10 Non-Shounen Manga Titles to Diversify Your Collection

Manga — we’ve all heard of it. Manga aren’t just comics or graphic novels, but specifically those that originate from Japan and follow a specific narrative style, namely explosive onomatopoeia and doe-eyed characters.

Naruto.

 

Western audiences are perhaps very familiar with titles such as Naruto, Attack on Titan, Dragon Ball, Bleach, and so on. While these titles are all thrilling, action-driven series with one plot twist after another, they’re all shounen manga. Which means they’re inherently about young teenage boys gifted with mysterious special powers. Their giftedness, however, is usually involuntarily. As a result, the story is always about their journey to learn more about the enigma of their god-like abilities, through which they discover the value of friendship and draw their own philosophy on the meaning of life.

While these series have their own charm and a special place in many Western readers’ hearts, the overpowering popularity of shounen can obscure other genres that deal with a variety of subjects and characters. In fact, the world of manga has always been a robust place with unique stories and incredible storytelling. If you want to experience the artistic and creative diversity of manga, I’ve curated a list of 10 less mainstream manga series with interesting premises and refreshing characters. Let’s check them out!

 

If you’re looking for something humorous and lighthearted:

1. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun by Izumi Tsubaki.

 

 

 

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun is a 4-panel manga, which means there are only four panels on each page. We have Umetarou Nozaki, a high school boy with an ominous vibe, who turns out to be a manga artist of a best-selling romance manga for girls. He’s so serious-looking that it never crosses anyone’s mind that he can have such a double identity. Chiyo Sakura, a tiny and happy-go-lucky highschool girl, has a crush on Nozaki. However, when she confesses her love to him, he mistakes her for a fan and takes her to his home to help him finish his manuscript. After discovering Nozaki’s second identity, she agrees to become his assistant to get closer to him. Will she eventually win his heart?

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): This series is basically about a girl trying to flirt with a boy who’s too dense to notice it. The humor is on point, playful and not at all reinforcing the girl-desperate-for-male-validation trope so prominent in a romance story. In addition, both the protagonists and supporting characters are so carefully designed with endearing personalities, you’ll end up laughing and crying and rooting for all of them.

 

2. Last Game by Shinobu Amano

Last Game is a romance story of a boy who has been chasing after a girl for nearly his whole life. Naoto Yanagi is not only born into a wealthy and prestigious family, but also incredibly handsome, talented, and intelligent. He has never experienced failure or even second place in his life. Until Mikoto Kujo, a girl with apparently no emotions, moves into his elementary school class and beats him at everything. Bitter, he follows her to middle school, high school, and college, vowing to beat her at least once. What he doesn’t expect is to learn more and more about Kujo’s life as he becomes more and more attached to her.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): The summary above sounds kind of cliché, doesn’t it? I don’t disagree, either! But the beauty of Last Game is that Kujo isn’t another variation of a manic pixie dream girl who changes or fixes a broken man. In fact, the story follows the development of Yanagi and Kujo’s relationship, its hardships as well as progressions that help them mature as adults. In other words, Yanagi and Kujo influence each other to grow as people together, and at the end of the story, everyone has changed for the better. A heartwarming story and an absolutely complex female character — definitely a recommendation from me.

 

3. Tamen de Gushi by Tan Jiu

Tamen de Gushi is actually by a Chinese artist, but it’s nevertheless one of the most popular series among manga fans. The humorous storyline is straightforward and simple, though not without drama, and follows how Sun Jing (left in picture) and Qiu Tong (right) meet and slowly fall in love.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): It’s one of the cutest lesbian comics on the Internet. The art style gives off soft and warm vibes, just like the dynamic between Sun Jing and Qiu Tong themselves. The way the artist portrays their relationship is also playful and innocent, as if girls liking girls is a normal, everyday thing. I find such representation incredibly refreshing and a much-needed break from the sexualization and/or fetishization of lesbian relationships in other media.

