Life has a way of keeping us busy. Between trying to pay the bills and making it through the day, it can be hard finding time to spend on your hobbies. LifeMany people have their first encounter with manga in their youth. I’ve often found myself wondering what’s good to read, but I don’t always have time to browse for new titles.
It doesn’t help that both the manga and anime industries have expanded in the past ten years. There’s substantially more content available now, which makes the process of finding something new more time-consuming.
I’ve also gotten pickier as I’ve aged. As a woman in her 20s, I think I’m too old to have the same level of enjoyment from manga that uses heavy tropes. Shounen and shoujo manga, in particular, tend to feel repetitive. More than one love interest? Who will she choose? The protagonist strives to be the best? How many power-ups will he get before the series ends?
That said though, there are plenty of manga now that defy, parody, and challenge these clichés. I’ll be recommending some of my personal favorites in addition to some that are loved universally.
1. Totsukuni no Shoujo (the Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún) by Nagabe
“Totsukuni no Shoujo” (とつくにの少女)focuses on a young girl named Shiva. She befriends a cursed beast, who has somehow managed to retain his sentience and dubs him Sensei. They cannot have physical contact; otherwise, the curse may spread to Shiva. The two live simple lives until forces from both the Outside and Inside lead Sensei to question what he knows to be true.
Despite Nagabe’s playful artwork, the story gets darker as it progresses. “Totsukuni” shouldn’t be considered a light read. Nagabe critiques the process of othering, which is a very real-world message, throughout the manga. Some readers may disagree with the parallels made with religious institutions, but “Totsukuni” is a work for nearly all ages.
It’s available in English from Seven Seas Entertainment and in Japanese from MagComi.
Check out the first volume on Amazon here: The Girl From the Other Side: Siúil, A Rún Vol. 1
2. Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii (Wotakoi: Love is Hard for an Otaku) by Fujita
“Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii” (ヲタクに恋は難しい) is about a female office worker, Narumi, who hides her fujoshi lifestyle for fear of being judged. She encounters her childhood friend Hirotaka, a game otaku, when she gets hired at a new company. Both had difficulties in finding love, and they decide to start dating out of convenience.
“Wotakoi” can be a hit or a miss. Most Western cultures have grown accepting of geekdom in the past 10 years or so, which can make the plot unrelatable. In comparison, Japanese otaku tends to be rejected for their passions. Fujoshi (women who enjoy stories/manga about gay male couples) tend to be niche enough that it can still raise eyebrows in the West. That can make finding a partner who’s accepting (or at least tolerant) of your hobbies difficult.
But readers can identify with other aspects in “Wotakoi.” Japanese employees often have long hours, regardless of profession. Finding time to build a relationship from scratch can be tedious, so the audience may relate to the idea of dating coworkers. I know I did. I met my husband at a Japanese company. We bonded through playing StarCraft: Brood Wars after hours on the ancient company computers.
The English-subtitled“Wotakoi” anime was released on Amazon Prime this year. The manga is being released in English by Kodansha. It’s available in Japanese on Pixiv and is also published by comic POOL.
Check out the first volume on Amazon here: Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku 1
3. Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon (Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid) by Coolkyoushinja
Kobayashi is a single office lady in “Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon” (小林さんちのメイドラゴン). She gets lost while drunk and encounters Tohru, a dragon seeking refuge from another world. Kobayashi reluctantly allows Tohru to stay with her and their fantastical domestic life starts.
I enjoyed it way more than I expected, but “Maid Dragon” might not be for everyone. It’s a bit fanservice-heavy, which can feel trope-y, and takes on same-sex relationships.
However, it also addresses the loneliness many single working adults feel without explaining it outright. Coolkyoushinja gently highlights how couples often learn to grow within their partnership and how love can be expressed in different ways. He touches on identity and following one’s own path, which can resonate with folks still finding their way.
International couples, in particular, may relate strongly with “Maid Dragon” because of the cultural differences between Tohru, who grew up in another dimension, and the human Kobayashi.
The Japanese manga is published by Futabasha. The English translation is published by Seven Seas Entertainment.
Check out the first volume on Amazon here: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid Vol. 1
4. Mahou Tsukai no Yome (The Ancient Magus’ Bride) by Yamazaki Kore
The protagonist of “Mahoutsukai no Yome” (魔法使いの嫁) is a teenage girl named Chise. She doesn’t want to live anymore and sells herself in an auction to find a home. She is purchased by Elias, an ancient humanoid mage. She moves to England and studies under him as an apprentice. As her abilities grow, however, so does the danger to her life.
The dark fantasy themes are of a similar, but nowhere near identical, thread to “Totsukuni no Shoujo.” Yamazaki creates a brilliant world. I found myself being drawn in to learn more along with Chise. As the story deepens, the author explores power and consent, as well as darker elements (which I can’t mention because of spoilers).
He also does a great job of evoking empathy with the antagonistic elements. You’ll disagree with what a character has done, but you’ll understand and empathize with why they did it. I consider this to be a mark of good storytelling.
