One of the most overlooked genres in manga is Henshin or transformation manga. It’s because it overlaps with the most common ones like shounen or shoujo, and often henshin is just one aspect or element of the story that gets forgotten as the story progresses. (Imagine seeing Sailor Moon’s transformation the first time and how annoying it got as the story progressed.) Here, we’ve compiled some of the best henshin manga titles to get you started on the genre.
11. Kamen Rider (Shotaro Ishinomori, 1972)
Don’t let the release period fool you; that was just for the initial release. What followed was decades of manga, anime, and many other spin-offs, cementing Kamen Rider as the progenitor of the henshin genre.
Now for the story: the world is plagued by a mysterious global terrorist known as Shocker, formed by the remnants of the Nazis. In a shock to no one, they’ve perfected a method of turning humans into mutant cyborgs through extensive body modification and brainwashing. One of those human experiments, Takeshi Hongo, escaped just before he was fully brainwashed, and he vowed to fight the evil organization with all the enhancements he received.
He donned the famous grasshopper-themed costume, rode high-tech motorcycles, and was armed with different futuristic weapons. From where he got all these, we won’t know. On why he chose the grasshopper as the theme for his costume, we’d definitely like to know, but we’d probably never understood why. Still, Kamen Rider was a true trailblazer not only for manga or anime but for superhero culture in general. This anime was a commercial success, not only for print and TV but also for various merchandise.
You can the complete 4-volume original run in a special hardcover, 50th anniversary edition on Amazon here (To be released on December 14, 2021): Kamen Rider – The Classic Manga Collection
10. Sailor Moon (Naoko Takeuchi, 1991 – 1997)
One of the most well-known titles of the Henshin or transformation genre is Sailor Moon. It is one of the earliest magical girl series, introducing many readers to the duality of seemingly ordinary characters who transform as heroes when the need arises. Here, we see schoolgirl Usagi getting the powers of the moon (and the Moon Kingdom, apparently) to fight the forces of evil and keep them from invading Earth.
Fighting evil while keeping your identity a secret? It’s a tall order, especially for a young teenage girl. But, when she dons her costume, she also pulls a Clark Kent/Superman and doesn’t seem to get recognized even when she’s technically just wearing fancier clothes. But that’s the beauty of the Henshin manga, as we bear witness to these not-so-drastic transformations and we’re still convinced that the main character is a totally different person.
Oh, and the titular Sailor Moon isn’t the only one fighting evil. She has a cadre of magical “sailor” girls to help her and add a bit of color to the story.
You can check out a new and improved edition of the first volume here on Amazon: Sailor Moon 1
9. Himitsu Sentai Gorenger (Shotaro Ishinomori, 1975)
It’s no surprise that the brain behind Kamen Rider also created the grandfather of all the “Rangers” hero series, Himitsu Sentai Gorenger. Unfortunately, this is only one of the few Super Sentai series with a manga adaptation alongside its live-action release. However, it blazed a new genre, which can be seen by the continuously growing list of Power Rangers iterations in the West.
Storywise, it’s pretty generic: a terrorist group called the Black Cross Army is wreaking havoc worldwide. As a response, EAGLE or the Earth Guard League is formed to fight them. In an ambush, all but five EAGLE agents were left, but they were then summoned to an underground lair and given battlesuits that greatly boost their fighting power.
Considering this is the first of many stories like these, it’s pretty impressive how this formulaic storytelling still works to this day. All they do is change the name of the team, the colors, the theme, and maybe add a backstory for the lead characters, but the main story is still based on Gorengers.
You can find this title on Amazon here: SUPER SENTAI: Himitsu Sentai Gorenger – The Classic Manga Collection
8. Chojin Sentai Jetman: Toki o Kakete (Akiko Fujii, 1996)
Another Super Sentai series with a rare manga adaptation is Chojin Sentai Jetman. While the live-action series followed the Gorenjer story formula, the manga adaptation is set five years after the main story.
Here, we see the four remaining Jetmen reuniting to battle an old nemesis, revived (no surprise there) to torment the protagonists. The plot is a little more convoluted and dark, with the villain kidnapping the one-year-old daughter of a Jetman couple. She’s brainwashed and growth-accelerated to serve as the villain’s own daughter. It was a short but meaningful series, giving us a glimpse of how a five-member super team works to fight evil forces, this time in manga format.
