When contemplating Japanese culture, one cannot overlook one particular, fascinating facet. An aspect that not only expresses the soul of the culture but does so in a way that actually stimulates the economy!

Manga is not only a Japanese cultural export.

These serial graphic novels, usually produced in instalments or printed in other popular Japanese publications such as magazines and newspapers that reveal only snapshots of the story at a time, have driven sales figures into the millions.

That would be millions of copies as well as millions of yen.

From Captain Tsubasa to Fairy Tail and including, of course, City Hunter (Nicky Larson), each volume and each story leads us on incredible adventures seldom experienced through what we commonly think of as works of art.

Today’s worldwide acceptance of manga is a testament to its success.

Manga has become an integral part of pop culture and its companion art form, what we call Japanese anime or simply anime is even shown in theatres as full-length feature films.

And then, there is merchandising: the figurines and hats and clothing with manga characters on them; backpacks and water bottles and...

Superprof proposes to take you through the manga universe: the most popular series and the most famous artists; the most exquisitely drawn, engaging narratives.

Along the way, we’ll discover how to read manga correctly and, finally, how reading manga can aid you in your studies of the Japanese language.

If you are not yet otaku or if you’ve never entertained the thought of reading manga, this is your chance to get on board!

Find the best Japanese classes London here.

Anime acts as a cultural ambassador for Japan
Anime like Naruto has turned its characters into Japanese cultural ambassadors! Image by Vinson Tan from Pixabay

Some manga is well-known and appreciated while others often do not get a second glance. Some of the most popular titles include Naruto, Dragon Ball Z and Bleach, just to name a few.

Of course, if you pay any type of attention to pop culture, you are already familiar with those few names. Now we throw out some that you might not already be in tune with.

By the way: for more manga titles, you might check out an article wherein we’ve listed the world’s most popular manga.

One Piece – the Best-Selling Manga Series of All Time

Nobody who speaks of manga with any authority can fail to mention the world’s most popular manga, written by Eiichiro Oda.

Gold D. Roger’s most fabulous treasure is known as One Piece. Monkey D. Luffy dreams of finding it and thus becoming the king of the pirates.

With his Straw Hat Pirates, an enormous band that numbers in the thousands, he combs the seas and fights other pirate crews with his elastic fists.

When Luffy was a boy, he ate a Devil Fruit which gave him elastic properties... as if this far-reaching tale needed more fantastic aspects!

Luffy’s adventures take us across and under the sea, into the skies and across barren deserts. Your inner explorer would be quite content to follow along with their adventures.

And what adventures they have! To date, there are no fewer than 92 volumes, all available for purchase on Amazon and in bookstores that sell manga across the UK.

My Hero Academia – A Monster Success

Since 2014, manga artist Kohei Horikoshi has treated the world to an epic manga experience via the massively read Shonen Jump manga anthology.

Meet Izuku Midoriya, an ordinary human in a world where 80% of the people have at least one superpower.

He dreams of finding a super-power so that he might enrol at the UA High School (Yuei koko) where he can be trained along with the next generation of super-powered people.

That’s not so easy to do when you’re ‘common’...

Hunter x Hunter

Yoshihiro Togashi is a manga artist who first came to prominence for Yu Yu Hakusho, published in Shonen Jump in 1990.

Four years after Hakusho’s run ended, in 1998 Togashi again came to lead the pack with another provocative tale that, apparently, has no end – it has been in continuous publication since that year.

Reading it, we are treated to the adventures of Gon, who wishes to become a hunter, like his father.

During training, he makes some staunch allies as well as one malignant foe. The longer the quest, the more difficult the trials and the greater he and his band suffer equal parts of elation and sadness... all in the quest for greatness!

Berserk: The Young Man’s Manga Playing all the Right Cards

Not all mangas are Shonen – action oriented with young males as a target audience.

Berserk is a case in point: this Seinen (meant for males up to their 30s and beyond) is a medieval fantasy-horror created by Kentar Miura.

The mercenary Guts meets the leader of the Falcon Troupe named Griffith. Together, they launch into adventure and fall into a significant amount of violence.

And so, they travel this world ravaged by war, populated with monsters who practise unmentionable abuse, with Gus doing everything he can to protect that which is most dear to him...

This manga is not for the faint of heart. Berserk treats us to a dark world and paints a terrible yet oddly realistic portrait of the human soul, eternally balanced between grievance and grace.

