As far as I could recall, I might as well started to read manga at the same time I’ve learned to read. Back when a single volume costs five times less than it is today, I could devour practically everything, whether it’s an action adventure series of a monkey-tailed boy, an episodic slice-of-life of a robot cat from the future helping a hapless fifth-grader, fluffy romance with cute art, and competitive series revolving around ballerinas, footballers, stage actresses, etc.
Obviously, this is a list of personal favorites, not an objective list aimed to edify someone on the medium’s most culturally and historically significant works. I’m not much of a manga historian, but I”m more than qualified to recommend and talk about things that I know I love! It leans a bit heavily toward seinen and shounen, but in general I don’t tend to discriminate based on genre or demography. If it’s good, it’s good. Alphabetic listing and shall be updated as I see fit.
ADOLF (Osamu Tezuka, 1983-1985, Seinen)
What’s a better way to start a manga list than with the God of Manga himself? I haven’t read as much Osamu Tezuka as I liked to, but this one is an easy choice as one of my favorites: a remarkable blend of Tezuka’s comedic signature with one of the most bleakest subject matter he’s ever tackled. It’s a supremely intriguing road trip adventure, doubling as a heart-wrenching interpersonal drama set against the increasingly horrific backdrop of World War II. Tezuka weaved the narrative yarn with consummate skills of a master storyteller, and in Adolf one can see how it influenced future political thriller manga, most notably Naoki Urasawa’s works.
BOKURANO (Mohiro Kitoh, 2003-2009, Seinen)
Forget Kill Em All Tomino or Gen Urobutcher, Mohiro Kitoh is the most ruthless and soul-crushing storyteller I’ve ever had the dubious pleasure to know. And yet, his Bokurano is hands down my favorite mecha series ever, an oppressing mix of melancholia and nihilism that re-defines how far a writer could make his characters suffer and push his readers to reach for their medications (or throw away the book in disgust/despair). What made it special is its unyielding yet deeply affecting reflection on impending mortality, as Kitoh relentlessly pushed the narrative stakes way beyond what we are accustomed to as readers of fictional media, while drawing the best (and worst) out of his unforgettable cast of child protagonists.
CROSS GAME (Mitsuru Adachi, 2005-2010, Shounen)
Mitsuru Adachi might keep re-using the same character and thematic templates across his different series, but those sure are damn fine templates. A master in blending slice-of-life, bildungsroman, and sports drama, this one is my representative pick of his works; I had to choose a baseball series because the sport is clearly Adachi’s #1 love, and Cross Game very narrowly edged out the 1980s classic Touch for being the most concise distillation of Adachi’s strengths and with the most well-rounded cast he’s ever made. People often recommended this as “the baseball manga for people who hate baseball/sports manga in general”, and for someone who adore baseball/sports manga like me, it’s simply heavenly.
DEATH NOTE (Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata, 2003-2006, Shounen)
The representative pop corn series in this list, and a great gateway to the “I know that you know that I know that you know what am I going to do” sub-genre. When I first heard about this series (a friend basically recapped the first manga volume to me a decade ago), my first thought was, “damn, that sounds so awesome”. That feeling hadn’t changed until after I’ve finished the series, despite an infamous weak stretch prompting many to claim that it should’ve stopped at certain point. Among all the psychological gymnastics, it offered numerous memorable set-pieces and characters, as well as surprising shades of grey and ruthless edge for what is ostensibly a shounen series.
DRAGON BALL (Akira Toriyama, 1984-1995, Shounen)
I don’t profess to be the biggest fan of everything Dragon Ball; I barely cared about the movies, didn’t follow the GT series at all (which seems like a wise decision from everything I’ve heard), and the original anime is the worst-paced thing I’ve ever seen. However, at one point I owned all 42 volumes of the original manga, and saying that ‘they entertained me’ would be a huge understatement. Forget all the memes and parodies, at its best it’s an addicting series with outstanding fight choreography, characters, and set-pieces. It may have evolved from its origin as a whimsical adventure story, for better or worse, but there’s a certain poetic beauty in seeing muscled men with ridiculous hairstyle blasting off each other and keep coming back from the dead.