Unfortunately, getting a hardcopy version of this manga is very difficult. You can find it on Amazon, but is the Japanese edition and comes at a hefty price. You can see it here: Chojin Sentai Jetman – and taking the time (Media comix) (1996) [Japanese Import]
7. Bleach (Tite Kubo, 2001- 2016)
Bleach is one of the most memorable modern manga titles, alongside Naruto and One Piece. It ran for a decade and a half and had a decent conclusion when the manga ended. It can easily be slotted in many “best” lists, including this one, the Henshin genre. At its core, Bleach is an action-adventure like many shounen (manga geared towards young male readers) titles.
However, with Ichigo’s human form and his powered-up shinigami form, he’s technically a henshin hero. He may not look different aside from the clothes or armor, but he has indeed transformed when he uses his powers. And that’s not all. With the many arcs that Bleach had, we also see Ichigo change from his base shinigami form to his “bankai” and his multiple “hollow” forms.
And each time he transforms, he gains a considerable jump in power, which defines the manga’s character progression. Every time Ichigo meets a force more powerful than him, his only way to defeat that character is by transforming into someone or something more powerful.
Check out the special 3-in-1 edition (Volumes 1, 2, & 3) on Amazon: Bleach (3-in-1 Edition), Vol. 1: Includes vols. 1, 2 & 3
You can also a huge box set of volumes 1-21 on Amazon here: Bleach Box Set 1: Volumes 1-21 Paperback
6. Kill la Kill (Ryo Akizuki, 2013 – 2015)
A manga adaptation of a widely popular anime series, Kill la Kill tells a story of vengeance. Ryuko Matoi, the main character, is a student in search of her father’s killer. Her search leads her to Honnōji Academy because the top student and the student council president is her main suspect.
The plot may seem ordinary and uninspiring: to challenge the top dog, you need to get rid of those at the bottom first and rise to the top yourself. But what sets this title apart is that each student, including the main character, is powered up and geared to fight. They all wear Goku uniforms, a seemingly normal, albeit flashy set of clothes that give them unique powers and amplify their physical skills.
Ryuko, wearing a unique uniform, literally transforms when she powers up. Her transformation significantly boosts her activity, but her stamina also gets drained with such powerful gear. It’s up to her to learn how to use her gear to the fullest and achieve her goals of shaking the school’s power structure, and hopefully learn the identity of her father’s killer.
You can get a 3 volume set on Amazon, but it’s the Japanese version. Check it out here: キルラキルコミック 1-3巻セット (Kill la Kill Volumes 1-3)
Or you can get the Kindle version of volume 1 on Amazon.
5. Akazukin Chacha (Min Ayahana, 1991 – 2000)
The 90s brought life to many henshin manga titles. One of them is Akazukin Chacha. This story is about a young girl, Chacha, who’s an apprentice of sorts of the world’s greatest magician. She lives with her master, Seravy, in a cottage on Mochi-mochi Mountain.
As a young magician, she’s very clumsy and playful, and often gets confused with her spells. She’s friends with a boy who lives on the same mountain and another magician apprentice in a town a bit farther away.
And since this is a “best of” list for the Henshin genre, you can expect that these characters are capable of transforming into something or someone. Well, in fact, they all do. Chacha is a magical girl who can transform into an adult form known as the Magical Princess. She’s powered up but fights using weapons instead of spells.
Her friend from the mountains is a werewolf, so yep, he definitely transforms. And lastly, her friend who’s not from the mountains is also skilled in transformation: she can turn into common household items or anything useful when fighting evil enemies.
If you can read Japanese, you can get the 9-volume set on Amazon (Japanese edition): Little Red Riding Hood Chacha all 9 volume set (Shueisha Paperback – comic version) (2012) [Japanese Import]
4. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (Masaki Tsuzuki, 2013 – 2016)
This story introduces us to Nanoha Takamachi, a young girl still in elementary school. She lives an everyday, mundane life with her parents and older siblings until she rescues an injured ferret.
