Cool Japan, a Japanese cultural export concept, has given the broader world magnificent examples of such over the last couple of decades. Sake, sushi and J-Pop - including Tokyopop have all made their mark but the one facet of Japanese culture grabbing the most attention is manga.

These graphic novels and their film counterpart, anime, are the cause of leagues of rabid fans in the west; in their country of origin (as well as abroad) the number of copies sold ranges in the millions.

There is a good possibility that you already know what manga is but for those who come to this aspect of popular culture only now: manga is, essentially, Japanese comic books.

The same manga artists that create those graphic novels are generally also responsible for the production of the ‘film version’ of their work. Those stories range from thrillers and adventures to romance and caricature.

Superprof now takes you on a journey of discovery; together we’ll examine the ten most popular manga – the cream of the crop, so to speak, in order to provide you with the best point of immersion into this most enjoyable and engaging art form.

Beware, though: globally, the majority of manga readers are young males; their preferred storylines are defined as Shonen.

Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to see any Shojo (for females) titles like Nana or Seinen (older males) series like Gantz on this list.

Discover the best Japanese classes London here.

1. One Piece, Eiichiro Oda

Luffy and his band will continue to entertain even after 90+ volumes
In spite of more than 90 volumes, you can expect the manga magazine Once Piece to endure Source: Glenat

Few and far between are those who have not heard of this work; after all, it is the best-selling manga of all time.

Within the 92 manga volumes, we have been treated to the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a young pirate whose goal is to become the king of pirates by finding One Piece, the treasure left by the old king Gold D. Roger.

His secret weapon: he is completely elastic – a very handy way to battle against other pirates!

Luffy and his ever-growing band have fought their way into fandom by sheer persistence (it has been a staple of Weekly Shonen Jump magazine since 1992) and more than a bit intrigue: will he ever find that treasure?

No other Japanese cultural export treats us to this level of entertainment; quite possibly it could be considered the crown jewel of the genre.

2. A Manga Legend: Dragon Ball

It would be impossible to discuss manga without mentioning Dragon Ball: one of the most renown and best-selling manga. Author of this masterpiece is Akira Toriyama.

Granted, it is a bit older, having enjoyed its Shonen Jump run between 1984 and 1995 but you can still purchase tankoban (books) in the series.

Dragon Balls: magic spheres capable of granting wishes. In Son Goku and Bulma’s world, such things are not that uncommon.

The first tome introduces us to a number of friends as well as enemies that the protagonists defeat using their excellent martial arts skills and ‘ki’ or magic spells.

If the manga is well-known, the anime series must be a part of global collective consciousness.

The new series, Dragon Ball Super, premiered in 2015, much to the joy of anime fans the world over.

Don’t just scout for the anime online though; head to your local bookstore or library to see if you can discover for yourself the joy and complexity of reading manga!

Once you get started, you will be delighted to know that there are more Dragon Ball adventures to embark on:

  • Son Goku: childhood and fight against Piccolo
  • the battle against the saiyans who have come to invade the Earth
  • Rescuing planet Namek, which was colonised by Freeza
  • the story of the Cyborgs and Cell’s tournament
  • Fighting to save the world from a demon

Once you get started on these epics, you may just find yourself to be a super manga reader!

3. One-Punch Man

This superhero manga by ONE has been a feature series on the free online manga magazine Tonari no Young Jump since the year 2012. It tells the story of Saitama who looks like a normal human being but is abnormally strong, knocking people out with just one mighty punch. The manga was adapted into an anime in 2015, and a second season came out in 2019.

4. Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan is a 2009 comic by Hajime Isayama that's been serialised on the magazine Bessatsu Shonen and is ever popular.

It is a dark-fantasy manga that has been adapted into an anime as well with four seasons. The main characters of the story are Eren Yeager and Mikasa Ackerman who, along with the other Survey Corps members, fight the titans and try to figure what they are doing there.

Here again, a shining example of decades-long book publication in Shonen Jump and as volumes in their own right – 36 vol, to be exact... and still, the story goes on!

Two anime have been created based on Hunter; the more recent one is truer to the original story arc that the first effort.

Meet Gon, a spirited young boy who wants to become a Hunter; an adventurer on sea and land... because he wishes to find his father, who was one of the greatest Hunters.

Submitting to required examinations, Gon makes plenty of friends to follow him into adventure: Kirua, Kurapika et Leolio... and a frightful enemy: Hisoka.

This series creator, Yoshihiro Togashi is also known for Yu Yu Hakusho – another excellent manga. He caters to those who like a bit of humour with their tension and combat.

If that is you, you may have just found a manga to sink your teeth into!

Would you want your name to appear in the Death Note?
Nobody wants their name inscribed in the Death Note! Source: Kana

6. The Cult of Death Note

It may be a bit difficult, once you start travelling in manga circles, to meet someone who hasn’t read Death Note. This Shonen – which actually skates very close to Seinen, enjoyed a relatively short run but actually revolutionised the otaku world.

