Turning Japanese: A Starter Guide to [Historical] Manga

In the United States, the "reign" of comics has come and gone. Even though these days comics are infiltrating pop culture and movies, reading them is still considered a very niche hobby/passion, one that is sometimes stereotyped or made fun of as "geeky". Imagine if that WASN'T the case; imagine that at bookstores it was completely normal for at least half the shelf space to be taken up by graphic novels. Imagine going on the train and not being shocked by seeing an older lady or a business man reading comics. Imagine comics infiltrating advertising campaigns, from billboards to commercials. Basically, imagine comics had the same power in America as manga does in Japan.

Being in my twenties and growing up as a total social reject girl-nerd, I was the perfect target audience for manga when it started to become popular in the United States. As a lifelong comics reader, I never questioned the validity of manga and read it quite religiously through my teen years. However, I've come to find that manga doesn't seem as accessible to some people. At this point in time there is a definite overload of titles available… and I would guess that only about 40% of it is any good. There are plenty of fluffy "shoujo" titles (manga for girls), and strange, predictable series with boring plotlines. But amidst the shelves at your local Border's Books, if you're willing to elbow your way through piles of mall goths, there are many manga gems to be read. And manga has its own unique brand of art and storytelling, so it's not as if you're being "disloyal" to American comics.

Manga first became popular in Japan around World War II, mainly popularized by Astro Boy. Now it is an accepted part of life – I studied abroad in Japan and I could get manga ANYWHERE, from a cafe to a gas station. Manga-ka (that is, manga artists) are basically on the same tier as celebrities, and they are managed by studios that employ people just for inking, lettering, etc. It's a very efficient market, and one that has made the Japanese publishing industry about 3.6 billion dollars before 2007.

BECAUSE there is such a broad market for manga, there is something to be found for EVERYONE. From children's stories to "soap opera" types of manga to adults only (hentai), manga covers a broad spectrum of every sort of entertainment… for every taste. So in the coming weeks I will introduce you readers to "starter" manga for different genres.

The earliest memories I have of learning about History encompass dry text in school books and yawn inducing descriptions. I tried desperately to be interested, but it just seemed a lost cause. I was fixated upon what had HAPPENED in the past, I just couldn't find any way to learn about it without wanting to fall asleep. Granted, I was a young girl at this time, but this lasted until I was at least thirteen and fourteen. At this point I discovered Historical Novels (mostly about Vikings and Celts), and I quickly realized I had finally found the outlet I needed to really learn about and appreciate History.

Now, at the same time I discovered History Novels, manga was still a relatively new concept to the United States. I was into anime and manga at the time, but it was a rarity to find the graphic novels that I wanted. I even bought single issues of manga at a comic shop three hours away from me in a way to quell my cravings. I read scans of manga on websites with my 26k connection, and devoured it any way that I could, but it just wasn't that ACCESSIBLE to a young teenage girl in Alaska.

Because of this lack of exposure, I did not discovered the fantastic genre of History MANGA for a few years to come. But when I did, I was suddenly pulled into a wildly fantastic genre about Samurais and fuedal Japan and Shinto legends. Thought I was used to my novels about pillaging, raping, and Valkyries, my novels quickly began to gather dust as I voraciously consumed Historical Manga with a vengeance.
If you've read my previous installments of "Turning Japanese", you know the drill. But if you're new to my almighty Manga opinions, then prepare to have some recommendations thrown at you, with reasons why you should run out and buy the graphic novel like, yesterday.


Rurouni Kenshin

Rurouni Kenshin was not only one of my first Historical manga, but also one of my first animes and it remains near and dear to me to this day. The storyline is tragic and tangled, the character design recognizable and memorable, and it is a classic to manga in general, not just Historical Manga.

The story is set against the backdrop of the Meiji Restoration, featuring the trials and tribulations of wandering swordsman Himura Kenshin. In the past he was a legendary, ruthless assassin, but he gave that up in favor of being a Rurouni: a lowly warrior who fights to protect the honor of those who are in need. It is a lively read, full of colourful antagonists, finely orchestrated fight scenes, subtleties in the story line, and an underlying beautiful love story.


Vinland Saga

As I've mentioned above, I am quite the fanatic for anything and everything Viking: the common term of the Danish Invaders of England. When I first discovered Vinland Saga was about Vikings, I tripped over myself in my haste to acquire it. What awaited me was an exceptional run of Historical Manga, one that is deeply rooted in real Historical events. Naturally, there are dramatizations of some things (like King Canute's rise to power and various revenge plots) but Vinland Saga certainly boasts Historical Accuracy.

Obviously, it is set in a Dane Controlled England at the beginning of the 11th Century. It contains a lot of references to the Story of Eric the Red (which is one of my personal favourites) along with the Saga of the Greenlanders and other classic Viking stories. There are many characters introduced in the manga, some of them Historical and others purely fictional with a basis in History. There are nods to characters from Norwegian folk lore, loose representations of people like Thorkell the Tall (a famous Viking warrior who fought in the Battle of Hjörungavágr and the Battle of Swold before attacking England), and the main character is based off of Icelandic Explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni.

Even if you are completely oblivious to Viking History, Vinland Saga still does a great job educating you and sucking you into its story. It has fantastically woven characters and beautiful artwork that has been likened to the famous manga Berserk.

