Manga has been a central part of my life ever since I learned how to read. Personally, I believe it’s one of the best mediums for storytelling, second only to movies by a hair. Many people have asked me about my top 10 or top 20 over the years, so I thought I’d just write something up.
To preface this ranking, I want to say that I made this ranking based on a few factors: story, characters, art, and how much I enjoyed reading it. I’m well aware this list might piss some people off, but whatever, it’s my list isn’t it? If you see that I have not included a manga on this list, I either simply don’t this it’s top 20 material or I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. With that said, let’s get started with the rankings!
11 - 20
Many martial arts manga exist in the world; many I really enjoy. I also really enjoy stories with fleshed out characters. This manga is both. Set as a coming of age story, Kouji Mori’s Holyland tells the tale of Yuu Kamishiro’s martial and psychologial growth. Bullied and a social misfit, Kamishiro takes to the streets, desparate for a place to call home. As his reputation builds, Yuu quickly realizes that he is in for an arduous journey. My favorite elements of the story reside in the realism and character motivations. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, and no hackneyed Shounen asspulls. Only punches and kicks. Everyone has a reason for being in the streets. Whether they’re a main or side character, who’s to question anyone else’s convictions.
This manga is dark and weird. However, for every dark and weird moment comes a wildly humorous moment. But, yeah, it’s a weird one.
Great Teacher Onizuka
Onizuka needs no introduction. He’s the goat. Moving on.
One of the best sports manga ever written. Like GTO, I feel like Slam Dunk also needs no introduction. Onto the next one.
I’m a sucker for historical manga. Kingdom is based off of China’s Warring States Period. We follow Shin, a boisterous, often overconfident peasant, on his journey to become a Great General under the Heavens. He fights and fights, overcoming his martial limits and all the while building a pure and dedicated legion. Yasuhisa Hara’s best quality is his ability to draw extremely detailed large scale battles, covering everything from tactics to the brutal nature of war. And with every war comes sacrifice, honor, glory, and camaraderie. After we fall in love with Hara’s characters and their circumstance, there are many moments, good and bad, that can bring any man to tears.
This is Naoki Urasawa’s latest work, one that puts on a clinic in pace and narrative control. As if it’s not apparent enough in his other works, Urasawa is a master at integrating different cultures into his stories and characters, using it as narrative devices big and small. He can make cultural elements the entire backdrop of a manga. He can also make almost unnoticable references that if not present, would drastically change the tone of a panel. Billy Bat has all of Urasawa’s trademark manga qualities. The suspense, thrill, converging and diverging plot points, the mystical and magical. He certainly uses Kevin Yamagata, who coincidentally is a mangaka, as a way to speak directly to his audience, and as a member of that audience, I couldn’t be happier.
Tsutomu Nihei deserves to win a Spectrum Award for this one. Some of the best artwork, backdrops, depictions of dystopia ever produced. Blame! (actually pronounced “blam”) is a visual story. Killy, our protagonist, rarely says anything as he attempts to navigate a labryinth of astronomical proportions. Whilst wandering this complicated landscape, his goal remains simple: save humanity from extinction. This story doesn’t follow the typical character or plot development guidelines, but moreso presents an immersive cyperpunk experience, hurling us into at times bleak, at times technologically horrific post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Everyone has a dream. Some chase their dreams harder than others. The run far, far away in pursuit of these dreams. Hopefully, they can make it back home for dinner.
After finishing this manga, all I wanted to do was play in a band. Inio Asano is unbeatable when it comes to writing relatable characters and story lines. Real life conversations and real life events. How can we make life worth living? How can we honor the people who do make life worth living? The answer is just behind the page.
Most people know this mangaka as the author of Gantz, but I found myself enjoying Inuyashiki a little more. At the beginning, we’re introducted to Inuyashiki, a prosaic man who learns he’s diagnosed with cancer. He tries to live the remainder of his life vicariously a la Ikiru, yet soon comes across a new power that turns his body healthy and cybernetic. The story then turns into one long and strange redemption, floating back and forth across the line of sanity. Inuyashiki is such a likeable old man.
4 - 10
Based off of an arc of Astro Boy, this 65 chapter masterpiece is every bit as masterful as his lengthier works. Every amazing, unique storytelling skill condensed into a short story. Gesicht is all too relatable as we see him struggle to find himself. Pluto is a manga that forces us to question a future where robots are as seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Real is the realist human realism around. Inoue sure loves depicting humanity through the struggles of young adolescent basketball. I prefer this one to Slam Dunk. It’s less of a typical Shounen as we dive into the character’s tumultous psychology as they each fight their uphill battles, whether they like it or not.
