I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of Manga available on the international market, spanning countries and languages and crossing the expanse of the internet to reach the english-speaking world. I have read a lot of it – more than I care to count or even consider – but there have only been comparatively few that have stood out against the test of time. Following is a short list of just a few of those gems. There is no particular order to them, as ranking is a difficult and very opinionated process, and while some are decidedly mainstream, others are very much less so.
I hope this mini-guide proves useful in some fashion, and if you have your own recommendations or opinions, feel free to leave a comment!
Akatsuki no Yona
Yona of the Red Dawn
Shoujo, Action, Adventure, Romance
Incomplete – Currently 140 Chapters
Akatsuki no Yona has been hugely successful in Japan, leading to the release of an anime adaption that in itself gained a large following. Fan-based translations are readily available all across the internet, but if you’re interested in supporting the author and owning a print version, they can also be bought. Not at all a bad idea, either, as Akatsuki no Yona is perhaps one of the best manga currently in development.
A lot of comparisons can be made between this series and other shoujo mangas of the past, but all of them would fall miserably short. Akatsuki no Yona, despite having a premise that comes off as cliche, is decidedly unique. It features a main character whose growth you get to witness firsthand – who starts out as spoiled and naive, and through a number of trials and tragedies, grows a spine of steel and sets out to change the world. There is a certain amount of magic and myth involved in her adventures, but they are written in a decidedly realistic fashion. Yona and her companions are powerful, but not powerful enough to crush entire nations. Instead, they have to rely on a mixture of diplomacy, stealth, and force, that makes every encounter feel dangerous and exciting. Their adventures are epic, but not world-breaking, and progress is realistically paced.
I won’t spoil the story here, because if you haven’t heard it already, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy diving in fresh. I’ll only say that there isn’t a single character in the entire story that doesn’t feel truly -real-, with their own ambitions and goals, their own demons, their own lives to pursue. The plot is vast and complex, weaving together a lot of different stories and view points to create a world that truly breathes, and the artwork itself is extremely high-quality and fitting for the overall tone of the manga.
Though this manga is certainly geared towards women, the story has a wide and far-reaching scope in which romance is few and far between. Male or female, there’s a lot to be said for Akatsuki no Yona, and I highly recommend it.
Buy It: Yona of the Dawn, Vol. 1
Shoujo, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Complete – 23 Chapters
This is a manga that I stumbled across purely by accident – and I’m glad I did. It quickly became one of my favorites for its beautiful artwork and intriguingly original story. JiuJiu continued to surprise me from begin till end – every point that I thought I’d figured it out, a new twist was thrown into the mix that turned the characters down a hidden path.
JiuJiu is a fantasy in which demon-hunters are accompanied by half-demon companions that aid them in destroying the various forms of evil that lurk across the world. At first this seems fairly straightforward, but JiuJiu focuses far more on character development and clan politics than on flashy battles for the fate of the earth – and in this case, that’s a good thing.
You will undoubtedly come to love almost every single character that makes an appearance in this series. They are all quite interesting in their own right, with their own internal relationships and dynamics that tangle together into complex knots made more difficult by political manueverings, arranged marriages, moral questions, and ancient traditions.
Though this manga can certainly be categorized as a romance story, it isn’t a romance in any way that you might expect it to be, and it certainly won’t end predictably. The characters grow quite a lot throughout the story, each facing their own fair share of tragedy as they work towards a bittersweet future. JiuJiu isn’t particularly well known, but it should be, and I highly recommend it.
Buy It: Jiu Jiu, Vol. 1
Mystery, Shounen, Action
Incomplete – Currently 38 Chapters
Wow. I’m distressed that this manga isn’t yet complete, because I am desperate to know how it will end. The concept of Darwin’s Game isn’t particularly original – in fact, it’s downright commonplace nowadays – but it is perhaps one of the smartest and most interesting interpretations of the genre currently being made.
Darwin’s Game is a story about a “video game” gone wrong, where players are forced into death matches that can earn them ridiculous amounts of cash. D-Game plays out in the real world, and every player is assigned a special ability that they can use to their advantage in battle. What Darwin’s Game does well is express the human emotions and politics involved in a game that has you murdering for money. Despite the concept being totally unrealistic, the character relationships and their struggles all feel very real, and the pacing is so well organized that you will never find yourself bored with the latest development.
Darwin’s Game is definitely worth picking up. It is written so well that it has managed to make something entirely new and exciting from an otherwise unoriginal idea, and the artwork is both high quality and the perfect balance between “manga” and realistic.
My Secret Brother
Comedy, Drama, Romance, School Life
Incomplete – Currently 115 Chapters
Unstoppable Siblings is a korean webcomic that I started reading purely because I liked the art style. The character designs are all crisp and clean, and the main character herself has a cool, confident, and stylish presence that immediately leaves an impression. I can’t say that I expected much from the story, which at first seemed rather cliche (and niche) in nature – but I quickly found myself devouring chapter after chapter as the characters developed complex relationships with one another, and brief bits of history were slowly revealed.
Unstoppable Siblings goes far deeper than a first glance would suggest. It starts out comically and unrealistically with a brother-sister pair that, through a series of odd events, end up pretending to date – but this manhwa isn’t a comedy, and it isn’t an incest story either. What it is is a drama, with a serious look at two characters who stand apart, who have faced tragedy and hardship, and who are now tightly bonded based on the troubles they’ve overcome together.
One of the best things about this series is the main character – she’s cool, she’s confident, she’s smart, and she’s ruthless. She’s the type of person who leaves a strong impression – the type of person you can’t help but gravitate to. The type of person that you love and hate and envy. She isn’t necessarily unfriendly – it just feels like she’s on a totally different “level”. This is a really interesting take on a main character, especially when it comes to females. We’re most often stuck with naive, innocent, too-friendly girls who face their troubles with bubbly smiles and optimistic thoughts – and Unstoppable Siblings is anything but that.
I strongly suggest picking this one up. It’s a really interesting take on interpersonal relationships, and it manages to have heaps of drama and mystery (and its fair share of comedy as well) without ever coming across as overwhelming or unrealistic. You’ll love each and every character, all of which are painted with complex, gray-shaded morals that make their struggles interesting and sympathetic even when they aren’t being the “good guy” of the story.