Top 10 Manga that Push the Envelope [Best Recommendations]

Many non-Japanese fans enjoy manga and anime because many of them go the extra (or over 9000) mile compared to the materials of their respective countries. Mainstream titles like Dragon Ball have exciting action sequences, Sailor Moon has positive messages of girl power, and Naruto redefines the ninja. A lot of fans feel that the definitive art style with the big eyes and the whacky hairstyles are a perfect representation of its edgy appeal.

Beyond the titles everybody knows, there are some manga out there that push boundaries which have always been a double-edged sword. People love anime and manga because it portrays various kinds of mature content that makes us redefine whether or not comics are for kids, and there are people hate it for those exact same reasons. So what are some manga throughout history that have pushed the envelope? Read our top 10 to find out!

10. Life

  • Authors: Keiko Suenobu
  • Genres: Psychological, School, Slice of Life, Drama, Shoujo
  • Volumes: 20
  • Published: Apr 13, 2002 -Feb 13, 2009

A lot of people tend to associate Shoujo manga with super magical girls but Keiko Suenobu’s Life will make you re-evaluate that. Life is about Ayumu Shiiba, who seems like your ordinary school girl but is about to experience the darker side of adolescence. The series is a realistic approach based on what can happen in some schools all over the world and takes it to very dark places.

Despite how innocent and feminine the art looks just like other Shoujo manga out there, don’t let it fool you into thinking it’s about romance or senpai please notice me. While it does have some of that, it explores a very twisted side of it that does get overwhelming. The manga shows how some people in high school use their status to hide their true agendas. The extremities of how far the bullying goes are just the foundation of what this series is about, and it branches out to how it can lead to self-utilization, suicides, manipulation, isolation, mental breakdowns, etc.

Not only does the series push the envelope on teenage bullying and its effects, but the complicated realities of how to address the problem in some systems like Japan. A young ambitious teacher does try her best initially with the best of intentions, but no one takes her seriously because of the fears that it will make things worse if someone tells an authority, or in some instances, no one will believe them. Not only does that happen in the manga, but also it can happen in real life. Despite 20 volumes of heartbreak and tragedy, it is worth reading to know that justice is served in the end.

9. JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure)

  • Authors: Hirohiko Araki
  • Genres: Action, Adventure, Vampire, Historical, Horror, Shounen
  • Volumes: 121 (as of April 2018)
  • Published: Dec 2, 1986 - Present

Even after more than 30 years in publication, JoJo has no ending in sight and the way Araki structures it masterfully keeps it going. Initially debuting on the coattails of Hokuto no Ken, after its third story arc, Stardust Crusaders, it takes the series to revolutionary creative heights that not many manga have reached. It is famous not only for its action, but also for its various characters with their own personalities that stand out (no pun intended), the asymmetric poses that you’d see in Madonna’s Vogue video, and use of psychedelic colors. It is violent, but its substance, as opposed to its style, is what makes it push the envelope.

When people think of action in Shounen manga, the first things they think are Dragon Ball and Naruto. The action sequences in those titles are respectively explosive and exciting, but JoJo from its third story arc totally redefined action and contributes to why it’s still in publication to this very day. While the seeds of wits-based action were planted in the preceding story, Battle Tendency, Stardust Crusaders with the introduction of stands finally gives that feature a distinguishing visual representation.

Taking inspiration from the astral plane battles of X-Men, Araki created the stands, a character’s personal spiritual warrior with unique designs and abilities. The entire story arc is full of battles that demonstrate why this inclusion pushed the envelope in context to how action can be mental action, can be as exciting as physical oriented combat.

