Manga is a pretty old genre, all things considered. And I’m not just talking about the manga and anime that we saw emerge in the last 70s, 60s, or even 50s. No, the first recorded instance of sequential storytelling with pictures in Japan can be traced back to the Edo period (1600-1800). Hell, ‘manga’ as a term was established when Shiji No Yukikai, a picture book by Santō Kyōden, in 1798. Shiji No Yukikai is also regarded as being the first-ever complete manga by most modern historians, meaning the style has been around for literal centuries now. It has become a cornerstone in the modern comic book era and for good reason too.
So, what makes some manga a ‘classic’? When you think about, like, OG manga, you might think of something like Berserk, a Dark Fantasy epic. Or maybe you think of something more iconic, like Akira, a Cyberpunk darling from the 80s. But if old is gold, does that mean something like Astro Boy is a classic too? I mean it’s old, it’s a collective zeitgeist at this point but when you go back to it, is it still an engaging read?
I think we first need to define what classic means when it comes to manga. To me that must be a story that is highly regarded by both casuals and critics alike, a story that became such a cultural phenomenon that you still hear about it today, and, most importantly, stood the test of time to still be enjoyable upon rereading.
There is such a variety of manga from every decade that have been popular over the ages and the hype never truly died. Some, like the Rose Of Versailles, are even responsible for creating tropes such as the Bishojou male. These are stories that are so ingrained in the collective conscious, that they make their way into pop culture through references in games, movies, and even music by artists like Kanye West, Barenaked Ladies, and Megan Thee Stallion.
So, which one of these world-changing manga do we recommend to the anime newbie? Here are our top picks for the quintessential classic manga that you cannot miss!
1. Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon
You all know this was going to be the first. Normally these lists aren’t ranked, and this one is no different, but if I had to choose? Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon will always be my number 1. Always.
By now, we all know who Usagi Tsukino is. Fighting evil by moonlight, winning our hearts by daylight, Usagi is just your normal average teen living in Tokyo who also happens to be the reincarnation of Queen Serena of the Moon Kingdom. Together with her friends, and her cat Luna (who remembers her own past life in the Moon Kingdom), she is sworn to take down evil and protect Earth as the illustrious Sailor Moon and the Sailor Scouts.
Naoko Takeuchi, the creator, said she created the Sailor Scouts to emulate friends that she never had. And thus, she made something so special that, to this day, we are getting new anime seasons, merchandise, and even stage plays for it. This manga is the reason the Magical Girl genre exists. You can find homages being paid to it nearly everywhere, from The Simpsons to The Justice League comics and, more recently, in Dua Lipa’s lyric video for her song, Levitating.
Safe to say, this is one manga that never gets old. Sailor Moon was my superhero growing up and, for a lot of girls, this was the first anime they got attached to. For that alone, it deserves a read.
2. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
If you haven’t seen a single meme spawned from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, are you really an anime fan? Even though the series only picked up mainstream popularity in the last decade, the actual manga has been going on for over 30 years now. It is considered one of the best-selling manga series in history and the creator, Hirohiko Araki, has no intentions of stopping.
The series has nine arcs so far, each starring a new cast and setting but the protagonist will always bear the “JoJo” nickname. Known for its wacky lore, beautiful art style, and inclusion of Western media and fashion into said lore, the manga series has weaved an intricate but highly entertaining narrative that still captivates fans to this day.
I mean, you have vampires, time travel, haute couture, awesome fight scenes using supernatural powers named after famous songs called Stands, and…. weirdly detailed character designs that are both hypermasculine and pretty? Dio Brando, as a villain, never gets stale and it’s fascinating how the descendants of his rival, Jonathan Joestar, interact with him in every story arc. Listen, it’s so over-the-top but every arc flows into the next very fluidly. It’s great storytelling coupled with absolute insanity, who doesn’t enjoy that?
If you like…no. I don’t need to convince you of anything. Go read Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure right now. Doesn’t matter which one you pick up; you are guaranteed a good time.
3. Fist Of The North Star
Hey so, remember how I said how Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is amazing and all? Well, Fist Of The North Star is said to be the reason it exists. The entire franchise, by duo Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, is considered one of the most influential shōnen manga series of all time. From Berserk to Vinland Saga to Dragon Ball, creators of each work cite Fist Of The North Star as inspiration.