Which manga is your favourite? Join the discussion on the most popular manga of all time...

Select your manga carefully, make sure it is suited to your level
Selecting the best manga for your reading level could be a chore! Image by Emilie Farris from Pixabay

Reading Manga: Where to Start

We’re not being facetious here; reading manga as it should be read is a bit more involved than simply opening up and letting your eyes devour.

If you’ve never explored Japanese comic books, you might be stunned at the choices on offer.

There are a number of genres; specific types of manga and exacting codes to remember. To help you decipher them, Superprof has written an article detailing them all!

Choosing a Series

We’ve already mentioned a couple of types of manga: Shonen and Seinen. What you might not know is that manga is categorised by their target audience as well as by the house that publishes them.

As a decidedly non-inclusive list, we offer up these four main categories:

  • Kodomo is for young children; rather comical and embraces adventure
  • Shonen, meant for young males, consists primarily of action-adventure and fantasy
  • Shojo is for young females. It principally addresses romance and school life
  • Seinen/Josei is for young adults: drama, thriller, horror and science fiction

Again, we assert that by no means do these four categories reflect all that there is to manga. Neither is any manga purely one genre.

For example, in Death Note, we find a number of criteria that would classify it as Seinen when, in fact, it is authentically Shonen and is published in Shonen Jump.

So, before you start reading manga, you should become familiar with the different universes they present.

In this table, we present a few more branches of the fruitful manga tree along with sterling examples you might set your sights on reading:

Nekketsu (adventure)Naruto
RomanceWolf Girl and Black Prince
PhilosophicalKino's Journey
FantasySeven Deadly Sins
Science FictionGantz
Mecha (robots)Evangelion
HorrorTokyo Ghoul
SportEyeshield 21
Ecchi (flirty with no overt sex, as in Hentai)To Love Ru
ComedySaiki Kusuo No Ψ Nan

Naturally, you may select a manga based on its length of publication, popularity and, of course, your personal interests.

If you are on the younger side of life, you might consider Shonen or Shojo; if you are a bit more seasoned the themes addressed in Seinen might appeal more.

The Mechanics of Reading Japanese

The first point to consider when undertaking a manga adventure is that reading in Japan is unlike reading in our country.

Although manga you can buy in the UK has been translated into English, the mechanics of reading it follows the Japanese reading norm: from right to left and top to bottom.

To start properly, you must hold the spine in your right hand and open what, to us, would be the back cover. You would then flip the pages from left to right (as opposed to right-left, as with our books).

Likewise, the top-right frame of each page is first, followed by the one on the left. You would then progress down the page, reading the right frame first, all the way to the end of that page. The next page follows the same right-to-left pattern, all the way until the end of the book.

It might feel a bit awkward at first but, once you are eyeballs deep into the story, turning the pages ‘back’ will soon feel natural!

The next point to consider is the backdrop of each frame: generally white but occasionally black.

The dark colour indicates that the action described in that frame happened at some time in the past; a visual clue that you are witnessing a character flashback or memory.

Should the background be graded – transitioning from white to black or vice versa, that frame is taking you from past to present or from present to past.

Facial expressions can be equally difficult to interpret because they espouse Japanese cultural norms.

Thus, blushing, sighing and bleeding noses; flavours of discomfort and faces of anger are recurring elements in manga and don’t mean the same thing as in our culture.

Sound elements and onomatopoeia – the bark of a dog, the snick of a door; the cries and the laughter are not gratuitous. The all bear a significance to the story.

Female oriented manga deals with slice of life
Manga for females generally deal with slice of life topics Image by ryo taka from Pixabay

Manga’s Most Iconic Figures

Such is the global popularity of manga that many of the characters themselves have become ambassadors of Japanese culture abroad.

Avid manga readers engage in a bit of hero worship for their mainstays because they can be moving, touching, funny or outright badazz!

We’ve provided an expanded list of globally popular manga characters in another article but, for now... what do you think of these?

Seiya, Bronze Knight of Athena

Along with SonGoku and Pikachu, Seiya is one of the most recognisable personalities in serialized Japanese manga magazines.

Saint Seiya has featured in Shonen since 1988 when he first donned the armour representing the constellation Pegasus and became a warrior serving Athena. Along with other such knights, he battles the forces of Hades in the great millennial war.