8. Oyasumi Punpun (Goodnight Punpun)

  • Authors: Inio Asano
  • Genres: Psychological, Slice of Life, Drama, Seinen
  • Volumes: 13
  • Published: Mar 15, 2007 – Nov 2, 2013

Growing up is hard and that is excellently presented through Punpun Onodera in Oyasumi Punpun. Asano initially had some troubles getting the manga approved because the initial character designs gave publishers the wrong idea on what it’s supposed to be about. But due to his earlier successes, they gave him the green light. As for why Punpun is designed the way he is, it’s so Asano could let readers use their imagination on what he really looks like, and for them to project themselves onto him. As he ages, his head design changes to reflect his emotions.

While the series starts off silly during his childhood, the story appropriately matures as he does and it did cause some controversy with readers, which is why it made this list. Granted it’s not as innocent as The Wonder Years, but readers are getting a contemporary look at what it means to grow up and deal with other mature themes, such as depression and sexuality. Last, in a viewpoint from let's say a religious community or upbringing, it pushes the envelope in how it depicts God, who is designed to look like a Blaxploitation hero who has a very sarcastic personality.

7. Gunnm: Last Order (Battle Angel Alita: Last Order)

  • Authors: Yukito Kishiro
  • Genres: Action, Martial Arts, Sci-Fi, Drama, Seinen
  • Volumes: 19
  • Published: Jul 19, 2001 – Jan 28, 2014

As most of you know, Battle Angel Alita is finally going to get its live-action release and had its first trailer premiere in the early part of 2018. The initial trailer fails to showcase that Battle Angel is actually a super violent series that has body limbs getting dismembered with barrels of blood bursting out. The funny thing is, Battle Angel Alita made this list not because of its intense action, but because of language usage.

While Japanese doesn’t have literal equivalents to the seven dirty words based on the stand up of George Carlin, Battle Angel didn’t get in trouble over anything close to it. Shiro nulled his contract with his initial publisher over “hakkyo shita” and “psycho yarou.” “Hakkyo shita” means something along the lines of “went crazy,” and “psycho yarou” means “psycho bastard.” Shiro shared in an interview that he couldn’t use those lines because it could be offensive to those with mental illness. He claims the use of those words were for an artistic purpose.

When it comes to pushing the envelope, it’s doing things that have never been done before that nobody thought anyone could do. You can sort of say this pushes the envelope in a different kind of direction since it makes us redefine or re-create where to draw the line. Why is ripping bodies apart ok and not using words like "psycho"? Why is this more harmful or more offensive to readers than the other? What’s the big deal? These questions as a result of this are why it made this list.

6. Ring ni Kakero

  • Authors: Masami Kurumada
  • Genres: Sports, Shounen
  • Volumes: 25
  • Published: Dec 28, 1976 – Sept 29, 1981

Though Masami Kurumada is famous worldwide for Saint Seiya, a decade prior, he made his mark in Japan through his breakout manga, Ring ni Kakero. While most of you tend to associate the sweet science with jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts, this manga has characters whose punches have meteorite-producing projectiles but that’s not why it made this list.

So try to imagine the anti-PC rhetoric of the American alternate right’s view of the world in the form of a manga, and that’s what you get with Ring ni Kakero. The Italians are portrayed as mobsters (there is a panel where a baby carries a gun), the Greeks are associated with its ancient times, the French project themselves as snobbish Napoleonic nobles and the Germans are Nazis! Yes, Team Germany is portrayed as Nazis with the garbs, swastikas, and goose-stepping!

As for the Americans, they’re a motley crew of a crossdresser, a death row inmate, the leader of the Hell’s Angels, the Grand Wizard of the KKK, and its leader is a Blaxploitation inspired character named Black Shaft. We are not kidding and we don’t expect you to make any sense of this. The fact that this manga exploits these stereotypes (and automatically gets banned in Germany) pushes not just the envelope, but the whole package! And did we mention that the world champion is Jesus Christ and his move is called the Neo Bible? The fights are a spectacle to behold and are in tune with Saint Seiya.

If you enjoy humor that exploits ethnic stereotypes that today’s PC world doesn’t allow, we promise you’re going to get a laugh out of this, but if this is the kind of stuff that offends you, stay far away.

