The year is 2022. Isekai has taken over the world and is multiplying at an alarming rate. You open your preferred manga publisher’s website and all you see are manga adaptations of isekai light novels. As you choose the 90th generic three-row title that caught your eye this year, you wonder if you will ever see the light again.
Jokes aside, we all love isekai from time to time, but sometimes you feel like you need to go back to the roots – to the good old-fashioned fantasy, with perhaps something else sprinkled in (but without the truck-kun, reincarnation, summonings, transmigration, and video games). Well, we sat down and compiled a list of fantasy manga titles – some old, some new, along with a few reasons to read them. If you prefer anime adaptations, keep in mind that all of these titles have either been adapted in the past or have an anime in the works.
Fantasy Manga Must-Reads
- Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
- Yona of the Dawn by Mizuho Kusanagi
- Helck by Nanaki Nanao
- Berserk by Kentaro Miura
- Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End by Kanehito Yamada (Story), Tsukasa Abe (Art)
- Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida
- Witch Hat Atelier by Kamamome Shirahama
- The Ancient Magus’ Bride by Kore Yamazaki
- Mashle: Magic and Muscles by Hajime Komoto
- Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa
Starting off with a classic. If you haven’t read (or watched) Fullmetal Alchemist, have you even lived? No, but seriously, the FMA series is a very well-written piece of fiction, with some loveable (and not so loveable, but certainly memorable) characters. The overall atmosphere could perhaps be described as steampunk-meets-fantasy. Heavy political themes also dominate the story, but they are not boring by any means. Arakawa knows how to tell a good story, something that becomes very obvious with her later works, but is also visible in the Fullmetal Alchemist series.
Synopsis: Alchemy: the mystical power to alter the natural world; something between magic, art and science. When two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, dabbled in this power to grant their dearest wish, one of them lost an arm and a leg…and the other became nothing but a soul locked into a body of living steel. Now Edward is an agent of the government, a slave of the military-alchemical complex, using his unique powers to obey orders…even to kill. Except his powers aren’t unique. The world has been ravaged by the abuse of alchemy. And in pursuit of the ultimate alchemical treasure, the Philosopher’s Stone, their enemies are even more ruthless than they are… (Viz Media)
Yona of the Dawn by Mizuho Kusanagi
Yona of the Dawn is one of the rare shojo titles that I actually liked. The plot follows a headstrong Yona, who gets betrayed and is forced to survive and fight for her birthright – succeeding her father, the emperor. The characters are well-written and lovable and the plot is never boring. Yona can be annoying, but her headstrong attitude and stubbornness actually make for a good protagonist – it’s just unusual to see a woman acting like that in manga (do keep in mind this is a shojo title). If you prefer anime, it also has an anime adaptation, which sadly only has a single season and a few bonus episodes.
Synopsis: Yona reels from the shock of witnessing a loved one’s murder and having to fight for her life. With Hak’s help, she flees the palace and struggles to survive while evading her enemy’s forces. But where will this displaced princess go when all the paths before her are uncertain? (Viz Media)
Helck by Nanaki Nanao
Helck is a special case. At first, it seems like a typical comedy with a dense protagonist and a smart enemy who keeps trying to stop him but fails. However, as the story goes on we get a look into a darker plot brewing below the surface. The story is funny and the characters are likable, especially when they are given space to grow. The series also has an anime adaptation in the works.
Synopsis: Three months have passed since the Demon Lord was struck down, and the Demon Realm is holding a tournament to select his replacement. The leading contestant is Helck, a human hero who claims to hate his own kind. Some aren’t happy with the idea of a human becoming the next Demon Lord—especially Vermilio the Red. She wants nothing more than to protect demonkind and prove Helck to be their enemy, even if she has to rig the competition to do it! (Viz Media)
Berserk by Kentaro Miura
Berserk is another classic, with a few anime adaptations, none of which managed to truly impress the fans. If you like fluffy isekai, Berserk is probably not the story for you. The plot is incredibly dark, the main character (Guts) faces many hardships and at times it feels like everyone in this world suffers. Abuse and violence are fairly prominent in the story, but if you are a fan of dark fantasy and haven’t read Berserk yet, definitely give it a go. Kentaro Miura, the creator of the manga, sadly passed away in 2021, but the manga has since been continued under the supervision of his close friend, Koji Mori, and associates.
Synopsis: His name is Guts, the Black Swordsman, a feared warrior spoken of only in whispers. Bearer of a gigantic sword, an iron hand, and the scars of countless battles and tortures, his flesh is also indelibly marked with The Brand, an unholy symbol that draws the forces of darkness to him and dooms him as their sacrifice. But Guts won’t take his fate lying down; he’ll cut a crimson swath of carnage through the ranks of the damned — and anyone else foolish enough to oppose him! Accompanied by Puck the Elf, more an annoyance than a companion, Guts relentlessly follows a dark, bloodstained path that leads only to death…or vengeance. Created by Kentaro Miura, Berserk is manga mayhem to the extreme — violent, horrifying, and mercilessly funny — and the wellspring for the internationally popular anime series. Not for the squeamish or the easily offended, Berserk asks for no quarter — and offers none! (Dark Horse)
Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End by Kanehito Yamada (Story), Tsukasa Abe (Art)
The story of this manga is unique for one thing: it’s set after the party defeats the evil guy. Frieren, an elf, is forced to surpass her limits as her human friends slowly die of old age. The manga tells a beautiful, emotional story that is filled with fantasy. The art is absolutely gorgeous and even feels nostalgic at times. Elves are a plus, as always. An anime adaptation is in the works.