FLOWERS OF EVIL (Shuzo Oshimi, 2009-2014, Shounen)
A wild hormone-fueled ride that kept heading into directions I didn’t expect, what’s particularly impressive about Shuzo Oshimi’s manga is how adept it is at conveying adolescence rage, confusion, and derangement—without relying much on explicit content, relatively speaking. I could read endless violence and nudity all day without batting an eyelash—it doesn’t take much skill to be a shock jock, after all—but Oshimi constantly unnerve me through more subtle means like facial expression, gesture, and lines of dialogue concealing overwhelming amount of genuine simmering tension. In addition to the impacting visual story-telling, a large part of FoE’s psychological strengths came from its unorthodox choice of female deuteragonist: an undecipherable box of mystery, a hormonal time bomb, and an irresistible force of nature to the pretentious main character and readers.
FREESIA (Jiro Matsumoto, 2003-2009, Seinen)
Transplanting the concept of legalized revenge killing from samurai era to its version of dystopic war-torn Japan, this is the kind of bleak and amoral seinen that has next to no chance of being adapted into regular anime series. In the first several pages, Jiro Matsumoto already graced us with a scene of the main character doing his girlfriend on top of his vegetative mother, and things only go downhill from there.Freesia really isn’t about crass shock value though: there’s top-notch development of a mad world and the characters unfortunate enough to be in it, peppered with exhilarating chase scenes. It’s also not short of a heart and sense of humor; they just happened to be jet black.
GENSHIKEN (Kio Shimoku, 2002-2006, Seinen)
I’ve never been a part of any significant fan club, let alone anime/manga one (junior high was the last time I have circle of friends that were really into these stuff), but Genshiken is still a deeply compelling and relatable series to me. Neither a condemnation or celebration of “otaku culture”, Genshiken is instead a grounded and intimate look at a bunch of friends who just happened to share a same interest. Perhaps more importantly, it exemplified the slice-of-life genre at its finest: a collection of outwardly insignificant events that effortlessly build up my emotional investment in these people as they plan their club activities, apply for a job, bottle up romantic longings, and above all, geeking out with the kind of friends that totally got what you’re talking about.
GLASS MASK (Suzue Miuchi, 1976-?, Shoujo)
There was a period in my childhood when my older sisters bought a lot of shoujo manga, and this (along with Kiyoko Ariyoshi’s ballet manga Swan) was my gateway to the sub-genre many mangaka are very fond of: a story where people go on a journey full of sweat, tears, and blood to pursue their goddamn passion. Yeah, it’s an art drama with usual doses of shoujo melodrama, and while there’s an extended hiatus on the tail end of the series (this series started in 1976 and still unfinished…), the bulk of it is so good that I universally recommended it to everyone—most especially people familiar with how joyful, nerve-wracking, and immensely rewarding the world of theater could be.
HIKARU NO GO (Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata, 1998-2003, Shounen)
Yes, yet another one of the “crazy kids with their passion” story. What can I say, I couldn’t get enough of them. This one sparked a massive increase of interest in the game of go during the mid-2000s, and I’d admit I learned and played a bunch of improvised games solely because of this series. There’s a supernatural element that might sounds out of place but in actuality was integrated much more deftly than one might assume, and a refreshing (if a bit odd) lack of romantic sub-plot to be found during the course of the story. Yet, this is an unmistakably love story through and through, just one between a bunch of kids and an obscure board game played with all those white and black pieces.