 

4. Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge by Nozomi Uda

Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge, or Tanaka-kun is Always Listless in English, is about a listless high school boy named Tanaka. He’s always tired, can sleep anywhere, and doesn’t really care much about anything. On the other hand, his best friend, Ota, is a caring and energetic guy, and so Ota always ends up literally carrying Tanaka everywhere. Without a proper plot, the story takes the reader through Tanaka’s amusing response or lack thereof to events as well as people in his life.

Why I love it: This is a light-hearted read that never fails to put a small smile on my face, especially when I’m in dire need of something to destress. Also, Tanaka is just such a mood.

 

5. Gin Tama by Hideaki Sorachi

Gin Tama is set in an alternate universe of Japan’s Edo period, where aliens have taken complete control over the earth and banned citizens from carrying swords in public. Protagonist Gintoki Sakata helps young boy Shinpachi Shimura save his sister from being sold into a brothel. Impressed by Gintoki’s swordsmanship, Shinpachi becomes his apprentice. The two of them then rescue Kagura, a non-Earth being but in the form of a young girl, from a group of Yakuza who want to use her superhuman power to do evil. The three then form a freelancing trio called “Yorozuya,” translated as “We Will Do Anything” or transliterated as “The Anything Store.” The story then follows the trio as they encounter friends, foes, and those in between.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): Gin Tama is a little bit of a borderline case, as it’s humorous and lighthearted for 80% of the time, but there’s still an underlying plot that drives it forward — a very elaborate one to be exact. From my personal experience, however, you don’t have to exactly understand what’s happening to enjoy the series. The humor can be considered vulgar (as in a lot of dirty jokes), but absolutely comedy gold, with extensive puns, word play, and cultural references. Plus, each character has such a strong and memorable presence with their unique personality that they’ll surely keep you hooked.

 

If you’re looking for a story to emotionally invest in:

6. Akatsuki no Yona by Mizuho Kusanagi

Akatsuki no Yona is set in a fictional universe which is a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures. Yona, our protagonist, is the sole princess to the Kingdom of Kouka. The three people close to her consist of her father  King Il, her childhood friend turned bodyguard Hak, and her cousin and crush Su-won. On the night of her sixteenth birthday, she pays a visit to her father’s chamber, only to witness Su-won murdering King Il right in front of her eyes. As the next male in line, Su-won becomes king and, as Yona and Hak flee from the castle that very night, sends out a warrant for both of them. After they successfully escape, Yona and Hak find out from a priest about the legend of the Four Dragon Warriors who helped the first king of Kouka united the kingdom. Together, Yona and Hak embark on a journey to find the dragons with hopes to restore justice for Yona’s deceased father and the Kingdom of Kouka.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): Yona is a strong and, I cannot stress this enough, complex female protagonist. Through the story you can see her mature with the help of Hak, the dragons, and the friends she makes along the way. And she makes a conscious decision to become better, more independent; an entirely self-made young woman. Yet, she also gets self-conscious when she’s facing the person she loves, still enjoys girly things with her girl friends, and entirely embraces her soft femininity when dealing with politics. I’ve rarely read a better written female lead in any manga series, so even if historical stories aren’t really your thing, I’d still recommend giving Akatsuki no Yona a try!

 

7. Hikaru no Go by Yumi Hotta, illustrated by Takeshi Obata

Hikaru no Go centers around the board game Go and a young boy named Shindou Hikaru. Now, I promised to introduce you to non-shounen titles that don’t talk about a young man’s identity crisis, and I will stay true to my word. Hikaru stumbles across an old Go board in his grandfather’s attic, which has been haunted by a ghost called Fujiwara-no-Sai from the Heian period. Sai can’t leave the living world yet because he wasn’t able to attain the Divine Move — the perfect move in Go. As Hikaru is the only person able to see Sai, he involuntarily agrees to coexist with Sai, and take up Go lessons to help Sai’s ghost move on. The story follows Hikaru’s encounters with people in the Go world, his relationships with those around him, and his process of growing up.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): If you think board games are boring, I guarantee you Hikaru no Go will change your mind. I first read the story when I was in middle school and was so inspired I’ve wanted to take Go lessons ever since, but Go isn’t as popular in my country or in the U.S., so that’s still on my bucket list. The authors portray their characters with tender yet devastating realism and drives the plot with carefully premeditated pacing, while still managing to sprinkle in heart-warming moments of humor. One of the best coming of age stories I have read and always a favorite of mine.

