I have been anxiously been waiting to write this list since the start of my manga series. Seinen manga is in an entirely different hemisphere than either Shonen and Shojo. Not only regarding mature content but, most noteworthy, in the themes presented. While Shonen manga focuses more on interpersonal development and personal growth has to do with characters becoming physically stronger, Seinen manga tends to be more introspective. It deals with the main characters who face their inner demons.
Seinen Manga Characters
Look at all the great Shonen icons, like Goku and Luffy. They are very static characters that have remained largely the same through many years of publication. Much of the appeal of Shonen manga lies in the simple-minded nature of the main characters. They see the world as black and white. Even when people in their lives die, it usually leads to their resolve just hardening rather than leaving any long-term emotional scar. Their design appears unabashedly righteous, almost infallible in some respects. Because of this, a certain amount of magnetism makes readers easily support and root for them.
Seinen manga characters never seem simple. Most of them go through vast character arcs in which they start out one way, and end up completely changed. This happens for better or for worse. Some begin stories as standard characters. Then, their lives around them fall apart. They start to fall into depravity. In other cases, characters begin as ruthless killers and eventually begin to change after experiencing the world after learning a new perspective. Seinen manga characters and stories follow no set formula. This leaves the readers always guessing. No promises for happy endings exist therefore they shouldn’t be expected.
In some of the previous lists, I tried to be eclectic in choosing my Top 5 manga. I chose manga that has different art styles or alternative themes. However, in this case, I have no leeway in choosing, since I already had five manga in my head from the start. These mangas play out differently. While some have similar themes, all the manga have their unique voice.
Probably the least known of any of the manga that I have talked about in any of my lists, HISTORIE follows the life Eumenes– a little-known figure who was a general under Alexander the Great. If the name didn’t give it away already, this manga makes the first “historical manga” that I mentioned. It bases itself on the life of a real person. It is written by Hitoshi Iwaaki, the mangaka famous for writing PARASYTE, which got made into an extremely well-received anime.
This book is written in biographically. Some small time jumps exist back and forth, but the vast majority follows chronologically. It starts during Eumenes’s youth in Cardia. He grows into an exceedingly bright boy. He excels not only in his studies but also in wrestling and combat. Additionally, his family has the most power in the city. He seems blessed in all facets of his life, but of course, it wouldn’t be a Seinen manga without drastically bad things happening to the main character.
Why You Should Care
Eumenes’ life faces constant upheavals going from wealthy elite to slave to village leader to the secretary. More so than the setting or the story, the great appeal of HISTORIE is Eumenes himself. Even though he may appear relatively apathetic half the time, the narrative goes on to show his inner thoughts. He carefully plans all of his actions. He has an almost Machiavellian genius in the way he reads the intentions of others and maneuvers around them. Additionally, his mind has a military brilliance.
I would not describe this manga as something that invokes an enormous amount of emotion but watching Eumenes grow and overcome very bad odds, and yet still remain to be a moral person, is a breath of fresh air in this genre. Most main characters in Seinen manga usually follow a much darker path.
REAL is written by Takehiko Inoue, who, in my opinion, is the greatest mangaka writer of all time. He may not be as prolific as some of the others, but every single manga he has ever written has made me look at life differently. His characters feel alive as if they actually exist and Inoue is just their mouthpiece. Their lives are complete fleshed out, and their motivations and thoughts seem inextricably deep and complex.
The story of REAL follows three different youths who play wheelchair basketball. They do this by circumstance or because of a legitimate interest in the game. One of them paralyzes a girl due to their delinquency. Then they become overcome with guilt. Another competes athletically as a track star. He then gets a disease which ends with amputating one of his legs. Finally, the last one used to be the elitist captain of his basketball team before becoming paralyzed in an accident. All of their views seem so contradictory to each other, but eventually, they begin to affect each other’s perspectives drastically. Unlike SLAM DUNK, which is also written by Takehiko Inoue, this focuses much less on basketball and more on the lives of these three individuals, using basketball as a vehicle to show and express their various struggles and emotions.
No Personal Experience? No Problem!
I have never actually played a team sport before, but this manga makes me wish that I did. Every single person brings their baggage to the team, their inner turmoil. After being together for practices and games, there is a camaraderie and understanding. In some ways, they are closer than a family. You see each other struggle, both on and off the court, and become vital parts of each other’s lives. Of course, in REAL, the relationships between characters isn’t so one dimensional that everyone automatically gets along with each other. There is a lot of friction and even a bit of disdain for each other when they first meet. Watching these characters change and how they face different obstacles makes this one of the most interesting mangas I have ever read.
3. VINLAND SAGA
VINLAND SAGA is another historical manga based on the Viking’s discovery of “Vinland”, which is now known as America. There is a lot of dramatization of different historical events in this manga and the main character, Thorfinn, is also based on a real-life person. This manga follows his life, starting from when he was a little kid, and shows how he eventually got to America.
This is the first entry on the list that really is incredibly violent. The life of Thorfinn is probably not super well-recorded so the author, Makoto Yukimura, definitely took some artistic license when writing this story. In the beginning, Thorfinn is depicted as a brutal killer. Of course, you get a bit of back story later on, which shows that Thorfinn was a normal, good-natured child, but when his father was killed in front of him, he completely changed and vowed to get his revenge. The strange thing is that Thorfinn was taken captive by his father’s killer and was forced to join his band of Vikings.
