Last week I received a message from someone new to manga asking for recommendations, so I wanted to share my selection for anyone else interested and looking for a place to start! I grew up on manga—Fruits Basket, Rurouni Kenshin, and Death Note were my introductions to the vast world of Japanese illustrated storytelling. I spent the summers of my childhood in the library, where I had countless manga at my fingertips, and I still read manga to this day (though they tend to be far darker now). In this list, I’ll share both perennial classics and modern best sellers, with a variety of genres for you to explore! But first…
What is manga?
Manga are comics or graphic novels from Japan. They’re typically printed in black and white and serialized in manga magazines before the chapters are collected and printed into individual volumes. Just like fiction books, manga have a wide array of genres and specified content to reach certain target demographics. The ones you see most often might be:
Shonen: Aimed at YA boys, oftentimes featuring a young male protagonist with plenty of action and adventure, and an emphasis on friendship or found family. Think of YA fantasy like the Percy Jackson series. Examples – Naruto, My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Z.
Shojo: Aimed at YA girls, usually with a female lead and themes of romance, friendship, and self-discovery. Think of YA romance like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Examples: Fruits Basket, Nana, Kaichou wa Maid-Sama.
Seinen: Targets a more mature audience, may be graphic or violent in nature with heavier themes (i.e. psychological). Examples – One Punch Man, Berserk, Tokyo Ghoul.
If you like romance:
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takay
I have to start the list with the beloved Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya, the very first manga I read when I was young and a romance classic!
A family with an ancient curse…and the girl who will change their lives forever…
Tohru Honda was an orphan with no place to go until the mysterious Sohma family offered her a place to call home. Now her ordinary high school life is turned upside down as she’s introduced to the Sohma’s world of magical curses and family secrets.
Why you should read it:
- Slice of life + romcom.
- The most lovable cast of characters.
- The Sohma family carry a zodiac curse that makes them turn into respective animal when they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex or stressed.
- Comedic relief while exploring themes of abuse and emotional hardship. Hidden depths in the plot line–ultimately a heartfelt story.
- Sunshine heroine + (initially) grumpy hero.
Horimiya by HERO, Daisuke Hagiwara
Although admired at school for her amiability and academic prowess, high school student Kyouko Hori has been hiding another side of her. With her parents often away from home due to work, Hori has to look after her younger brother and do the housework, leaving no chance to socialize away from school.
Meanwhile, Izumi Miyamura is seen as a brooding, glasses-wearing otaku. However, in reality, he is a gentle person inept at studying. By sheer chance, Hori and Miyamura cross paths outside of school—neither looking as the other expects. These seemingly polar opposites become friends, sharing with each other a side they have never shown to anyone else.
- High school romcom.
- Lighthearted and full of fluff.
- Opposites attract: strong-willed, outgoing heroine with a shy/reserved hero.
- Fast developing romance.
- Prominent side characters with their own stories.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for an Otaku by Fujita
Narumi and Hirotaka are, by all appearances, a power couple. They’re young, good-looking professionals. But they have secrets from everyone but each other: They’re serious geeks! Narumi is a fujoshi, and Hirotaka’s a hardcore gamer. The awkward, romantic comedy manga about geeks in love that inspired the new anime!
- Office romcom + slice of life.
- Childhood friends to lovers.
- Geek culture (gaming, otaku: more specifically, rpg games and cosplaying).
- Relatable characters!
- All around feel-good story.
- Secondary romance is just as cute.
If you like sports:
Haikyuu!! by Haruichi Furudate
The whistle blows. The ball is up. A dig. A set. A spike.
The “Little Giant,” standing at only 170 cm, overcomes the towering net and the wall of blockers. The awe-inspired Shouyou Hinata looks on at the ace’s crow-like figure. Determined to reach great heights like the Little Giant, small-statured Hinata finally manages to form a team in his last year of junior high school, and enters his first volleyball tournament. However, his team is utterly defeated in their first game against the powerhouse school Kitagawa Daiichi, led by the genius, but oppressive setter dubbed the “King of the Court,” Tobio Kageyama.
Hinata enrolls into Karasuno High School seeking to take revenge against Kageyama in an official high school match and to follow in the Little Giant’s footsteps—but his plans are ruined when he opens the gymnasium door to find Kageyama as one of his teammates.
Now, Hinata must establish himself on the team and work alongside the problematic Kageyama to overcome his shortcomings and to fulfill his dream of making it to the top of the high school volleyball world.
- Sports + comedy + coming of age.
- Wholesome friendships and rivalries.
- An amazing cast of characters to cheer for and a wide variety of personalities to pick your favorite! Mine is Ushijima.
- Plenty of moments that made me laugh and also moments that pulled at my heartstrings.
- Uplifting and motivating!
If you like action:
Jujustu Kaisen by Gege Akutami
Hidden in plain sight, an age-old conflict rages on. Supernatural monsters known as “Curses” terrorize humanity from the shadows, and powerful humans known as “Jujutsu” sorcerers use mystical arts to exterminate them. When high school student Yuuji Itadori finds a dried-up finger of the legendary Curse Sukuna Ryoumen, he suddenly finds himself joining this bloody conflict.
Attacked by a Curse attracted to the finger’s power, Yuuji makes a reckless decision to protect himself, gaining the power to combat Curses in the process but also unwittingly unleashing the malicious Sukuna into the world once more. Though Yuuji can control and confine Sukuna to his own body, the Jujutsu world classifies Yuuji as a dangerous, high-level Curse who must be exterminated.