This creature is a mage named Yuno, who’s an archaeologist of sorts from Midchilda, an alternate world that’s quite different from ours. His job took him to Earth to collect a set of 21 dangerous ancient artifacts now scattered everywhere. Known as Jewel Seeds, they give powers to those who contact them, often transforming them into crazed monsters.
Now in his weakened ferret form, Yuno can only rely on Nanoha to help collect these artifacts. With the help of a magical wand, Nanoha transforms into the titular magical girl. Her strong aptitude for magic allows her to fight and overwhelm the monsters and successfully collect most of the jewels.
This is another difficult title to get a hardcopy of, but you can get the Japanese edition on Amazon here: ORIGINAL CHRONICLE魔法少女リリカルなのはThe 1st 1(Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The 1st Volume 1)
3. Shugo Chara! (Peach-Pit, 2005 – 2010)
Here, we meet protagonist Amu Hinamori, a female student whose classmates look up to her because of her cool attitude and appearance. In reality, she’s really shy and often is troubled by her inability to show her true self.
One day, she received three eggs that hatch into guardians, known as the titular Shugo Chara or guardian characters. She can use these to character transform, taking the guardians’ personality, appearance, and special powers.
She’s roped into finding and fighting corrupted guardian characters, as well as an evil organization (shocking!) who are looking to profit from stealing other people’s guardian eggs.
Check out Volume 1 on Amazon: Shugo Chara 1
2. Wedding Peach (Sukehiro Tomita, 1994 – 1996)
What’s great about the Henshin genre is that transformations are not confined to what you think is normal. Kamen Rider is grasshopper-themed, after all. The same goes for Wedding Peach, a magical girl series whose main protagonist has a unique transformation motif: a wedding (bride). It is basically every 90’s delusional teenager’s dream combination: magical girl transformation and wearing a bridal gown.
Now to the story: we meet Momoko, a high school student with aspirations of getting married in a beautiful dress someday, but is dealing with harsh realities like bad grades and after-school work. She gets her dream somewhat when she awakens as Wedding Peach, a “love angel” that battles against devils and other forces of evil.
Later on, she’s joined by her two best friends, who also learn that they’re love angels, and with their powers combined, they will do their best to protect the people against the devils and other evildoers.
You can get the first volume here on Amazon: Wedding Peach, Vol. 1 (Wedding Peach Series)
1. Gleipnir (Sun Takeda, 2015 – Present)
Getting a toothache from all the sweet magical girls on this list? Well, here’s some good ol’ violence to wash it off. Gleipnir is not your typical henshin manga, as it will break your expectations for your typical protagonist.
You see, this is set in a world where people can exchange “coins” scattered by a crashed alien craft and wish for anything, including superhuman powers. However, the main protagonist didn’t make any wishes or even find any of those coins. Someone else wished “something” for him, so when he was pushed into a corner because of his powerlessness, he suddenly transformed into a gun-toting dog-like costume.
Yup, he’s a scary mascot of sorts, complete with a zipper at the back, which then unzips so someone else can wear him for a power-up and a mind-meld of sorts. It is messed up in a good way, especially with the story behind his transformation.
You can get volume 1 of Gleipnir on Amazon here: Gleipnir 1
Need more? Also, check out these other titles that are still worthy of your attention.
1. Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Magica Quartet, 2011)
A manga adaptation of the dark magical girl series, we were gifted with a rare glimpse of how hard life is for a magical girl. It is hard work, and many people you know will get hurt or die.
The transformation, literal and figurative, of the titular character Madoka, is fun at first. However, near the end of the series, you get to sympathize with her and all the other magical girls in this story world.
You can buy the Complete Omnibus Edition on Amazon: Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Complete Omnibus Edition
2. Saint Seiya (Masami Kurumada 1986 – 1990)
Here, we see the evolution of the orphan Seiya as he obtains the Bronze Cloth of the Pegasus constellation. The “cloths” are armors worn by the Greek goddess Athena’s warriors, who are also called Saints, thus the title. With this power, he goes on a journey to find his missing sister, join a tournament, fight other saints, and more.
Missing a manga title that you feel should be part of this list? Start the discussion in the comments, and we’d like to hear your input!
Check out the first volume of this series on Amazon here: Knights of the Zodiac (Saint Seiya), Vol. 1: The Knights Of Athena