Arguably one of the most slept on, ongoing manga. Similar to Kingdom, this manga is already dripping in historical context, but instead of the Warring States, the story takes place around the time of the Russo-Japanese War. In short, this story is one big, debauched treasure hunt. Our protagonist is none other than Saichi Sugimoto, who aptly dons the moniker “Sugimoto the Immortal.” Sugimoto firstly teams up with Aspira, a young, dangerous Ainu girl, in search of the pieces of the lost Ainu gold, but as the story grinds on, his companions change too. Laced with conspiracy, politics, betrayal, industrialization, burlesque action, and more, this manga boasts some of the best writing out there. Military personnel mix with Ainu folks and join hands with frightening criminals. People can be more similar to each other than you may think. Extremely unpredictable and brutal at times but also warmer than the fire-back sleeping technique, Golden Kamuy is truly a hidden gem. Oh yeah, and, Tsurumi is a goddamn crackhead, no pun intended.
Doctor Tenma versus Johan Liebert. A battle to the death. But what even is death really? Everyone smile for Mr. Grimmer!
Kokou no Hito (The Climber)
Simply breathtaking. All of the spreads belong in a fucking museum. I have nothing else to say.
I’ve found that nearly all of my friends have not yet heard of this manga. Rainbow, written by George Abe and illustrated by Masasumi Kakizaki, tells the story of the boys from Cell 2, Block 6. At first, they’re fighting corruption in their juvenile prison. Shortly after, they find themselves battling the darkest villians of society. I don’t see how there is any way to dislike any of the six growing boys. A reader can relate to any one of them in a plethora of ways. Some fall victim to their vices while others fall victim to predatory circumstance. One thing they never forget though is their friendship to each other. They have a bond that can never be broken.
This manga absolutely destroyed me. I’m just going to put a disclaimer here and say that I feel like everyone reading this should have some level of emotional maturity and stability. The characters are a little twisted, and the story can be peculiarly metaphoric. However, if you can push through a series of morbid events, there’s so much to take away from this. Maybe I’ll come back in a week or two to add more detail here, but at least right now, I don’t think I can write anything without completely emptying myself.
To many who consider themselves fans of manga, Berkserk holds the uncontested first place. I also have to agree with the community opinion, but the next two manga mean too much to me personally. Berserk, written by the legendary Kentaro Miura (may he rest in peace), is simply one of the greatest pieces of fiction ever made. My first draft of the section was an extremely drawn out ramble about the beauty of this series – compliments and reviews that I have decided to collect in another article. If you haven’t read this yet, I encourage you to close whatever book you’re reading, any porn tab you’re beating off to, TV show playing in the background, and embark on this magical journey with Gutz and Casca. You will not regret it
Based on a Musashi Miyamoto’s actual life, Inoue’s Vagabond currently takes number two in top 20. I embark on a new spiritual experience every time I read this manga. Miyamoto starts off as a rash, hot headed man, but as the story unfolds, as he encounters tougher and tougher opponents, he evolves into a completely different beast. The artwork and choreography is otherworldly, and Inoue somehow managed to write two of my favorite characters in manga in Kogiro and Matahatchi. There’s so many breathtaking spreads, seeped in samurai philosophy, that any reader can find some bit of salvation and englightenment.
1. 20th Century Boys
My favorite manga to date, one I try my best to reread every 1/2 years. To me, Friend is the one of the best antagonists ever written, and Urasawa uses him to build such a rich, mysterious plot. As he does in Monster and Pluto, he crafts his characters stellarly. Every single one of the boys (including Kanna). Every side character. All of them tie together into a multilayered, mysterious rhapsody. Like the previous two manga, I’m going to stop it here and write another piece on this. Last thing I’ll say about this manga is that Yoshitsune is my favorite.
Far more than 20 brilliant manga series exist in this world that I had to include some honorable mentions. Some barely missed the cut and some have to be called out for the culture.
- Saikyou Densetsu Kurosawa (Nobuyuki Fukumoto)
- Green Blood (George Abe, Masasumi Kakizaki)
- One Piece (gOatDA)
- Blade of the Immortal (Hiroaki Samura)
- Three Days of Happiness (Sugaru Miaki, Shōichi Taguchi)
- Fist of the North Star (Yoshiyuki Okamura, Tetsu Hara)
I love reading and discussing manga, so if there’s any series you want to talk more at length about or any you would like to recommend me, please shoot me an email at chui[dot]luke99[at]gmail.com or dm me on twitter!
Cover Photo: One Piece for the culture.