Almost all of the most popular anime in America originates from a Shonen manga like NARUTO, DRAGON BALL Z, or BLEACH. For those who haven’t read my An Introduction to Manga, simply put, “Shonen” describes manga whose primary demographic is younger boys. Shonen is by far the most ubiquitous genre in manga, and because of that I wanted to make two separate Top 5 lists for “Action Adventure” manga.

This first list will mainly focus on the aforementioned “Shonen” manga, while the second top 5 list will focus on action adventure manga intended for a mature audience; complete with more violence, sexual content, and mature themes. These manga are called “Seinen,” whose primary demographic is older males. Be sure to check back next week for the next list!  

This list comes from over 10 years of experience reading manga. Shonen are, by far, the easiest way to get introduced to manga and ease yourself into the culture. Every entry on this list is easily available to read online, and I hope you’ll give some of them a try!  Without further ado, here are the best Shonen Manga!

5. MAGI

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MAGI follows a young boy named Aladdin and his djinn, Ugo. The pair are drifting from town to town, barely able to get by, until one day Aladdin meets Alibaba, a young man who is determined to enter a dungeon, a dangerous area that supposedly holds great treasures within.

The art is standard for your average Shonen; most of the panels are packed with background imagery and random pedestrians, and oftentimes not enough attention is put on making the main characters look sharp. In order to meet with the weekly deadlines most Shonen run on, the artists use an extremely cartoony style (action scenes excluded) in order to make characters easier to draw. Where writer and artist Shinobu Ohtaka really excels is portraying certain villains in a incredibly unsettling, creepy & downright perverse way.

Sadly, MAGI is an often overlooked and under-read manga, as the first few chapters are somewhat uneven in terms of pace and direction of story. The world-building may not reach the heights of series like ONE PIECE, but coming as close as it does is an accomplishment in itself. The world is constantly growing as more plot points are introduced through each arc, and like many other Shonen, MAGI gives you inklings of much larger world than what the main character has been exposed to. Like many of these coming of age stories, when the time comes to truly face the realities of the world it shows how ill-prepared the protagonists actually are for the task at hand.

The story and tone of MAGI have both changed so much from the story’s beginning (or even what it was a hundred chapters ago), and although I might not be enjoying the manga as much as I once did, I still say that MAGI is a much better read than more popular choices like NARUTO or BLEACH.

4. SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA

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SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA is a manga about cooking. I know that might not sound incredibly exciting, but take all the frantic energy from cooking shows like Iron Chef or Chopped, and add unique characters each with their own special, almost unbelievable, styles of cooking, and you get the sensational flavor that is SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA. There are no action scenes, no cool abilities, no world building: where author Yūto Tsukuda’s strength lies is creating seemingly insurmountable situations for our main character’s to overcome.

READ: For those of the romantic persuasion, read The Top 5 Romance Manga of All Time!

Yukihira Souma’s family owns a small family diner, but after it closes down, he transfers into an elite cooking school, where every other student has been studying for years. It is clear from almost the beginning that the odds are against Yukihira, whose brash personality and unrefined cooking style, clashes with the egos of most of the “high society” students there.

The art of SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA is probably better than any other entry on this list. Like I mentioned above, most Shonen manga run on a weekly schedule, so most artists tend to focus on finishing their manuscripts before deadlines over more detailed artwork. But Shun Saeki, the artist of SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA, gives characters sharp and complex designs, and the drawings of the cooking itself are basically food porn. This manga might not have the complexity of plot that some of the other entries on this list do, but it is the one that I catch myself looking forward to the most every week.

3. FULL METAL ALCHEMIST

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FULL METAL ALCHEMIST is probably one of the more recognizable names on this list, as it had an extremely popular anime in America which aired on Toonami and Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network, and an even better follow up series, FULL METAL ALCHEMIST: BROTHERHOOD, that followed the manga’s story more closely.

FULL METAL ALCHEMIST follows brothers Edward & Alphonse Elric on their quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a legendary artifact that would help the pair restore their bodies. Prior to the events of the manga Ed’s arm and leg, and Al’s body were both lost in an attempt to revive their dead mother (see? I told you this got dark) leaving Ed to replace his limbs with “automail” technology and bonding Al’s soul to a suit of armor.

Main characters in Shonen are generally pretty similar in personality; unyieldingly positive and a bit simple-minded. They rely on instincts more than any great intellect they possess, but Edward (and Alphonse) are very different. Edward is a genius alchemist who tackles problems with his mind just as often as his physicality. On top of that, he grapples with complex emotions like his guilt over his brother’s deformation and his struggle with his own often sardonic personality and unflappable sense of justice.

