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Photo: Kodansha Comics, Drawn and Quarterly, Viz Media; design: Saiko Miyasato

5 best Japanese manga you can read in English

Not wowed by One Piece? These titles redefined manga from the 1960s to now – and they’re all available in English

By Kasey Furutani

You could argue Japan’s love of animation comes from manga, which dates back to woodblock paintings in the 1600s. Manga has come a long way since then; those woodblock prints have made the leap to become sci-fi action serials like Akira or the loveable Doraemon.

To an outsider, manga might look like it’s reserved for otaku, obsessive anime and comic geeks, but the artform is continuing to evolve. In the 1960s, alternative mangaka (manga artists) began producing books with realistic storylines and museum-worthy artwork, broadening the definition of manga. 

These aren’t your typical One Piece or Death Note comics: here are our favourite titles by artists that have changed the Japanese manga landscape. 

RECOMMENDED: Add these books about Tokyo to your reading list

Marvellous manga

Yoshihiro Tatsumi - Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Photo: Drawn and Quarterly

The works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi

In the 1960s, Yoshihiro Tatsumi coined the term gekiga, referring to an alternative style of manga that reflects the darker moments of life. His gekiga works from the 1960s and 1970s have been released in English in three volumes: ‘The Pushman and Other Stories’, ‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo’, and ‘Good-bye’. 

Tatsumi was known for his realistic drawings of postwar life in 1960s Japan, when the economy started to boom and social classes became more divided. ‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo’, the second volume in the collection, follows the everyday lives of single men as they graffiti train station bathrooms, visit the Ueno Zoo and struggle to make ends meet.

Kuniko Tsurita - The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud
Photo: Drawn and Quarterly

'The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud' by Kuniko Tsurita

One of manga’s unsung heroes, Kuniko Tsurita finally has an English language translation of her artistic black and white comics. Similar to Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tsurita draws stories of life in 1960s and 1970s Tokyo, but she focuses on Japanese bohemian culture with inspiration from European artwork. 

Tsurita was one of the first female mangaka and one of the first to break out of the shoujo (manga aimed at teenage girls) mold. ‘The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud’ is a collection of Tsurita’s works from her surrealist start in the late 1960s to her early death in 1985. The collection is worth flipping through for the artwork alone, her drawings double as fine art.

Fumi Yoshinaga - What Did You Eat Yesterday
Photo: Kodansha Comics

'What Did You Eat Yesterday?' by Fumi Yoshinaga

Manga genres are as broad as movie or fiction themes – you can find classic sci-fi, family dramas or cheesy romances. However, there are some distinctive subgenres such as BL, short for boys’ love. This genre of manga, typically drawn and written for and by women, focuses on gay male couples. 

Some of these comics can be a bit gratuitous – all fluff and no substance – but Fumi Yoshinaga’s ‘What Did You Eat Yesterday?’ breaks the BL mold. Debuting in 2007 and still running, the series follows middle-aged couple Shiro and Kenji as they navigate everyday life and Japanese LGBTQ+ issues all while sharing delicious Japanese meals – recipes included.

Junji Ito - Uzumaki
Photo: Viz Media

'Uzumaki' by Junji Ito

Japan is full of scary stories, from supernatural tales to classic horror movies. Jump scares aside, Junji Ito proves that the printed page can be as scary as ‘The Ring’. Ito is best known for ‘Uzumaki’, also known as the Spiral series, that follows a young couple living in the creepy town of Kurouzu-cho. The residents are cursed by spiral imagery that slowly makes them go mad. A psychological thriller, Ito’s almost three-dimensional illustrations will make sure you won’t sleep at night.

Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki - Oishinbo
Photo: Viz Media

'Oishinbo' by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki

‘Oishinbo’ is the perfect manga for people who like their dinner with a hint of drama. The series follows food critic Yamaoka Shiro as he creates an ‘Ultimate Menu’ for his newspaper, Tozai News. Shiro battles his insecurities and his relationship with his father, gourmand Kaibara Yuzan, as he tastes his way through Japanese restaurants. The comics deftly combine cooking techniques and Shiro’s estranged relationship with Yuzan. Be sure to read before dinner – the manga even includes the recipes cooked in the story.

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