KIDS ON THE SLOPE (Yuki Kodama, 2007-2012, Josei)
My favorite romance manga, and it’s not because there’s anything particularly new or novel with it. Beyond the setting in Japan circa 1970s and the fact that the characters play some jazz music, it has the very familiar ingredients of romantic triangle(s), tragic family backstory, emotional baggage, and communication misunderstandings. Thing is, after years of consuming romantic media, I’ve grown to put much more stock on quality of execution and how well it draws emotional investment from me over surprising gimmick/concept that would end up wearing thin anyway, and Yuki Kodama absolutely nailed that aspect. There’s immaculate understanding on camaraderie forged by like-minded passion, romantic tension, and sense of longing, as well as overflowing sympathy toward the selfless characters, who keep hurting themselves mostly because they cared so much about the others.
KINDAICHI CASE FILES (Yozaburo Kanari, Seimaru Amagi, & Fumiya Sato, 1992-1997, Shounen)
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the classic Kindaichi series might be my favorite of all time. I eat up murder mystery series like a box of chocolates, and Kindaichi at its prime has everything I ever wanted from the genre: lengthy cases, strong tension and atmosphere, emotional and psychological depth, a likable detective with strong moral compass (even with occasional lapses into Shounen Protagonist antics), and most important of all, top-shelf whoddunit puzzles with healthy doses of red herrings and misdirection. Operating under the “fair play” rule, providing readers with significant visual cues that take great advantage from the medium it’s on, Kindaichi File Series is an immensely rewarding experience for those raring to exercise their little grey cells.
LONE WOLF AND CUB (Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, 1970-1976, Seinen)
I love me some samurai story, and in terms of manga it doesn’t get much better than this one. Kazuo Koike’s seminal work is significantly bolstered by the often breathtaking art of Goseki Kojima, emulating the experience of watching an actual jidaigeki or Akira Kurosawa movie in manga pages. Modern readers may blanch at the amount of unapologetic violence and nudity, as well an alarming level of parental negligence and nonsensical code of conduct as per today’s standards, but this is a work hellbent on creating a very specific kind of world almost exclusively populated by two kinds of people: those dying with honor, and those dying like a rat.
PLEASE SAVE MY EARTH (Saki Hiwatari, 1986-1994, Shoujo)
Describing PSME merely as a “story about reincarnated teenagers” isn’t wrong, but it’s a huge disservice to the series’ remarkable versatility and density. Don’t be fooled by the shoujo art and initial high school setting; PSME, among others, comprises elements of suspenseful mystery, complicated relationship drama, action sci-fi, and space drama. It shouldn’t have worked (or at least become convoluted as hell), but Hiwatari Saki somehow navigated through all these in elegant and consistently engaging manner, while also tackling numerous heavy (and inevitably controversial) themes along the way. Whether it’s showing a space orphan being babysit by a huge shades-sporting kitty, superpowered people throwing levitated bricks at each other, or a boy coming to terms with his past life’s romantic longing as a woman, PSME is a powerhouse in both thematic depth and entertainment value.
PLUTO (Naoki Urasawa, 2003-2009, Seinen)
Possibly the most compelling suspense manga-ka of his generation, Naoki Urasawa has impressed me with his epic stories of conspiracy rooted in childhood memories (20th Century Boys) and serial murderer hunt (Monster), but my love for AI/robot-centric story means that Pluto is my favorite work of his. A remake of the Greatest Robot in The World arc from Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Urasawa paid a worthy tribute to the master by extracting the plot, futuristic setting, and dark undercurrent of the iconic series and developing it into a grimdark crime drama that just happened to feature some fighting robots. And those robots, fantastically re-imagined by Urasawa from their whimsical original design, provided vital humane heart amidst the story’s grimy and oftentimes soul-crushing atmosphere.
SHOOT! (Tsukasa Ooshima, 1987-2003, Shounen)
Although I suck at actually playing it, football had been one of my childhood love, and this series was an important part of the experience/process. I discovered Shoot! earlier than the much more internationally renowned Captain Tsubasa (both series were popular in my football-loving country) and vastly preferred the former’s realism and grown-up feel. I was immediately sucked in not only by exhilarating match-by-match and tournament run depiction, but also by the great balance between good-natured comedy and chilling emotional moments. The sequels are inferior, unfortunately (with the final series annoyingly declined in art quality), but the original series remains one of the most fun and poignant sports drama I’ve ever read.