For a Shonen manga aimed toward younger readers, FULL METAL ALCHEMIST has a fair share of blood and gore, and it deals with mature themes and philosophical questions usually reserved for Seinin manga. Death, the purpose of religion, and the various vices of humanity are just a few of life’s great questions our main characters struggle to answer throughout the story. FULL METAL ALCHEMIST is often downright tragic; death has more weight, and even characters that we deeply care for aren’t safe from the chopping block. When I first read FULL METAL ALCHEMIST in middle school, there were multiple times I had to put the manga down to process and collect myself before picking it back up. 

This is the only manga on this list that was both written and drawn by a women, who usually aren’t associated with Shonen manga. Hiromu Arakawa’s art style is pretty barebones, but has a certain subtlety in the way that expressions are drawn. Much of the story is told visually because both the Ed and Al tend to be withdrawn in terms of expressing their feelings to each other. Her art is always consistent, and there aren’t any noticeable dips in quality like some of the other entries on this list. That is probably because this manga ran on a monthly schedule giving her significantly more time for accuracy and quality than your typical Shonen.

This is the only manga on this list that has actually ended, and judging the story as a whole, it truly is one of the great works of the medium. 

2. HUNTER X HUNTER

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Gon Freecs has lived on an island all his life, thinking that his father died when he was young. After finding out that he was not only alive, but also a famous Hunter, a highly respected profession with extremely strict requirements for membership, he decides to leave his home in order to become a Hunter and find his father.

HUNTER X HUNTER is notable for having characters that feel more organic than your average Shonen leads. Every one of the core characters have their own arc in which they grow with each new situation they face; changing drastically from where we met them. Topics like genocide, slaughter, human experimentation juxtaposed alongside writer and artist Yoshihiro Togashi’s creepy, sketchy art-style really gives this manga a more serious atmosphere than most Shonen. Of course, there are some calm moments and bits of humor that shine through but they rarely last long.

HUNTER X HUNTER spends a lot of time showing leading characters training to become stronger; probably because the power/ability system is incredibly involved and complex. But, I was actually excited to see the characters train and grow stronger; learning about how their skills worked along with them. Character’s abilities are often tied to a personal backstory or personality trait. For example, one of our lead’s was tortured with electricity as a child, so he chose that as is primary ability; and Gon’s own ability, to use “rock, paper, scissors” as a multipurpose attack, fits perfect with his innocent, fun-loving nature. The first arc focuses on all the tests that Gon has to go through to become a Hunter, but after that, the story’s pace becomes increasingly quick as Gon’s team has to figure out how to deal with each new villain.

The sad thing about this manga is that it is constantly on hiatus. Togashi only releases a few chapters in a year, between breaks of one to two years at a time in a constant cycle that readers have been suffering through for most of the series’ run. I personally don’t think this manga will ever be finished, but regardless of the ending, the quality of the installments we do get of HUNTER X HUNTER are so high that it still remains my number two Shonen of all time.

READ: Check out the first part of this series introducing you to MANGA!

1. ONE PIECE

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Was there any doubt? ONE PIECE has been the model of consistent quality for the over 15 years it’s been in publication. Every single chapter builds upon the constantly expanding world and cast of characters. The story has been so methodically planned out that certain storylines mentioned in the beginning of ONE PIECE, were not actually completed until hundreds of chapters later. The world is so fleshed out, and has such a deep history, that it feels like it could actually exist, and for a writer that is probably the best compliment you can give. Writer and artist, Eichiro Oda, is truly a master of creating dynamic characters with meaningful backstories that make us truly empathize with them. His art isn’t terribly detailed, but it matches the story; simple, and sometimes a bit over exaggerated

The story follows Monkey D. Luffy, a pirate who wishes to follow the legacy of the famous Pirate King, and find the greatest treasure in the world, One Piece. It’s not exceedingly complicated, but as he finds out more about the world around him, as well as building his own pirate crew, you can’t help but try to figure out which direction the plot will head. Unlike NARUTO or BLEACH, this manga managed to go through a time-skip in the middle of the story and still retain its quality.

Out of all the Shonen manga I have read in my life, this is by far the one that exemplifies all the qualities of what makes the genre great. There is an incredible sense of adventure and discovery, a light-hearted silliness mixed with moments of heartbreak. The fighting system may not be extremely complex, but the creativity of the character’s abilities and the different ways they’re implemented, makes the action scenes extremely compelling. 

. ~ .

Shonen often don’t get enough credit. A lot of readers look down on them for being somewhat formulaic and even generic, with most of them fitting into a cookie cutter format. While that criticism may be well deserved in some respect, considering that a lot of Shonen have a “rinse and repeat” pattern — a strong opponent comes along, the protagonist has some sort of power-up, and then another even stronger opponent is introduced.

Some of the entries on this list even fall into that cycle, but just because these authors utilize certain tropes, that doesn’t mean their manga can’t have complexity and narrative substance. All the protagonists in these stories have an urge to grow stronger, and they use this as the crux for their motivation. But the scenarios they are put in and the world building with each installment are not only creative, but incredibly substantive. The themes may not always convey a complex message, but as pure popcorn entertainment, I dare say Shonen might be at the top.

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