 

8. Kanojo ni Naritai Kimi to Boku by Umi Takase

Kanojo ni Naritai Kimi to Boku is a manga about Hime Sakuragaike who’s stupidly in love with her childhood friend Akira Yonezawa, who opened up to Hime that she identified as a girl a few years ago. Hime has always thought of it as a secret between the two, until they begin high school and Akira decides to dress as a girl. As an unfortunate but expected matter of course, Akira becomes the target of ridicule of her classmates. Hime decides to take on the responsibility of aggressively defending Akira, which also includes trying to put herself in Akira’s shoes.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): I think the series has been handling trans topics very well with just the right amount of humor and teen drama. The way Hime defends Akira might be a bit overbearing and borderline problematic at first if you look at it from a U.S-centric social justice perspective, but try to keep an open mind and put yourself in the character’s shoes. When I found myself judging Hime in the first few chapters, I took a step back and tried to imagine myself in her position, which brought up a lot of self-reflective questions on allyship and how to engage in allyship. A very thought-provoking read.

 

9. Liar Game by Shinobu Kaitani

In Liar Game, Nao Kanzaki — an honest, gullible college student — is involuntarily chosen to be a contestant in the Liar Game Tournament. In this game, contestants have to lie and cheat in order to obtain others’ money. However much money the loser loses determines how much the loser will be in debt. After getting cheated on for the first time by someone she genuinely trusts, Nao asks Shinichi Akiyama, a con man, to help her. After defeating the person who cheated on Nao, they decide to help him pay his debt by continue to play against ruthless contestants in the tournament in a way that will also cancel out their debts when they lose. Nao and Shinichi’s goal: to defeat the Liar Game system from within.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): This brain-draining series keeps me on my toes more than any thriller I’ve read or watched in my entire life. If you think my summary is a tiny bit confusing, the complex logic and reasoning in the series will blow your mind. If you’re one of those people who love brain games and want to take it to the next level, here’s the perfect series for you.

 

10. Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori

Ouran High School Host Club is something of a legendary shoujo manga, almost on par with Sailor Moon. Our protagonist, Haruhi Fujioka, is a scholarship student at Ouran Academy, a super prestigious school for super affluent kids. One day, Haruhi chances upon the supposedly abandoned Music Room #3 while trying to find a quiet place to study. Greeting her are six gorgeous boys who call themselves “hosts” of the Ouran Academy Host Club, where female students can come and be entertained by handsome young men. Flustered at such a sight, Haruhi stumbles and breaks a vase that costs 8 million yen (around $80,000) and is forced to work for the host club to pay off her debt.

Why I love it (spoiler alert!): While many people would put Ouran High School Host Club in the light-hearted category, I’ve been very emotionally invested in this series. Yes, the premise is absurdly hilarious, the drama a little corny, the ending kind of predictable, but I’ll never not be in awe of how the author has carried seven main characters on her shoulders and developed every one of them so well. Although the spotlight is still on Haruhi and Tamaki (the love interest), the multiple background relationships among the rest of the host club, as well as the main characters’ relationships with other supporting characters, are explored and portrayed with great care and love. Plus, Haruhi is canonically genderfluid and her father is bisexual and trans; and the fact that the story focuses on the humanity of these characters instead of their queerness really sells it for me.

There are more titles I could have included more in this list, but I think for starters, the 10 series above are enough to give an overview of the wide array of creativity in the manga world. From refreshing takes on teenage romance and the coming of age narrative to queer representation and brain games, did any series in this list catch your eye?

 

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