Life or Death Game is one of the smallest and most niche manga genres out there right now. And yet there are some people (like me) who religiously read anything that comes out tagged with this genre.
Before starting the list, it’s important to establish what makes a Death Game manga decent, because unfortunately, most of them are garbage, and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’re going to wade through piles of trash looking for the few tiny strands of gold that exist.
These few strands of gold are worth it, though. They handle the genre’s potential wonderfully, especially the main two points: They build up tension properly (the characters can actually lose, there is a real consequence, the rivals are strong) and the games are interesting (not cliche, no literal people-shooting games, cerebral and well thought-out puzzles that the reader can also attempt to solve).
So, let’s take a look at these few manga that manage to fulfill these expectations. Here’s the 10 best that I’ve read.
10) Deadman Wonderland
Written by: Jinsei Kataoka / Illustrated by: Kazuma Kondou
Half Life or Death game, half battle manga. Pretty good title about a young boy who gets framed with killing his entire classroom and has to survive a series of Life or Death games with newfound powers.
Deadman Wonderland is extremely popular, maybe the most well known manga of the genre. That’s why I put it on the list. It also happens to be decently good. It does a few things in particular really well.
Firstly, the art is very good. The character designs are fun, the backgrounds are pretty, and the mangaka clearly put a lot of thought into the background and into the space that the characters interact and live in. This amazing art really helps build up the tension and show the dire situation that the protagonist must escape from.
Secondly, it creates a mystery that it keeps really well over the entire duration of the manga. A lot of Life or Death manga just come up with really boring backstories. Stuff like maniac rich people creating the games for “fun”, or other similar stuff that is clearly telling you that the backstory doesn’t even matter and that you should just focus on the games.
The backstory and the reason for the games is kept secret the whole time, until it’s revealed in the shocking ending. It keeps the reader constantly wondering (Readman Wonderland, am I right? Sorry, that was terrible) and speculating. If I hadn’t read it as it was being serialized, I’m pretty sure I would’ve googled the ending out of unstoppable curiosity.
9) Kami-sama no Iuutori
Written by: Muneyuki Kaneshiro / Illustrated by: Akeji Fujimura
This manga is not as well received by critics or as popular as it should be. I admit that it has some major flaws, for example, too much fanservice.
However, the games that this mangaka comes up with are just jaw droppingly good! Each game gets progressively more complex and dangerous than the previous one, and some main characters actually die, which means that there’s an actual consequence to these games. You’ll never know what’s coming next, or if your favorite character will survive it.
Another thing I really like is how the explanation of the games is handled. Most Life or Death game manga dedicate the first few chapters of a new game arc to an explanation, where the rules are clearly set out and any potential questions answered. In Kami-sama no Iuutori, we are as clueless as the characters. There is no explanation whatsoever, and if there’s any instructions, they’re cryptic at best. It takes a few deaths for the characters to figure out the rules of the game they’re playing, and we learn with them. Muneyuki Kaneshiro found a genius way of keeping the tension up, and with it, his reader’s attention.
8) Mirai Nikki (Future Diary)
Written by: Sakae Esuno
Twelve contestants must face-off against each other in a battle set up by a God of sorts, who gives them all a special weapon – a cellphone with diary entries that can predict the future (each one in a different way). Only one of them can survive.
The main character is one of these contestants, Yuki. He teams up with another one, Yuno, a girl who turns out to be obsessed with him. Ladies and gentlemen, this person is the one that popularized Yandere in anime and manga. She’s one of the most recognizable Yandere in the industry, which is actually why I put this manga on the list.
Don’t get me wrong, the story is fairly interesting and the pace well set, but the characters are what make it really good. You have actual character development. Normally, characters in this genre are either really smart and good at the games from the start, or hopeless the whole time. Yuki evolves from one to the other, and his relationship with Yuno changes a lot over time as well. It’s a very exciting story that tells a lot in just 59 chapters.
Written by: Tonogai Yoshiki
LOD Game manga usually come in one of two shapes: They either prioritize the game aspect of it, which means there is a single game thorough the entire thing which a set of characters play; or they prioritize the characters, which means that a cast of main characters go through a series of different games, and the point is to show them win cleverly.
Both work well, but personally I prefer the former. Doubt is the perfect example why. The featured game is a phone game called “Rabbit Doubt”, in which one of twelve players is a wolf and must kill the other 11, who are rabbits. Nobody knows who the wolf is, though. The only way to end the game and survive is to find and kill the wolf.
Is there any better way to keep the tension up other than knowing that one of the characters you’re following, one you might even like, is killing everyone else? Reading this manga will make readers think, speculate and wonder who the real killer is. If you guess it, you can feel good about yourself, but even if you don’t, you get the thrilling surprise effect. It’s so good!
Short warning, though. This manga is usually classified as a horror manga, so if you don’t like scary stories, you can skip this one!
