. The manga would run until early 2008, lasting 42 volumes, & would receive a TV anime adaptation by Trans Arts that ran from 2001-2005 for 173 episodes, followed by numerous OVA continuation series by MSC & Production I.G. from 2003-2009. Konomi allegedly told the anime staff to do whatever they wanted, which resulted in a notorious "filler" scene where team captain Tezuka delivered a smash so powerful that it was equated to the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs; said scene made it look like "Tezuka killed the dinosaurs". A year after the manga's end, though, Konomi would debut a sequel, New Prince of Tennis, in Jump Square, revealing that the original manga was simply the "prologue" (which, I personally call B.S., because prologues don't last 42 volumes). That series is still running & received its own 13-episode TV anime adaptation in 2012. Finally, there were also various live-action movie adaptations & stage plays based on the original manga, as well.
The final notable manga to debut during the Dark Age was a perfect example of a talented artist having a disastrous start before achieving great success. Noriaki Kubo goes by the pen name Tite Kubo (pronounced "Taito Kubo"), & made his debut via one-shots in 1996. In mid-1999 Kubo made his serialized debut with ZombiePowder., the story of Gamma Akutabi, one of what the manga's world call "Powder Hunters", because they hunt for the titular zombie powder, which can supposedly grant immortality or even raise the dead. Utilizing a Weird West-esque world & relying very heavily on violent battles, Kubo tried hitting hard with his debut serialization, but after 27 chapters, & four volumes, it was cancelled in early 2000, resulting in a non-ending that hinted of more. Kubo admitted in the author's notes of the initial tankouban releases that he wound up experiencing a lot of emotional trauma while doing ZombiePowder., later elaborating that it was mainly due to him not being able to quickly adapt to the weekly grind & putting more attention towards what his editor was recommending, rather than using his editor's remarks to fine tune his story. Normally, a title like this wouldn't see inclusion in this massive overview, as numerous Jump manga experience short lives like this (some longer than four volumes, others as short as a single volume), but what ZombiePowder. had was a lot of potential to it. It was a manga created by someone who definitely had the potential to be a much bigger & successful manga creator, but was killed off mainly because said creator didn't know how to properly adapt to the life of working for a weekly magazine. Let's face it, many manga would run for slightly longer while having nowhere near as much potential to them. Tite Kubo would learn from his failure with ZombiePowder., though, and his follow-up would wind up becoming part of a new "Big 3" for Jump. That story, though, will have to wait for the next part.
I will admit that calling these three-ish years of Shonen Jump a "Dark Age" is a slight misnomer. While it was definitely a tough time following the end of the Golden Age in terms of the sheer drop off the cliff that the readership numbers suffered, it really says something that I was able to list 14 notable manga (plus the return-of-sorts of Bastard!!) that all debuted from 1996-1999, all of which either ran for a good length of time, are still running to this day, or (in the case of ZombiePowder.) showed great potential for what would debut in the next age. Still, considering that this only accounts for such a short amount of time, I can't in good conscience label it with an "Age of Man" title, like the two ages before it. It was still a Dark Age for Jump, but one that showcased a lot of cracks of light shining through; it just needed more to truly glisten. Backing these series up, however, were the final remnants of the Golden Age, which by the start of 1999 was down to just Hareluya II BØY, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Hell Teacher Nube, & Rurouni Kenshin (plus Kochikame, but that's a Bronze Age outlier, remember?). As this last year of the 90s went on, these last four Golden Age manga would come to their ends, in the order that I listed them (yes, JoJo technically did "end"; I'll cover it next time), & the issue that marked the end of Rurouni Kenshin also saw the debut of a manga that would help lead Shonen Jump into its next true age, one that, interestingly enough, can be argued lasted as long as that new manga.