The story, itself highly influenced by things like Mad Max and Bruce Lee flicks, is set on an Earth which went through a nuclear war. Kenshiro, a warrior in possession of a lethal martial arts technique called Hokuto Shinken, traipses through this post-apocalyptic landscape and devotes himself to fighting for the vulnerable. He protects them against bandits, criminal organizations, and warlords who threaten the livelihoods of these defenseless innocents. These threats also come in the form of rival martial artists, including his own “brothers“; people who underwent the same training as he did.
The franchise is one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time, spawning anime adaptations, spinoffs, novels, video games, and even a Live-Action movie. Though likely, you’ve heard about it solely through the viral “Omae Wa Mou Shindeiru” (You Are Already Dead) meme. Yeah, that’s from Fist Of The North Star. It’s Kenshiro’s catchphrase! Honestly, this manga still gets mentioned so often that I was only mildly surprised when it appeared as a ‘special’ attack in Persona 5 Royal (2020), a Japanese RolePlaying game (JRPG) that I’m currently into.
It is action-packed, with plenty of cool martial art fight scenes inspired by Bruce Lee in a dystopian setting. I mean, what’s not to like here? Go give it a read!
Nana is one of the very first Shojou manga that I got into, solely because of how aesthetic it was. With punk influences and diametrically opposed character designs, how could I not? But it isn’t just pretty to look at, the story itself is so relatable that once you start, you won’t be able to put it down. Nana is a coming-of-age story between two friends, who are so far apart in personality from each other but end up striking up a conversation because they share the same first name.
First, we have the cool Nana Osaki, who arrives in Tokyo in a bid to make a name for herself in the cutthroat world of rock’n’roll. And then we have sweet Nana Komatsu, who moves to the big city with her boyfriend, hoping to reunite with more friends. Both quickly realize that while they are from vastly different backgrounds, they have a ton in common and become best friends. But between Nana O.‘s chase for fame and Nana K.‘s quest for love, the hardships they face test the strength of their friendship.
Nana frequently tops the list for best Shojou manga of all time for a reason. It deals with topics like growing up and meeting people with different ideologies than yours in a mature way. Even with heavier conversations about substance abuse, the fame monster, and co-dependency, it has very nuanced takes. And the fashion and art of the manga itself hold up, even 20 years later. If you like reading about strong female friendships and the journey of adulthood, Nana is a great read.
Okay so was anyone going to tell me that the music video for Kanye West’s 2007 hit ‘Stronger’, was an almost frame-by-frame homage to Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira? Or was I supposed to find that out by myself? That isn’t surprising though, once you consider just exactly how much Akira influenced the sci-fi landscape. Which lead to a wave of inspired works such as Serial Experiments Lain, Ghost In The Shell, Cowboy Bebop, and, yes, Fist Of The North Star. Because, of course, Akira is the reason we have half this list!
This is another one of those ‘dystopian/post-apocalyptic’ imaginings, though here it leans more futuristic with a setting in the so-called ‘Neo-Tokyo’, rebuilt two decades after a mysterious bombing that nearly decimated it. Our story revolves around Shotaro Kaneda, the leader of a biker gang that frequents old Tokyo ruins, and Tetsuo Shima, his best friend who is trapped in a secret government project following his encounter with a runaway experiment. Shotaro finds unlikely allies in his fight against government conspiracies, illegal experimentation, and the establishment to save Tetsuo. However, Tetsuo’s supernatural powers suddenly manifest to destroy the city. Kaneda and the rest of Neo-Tokyo are left grappling with this outburst, which leads to the awakening of a strange being with horrific psychic abilities known as “Akira“, bringing the cruel experiments to light.
Do you want to know why I think you should read Akira? Because this little cyberpunk manga is credited as being the franchise that introduced manga and anime to Western audiences. Remember the ‘Akira Slide’ scene? It has its own TV Tropes page because of how much it’s referenced in all types of media. From Pokemon to X-Men: Wolverine, you can find tributes to it everywhere. Masashi Kishimoto of Naruto fame often speaks about how Akira’s poster design inspired his art style. Hell, Kill-Bill and The Matrix, two of the biggest Hollywood movies from the late 90’s/early ’00s, tout Akira as an influence.
I could honestly go on and on about the cyberpunk genre in Japan and how much of it influenced modern sci-fi, even in Hollywood but that’s an entirely different conversation. But I’ll leave you with this funny little idea: If you, too, were hella disappointed by the game Cyberpunk 2077, maybe read Akira instead? I promise it’s much more well written and you don’t need an expensive console to read it.
So, maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to talk about classic manga and anime, because clearly, I can’t contain myself. These are just my picks, of course, and I had many more I wanted to mention but ran out of space. Do you think these classics are underrated or overrated? Sound off below!