“Hanagami Sharaku,” a manga about an ukiyo-e woodblock print artist by Kei Ichinoseki, and Kiyohiko Azuma’s “Yotsuba&!” centered on a quirky 5-year-old girl shared the Manga Grand Prix at the 20th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize.

Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun Co., the prize honors "Astro Boy" creator Osamu Tezuka, who left an indelible mark on the nation's manga culture.

A panel of judges included manga artist Machiko Satonaka, manga reviewer Nobunaga Minami and Shohei Chujo, a professor of French literature at Gakushuin University.

Manga titles published or released in 2015 were eligible for the awards. For the top Manga Grand Prize, the judges each assigned a total of 15 points and no more than five to any one manga.

Seven titles, including six with the most points in the first selection round and one most highly recommended by bookstore staff and other experts, advanced to the final round of deliberations.

The awards ceremony will be held May 29 at the Yurakucho Asahi Hall in Tokyo. Each winner will be given a bronze statue and 1 million yen ($9,400).

ICHINOSEKI'S 'HANAGAMI SHARAKU'

“I think that what counts in storytelling is to bring an end to it, so I was bewildered to receive an award because the story is not finished yet,” Manga Grand Prix co-winner Ichinoseki said.

Born in Akita Prefecture, the author studied oil painting at the Tokyo University of the Arts. But she felt “something was not right,” and turned her interest to manga, which she had enjoyed from a young age.

She made her professional debut with “Ranpu no Shita” (Under the lamp), which won the Shogakukan Big Comic Award in 1975.

Following her previous work “Chabako Hiroshige,” also about an ukiyo-e artist, “Hanagami Sharaku” is set in a time of transition during the Edo Period (1603-1867) when the Kansei Reforms were about to start after Tanuma Okitsugu, a “roju” senior counselor of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was ousted.

Assuming that Ryukosai Jokei, a real-life ukiyo-e painter in the Kansai region, would later become known as the great ukiyo-e master Toshusai Sharaku, the richly woven drama unfolds involving Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro V and his children.

“Various theories have been presented to explain the true identity of Sharaku, but I chose the painter Jokei because I wanted to use my drawings to show how his works go through changes and develop into the completed form of Sharaku’s style,” Ichinoseki said.

The series ran irregularly in a comic anthology between 2001 and 2009, but Ichinoseki was forced to take a hiatus after the cartoon magazine suspended publication. When the series was published last year as a “tankobon” comic book volume added with new drawings, it caused a stir for being her “first new publication in a quarter-century.”

Fans of her exquisite drawing skills, in-depth research on historical background and brisk dialogue, as well as the emotionally rich portrait of Edo (present-day Tokyo), are tantalized by her output which is far from prolific.

“I’m picking up from where I left off, but there is still a long way ahead for me to get to the mystery of how Sharaku emerged and why he suddenly disappeared,” Ichinoseki said. “But I have already introduced key figures. I take the award as an encouragement for me to see it through until the end.”

AZUMA'S 'YOTSUBA&!'

“When I heard that I won the award, I felt more like ‘What should I do?’ rather than ‘I did it!” said Manga Grand Prix co-winner Azuma. “If I am a runner carrying a ‘baton of manga,’ Tezuka-sensei (Mr. Tezuka) is the first runner. He is special to me.”

Azuma was born in 1968 in Hyogo Prefecture. In his first manga series, “Azumanga Daioh,” the author portrays the humorous school lives of high school girls with diverse personalities. The comic series was adapted into an animated TV series.

Running in Kadokawa Corp.’s monthly Comic Dengeki Daioh manga anthology since 2003, “Yotsuba&!” follows the everyday life of a 5-year-old energetic girl named Yotsuba, a recent arrival in town with her father. Watching fireworks displays, riding her bicycle, making sweets, going camping and doing other everyday things, Yotsuba learns about the unknown world.

“I observe the children in my neighborhood and my friends’ kids to gather clues for my story, but there is no particular model,” Azuma said. “It feels like making a documentary about a girl named Yotsuba who was born inside me. All I have to do is take her to a certain place and she automatically goes into action.”

“Yotsuba&!” is an intriguing manga. It is a utopia where readers can find solace in her cuteness while it also depicts a child's everyday life in a realistic manner.

Time also passes slowly. The series currently spans 13 volumes, but only less than four months have elapsed in the story to date.

“The wraparound band of the first volume says, ‘Today is always the most fun day.’ I want to keep drawing the day-to-day life of children,” Azuma said. “I won’t stop until I’m convinced that I did everything I could with ‘Yotsuba&!”

ORIGINALITY PRIZE

The Originality Prize, given for fresh talent and novel mode of expression, went to Yuki Ando’s “The World of Machida-kun.”

There are many male characters who are unconventional in “shojo” manga (girls’ comics), but Machida, the protagonist of the manga, is offbeat in an entirely different manner.

As quiet as a cat and as straight as an arrow, Machida, a high school student with a lower-middle academic performance, is clumsy, low-key and wears glasses.

But he is kindhearted and a natural “people charmer” who is liked by everyone. He changes the world around him in a pleasing way, like a refreshing breeze. But Inohara, the heroine of the manga series, feels her heart skip a beat all for nothing every time Machida casually tells her things like, “You’re cute!”

Born in Osaka Prefecture, Ando made her professional debut in 2004. Currently spanning three volumes, “The World of Machida-kun” has been running in Shueisha Inc.’s monthly Bessatsu Margaret comic anthology since last year.

SHORT STORY PRIZE

The Short Story Prize went to Tatsuya Nakazaki for his “Jimihen.”

Running in Shogakukan Inc.’s Weekly Big Comic Spirits comic anthology from 1989 to 2015, the manga provided fans with “jimi” (plain) and “hen” (weird) laughter.

In one episode, a space alien and his human girlfriend are troubled by whether they should move in with his parents after they marry. In another, a pimp only recommends women in complicated situations to his customer.

Nakazaki was born in Ehime Prefecture in 1955 and started his manga career in 1978.

His quest to turn populist topics such as food, gambling and sex into laughter with offbeat twists eventually led him to foster a religious awareness. Living with as few possessions as possible, the author burned his manuscripts after they were published and stopped drawing as soon as he ended the series.

ASAHI SPECIAL PRIZE

The Asahi Special Prize, which was determined by The Asahi Shimbun based on the panel's recommendations, went to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which presents manga culture from a broad perspective.

The facility, co-founded by Kyoto Seika University, which is known for its Faculty of Manga, and the Kyoto city government, is celebrating its 10th anniversary in November.

The museum is housed in a building formerly used as an elementary school, and local residents also participate in the management.

It functions as a museum that organizes exhibitions and conducts research, and also as a library.

Some 50,000 comic books and related publications from the institution’s 300,000-strong collection line the bookshelves, which take up 200 meters and are called “The Wall of Manga.” Visitors can read them inside the museum and on the lawn outside the facility.

The museum attracted 300,000 visitors last year. Of them, a little less than 50,000 were non-Japanese, setting a record.