Sasuke Uchiwa, Tortured Ninja of Konoha

Quite possibly even people dead-set against the idea of anime know the name Naruto – initially a manga that enjoyed enormous success during its 14-year run.

Among the main characters in this tale of ninjas, Sasuke and his rival, Naruto, have the greatest fandom following.

This dark-haired anti-hero with a tendency toward meanness has amazing powers that he uses to avenge the death of his entire clan – a slaughter incited by his own brother!

To reach his goal, he aligns himself shady characters who draw him ever deeper into darkness... and that’s where we stop! You’ll have to read the rest for yourself.

Sebastian Michaelis, Demon Butler

Perhaps you’re not acquainted with a manga titled Kuroshitsuji but you may know of Black Butler; they are one and the same and if only one word should describe it, that word would be ‘phenomenal’.

Welcome to the House of Phantomhive! Meet its lord and master, Ciel, who signed a pact with a devil – Sebastian.

This devil, posing as a butler, will help Master Ciel avenge his parents, in return for which he will consume his master’s soul...

One fascinating aspect of this manga is that the real Sebastian, a French inquisitor and Dominican order prior, wrote a tract on demons that was soon accepted as church dogma.

That such a character should feature as a demon in a manga magazine: talk about irony! Talk about subtle humour!

Charismatic and badazz in equal measures, Sebastian has a well-developed funny bone that shows every time he beats an opponent in battle or beats a path to the dinner table...

Nami, Navigator of Thousand Sunny

Although Luffy is the most-often cited character of One Piece, one cannot dismiss the fact that the best part of his crew consists of iconic characters in their own right, Sanji and Chopper among them.

And Nami, the sexy helmsman with a 66 million bounty on her head, is not bothered by surrounding events. This big-hearted thief is one of the more intelligent of the fleet; she dreams of mapping the entire world... sticking with the captain, she just might succeed in doing so!

Start reading anime meant for youngsters
Starting out with kawaii - or cute anime is a good way to stoke your language skills!

Learn Japanese with Manga

Nobody ever bragged about how easy it is to learn Japanese, especially because of its blend of Chinese ideograms (Kanji) mixed with Japanese Katakana and Hiragana alphabets.

Obviously, some sort of guidance would be warranted to start learning this language but manga comics are also a good way to practise your Japanese reading skills.

Learn more about studying Japanese with manga and anime!

Can You Really Learn Japanese by Reading Manga Books?

The answer is... yes! But simply reading Astro Boy or Fullmetal Alchemist will not give you the language skills you crave. You actually have to take a language course just to reach beginner level and to understand Kanji, Katakana and Hiragana.

What animand manga can do is compliment your learning by giving you cultural insights and making it easier to grasp some of the more familiar language – slang words and phrases.

With every new manga, you can pick up more vocabulary and tune in to grammatic constructions all while having a great read!

To use manga for learning Japanese, you must of course possess a manga book. You may order one online or perhaps even turn to sites that provide manga online – legally, not pirated!

You may also read manga online through a specialised Japanese learning course or direct yourself to sites, perhaps those specified in the weekly Shonen Jump.

Manga and Anime to Improve Your Japanese

As both manga and anime enjoy such popularity, there are surely titles you can use to learn more Japanese, all while enjoying stories like Nanatsu no taizai, Crunchyroll and Yu gi oh.

Make your selections with two criteria in mind: choose a simple manga to start out so that your language skills can develop as you read.

The second point is to understand Japanese pop culture so that you can have an idea of context as you read; otherwise, the ideas expounded on might be incomprehensible.

Stories like Kodomo, Doraemon or Pokemon have fairly simple language.

If you are a bit more advanced than that, you might try Fruits Basket, Slam Dunk, Attack on Titan or anything out of Studio Ghibli.

Watching anime is another great way to gain exposure to the language. Here again, Kodomo comes out a winner because the dialogue is slower than on more advanced shows.

Once you’ve tuned your ear and grasped the basics, Shonen, Shojo and Seinen would help you advance even further.

Just don’t make the mistake of going for them on the first pitch; make sure you are ready for that level of Japanese speaking so that you can fully immerse yourself into the stories!

Now that you’ve whet your appetite for Japanese animation, it’s time to find your Superprof so that you can start Japanese lessons!

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