The only unfortunate thing about Vinland Saga is that it is not currently licensed for publication in the United States. However, one does not have to look far on the internet to find fan translations of it… and trust me, it's worth tracking down.


Kuroshitsuji/Black Butler

Kuroshitsuji is one of my more recent manga endeavors. I was seeing people cosplaying characters from it on a near constant basis but knew nothing about it except that the costumes were pretty and apparently a twelve year old boy wears a dress at some point.

Finally a few months ago I picked it up to see what all the hype was about. As a disclaimer, I tend to be one of "those" sort of people who is not necessarily into what everyone else likes. I am exceptionally pretentious and obscure without meaning to be, which goes to show in most everything I consume. However, Kuroshitsuji actually lived up to its popularity. The characters were what initially hooked me, along with the Historical references and Supernatural undertones.

Historically, it is set in Victorian era London, which was an era of Lushness and upper class. It revolves around twelve year old boy Ciel Phantomhive, who is an orphan that sprung up the ladder to be head of his family's huge company. Enter the "Black Butler" Sebastian Michaelis, a mysterious demonic Butler who is bound by a spiritual contract to serve Ciel.

Admittedly, Kuroshitsuji bends the rules on Historical manga a little bit. There are nods to cell phones and video games, but it has enough accuracy using Victorian Era London as a lush backdrop that I would still consider it included in this genre.
If you like beautiful costumes, well developed characters, and just a hint of the dark side of the supernatural, I highly suggest you partake in Kuroshitsuji immediately.



Samurais? Check. Beautiful art? Check. Epic fight scenes? Check.

Vagabond is a bloody foray into the world of Samurai and Historical manga. It tells the story of the most famous Samurai of all time: Miyamoto Musashi. But before he was feared and his name was everywhere, he was Takezo, a young and naive boy who believed himself invincible. Vagabond explores how he rose from being a foolish young boy into the most celebrated warrior Japan has ever seen.

Not only is the art absolutely pristine, with perfect attention to detail and backgrounds that will knock your socks off, but the character development is poignant and perfectly paced. It is certainly a story of self realization and growing into adulthood; of finding oneself and shedding the foolishness of youth. Initially Takezo challenges anyone in his path to a fight, but through his failures and shortcomings he begins to learn and shape himself.

At no point whilst reading Vagabond did I have to pause to look at a previous panel to clarify the storyline for me. Though the fight scenes lack dialogue, the streamlined-ness of the story pushes the reader forward on a constant and steady current that only develops momentum as you get into the flesh of the story.

So set down those dusty History textbooks and learn while looking at pretty pictures.


Molly McIsaac is a quirky little thing that resides in between real life and the dream world most of the time. She's ridiculously verbose and carries her camera like a security blanket. You can stalk her misadventures on Twitter, where occasionally she says clever things.


  1. Fun fact: Nobuhiro Watsuki, the author of Rurouni Kenshin, is actually a big fan of Western superhero comics. Several character designs in RK take some influence from figures you’d probably recognize.

  2. definently checking some of these out. These articles have got me back into manga, haven’t read any since I was a teen, thanks!

  3. Takehiko Inoue best mangaka ever!

  4. Kuroshitsuji Vol. 3, by the way was awesome. It ended that Jack the Ripper story line that seems to be in every victorian era story.

  5. I have started Vagabond and the art in it is spectacular. i am always amazed at the level of detail that is in each panel.

    I need to get more of these!

  6. Bornln1142: Really, any you know of? I’m a big fan and can see some style influence but I couldn’t pick out a single superhero character influence.

  7. @JesTr: Shinomori Aoshi was influenced by Gambit, hence the trench coat. One of the minor villains, Akamatsu Arudo, that Saito Hajime sends as a proxy to test Kenshin was inspired by Omega Red (he fights with a ball-chain and sickle instead of tentacles). Watsuki was also heavily influenced by the Samurai Showdown video games as well as the Marvel and X-Men fighting games Capcom made.

    Ruroni Kenshin is a great introduction to the late-Tokugawa/early Meiji period of Japan, especially if you want to learn about the Shinsengumi.

    If you like Vagabond, you might want to check out the book that inspired it: "Miyamoto Musashi" by Eiji Yoshikawa. Both the comic and the book offer a realistic view of life in feudal Japan in the early 17th century. Also, if you study kendo, Vagabond has some good advice in there. 


  8. Alright, next time let’s get an article on how "Death Note" is the greatest comic ever made!  ^_^

  9. Sign me up for Vinland Saga. Vikings FTW!

  10. Great article, Molly!! 😀

    "VAGABOND" FTW!!!! 😀

    And "VINLAND SAGA" looks awesome!!

  11. @JesTr

    Aside from what Kodaiji mentioned, the example that always stuck to my mind is Hiko Seijuro. He has Spawn’s cape, pretty much. It’s mostly a lot of little things, because frankly, Watsuki is too good a character designer to copy characters wholly. One of Aoshi’s underlings had Wolverine’s claws, that one assassin guy wore a mask that looked a hell of a lot like Venom, that sort of thing.

  12. @kodaji & @Bornln1142: Cool thanks guys. I think that Gambit is a bit of a strectch but I totally see Akamatsu and Hiko.

    I like historical manga and anime but what I really go for is the time period.  I don’t care so much if it is historically accurate and sticks to facts. I just like ones that take place in times of fedual Japan, medieval Europe, the wild west. I just find it interesting to see what the Japanese perspective on these other periods are like.