While in North America there is a nerd culture largely dominated by Marvel and DC comics, Japan’s own otaku (nerd or geek) culture revolves around the enormous manga industry. Put simply: manga are Japanese comics or graphic novels, made in a unique style very different from Western ones. While comics are seen as geeky or childish in the West, manga is read by people of all ages and all backgrounds in Japan.
Like the television industry in the West, the manga industry in Japan is oversaturated with tens of thousands of titles to choose from. Some titles like One Piece and Naruto can become insanely popular and span hundreds of chapters, while others crash and burn. Due to the solid writing and some incredibly original ideas, the titles on this list have received great reception. Some of the titles on this list are new and emerging, while others have been available for a few years but are still churning out new chapters in 2019. To my mind — all are must-reads.
All titles on this list are available in both English and Japanese.
Helpful tip: when looking for any English manga, anime or other media on Amazon Japan or at retail stores, check for this kanji: 英語 (eigo) or “English language.”
1. Dr. Stone
Manga is known for its peculiar ability to bring obscure hobbies or topics into the mainstream. Yowamushi Pedal made the sport of cycling look cooler than David Beckham doing a bicycle kick. Hikaru No Go, made the ancient and confusing strategy board game of Go appealing to younger audiences. The incredibly popular Bakuman shined a spotlight on the painstaking and arduous life of a manga artist. Now, from Riichiro Inakagi, the writer of the incredibly popular American football manga series, Eyeshield 21, comes Dr.Stone, a manga where two high school boys use science to save the world.
After an unknown cataclysmic event, two high school boys, Senku and Taiju, wake up from a 1,000-year slumber to a world completely petrified in stone. The athletic Taiju and science-loving Senku must use chemistry to develop a potion that can cure people of their petrification. However, being plunged back into the stone age makes building shelter, finding food and making tools harder than they thought. In Dr. Stone, writer Inagakai crafts a story that has his two protagonists utilize the seemingly boring school subjects of human history and science to save the world.
- Genre: adventure, comedy, science fiction
- Volume one of Dr. Stone is available on Amazon Japan
2. Goblin Slayer
One of the best original fantasy manga released in a long time, Goblin Slayer is every massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) lover’s dream. Complete with magic, guild quests, boss battles and other classic fantasy RPG tropes, Goblin Slayer is action-packed, funny and has a surprisingly deep and mature story. It follows a man known only by his title, Goblin Slayer, and his quest to eradicate the world of said goblins. After witnessing his village and family get massacred by a goblin raiding party, he grows up to become a high-ranked adventurer who only accepts quests to eliminate goblins.
His solo adventuring routine gets interrupted when he saves a priestess from a goblin cave and she joins his party. It should be noted that Goblin Slayer is not for young readers — this manga features gory and brutal battle scenes, sexual references and other mature content.
- Genre: dark fantasy
- Volume one of Goblin Slayer is available on Amazon Japan
“…manga is read by people of all ages and all backgrounds in Japan”
3. Iris Zero
Imagine the X-Mansion — the mutant-filled boarding house of professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men comics — spread across the entire country and you can imagine the world of Iris Zero. A series that has flown under the radar for quite some time, Iris Zero has been in circulation since 2009 and is still running. Unfortunately, due to the illustrator’s medical issues, the series went on hiatus multiple times between 2012 and 2016.
In Iris Zero, 99 percent of children are born with a special ability known as “Iris.” From the ability to see visions to the ability to tell when people are lying, everyone’s Iris is unique.
The manga follows Toru, a high school student, who unfortunately belongs to the one percent of children who were born without an Iris. People without an Iris are known as Iris Zeroes and live through ridicule and bullying by their peers. To cope, Toru learned to stay in the shadows, avoid all human contact and worked on building his intellect to make up for his lack of special abilities. His life of seclusion comes to an end when the most popular girl in school asks to be his girlfriend out of the blue.
While most fantasy manga stories bestow characters with amazing powers and abilities, Iris Zero explores the pain and trauma that come with having those special capabilities. How does a child tell her mother that her father doesn’t love her anymore? How does a child live with the ability to see the imminent death of everyone around them? Iris Zero is funny, heartwarming and one of the most original manga I’ve read since Death Note.
- Genre: drama, fantasy, mystery, romance
- Volume one of Iris Zero is available on Amazon Japan
4. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime
From Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest and everything beyond and between, the slime character has become commonplace in the Japanese role playing video game (JRPG) genre. Normally, slimes in JRPGs are among the lowest level monsters in the game.
In That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, the writer who goes by the pen name “Fuse” completely reverses that trope. In TTIGRAAS, a run-of-the-mill, middle-aged salary man named Satoru dies after heroically saving his junior colleague from a stabbing. The aimless bachelor bleeds out in the middle of the street.
However, Satoru’s journey into the afterlife isn’t exactly what he thought it would be. Instead of waking up in heaven, hell or purgatory; Satoru wakes up in a video game-like fantasy world and finds himself reincarnated as a super-powered demon slime. That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is funny, original and an innovative manga for fantasy lovers looking for something a little different.
- Genre: fantasy
- Volume one of That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is available on Amazon Japan
5. The Promised Neverland
Making huge waves in the Japanese manga scene is action-fantasy series The Promised Neverland, a manga that explores the idea of a world where humans are cattle and at the bottom of the food chain. In The Promised Neverland, human children are raised by powerful demons ruling the land. The children are bred to become super intelligent because the demons believe that the smarter the human, the more delicious they would taste.
Whether it be Naruto’s dream to become the best ninja or Luffy’s dream to become king of the pirates in One Piece, many popular action manga focus on one character’s ambitions. In The Promised Neverland, however, the only goal is survival. The manga gained enough positive reception to spawn an anime sci-fi series of the same name that is well worth watching. The Promised Neverland is an action-packed, fast-paced, thought-provoking must-read for fans of action, fantasy or thriller manga.
- Genre: dark fantasy, science fiction, thriller
- Volume one of The Promised Neverland is available on Amazon Japan
These days, manga is still seen as a commercial and lower-class form of entertainment compared to, say, novels or poetry. While it’s true that stories like Dr.Stone and TTIGRAAS are sure to give you a few laughs, others — like Goblin Slayer and The Promised Neverland — are as thought-provoking and philosophical as any novel I’ve read, if not more. Is a goblin just a monster? Is it OK for us as humans to farm cattle solely because those animals have a lower intelligence level?
To me, art should make you ponder truth or doubt beliefs you once held. Some of the titles on this list will definitely accomplish that. With spring right around the corner, these page turning titles will be great to get absorbed in under the cherry blossom trees.
Do you have a favorite out of the manga on this list? Have some other titles of your own to recommend? Let us know in the comments below!