A passionate tale expressed through sublime artwork and a storyline that is as disturbing as it is enjoyable.

One day, Light Yagami finds a notebook titled Death Note, wherein one could inscribe names. Everyone whose name has been entered dies.

So begins Light’s crusade, under the pseudonym Kira: he seeks out those he opines are unworthy of life, with an elite police squad on his trail, led by the mysterious detective L.

As though there weren’t enough intrigue built into the story itself, even the creator of the series is a mystery: Tsugumi Oba is a pseudonym for... who?

Is Light heroic or an anti-hero? Read all about the heroes of manga...

7. Vagabond

Vagabond is a history-based manga released in 1998 but focusing on a Samurai teen with amazing sword skills (the famous Musashi Miyamoto). Author Takehiko Inoue began writing this manga in 1998 yet ceased from writing in 2015, leaving the series incomplete.

Is ramen your favourite meal? Do you like fighting and admire secret techniques?

If that is you, then Naruto, the manga authored by Masashi Kishimoto – the third-most popular in all the world, is meant for you.

Both the anime and manga have been ‘converted’ into further entertainment: card games, video games, full-length feature films that have generated a fortune in merchandise sales...

Naruto is a young ninja from Konoha, a small village. His dreams are anything but small: he wants to be the village chief. Unfortunately cursed, the villagers reject him.

He embarks on a series of (mis)adventures to prove his worth, gain acceptance and become the greatest ninja, accompanied by allies Sakura and Sasuke – along with ninjas from other lands.

Hope your reading skills are up to snuff; you have 72 volumes to catch up on. As for the anime, it’s only 220 episodes long!

9. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is one of the top manga of our time and it has fans from all over the world, not just in Japan.

It was serialized on Weekly Shonen Jump in 2016, ad ended its time in May 2020. At the time it was still incredibly popular.

The story is set in a fictional Japan during the Taisho period (early 1900s). The plot is that demons threaten human peace and so it is up to demo slayers to eliminate them.  The main character is called Tanjiro Kamado and he makes the decision to fight with demons after his very own family falls fate of the dreaded demons.

10. Oyasumi Punpun

Oyasumi Punpun is a drama manga serialized on Weekly Shonen Sunday back in 2007 and then on Big Comic Spirits from 2008. The comic by Inio Asano is created in an avant-garde style with 13 volumes about the reality of life, as lived by the unusual main character named Punpun and shaped like a chick.

11. Slam Dunk: Making the Basket, Japanese-Style!

Shonen Jump is really the go-to in manga publishing, and that is where we find this title, too.

During it’s six-year run, this manga was overwhelmingly popular because it embraced a sports theme – something few mangas had ever done. Even more impressively: it is the first manga about basketball.

Hanamichi Sakuragi, a rebel in search of love, comes across beautiful Haruko, a girl mad for basketball. To impress her, he takes to the court even though he knows nothing of the game.

Between romance and the love of the game, this story presents a slice of secondary school life, full of athletic rivalry and comedy.

If sports is your game, you may want to dribble your way through all 20 volumes of this tale.

Morality and mortality wrapped into one: Bleach makes for some serious thinking
A tale of morality as well as a reflection on the afterlife, Bleach gives us serious food for thought Source: Glenat

12. Berserk

Beserk is a dark fantasy manga written by Kentaro Miura. The original manga was first published in 1989 and still lives on today, published on Young Animal. It stars Guts, the main character, a survivor of fictional medieval Europe who dons a large sword for protection. The series has been also made into an anime adaption as well as turned into games for fans.

It appeals to people in Japan but also to people in their million beyond because of its European theme.

13. Uzumaki

Uzumaki is a late 1990s manga consisting of volume 1,2 and 3, for Japanese and international fans alike with a great rating.

With a horror theme, the cursed fictional city of Kurouzu-cho is home to some strange supernatural activity, and it's up to main character Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend to explore it and be a hunter or slayer of supernatural demon.

Uzumaki is written by Junji Ito.

14. Tite Kubo’s Bleach

With 74 volumes in the manga series and 366 anime episodes, Bleach manga enjoyed a long run of publication in Shonen Jump.

The story takes us to a world where shinigami, angels of death chase ‘hollows’ - corrupt human spirits, with the intent of sending them to Soul Paradise.

Rukia is shinigami but, following a difficult battle, she transfers her powers to Ichigo, a human (and the story’s protagonist).