SOLANIN (Inio Asano, 2005-2006, Seinen)
The kind of work very deliberately designed as an anti-escapist, deeply personal, reflection. If you’re not particularly interested to relate with and relive intense bouts of quarter-life crisis, I really don’t recommend this—and Inio Asano in general, considering that’s kind of his thing. The bulk of Asano’s storytelling consisted of world-weary monologue and conversation from a bunch of young adults flailing around with their life, and there’s not as much plotting as there’s a collection of random events; minor ones that sometimes add up to form something intangible, and major ones that sneak up without warning. Solanin likes to evoke a sense of apparent ennui and really likes to remind us that things tend not to work out the way we wanted to, but it also has an extremely sentimental core, anchored by one of the most genuine protagonists I’d ever seen.
SYLPHID (Yukihisa Motojima, 1989-1996, Shounen)
Sylphid is an easy gateway recommendation for those wanting to read about horse racing, one of the most popular pastimes in Japan, by presenting a dramatically-charged underdog story of its eponymous hero—a handicapped horse already written off before he even got a chance to run—the people around him (especially the small farmboy who would grow into his lifelong partner on the racecourses), and the many other horses he’d grow a fierce rivalry against. It’s an instantly appealing hook, and the stakes in the electrifyingly depicted races is bolstered even further by the attention being paid to the whole rigorous process and various growing pains in rearing racehorse, which underlines how much of a financial and emotional investment the whole thing is.
YOUR HANDS ARE WHISPERING (1993-1994, Junko Karube, Josei)
Probably the most obscure pick in this list, this is a series featuring a deaf-mute adult woman that had also been adapted into a live drama. Chronicling the episodic life of one Mieko Takeda, it’s indeed a tear-jerker, but one that truly earns my emotional investment instead of actively demanding for it in manipulative manner. It doesn’t shoot for big tragic moments, instead preferring a grounded approach by focusing on significant daily tribulations faced by someone like Mieko, and always making it clear that while her physical handicap might be her most obvious feature, it’s never a defining one. Mieko herself is an awesome career woman, wife, mother, and human being; a genuinely inspiring problem-solver who embodies the warm human connection that the series is all about through her resilience and generosity.
Entries that were in my Favorite Anime List, because I’m either more familiar with/prefer the anime version. Jump into that list for my gushing on the following, while I noted general comparisons here.
- Astro Boy
No big deal, just the one manga that changed history. I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, and while some parts might not hold up well, it’s still a massively important piece of work.
Manga obviously has more narrative details, although overall Madhouse did an excellent job adapting, particularly in the sound department. Music’s great, and there’s a special kind of feel by actually listening to the poems being recited.
Classic 45-volume series, along with A BUNCH of spin-offs, although I believe most of it is largely unavailable to English-speaking audience.
- Ghost in The Shell
Each iteration of GiTS is basically self-contained stories within their own continuation that just happened to share the same characters and universe. I prefer the Stand Alone Complex tv series over any other version thus far, including Masamune Shirow’s original manga.
- Hunter X Hunter
Yoshihiro Togashi’s a damn fine story teller, but extended hiatuses throughout the series resulted in numerous stretches with jumbled narrative and rough art.
The rough character models (softened considerably in the anime) could be pretty hard on the eyes, but most importantly, the manga lacks Fumihiko Tachiki’s glorious booming voice as the Narrator. Worth noting that the anime adaptation only covered the first two arcs/series of the manga, though.
- Rurouni Kenshin
The manga’s final arc is missing from the anime, which have mostly inane filler material in its place (although not to the extent of something like Naruto or Dragon Ball Z), but I still prefer the latter largely due to its soundtrack.