6) Kokumin Quiz
Written by: Sugimoto Reiichi / Illustrated by: Katou Shinkichi
The anime and manga industries are full of manga written purely for sales, with no underlying message to what’s being published, nothing to contribute to the bettering of society, no awareness to rise about any problems.
This is especially problematic with Life or Death Game manga, which are plagued by shallowness. I won’t lie, this is also the case for some of the manga in this list, which is why I added Kokumin Quiz, to balance it out.
The story is set in a dystopic future, in which an oppressive goverment runs a game show that promises to make any wish come true if you win – but it destroys everything you are and love if you lose.
Think 1984 by George Orwell, but in manga form. A manga about a Life or Death game that also carries a political message about the dangers of giving a government too much power, especially with technology. Interesting! I thought it was not possible, but after reading Kokumin Quiz I was convinced otherwise. I put it on the list because of the out of the ordinary use of the genre. I congratulate the mangaka for showing that play-or-die manga can also carry a message.
Written by: Oku Hiroya
Gantz is extremely popular worldwide, and there’s plenty of reasons for this. It’s extremely well structured, with an overarching story that allows for many varied arcs, and therefore many varied Life or Death games that the characters go through.
The characters are not your average holier-than-thou protagonists, but they’re also just selfish and trying to survive, at least at first. There’s some really interesting character development, but I don’t want to spoil absolutely anything.
I also won’t go into detail about the story because I feel like the slightest thing will kind of spoil it, so I recommend just going into the first chapter blind.
4) Liar Game
Written by: Kaitani Shinobu
A mysterious company gathers many contestants to play games with a loan of 100 million Yen that they provide. If they win, they get to keep their profits, but if they lose their money to another contestant in the games, they lose it all and are thrown into crippling debt…
While there’s no actual death involved, I feel like ruining your life from losing is good enough to put this manga on the list. The main characters are Nao, a young girl who refuses to lie and is honest, and Akiyama, a highly intelligent person who usually wins most games with ease.
Sounds cliche, I know. But there’s a reason for this manga’s great reputation. The games are highly creative and impossible to predict. There’s no way to predict what the author is coming up with next. Even once the rules are set out, you still have to see how Akiyama and Nao will figure out the best way to play the game. The plans they come up are so exciting!
The best part of the manga, though, are the enemies, the villains. I don’t mean the company, but the other contestants besides the main cast. They don’t just make one-time appearances, or are shallow, “pure evil”-style characters. They have real motivations for earning the money, are just as clever as Akiyama, and appear more than just once.
The only reason why this manga is not number 1 or 2 on the list is because it has a pretty bad ending. It’s a huge shame, but unfortunately it happens often in manga, either from the artist getting burnt out or from the manga getting axed. It’s still worth a read, though, just don’t expect any good closure.
Written by: Nobuyuki Fukumoto
Nobuyuki Fukumoto is the original Life or Death mangaka. I’ve written an entire article about him, so I won’t go into too much detail about his work. Just know that Kaiji and Akagi are both must-reads for anyone that claims to like manga, and that you shouldn’t be put off by the artwork.
Written by: Kitoh Mohiro
If you knew for a fact that you were going to die within a day, what would you do? How would you act? What would you think? These are the issues this manga deals with. Like Kokumin Quiz, this manga uses the genre to explore actual subjects and try to send a message. Only that this time it isn’t political, it’s philosophical.
It’s an extremely depressing manga, with a sad story that forces a feeling of helplessness as you read it. However, in a strange way, there are undertones of hope in it, perhaps because of the way the characters talk, or because of the art, or a combination of both.
But the mangaka is trying to get us to introspect, to think about our lives and if we’re living them the way we want to. if you were to die in 24 hours, would you be content with what you’ve accomplished so far? If not, what else do you need to do?
1) Battle Royale
Written by: Takami Koushun
Have you heard about, or do you enjoy the Hunger Games movies or books? Well, they’re pretty much plagiarized off this.
The story begins with a class of high school students suddenly waking up in a strange classroom after being randomly selected to participate in this year’s Battle Royale: a game where the randomly chosen class of kids has to kill each other until only one of them remains: Only then will the game end.
This manga is absolutely heartbreaking, because you are introduced to many lovable characters that you want to root for, but you know that only one of them has a chance of making it. This means that you will experience a lot of suffering and death when reading the manga.
The tension is kept up perfectly for the whole duration of the manga, with the stories of many characters being told at the same time in order to prevent even a single dull moment. You will get to see at least five different people, all part of the main cast, develop as characters, survive, and eventually almost all die.
The game is very well done, too, because it’s simple enough (Just a kill-or-die situation with a single survivor), but complex at the same time in the sense that there are some special rules which I will not spoil.
The characters are what really makes the story, though. Usually, as I said before, manga with life or death games have to choose if they want to focus on the game itself or on the character development.