The world of Japanese manga is just as deep and exciting as anime, with a wealth of various genres to tackle. Today, we’ve decided to list what we believe are the 10 most essential manga to read, whether you’re a beginner or not. From the dark fantasy of Berserk and the high-octane action of One Piece to the strange antics of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, here’s the must-read selection.
While in most cases, the list would be out of order, we’ve decided to rank them according to certain criteria: influence, acclaim and generally what we consider to be the best that manga has to offer. First, our honourable mentions include Great Teacher Onizuka, Gintama, Dragon Ball, Attack on Titan and Chainsaw Man.
10 Essential Manga That You Need to Read
10. Vinland Saga
Vinland Saga might’ve exploded into popularity thanks to the excellent 2017 anime adaptation from Wit Studio, but the manga has a longer history in the industry. Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura began serialisation in 2005, starting off in Weekly Shonen Magazine before moving to Monthly Afternoon.
Largely inspired by Norse history, the story follows Thorfinn, the son of one of Vikings’ greatest warriors, on a path of revenge to slay the man that killed his father. Thanks to a terrific plot and great character depth, Vinland Saga rises above expectations and delivers a breathtaking Viking epic with plenty of dramatic heft.
9. Fullmetal Alchemist
Fullmetal Alchemist probably needs no introduction. The iconic manga by Hiromu Arakawa went on to spawn two hugely successful anime adaptations, and depending on who you ask, remains a highly influential piece of media – especially for the shounen genre. Following the release of the re-adapted 2009 anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood which more faithfully captures the manga, the series has become a household name.
The story follows brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric who, after a failed attempt to resurrect their dead mother through dangerous forbidden alchemy, set off on a journey several years later to reclaim Edward’s missing limbs and Alphonse’s entire body. It ticks all the boxes for an exciting shounen adventure, but more importantly, manages to bring plenty of heart to its extraordinary events.
8. 20th Century Boys
If detective manga with hints of science fiction and mystery is your thing, you need to read 20th Century Boys. Naoki Urasawa’s gripping psychological drama pits a group of young friends against a mysterious cult with the aim to dominate and change the world.
Masterfully balancing innocent adolescent adventure with intense psychological thrills, 20th Century Boys holds back no punches. The plot takes several twists and turns as it throws readers for a loop, delivering nail-biting moments per chapter leading to an unexpectedly terrific climax. It maintains a whimsical charm, for the most part, before pulling the rug from beneath your feet.
Next to Berserk, manga enthusiasts might hold Vagabond in equally high regard – and for a good reason. This action-packed samurai tale from Takehiko Inoue and Eiji Yoshikawa is mostly regarded as one of the greatest manga of all time. Apart from strikingly detailed art, the faithfulness to historical themes, locations and practices make it a must-read for any history buff.
Vagabond is a retelling of one of Japan’s most renowned swordsmen, the “Sword Saint” Musashi Miyamoto. Thanks to great character growth and development, Miyamoto’s journey from a determined, flawed swordsman to a sympathetic hero is a tale as old as time, and one that absolutely needs to be read.
Akira might better be known for its iconic 1988 anime movie adaptation, but the manga by Katsuhiro Otomo goes several layers deeper, somehow. The anime is actually more condensed than you think, as the manga explores greater themes beyond the confines of a 2-hour movie.
Set in the distant dystopian future (by distant, we mean 2019), Akira follows the events of a cataclysmic explosion that completely wipes out Tokyo. 30 years later, the newly rebuilt Neo-Tokyo sets the stage for an epic tale about futuristic biker gangs, politics, superpowers and secret government experiments. The manga might be a hard pill to swallow at times, but it’s essential reading nonetheless.
5. Death Note
Death Note is another series that really needs no introduction. Takeshi Obata and Tsugumi Ohba’s incredible supernatural/psychological thriller is perhaps one of the most famous Japanese works ever released to international audiences, being adapted into a fantastic anime and several live-action films.
The story follows high school student Light Yagami who comes across a death note that allows him to kill anyone whose name is written in it. Teaming up with the book’s former wielder, a shinigami (death god) named Ryuk, Light sets out on a mission to cleanse the world of corruption. Meanwhile, a mysterious detective named L is hot on his trail. Just as impactful as the anime, the manga delivers an unpredictable whirlwind of thrills, twists and turns per chapter.
On the topic of psychological thriller, Naoki Urasawa’s second classic manga hit next to 20th Century Boys is Monster. Like Vagabond, Monster is held in very high regard in the manga community. Known for its page-turning twists and intensity, Monster isn’t easy reading but it earns its place among the greats.
The plot follows renowned neurosurgeon Kenzou Tenma as he is left with the difficult choice of saving an orphaned boy named Johan Liebert or the mayor. Tenma chooses to save Johan, leaving the mayor dead. Several years later, his ghosts come back to haunt him as a series of gruesome murders take place that is linked to Johan, the very same boy that he once saved. If that synopsis doesn’t immediately grab your attention, then nothing will.
3. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Author Hirohiko Araki’s multi-generational story of the Joestar family’s lineage and their clashes with the vampiric villain Dio Brando is iconic in its own right, but the manga is well worth the read, even if you’re already knee-deep in the excellent 2010s anime adaptation by David Production.
Araki’s manga is just as meticulous and detailed as its anime counterpart and to top it all off, it’s in glorious colour too. There really wouldn’t be any other way to experience the sheer insanity of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, which combines elements of shounen with Araki’s signature touches including dark, perfectly timed humour and outlandish concepts that are etched in pop culture history at this point.
2. One Piece
The undisputed king of shounen, One Piece‘s long history in the manga is just as impactful today as it was when it first began over 20 years ago. Creator Eiichiro Oda’s sea-faring adventure series became so popular, that it overtook lifetime sales for comics like Batman, inching its way closer to surpassing Superman’s overall sales in just a third of its life.
One Piece follows Monkey D. Luffy, a young pirate who aspires to become king of the pirates by finding the mysterious hidden treasure called One Piece. In a dangerous world of monsters, devil fruits that grant supernatural abilities and politics, One Piece manages to keep its whimsical charm and sense of adventure throughout several major arcs, villains, world-changing events and more. It’s not easy to recommend the 1000+ chapter epic, but I cannot stress this enough: you won’t regret it.
Berserk by the late Kentaro Miura remains one of the most influential pieces of media ever conceived. The dark fantasy epic has been cited as direct inspiration for From Software’s numerous games, from Elden Ring and Dark Souls to Bloodborne. Its influence also reaches other IPs such as Final Fantasy, Nier, Attack on Titan, Devil May Cry and more.
The story follows the Black Swordsman, Guts, as he journeys across a perilous, demon-infested world on a quest for revenge. As unflinchingly brutal as it is emotionally devastating, Berserk left a profound impact on fans and pop culture at large. Because of its far-reaching influence, Berserk is cited as the greatest manga of all time – a title many would agree is uncontested. Though it will forever be unfinished following Miura’s passing, what has been left behind is the stuff of legend.