Nobuyuki Fukumoto is truly one of the gems of the industry, however his works can be a bit hard to approach. The sheer amount of published titles, plus the unconventional art can certainly be off-putting to new readers. If you’re one of these skeptics, I hope to change your mind with this article.
I recently put Nobuyuki Fukumoto in my Top 5 Mangaka ever list.
We’ll be looking at Fukumoto’s best manga one by one. Feel free to read them in any order you want, but I’ve ordered them in the best way for someone just getting to know this artist’s works.
1) Legend of the Strongest Man Kurosawa (Saikyou Densetsu Kurosawa).
No, this is not a battle manga as the name might imply. It’s quite far from that, in fact. The protagonist is Kurosawa, a middle-aged man that isn’t quite content with the situation his life is in, and wants to change, but doesn’t know how.
Usually, Fukumoto’s works are based around complex games and puzzles or the famous Asian board game Mahjong. With neither of these involved, this is Fukumoto’s most accessible work. The manga is only 90 chapters long, but you follow Kurosawa in a series of adventures that change him as a person, and maybe you as well. Anybody that feels lonely, or like they don’t have a place in this world, might learn something from Kurosawa’s story.
Enjoy Fukumoto’s works or not, this is, in my opinion, one of the top 10 manga ever made. So if you trust my recommendations at all, please read this manga!
2) Ultimate Survivor Kaiji (Tobaku Mokushirou Kaiji) – Series 1.
One of Fukumoto’s most famous manga. The anime is highly popular and you might’ve heard of Kaiji from it, or you may have even watched the anime. I recommend giving the manga a shot – it’s more complete, and better than the anime.
It’s currently 5 series long, and around 60 volumes. This is a bit too long, so I would only ask you to commit to reading the first series. It’s the most interesting one anyways, in my opinion. If you really enjoy it, you can keep on reading the rest later.
The manga follows deadbeat loser Kaiji as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of gambling debt, and has to play dangerous life or death games in order to escape. And somehow, he always does – It seems that our friend actually has some kind of talent as a survivor.
This is one of the pioneers of the Life-or-Death game genre in manga, now very popular. The games designed by Fukumoto are always complex yet easy to understand, and the way the characters get creative to solve them is very interesting. If you like puzzles and problem solving, you might be interested in this manga as well.
3) Akagi – Up to Washizu arc
Fukumoto’s other big hit. You’ve probably heard of Akagi before, as it’s one of the most recognizable titles in manga, but you could’ve been put off by the fact that it’s still on-going after like 30 volumes and 25 years, or by the fact that it’s exclusively about gambling in Mahjong.
Well, once you’ve read Kurosawa and Kaiji, you’ll be a little bit more used to the mangaka’s style, so those things shouldn’t be issues. The story follows a young boy, Akagi, who turns out to be a Mahjong genius. A huge amount of skill and demon-like luck come together into this monster of a player, that crushes all opposition almost effortlessly. He also doesn’t mind risking his life in extremely dangerous games with millions of dollars on the line.
But he doesn’t do it for the money. He sees life as a game – and that the only way to live life is to risk it. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it really is fun to read the different situations he puts himself in.
And no, you don’t have to understand Mahjong to read the manga. It works without any previous knowledge at all. You might learn some on the way, though! If you really want to know the basics before starting to read, here’s a good Mahjong how-to guide.
You should only read up to the start of the Washizu arc (you’ll know when you get there). This arc takes up three fourths of the manga so far and has been ongoing for over a decade. It might be ending in the next 5 years, but I would wait until it’s completed to get on that wild ride. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in a nightmarish wait like the rest of us. Berserk or Hiatus x Hiatus readers will understand the pain.
4) Buraiden Gai
One of Fukumoto’s less known works, but I feel like it’s definitely worth a look. It’s another Life-or-Death game series, but with a different objective than Akagi or Kaiji. It explores what being a human being really is, and whether our human rights are inherent or not. It’s only about 30 chapters long, and I think there’s plenty to learn from it.
Gai, our protagonist, is a young man who gets in trouble with the law and is sent to a prison where the inmates are treated like dogs. The plot is about him surviving the prison and then attempting to escape. It reads a bit like a coming-of-age story, and the character development that Gai goes through is very well done and interesting. Give it a try, it’s quite short. If you liked the previous works by Fukumoto you’ll definitely enjoy this one. It feels like a bit of a mix between Kurosawa and Akagi.
5) Gambling Emperor Legend Zero (Tobaku Haouden Zero)
Another Life-or-Death Game manga by Fukumoto. By now, you know that the quality will be amazing. It’s not as good as Kaiji’s first series or as Akagi, to be fair. But if you’re addicted to Fukumoto and need a fix, this will certainly do.
The protagonist, Zero, is a little bit like Akagi. Or actually, Akagi is a bit like Zero but on steroids. However, Zero is not as cold-hearted or extreme as Akagi, so he feels more like a human being. Perhaps Fukumoto acknowledged the critics that say Akagi is a bit of a Gary Stu and created Zero as the answer.
The games the mangaka thought of for this one are also especially complex. They feel much more mathematical than the ones in Kaiji. If you want to follow Zero’s train of thought while solving them, you certainly have to do some thinking yourself as well.
Fukumoto is certainly the best writer for this type of manga, so you will not be let down by reading it.
6) All of Kaiji and Akagi
You could read the hundreds of extra chapters of Kaiji and Akagi now. The quality, however, really goes down, in my opinion.
Kaiji is still extremely good, but the hype and tension achieved during the first series are never fully recovered. It’s still a solid read, though.
Akagi, on the other hand… The Washizu arc has just been going on for far too long. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown tired of waiting over the past 5 years or so, but I just can’t bring myself to be interested in it anymore. I just don’t even care. But if you’re a huge fan of Fukumoto now, give it a shot and read it anyways.
7) Ten – The Blessed Way of the Nice Guy (Ten – Tenna Toori no Kaidanji)
If you enjoy Mahjong, or got into it when reading Akagi, this one is actually not bad. It was a big hit in Japan when it came out, and it was Fukumoto’s big break into the industry – in 1989!
This one is actually completed, as well, which is a huge plus in comparison to Kaiji and Akagi. By the way, Akagi is a spin-off of this manga! In Ten, which is set about 25 to 30 years after Akagi, you can see the white haired devil as a 50-year-old man. I guess it spoils that he beats Washizu, but oh well.
If you disagree with the order of any of these, or if you’ve had a different experience reading Fukumoto, please comment and let me know! And if this guide helped you get started with him, tell me what you think as you read the titles. I really want to know if people still enjoy Fukumoto.