PART 1: SHOUNEN
First up is shounen, which is the most popular type of manga both in Japan and in the West. Almost all of the titles that are familiar to Western audiences come from this genre, including what’s come to be known as the “Big Three”: Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece – all of which are/were published in Japan’s most popular manga magazine, Weekly Shounen Jump. Other titles in this genre that you’ll probably recognise are Dragon Ball, Yu-Gi-Oh, Death Note, and the super-popular Attack on Titan.
As I said in the introduction, shounen manga is mainly targeted towards a young male audience, and the word “shounen” itself can be literally translated as “boy”. Common characteristics of the genre are intense action, friendship and teamwork, and comedy – and romance is often included as well, but it usually takes a backseat to the action. Most shounen manga have young male protagonists, and the series tend to be quite long-running.
[Please note that the following recommendations are not necessarily my favourite shounen manga – but they are series that I think will make good starting-points for people unfamiliar with the genre.]
Hikaru no Go by Yumi Hotta & Takeshi Obata (Weekly Shounen Jump). This story follows a young boy called Hikaru, who one day discovers an old Go board while searching his grandfather’s attic, and it turns out to be haunted by the thousand-year-old ghost of a former emperor’s Go-tutor. Luckily for Hikaru, Sai is not a malicious spirit – he just wants to play Go. Constantly. Masterfully-written and distinctively-drawn, with characters who’ll really stick with you, and an incredibly touching storyline. No actual knowledge of Go (a Japanese strategic board game) necessary.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (Monthly Shounen Gangan). The tale of two brothers, both talented alchemists, on a search for the legendary philosopher’s stone, that will enable them to recover the bodies that they lost in an unfortunate attempt to resurrect their dead mother. The elder brother, Edward, lost an arm and a leg, while the younger brother, Alphonse, lost his entire body, and now exists only as a soul, bound to a suit of armour. Once again, fantastic art and storytelling. There’s a little more humour in this series, as well, as well as a complex, politically-driven plot.
Haikyuu!! by Haruichi Furudate (Weekly Shounen Jump). A sports manga that follows a high-schooler called Hinata, who dreams of being an ace volleyball player despite his small stature and lack of experience. The art in this series lovely (some of the best I’ve come across in a sports manga) and the matches are super-exciting, but the real strength of Haikyuu!! is in its characters – there’s not a single one that you won’t fall in love with, and even the ones who would just be extras in most series are surprisingly well fleshed-out.
Tsubasa: RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE by CLAMP (Weekly Shounen Magazine). Lastly, I bring you a fantasy adventure manga, which follows a teenage boy named Syaoran and his companions on a quest through the dimensions, in order to recover the scattered memories of Princess Sakura, the girl he’s in love with – but with a catch! Syaoran had to sacrifice something in exchange for the ability to travel through dimensions, and the price that the Dimension Witch demanded was Sakura’s memories of him, so she will never remember what he meant to her. This story is more romance-heavy than the others on the list (which makes sense, since CLAMP are a group of mangaka who’re best-known for their shoujo manga), but it’s also a really fun adventure story, set to a backdrop of basically every series CLAMP have ever written (though you don’t need to be familiar with the rest of their work before reading this).