Sometimes people will ask me for recommendations — whether it be for books, movies, TV shows, or whatever else — and I’m happy to give them! But sometimes those requests will be more specific, and I’ve discovered that when I’m asked for something that’s simply cute and cozy, I run out of options very quickly. I do love the cute and cozy, sure, but it turns out I love when my stories are dark and twisted even more. If you’re like me and constantly on the hunt for more stories that are sad or horrific or bleak in some way, I’ve got some great dark manga for you to help scratch that itch.
Why is it that I love dark manga and stories in the first place? There’s probably quite a bit to unpack here, but the simplest way I think about it is that I don’t buy into the idea of happy endings for everyone all the time. Because things can simply suck, and continue sucking. Even if things turn out relatively well, it can’t always be great from all angles, but instead will involve some level of compromise or sacrifice. And these dark manga explore that philosophy. Whether they center around horror, dystopia, or simply the despair of everyday life, these titles delve into a variety of themes that may leave you with plenty of gloom, but also food for thought.
Before getting into the picks, a note on content. Be aware as you get into these dark manga picks that they will, of course, contain all manner of dark themes, including violence, death, sexual assault, and harm to children, among others.
9 Great Dark Manga
Berserk by Kentaro Miura
For one of the more grim, violent stories that manga has to offer, look no further than the classic Berserk. It is a gritty revenge tale about Guts, a solitary warrior looking for vengeance against the person responsible for giving him the Brand of Sacrifice, a mark that dooms his life to be claimed by dark spirits. Using his tremendous sword and prosthetic cannon arm, Guts mercilessly cuts down everyone and everything that gets in his way, doing whatever it takes to survive long enough to finish what he has set out to do.
Deadman Wonderland by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Deadman Wonderland is a Japanese private prison and theme park, established following a catastrophic earthquake that destroyed most of Tokyo and built on ground zero. High schooler Ganta Igarashi becomes a prisoner at Deadman Wonderland after being framed for killing his entire class. At the prison, inmates wear special collars that track them and constantly inject poison into their veins. To stay alive, they must participate in various survival games and win doses of medicine that will neutralize the poison.
The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
In the aftermath of a massive earthquake, an entire elementary school — along with all the students and teachers in it — is transported through time to a post-apocalyptic wasteland! In this classic horror series, those trapped inside the school must face all kinds of terrifying threats and try to survive in order to find out what happened. Will they be able to set things right, or is humanity doomed to this horrific future?
Banana Fish by Akimi Yoshida
In 1980s New York City, a mysterious drug known as “banana fish” is at the center of a criminal conspiracy involving the mafia. Ash, a 17-year-old gang leader, begins investigating to find out more about this drug, whose name is identical to a phrase his Vietnam war veteran brother keeps uttering inexplicably. This classic series, with its action scenes and tragic themes, was highly influential in helping to break shōjo manga out of the typical tropes that were established at the time.
Alice in Murderland by Kaori Yuki
The Kuonji family is an incredibly wealthy and influential family, owning a huge conglomerate. They have a monthly tradition, a tea party that all family members must attend. At one such tea party, Olga announces to her nine adopted children that they must fight to the death within the year in order to determine a single heir to the family’s fortunes. Stella, one of the daughters, takes on a violent alter ego in the ensuing chaos and confusion.
Downfall by Inio Asano
Known for acclaimed series like Solanin and Goodnight Punpun, Inio Asano has a really stunning ability to capture and portray the melancholy of life. In Downfall, Asano does it again with the story of a mangaka who just finished an incredible eight-year run of his hit debut series. But the problem is that he has no ideas for a next series, he’s completely disillusioned by the industry, and his marriage is falling apart.
Blood on the Tracks by Shūzō Oshimi
Shūzō Oshimi is one of the great names in psychological horror, and Blood on the Tracks is a prime example of his mastery. Seiichi Osabe is a timid middle schooler with few friends but a close relationship with his mother Seiko. But Seiko’s overprotectiveness and doting over Seiichi pushes the boundaries of typical parenting, and Seiichi’s life slowly descends into a horrific trap of emotional manipulation and trauma.
X by CLAMP
In X, the famous artist group CLAMP brings us their take on apocalyptic fiction. The end of the world is approaching, and teenager Kamui Shiro arrives in Tokyo to take on his role in the apocalypse. He must decide between two groups to join: either the Dragons of Heaven, whose objective is to protect mankind, or the Dragons of Earth, who aim to wipe out humanity for the sake of the planet. The series explores environmental themes, the idea of the dual nature present in all people and concepts, and the relationship between humankind and Earth, positioning humans as a plague to the planet.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica by Hanokage
For this last pick, don’t let the cutesy characters and design aesthetics fool you! Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a manga adaptation of the acclaimed anime series created by Magica Quartet to consciously subvert the typical tropes of the magical girl genre. The story begins with middle schoolers Madoka and Sayaka crossing paths with a creature called Kyubey, who offers them a contract to have any wish granted under the condition that they gain magic powers in order to fight witches. And thus we are brought into this reimagined version of the magical girl genre, darker and crueler than any we’d seen previously.