This extended-run story involves several important characters, including:

  • Ichigo Kurosaki, a big-hearted shinigami
  • Rukia Kuchiki, the shinigami who conferred her powers onto Ichigo,
  • Orihime Inoue, a human who has the power to heal and protect
  • Yasutora Sado (Chad), a human with a superhuman arm
  • Ishida Uryū, a quincy with a magic bow
  • Kon, the comical sidekick with a soul squeezed into the body of a stuffed animal

For its frenzy of combat, reflections of justice and dark ambience, Bleach is not to be missed, either in anime or manga format.

You really need to understand manga as an art form to grasp all of its nuance... learn everything you need to know about reading a manga book!

15. Case Closed: A Runaway Success!

What is the Japanese equivalent to Sherlock Holmes? Few Japanese comics would tempt you to call off from work or school for a week just to get caught up on them; Case Closed is one of them.

Shinichi Kudo, a 17-year-old student with a fair measure of success as a detective is forced to swallow a toxin that will make him regress to childhood.

To lead the investigation into the ‘Black Organisation’ who visited this curse on him, he adopts the name Conan Edogawa and, to ‘disappear’ himself, takes up residence with Ran Mori and her father.

This serialized story, with sales in the millions, has been ranked the fourth bestselling manga of all time.

16. Rave Master

Rave Master is a 35 vol manga written by Hiro Mashima, famous for Fairy Tail. This particular title was serialised between 1999 and 2005 on Weekly Shonen Magazine and tells the story of main character and hero Haru Glory searching for missing pieces from a sacred stone called Rave.

This is a fantasy manga great for beginners.

17. Tokyo Ghoul

Tokyo Ghoul is a modern manga, published in 2011 through to 2018 and was serialised for part of that period on Weekly Young Jump.

Dark fantasy in nature, this comic is set in Tokyo where so named ghouls roam around and live in society. They appear to be like humans but they are a slayer of the beings and actually feed on human flesh.

This series of comics is written by Sui Ishida.

18. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Impressive Longevity

So difficult is it to categorise this Japanese comic book series that, through the course of its long run, it moved from Shonen Jump to Ultra Jump – the seinen anthology.

Is it fantasy? Horror? Action? All of them?

Written and illustrated by author Hirohiko Araki, this manga has featured in Jump since 1986. That record of publication, along with its monumental 124 volume collection makes Jojo one of the greatest stories to reckon with in the history of manga.

The complexity of Jojo lies in the fact that it tells its tale of one family from many perspectives; every family member’s name is condensed down to Jojo and each Jojo follows their own story and action.

As of 2016, more than 100 million volumes of Jojo have been sold worldwide.

Have you too stepped into Jojo’s universe?

In spite of it being a made-up world, there are still rules for what can happen
Even in the fantastic world of Japanese anime there are rules to follow! Source: Kurokawa

19. Fullmetal Alchemist: Finishing with a Bang

No manga compilation or collection would be complete without the only manga to have never been published in Jump.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a fantasy/adventure story that very much recalls the Steampunk world.

Here we cast our lot with brothers Edward and Alphonse Elric, whose mother had died. The characters attempted to bring her back to life through alchemy.

Their failure cost them dearly: Edward, an arm and a leg; Alphonse’s entire body vanished, leaving his soul trapped within his armour. Edward regained limbs, albeit made of metal – from which he derives his name.

To fully understand the limits of alchemy in this story, you must understand the rules governing the practice:

Humanity may obtain nothing without giving something in return. For each receipt, there must be something of equal value lost. In alchemy, it is the fundamental law of equivalent exchange.

20. Fist of the North Star

Fist of the North Star is a 1980s manga published in Weekly Shonen Jump. It is set in a deserted world following the 1990s nuclear war.

It stars Kenshiro, the main character, who is the successor of an antiquated martial art of assassination named Hokuto Shinken, and the story is all about him battling with villains and surviving. Readers seem to rate this highly so it's certainly one to add to your reading list.

Should you be interested in exploring this world, beware: the manga and anime will push you to the edge of your philosophical reasoning... and maybe a bit beyond!

There are so many manga books and so much Japanese animation to take in; we could hardly cover every single one!

If you too are otaku – obsessed with this aspect of pop culture, you will appreciate our paying homage to these titles:

  • Attack on titan
  • My hero academia
  • One punch man
  • Berserk
  • Golgo 13
  • Kochikame
  • Pokemon
  • Hokuto no Ken
  • Yu gi oh!
  • Akira
  • Monster
  • Fairy Tail
  • Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO)

Now that you have an expanded list of manga academia to explore, it would be a cinch to read manga online! And if you end up loving them to death, what with all the avant-garde and anime productions to follow too, then you may also want to cast your eye over collectables and more hero memorabilia on Amazon!

And did you know that reading manga books can help you learn the Japanese language? Of course, fans or beginners would have to buy manga magazines in Japanese and know a bit about the language but many rate this is a great and fun way to learn...

That’s something Superprof tutors can help you with!

Need a Japanese teacher?

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Jess