The anime for “Mahoutsukai” is available to watch with English subtitles at Crunchyroll. The manga is available in Japanese from MagComi and in English from Seven Seas Entertainment.
Check out the first volume on Amazon here: The Ancient Magus’ Bride Vol. 1
5. Chihayafuru (Chihayafuru) by Suetsugu Yuki
In “Chihayafuru” (ちはやふる), Chihaya was happy to spend her life supporting her sister’s modeling career until she meets Arata, who introduces her to the world of karuta. Chihaya latches on to the idea of becoming the world’s best karuta player. When she starts high school, she creates a karuta club with the help of her childhood friend, Taichi.
I’ve never been into sports manga, but the author mixes athletics and literature beautifully. Because karuta is a niche sport, the author also does a great job of explaining it to beginners that may not be aware of the rules and history. There is a fair deal of character development as the protagonist and her team mature.
The manga spawned two anime seasons, both available on Crunchyroll, as well as a 2-part live action movie. A third season is in the works. Chihayafuru is being released in both the US and Japan (in their Be Love imprint) by Kodansha Comics.
Check out the first volume on Amazon here: Chihayafuru Vol. 1
Authors to Mention
In addition to the individual series mentioned above, here are a few authors with stories worthy of checking out.
“Hagane no Renkin Jutsushi” (鋼の錬金術師), better known by its English title “Fullmetal Alchemist” (FMA), tops most “must read/watch” lists for both anime and manga. The protagonists, two brothers, are searching for the fabled Philosopher’s Stone to right a wrong they committed in the past.
Arakawa balances humor with the serious tones found in FMA, namely the effects of war and greed on human society. She creates good character development arcs and a pretty impressive world, complete with its own physics system. Fair warning though, there are definitely some strong parallels with Nazi Germany.
“Silver Spoon” is another of her hits. She took an entirely different direction from the action/sci-fi genre of FMA and went for a slice-of-life story set in rural Hokkaido. She explores the ethicality of eating meat and farming animals, although (spoiler alert) the farming industry wins out. She also depicts the relationship many farmers develop with their livestock, which I find to be a great touch.
While the current manga adaption of “The Heroic Legend of Arslan” is being drawn by Arakawa, the original novels are written by Tanaka Yoshiki and so it can’t be recommended here as her work.
“Emma” (エマ) earned her some degree of fame and is considered to be the main contributor to interest in English maid cosplay in Japan. The story follows Emma, a housemaid, as she falls in love with William, a member of the gentry. The manga challenges the idea of class discrepancy, which could only realistically happen at the end of Victorian-era London.
Mori recreated 1895 London with somewhat astounding detail. A reference guide, titled Emma Victorian Guide, was published along with the manga to explain the many historical references that would be lost to a modern audience. Mori also hired a historical consultant when writing the manga to ensure period accuracy.
“Otoyomegatari” (乙嫁語り), or “A Bride’s Story,” is about Amir and her marriage with the younger Karluk. Like, “Emma” it is historically accurate. It’s set in a small village in Central Asia. Amir hails from a semi-nomadic tribe and is eight years older than her twelve-year-old husband, Karluk. The story explores the maturation of their love, as well as several arcs with side characters.
This video is part 3 of an illustration she did of the protagonist in “A Bride’s Story” and will give you an idea to just how much effort she puts into her character designs.
With the popularity of “Otoyomegatari,” Mori is also writing a small cooking comic for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Each recipe featured is from a specific country in Central Asia. I
In “Princess Jellyfish” (also known as “Kuragehime” (海月姫), the story follows Tsukimi, a twenty-year-old NEET and jellyfish otaku. She lives in an old sharehouse-style apartment building with a group of otaku women. Tsukimi encounters Kuranosuke, the illegitimate son of a prominent politician and a crossdresser. He tries to change their lives for the better.
The story of “Tokyo Tarareba Girls” (also known as “Tokyo Tarareba Musume” (東京タラレバ娘) focuses on Rinko. She’s unmarried at thirty-three and spends her evenings drinking with her friends, complaining about what could have been. When a young man overhears them and confronts them about their “what-if” statements, Rinko resolves to get married by 2020.
The focal point of both of these works is to explore how people often use their circumstances as an excuse to prevent them from getting things done. Both stories have an outsider motivate them to take action.
“Tokyo Tarareba Girls” drew a lot of criticism from fans within Japan because the tongue-in-cheek writing is a lot more subtle (sarcasm is often lost in Japan). A lot of people may interpret the message as “it’s your last chance at love, so go out and find someone,” but what Higashimura is actually trying to say is, “you do you.”
Didn’t like something here?
In the end, this list is largely a reflection of my personal tastes. I like stories that feel unique, with characters I can empathize with. I want to feel that the character arcs are dynamic and real. Unlike when I was young, I find it’s less about the destination and more about the journey.
What about you? Are there any manga out there that you feel must make this list? Do you disagree with anything mentioned here? We’d love to hear it, so drop us a comment below