5. Tsumi ni Nureta Futari (Forbidden Love)

  • Authors: Miyuki Kitagawa
  • Genres: Drama, Romance
  • Volumes: 18
  • Published: Oct 24, 1998 – Oct 23, 2004

Kasumi Suzumura was just an ordinary 19-year-old who went on a trip to Italy upon breaking up with her boyfriend. During her trip, she has a one-night-stand with a fellow Japanese national. Upon her return home, she attends her father’s funeral and meets the person she slept with. And if fate had a twisted sense of humor, it turns out that he is her long-lost brother, Yoshiki.

The synopsis alone is enough to convince you why it made this list but the series goes beyond it. Though incest is a crazy thing to explore, the series introduces and expands it in a manner that readers can sympathize with. What makes the manga push the envelope is how far the (not so) supporting characters try to break them apart. The biggest violator of this is their mother, who even tried to pay her own assistant to get Kasumi pregnant! He goes along with the plan for his own twisted motivations just for the sake of having a child with the same DNA as Kasumi and Yoshiki’s mother showing some kind of twisted crush for her. While it might be ok to persuade someone to not date someone for whatever reason, but don’t push it beyond the limits of the law!

4. Battle Royale

  • Authors: Koushun Takami (story), Masayuki Taguchi (art)
  • Genres: Action, Psychological, Drama, Horror, Seinen
  • Volumes: 15
  • Published: 2000 - 2005

You may know the controversial and groundbreaking Kinji Fukasaku film co-starring Tatsuya Fujiwara and Takeshi Kitano, but its manga adaptation co-authored by the original novel’s author offers a more faithful representation to its source material and more controversy than the movie. The main plot focuses on how a class of ninth graders is forced to participate in a government experiment where they have to kill each other!

With the number of school shootings that have happened in the US since Columbine in 1999, from an American point of view, the content of Battle Royale is understandably sacrilege. The media, parent groups and politicians are always quick to blame entertainment for these heinous actions so the notion of publishing a story about teenagers killing each other just simply qualifies as pushing the envelope.

But it does more than just show a bunch of kids who slaughter each. It portrays sexual abuse, underage prostitution, extortion, bullying, and all kinds of dark themes that some kids around the world are subjected to against their will and how it affects them. It also re-evaluates the notion of whether or not we do have a choice with the things we do in life and how our experiences can shape our views and how we conduct ourselves.

3. Bitter Virgin

  • Authors: Kei Kusunoki
  • Genres: Drama, Romance, School, Seinen
  • Volumes: 4
  • Published: Feb 18, 2005 – Mar 7, 2008

Daisuke Suwa, the school’s resident Casanova, was just trying to get away from some girls. The only place he could hide was in the priest’s side of a church confessional. As he was waiting for his situation to calm down, Hinako, the new girl at school, comes to confess and incidentally tells Daisuke about how she was impregnated by her stepfather and had to give the child up for adoption. While pretending to be a priest, Daisuke tells Hinako that God forgives her by making her feel better. Now knowing her secret, Daisuke develops a genuine interest in Hinako.

Hinako is naturally afraid of men due to her experiences, and that plays the foundation to how this manga pushes the envelope but dives into other subjects such as teenage promiscuity and just pregnancy outside of marriage altogether as portrayed through other characters. While in some countries people don’t make such instances a big deal, they’re still a big deal in Japan. But it’s not just about what happens with Hinako that will drive you crazy, but how her mother handles the situation. In addition, Kazuki, a girl interested in Daisuke, goes to some unbelievable extremities to try to get him to like her, or get Hinako to hate him, which you have to read for yourself.