The narrative of this story depends solely on Thorfinn and how he channels his emotions into motivation. His key goal at the beginning of this manga is to solely get revenge for his dad. Due to his very one track mind, he disregards all the lessons his father taught him growing up and just kills whoever he has to. Later on, he is completely overcome by guilt, and the story transforms into a redemption story. As you read, the familiarity and understanding you develop for Thorfinn become a feeling of immense sympathy and even a bit of hope. If someone like Thorfinn, who has killed hundreds of people in his life, can find peace and happiness, then I should have the same resolve to do so as well.
There are parts of BERSERK that are so dark and depressing that on subsequent rereads of the story I often feel as though I don’t have the mental fortitude to experience them again and skip over those portions. That is how powerful and effective Kentaro Miura is at building situations filled with tension and despair. This is the type of story that lingers and sticks with you long after you finish reading.
BERSERK takes place in Midland, a place heavily influenced by Middle-Age Europe. Religious inquisitions and witch-hunts run rampant. A central church has firm control over the populace. The story follows Guts, a wandering warrior who people call the Black Swordsman. He follows a bloody quest to kill humanoid monsters called Apostles. Vengeance, sacrifice, and friendship lie in some of the major themes. In the end, persevering through darkness and loneliness seems to be the strongest message in this manga.
Instead of going “Medieval,” Go BERSERK!
A big part of the story examines what people see as “good” and “evil,” as well as the religious relationship with those ideas. The church plays a huge part in this manga and is often the villain. Watching Guts break the perceptions and mindsets of some of the religious fanatics of this world are one of the most satisfying parts of the manga. While pre-Renaissance Eurinfluencednced this manga, the biggest departure lies in its fantastical elements. Various myths from around the world influenced these elements. There are witches, demons, fairies, and goblins. They all exist in a way that fits into the dark reality of this world.
BERSERK is an action-centric manga and has some Shonen-like attributes. Guts goes through various power-ups through the story in order for him to more readily face a higher level of enemies. There are certain moments where the manga caters to the fans and shows us how bad-ass Guts actually is. All of the drawings are so detailed and vivid, but the combat scenes are just a feast for your eyes. The sword, the armor, the actual fighting- these parts are the most fun you will have reading this manga, and that’s saying something since they are filled with massive amounts of gore and death. This manga is not for the faint of heart.
I struggled immensely with the placement of the first two spots. Both of these mangas contain incredible art. The stories remain peerless when it comes to narrative and characters. The primary focus of the narratives makes for the differentiating factor. BERSERK seems much more story and plot-driven. It contains an incredible amount of complexity when it comes to character development, but the inner monologues seem sparse. They don’t seem as thought-provoking and evocative as those of VAGABOND. Where BERSERK uses the plot to drive the story forward, VAGABOND’s story focuses on constant inner questioning and discovery.
VAGABOND is another historical manga written by Takehiko Inoue, who wrote the manga mentioned above, REAL. The story follows the journey of the extremely famous and legendary Japanese swordsman. They call him Miyamoto Musashi, a man who lived during the 16th and 17th century in the Edo Period of Japan. This was a time where wandering swordsmen roamed the country. They try to make a name for themselves through their skill with a blade. Musashi, much like many others during this period, dreams of becoming “invincible under the sun.” Later, he confronts many of the most skillful swordsmen of his time.
A Philosophical Plot?
The plot is not overly complex. It focuses mostly on the different people that Musashi faces, both physically through the sword and philosophically. A lot of this story is philosophical since each confrontation introduces new moral questions to Musashi. This story is not filled with sadness and tragedy like BERSERK. That might be half the reason I enjoy it. The emotional punches are more subtle. When looking at Musashi’s personality at the beginning of the manga versus his personality 300 chapters later, he is almost unrecognizable. That is a great testament to Takehiko Inoue’s writing. I didn’t even notice his character change until I reread the series.
Though VAGABOND is not as detailed as BERSERK regarding background or character drawings, he can draw so much emotion and meaning from different expressions. He often uses watercolor to draw some breathtaking landscapes.
Seinen Manga: The Bottom Line
A common story element in many of the Seinen manga that I love is that the main characters start the manga being completely violent, having no respect for human life. This is usually due to having bad childhoods, and this leads them to feel isolated growing up. Eventually, they surround themselves with people that show them kindness and affection, and they begin to change for the better. At least 3 of the manga I listed follow this format, but regardless of how overused certain parts of Seinen manga might be, the best authors in the manga industry write in this genre. Because of that, the stories are often much more than the sum of their parts, with character intricacies that I have seen in very few other mediums.
The biggest criticism I can give Seinen manga is the infrequency that many of the artists seem to have when releasing chapters. Both VAGABOND and BERSERK have constant hiatuses where they might go for as long as a year without a single update. Seinen manga rarely sees new releases weekly. Most follow a monthly schedule. The quality of art and high page count over most Shonen makes this understandable. Still, releasing four or five chapters a year pushes the limit. A lot of the time, the flow of the story suffers after such long breaks.
Nevertheless, when American comics readers ask me for manga recommendations, I recommend Seinen manga most of the time.
In conclusion, many of the manga on this list are not only my favorite “action Seinen manga,” but they are also some of my favorite pieces of fiction of all time.