Synopsis: Decades after their victory, the funeral of one her friends confronts Frieren with her own near immortality. Frieren sets out to fulfill the last wishes of her comrades and finds herself beginning a new adventure… (Viz Media)
Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida
Dorohedoro is absolutely wild in the best way imaginable. The characters are entertaining, the world the story is set in is whimsical and the plot just goes everywhere. The way female characters are written deserves praise, from characterization and physical appearance to power and skill level. You may have caught the anime adaptation by studio MAPPA on Netflix, but that only had one season, while the manga is already done. Spoiler alert: it’s a bit violent.
Synopsis: In a city so dismal it’s known only as “the Hole,” a clan of Sorcerers have been plucking people off the streets to use as guinea pigs for atrocious “experiments” in the black arts. In a dark alley, Nikaido found Caiman, a man with a reptile head and a bad case of amnesia. To undo the spell, they’re hunting and killing the Sorcerers in the Hole, hoping that eventually they’ll kill the right one. But when En, the head Sorcerer, gets word of a lizard-man slaughtering his people, he sends a crew of “cleaners” into the Hole, igniting a war between two worlds. (Viz Media)
Witch Hat Atelier by Kamamome Shirahama
Witch Hat Atelier manga is, for the lack of a better word, simply magical. The plot follows the adorable little Coco on her way to becoming a witch. The story is not just a cute little slice-of-life, there is actually purpose to the characters and each of them has a goal of some kind. The art is detailed – just looking at the volume covers is enough to tell you that. An anime adaptation is in the works.
Synopsis: In a world where everyone takes wonders like magic spells and dragons for granted, Coco is a girl with a simple dream: She wants to be a witch. But everybody knows magicians are born, not made, and Coco was not born with a gift for magic. Resigned to her un-magical life, Coco is about to give up on her dream to become a witch…until the day she meets Qifrey, a mysterious, traveling magician. After secretly seeing Qifrey perform magic in a way she’s never seen before, Coco soon learns what everybody “knows” might not be the truth, and discovers that her magical dream may not be as far away as it may seem… (Kodansha US)
The Ancient Magus’ Bride by Kore Yamazaki
If you are not a fan of age-gap stories, it might be good to skip The Ancient Magus’ Bride. However, if you don’t mind that aspect, then get ready to witness Chise’s magical journey. The biggest thing that stands out with this manga is, you guessed it, Chise, who just happens to be the bride from the title. We first meet her just as she gives up on living and sells herself to a mysterious mage. But once she’s in his hands, she realizes there’s a whole world out there that is worth living for. Watching her grow and learn how to love herself and others is a truly healing experience. If you love magic, fantasy, and a little bit of (clumsy) romance of sorts, then definitely check this out. An anime adaptation by WIT Studio and later Kafka exists (and features some amazing visuals).
Synopsis: Her name is Chise Hatori, a penniless orphan troubled by visions. Sold as a slave to an inhuman mage, she is about to begin a strange new life, filled with magic, fairies, and other beings of a fantastical nature. (Seven Seas Entertainment)
Mashle: Magic and Muscles by Hajime Komoto
If Harry Potter was an anime… Mashle is a very entertaining take on the fantasy genre. Living in a world where magic is everything, Mash is forced to overcome his lack of powers by sheer strength (sounds familiar). It is often compared to One Punch Man, due to how the main character’s encounters turn out. Overall, the comedy is great and sometimes you just feel like relaxing while watching how Mash yeets his rivals and enemies. The anime adaptation is coming soon.
Synopsis: This is a world of magic where magic is used for everything. But deep in the forest exists a young man who spends his time training and bulking up. He can’t use magic, but he enjoys a peaceful life with his father. But one day, his life is put in danger! Will his muscular body protect him from the magic users who are out to get him? Powerfully trained muscles crush magic as this abnormal magical fantasy begins! (MANGAPlus)
Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto
You haven’t heard of Chainsaw Man only if you live under a rock of the deepest cave in the world. The hype surrounding the currently ongoing anime adaptation is not dying down. The manga is not traditional fantasy, but involves demons and other almost magical-like powers. It’s also worth noting that it has a cult-like following at this point. The story is mature (more than the typical shonen title at least) and the characters are surprisingly likable, even when they act like jerks. The art is very detailed, with some interesting color choices. The second part of the manga is currently ongoing.
Synopsis: Denji’s a poor young man who’ll do anything for money, even hunting down devils with his pet devil Pochita. He’s a simple man with simple dreams, drowning under a mountain of debt. But his sad life gets turned upside down one day when he’s betrayed by someone he trusts. Now with the power of a devil inside him, Denji’s become a whole new man—Chainsaw Man! (Viz Media)
Back to the Roots With Fantasy Manga
I am sure many of us grew up reading fantasy books aimed at children and young adults, from the abovementioned Harry Potter series, The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings and somewhat darker Witcher, A Song of Fire and Ice, The Kingkiller Chronicle, and many more. It is no surprise that manga scene is closely following the trends of fantasy fiction and even setting them for audiences all over the world. And as is the case with trends, sometimes a certain (sub)genre simply takes over for a while: this is how we found ourselves in the isekai flood. This is by no means a way to say that isekai is boring or bad – it set its own path and made the traditional fantasy genre even better in some cases. However, sometimes you simply need to go back to the roots, with simpler tropes and fewer video game references. And that is completely okay.