- My absolute favorite shonen manga (and anime) this year.
- Dark contemporary fantasy.
- Female shonen characters done right!
- Has me in an emotional chokehold
- Subverts some shonen norms of the older big 3.
Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto
Denji was a small-time devil hunter just trying to survive in a harsh world. After being killed on a job, he is revived by his pet devil-dog Pochita and becomes something new and dangerous. He’s a simple man with simple dreams, drowning under a mountain of debt. But his sad life gets turned upside down one day when he’s betrayed by someone he trusts. Now with the power of a devil inside him, Denji’s become a whole new man—Chainsaw Man!
- Dark comedy + horror.
- When I say dark I mean very dark—this manga is brutal.
- Initially absurd but there’s a much deeper plot.
- The most jaw-dropping plot twist in recent memory.
- Warning for gore and body horror.
Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata
Ryuk, a god of death, drops his Death Note into the human world for personal pleasure. In Japan, prodigious high school student Light Yagami stumbles upon it. Inside the notebook, he finds a chilling message: those whose names are written in it shall die. Its nonsensical nature amuses Light; but when he tests its power by writing the name of a criminal in it, they suddenly meet their demise.
Realizing the Death Note’s vast potential, Light commences a series of nefarious murders under the pseudonym “Kira,” vowing to cleanse the world of corrupt individuals and create a perfect society where crime ceases to exist. However, the police quickly catch on, and they enlist the help of L—a mastermind detective—to uncover the culprit.
- One of the first manga I read that got me into the medium.
- Brilliant plot and execution.
- Imagine two of the smartest people in the world trying to outsmart each other.
- Epic battle of wits with the highest stakes (literally their lives).
- Just *chef’s kiss*.
If you like comedy:
Spy X Family by Tatsuya Endo
For the agent known as “Twilight,” no order is too tall if it is for the sake of peace. Operating as Westalis’ master spy, Twilight works tirelessly to prevent extremists from sparking a war with neighboring country Ostania. For his latest mission, he must investigate Ostanian politician Donovan Desmond by infiltrating his son’s school: the prestigious Eden Academy. Thus, the agent faces the most difficult task of his career: get married, have a child, and play family.
Twilight quickly adopts the unassuming orphan Anya to play the role of a six-year-old daughter and prospective Eden Academy student. For a wife, he comes across Yor Briar, an absent-minded office worker who needs a pretend partner of her own to impress her friends. However, he is not the only one with a hidden nature. Yor moonlights as the lethal assassin “Thorn Princess.” For her, marrying Loid creates the perfect cover. Meanwhile, Anya is not the ordinary girl she appears to be; she is an esper, the product of secret experiments that allow her to read minds. Although she uncovers their true identities, Anya is thrilled that her new parents are cool secret agents! She would never tell them, of course. That would ruin the fun.
- A spy + an assassin + a telepath = the perfect combination of action and comedy.
- Wholesome and HILARIOUS. No manga makes me laugh as much as this one does.
- Immediate pick-me-upper. Feeling down? Read this!
- Marriage of convenience + found family.
- Mr & Mrs Smith-vibes but way more fun and exciting.
- My favorite manga in 2020! A pure delight.
The Way of the Househusband by Kousuke Oono
“Immortal Tatsu,” the legendary yakuza who single-handedly defeated a rival gang with a lead pipe, is a name known to strike fear in both hardened police officers and vicious criminals. Soon after his sudden disappearance, he resurfaces with a slight change in profession. Now equipped with an apron, Tatsu has given up violence and is trying to make an honest living as a house husband.
While adapting to mundane household tasks, Tatsu finds that being a house husband has its own challenges, from the battlefield known as supermarket sales to failures in the kitchen. Despite living peacefully, misunderstandings seem to follow him left and right. The Way of the Househusband follows the daily life of the comically serious ex-yakuza as he leaves behind his dangerous previous life to become a stay-at-home husband.
- Episodic comedy + slice of life.
- Will actually make you laugh out loud.
- Dismantles gender roles.
- Strangely endearing (he’s a domesticated ex-gangster being a house husband and all).
- There’s now a Netflix live-adaption and an anime!
If you like fairy tales:
The Girl from the Other Side by Nagabe
Long ago, there was a god of light and a god of darkness. While those devoted to the god of light experienced happiness and good fortune, the god of darkness would play tricks on the people and steal their joy. And so, as the legend goes, the god of light decided to punish him by turning him into a monster. Enraged by this, the god of darkness wielded his punishment as a curse in order to inflict suffering upon others. Because of his actions, he was banished to the Outside, where he and his monstrous children are to remain for eternity, while those from the Inside must never come in contact with someone from the Outside, lest they be cursed with a hideous form.
A little girl named Shiva, an Insider, is found by an Outsider she comes to know as Sensei. Though they cannot touch, Sensei cares for Shiva as best he can, and together they live a moderately happy life. But soon, Shiva not only finds herself in danger from the Outside, but from her own kind as well.
- Dark fairy tale vibes: a young human and her guardian monster.
- Whimsical, ethereal fantasy.
- An immersive work of art.
If you’re looking for something specific (tropes, themes, etc.), let me know! I’d be happy to give more recommendations tailored to your reading preferences.