Last, its ending doesn’t have a happily ever after, but more of a let’s do the best we can for now kind of feeling. But for those of you that have already graduated high school, you have to ask yourself, how many high school romances are you aware of that last to this day? Once you ask yourself that question, you get an idea why the manga ends the way it does. It is understandable readers want a happy ending considering what is portrayed in the story, but at the same time, you have to appreciate that this is a manga that deals with characters who are still developing doing their best within the confines of their personal situations. And the fact that the manga doesn’t give a fairy tale ending is its biggest contributor to how it pushes the envelope.

2. X (X/1999)

  • Authors: CLAMP
  • Genres: Action, Drama, Fantasy, Psychological, Shoujo, Super Power, Supernatural
  • Volumes: 18 (as of Mar 2003)
  • Published: Mar 24, 1992 – Present (on hiatus since Mar 24, 2003)

Famous for Magic Knight Rayearth, Cardcaptor Sakura, and for contributing to the character designs of Code Geass, X can be considered one of CLAMP’s most controversial manga and not just for the sake of its mature content. As shocking as this may be, despite what is portrayed in X, it is not a Shounen or Seinen title, but a Shoujo one. X is a unique milestone because it makes readers Japanese and non-Japanese alike redefine what a title for women’s publications are, and no one has tried to emulate it. When people think of Shoujo, they tend to think of romance or everyday life of a schoolgirl.

On the surface, X seems like a gruesome title where the fate of the world is at stake but beyond its edgy style is a greater sense of edgy substance. While two factions are fighting each other, it’s not simply a battle of good vs. evil, but two points of view that are essentially right but its plot suggests that it has to go one way or another. Due to the situations in the story, it really affects the relationships between the characters from both sides of the conflict and makes readers and the characters re-define the whole concept of fate and whether or not we can control our lives.

Beyond its mature content for a Shoujo manga, CLAMP claims the series (in relation to its planned ending) has been on hiatus since 2003 due to domestic events throughout its publication. The two notable events (the Jan 1995 Hanshin Earthquake and the Sakakibara murder incident) that have affected the series happened to take place in CLAMP’s hometown in the Kansai area. With the March 11, 2011 earthquake and the stabbings in Sagamihara in 2017, it could further contribute to a much longer hiatus.

1. Devilman

  • Authors: Go Nagai
  • Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Psychological, Super Power, Supernatural, Demons, Sci-Fi, Drama, Horror, Shounen
  • Volumes: 5
  • Published: Jun 11, 1972 – Jun 24, 1973

While the anime was more child-friendly, its manga counterpart contained a story and material that would be more difficult for children to process. In addition to how Akira gains the power of Amon to become Devilman, his relationships with other characters and his battle against the demons is a whole different beast. In some ways, you can call Devilman the original gore and horror manga, long before the likes of Berserk, Claymore, and X, which is why it tops this list.

It was also a story about how sudden changes due to a disaster can bring out the worst in people. Demons are possessing the townspeople, and Akira as Devilman has no choice but to kill them. The moment that Akira was exposed as Devilman, it wasn’t the demons that killed his beloved Miki and her family, it was a raging mob of humans that did it. Last, it was probably one of the very few or maybe the first manga where (SPOILERS) the bad guy wins and destroys the world! Nagai has always been known to push the envelope in more ways than one, especially for humor with a large majority of his works, but Devilman is the pinnacle of how he pushed the envelope in a way that challenged the standards of his time and paved way for mature manga we now have.

Final Thoughts

Many manga push the envelope for the sake of humor, but others do it for creative purposes or just to stick it to the establishment and what we listed do a great job of defining that. That phrase has so many uses and contexts but we tend to associate it with being edgier than ever before. Everyone has a different idea of pushing the envelope, and we are positive that the manga we listed capture it in their own way. No matter where you’re from, it’s all about pushing the boundaries of the society you live in and some manga may apply only to Japan, and some may apply outside of it.

So what are some manga out there do you think push the envelope by the standards of your own background? If you have any you’d like to share, please leave it in the comments!

JoJos-Bizarre-Adventure-Part-1-manga-300x443 Top 10 Manga that Push the Envelope [Best Recommendations]


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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