Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to enjoying a good love story. Unfortunately, manga is full with cheap and uninteresting titles with the romance tag. A good romance manga has believable characters, good character development and no forced drama.
It doesn’t sound too complex, does it? Nevertheless, this small guideline is enough for most manga in this genre to be simply not good, at least in my opinion. Forced drama helps prolong a title and brings in more readers. Characters following stale, overused formulas are still implemented because these formulas are known to work.
However, plenty of romance manga are definitely good and enjoyable, and not just for a guilty pleasure read. Some are truly wonderful love stories that will move you to your core. In this top 10, I’ll list the 10 best romance manga of all time.
10) Cat Street
Written by: Kamio Yoko
A really cute shoujo manga, and surprisingly one of the only ones in the list (most shoujo manga are about romance). The main character is a former famous child actress who is now trying to live her life peacefully.
It’s a good story because it works with romance wonderfully. I don’t like it when a story’s main point is the romance between the characters. It always makes the chapters feel hollow, or boring, or unrealistic. There’s no way that a real person would only worry about their crush in real life. People have lives and problems outside of love, and this manga shows it well.
The main cast is a group of troubled teens with social issues, and through the duration of the manga they learn from each other and grow up together into nice adults that know when to rely on friendship. The characters themselves, although sometimes a bit cliché personality-wise, are all very lovable.
9) Midori no Hibi
Written by: Kazurou Inoue
This manga already made a top 10 list on this website as one of the best delinquent manga of all time, and now it does it again in the romance category. Amazing, isn’t it?
if you like fighting manga as well as romance, this is the first thing you should read. It manages to use both so well, and although it plays with some tropes I don’t like (like the unconditional undying love from the start), it handles the romance wonderfully and tells us something new.
Normally, the resolution of a love story in manga involves the main character and his/her love interest breaking down their barriers (shyness, a love triangle, etc) to finally get together. In this manga, there is a huge barrier stopping them from getting together, and the characters have to make an actually tough decision, which I won’t spoil here.
It will definitely, however, make you think in a way that romance manga usually don’t.
Written by: HERO/Hagiwara Daisuke
Originally a web-manga series titled “Hori-san to Miyamura-kun”, the manga spin-off, Horimiya, is being published since 2011 and is wildly popular. There are two main reasons why Horimiya has to be on a top 10 romance manga list no matter what.
Firstly, the casual way in which it handles romance is amazing. There’s no big, flashy confession, or 55 chapters of misunderstandings or trying to break through shyness to confess, or any silliness like that, that just does not happen in real life between two healthy people.
Instead, love is naturalized. We follow the day to day lives of two people who love each other. And it’s wonderful!
Secondly, the characters are very well done and follow an unusual pattern. In romance manga, usually one of the two in the couple-to-be is some sort of Gary Stu. Beautiful, athletic and seemingly flawless, except for little things the author adds to make it not as obvious (“But he’s shy and worries too much about other people!” Yeah right. Come on).
In Horimiya, we get two flawed characters with not necessarily positive quirks, who try to help each other become better people. Just like in real life!
7) Oyasumi Punpun
Written by: Asano Inio
Falling in love is not a guarantee for a happy ending, and in real life, it’s sometimes not a very good thing. Oyasumi Punpun showcases this perfectly.
The reason why it’s on the list is because of Punpun’s relationship with one specific female character, that basically is in his mind through the entirety of his childhood and adolescence (the manga follows the main character as he grows up). Overall, they have an extremely toxic relationship which leads Punpun to be the way he is. (No spoilers, read this manga. Seriously, read it right now.)
Oyasumi Punpun shows that tragedy still has a place in romance and in manga in general, earning it a definite spot on the list. I know that it’s is not a romance manga, but I just cannot pass up a chance to write about it. It’s one of the greatest manga of all time, with compelling characters, a message worth paying attention to, and mind-blowingly good art.
6) Love Roma
Written by: Toyoda Minoru
The list so far has been comprised of manga exclusively in a high school setting, which isn’t really surprising, considering that they’re all shounen or shoujo and have teenagers as main characters. This one is as well, but it’s the last of them.
Love Roma is an amazing high school romance title. The main cast consists of four people, including the main couple, and the characters are all actually different from each other and develop. It’s a slice of life comedy, and most slice of life manga waste the potential that they have for proper character development.
The story starts with the main character confessing his love for his love interest, and they very quickly become a couple. No spoilers there, guys, it’s just not the point of the manga. So many romance titles, in literature in general, end the story with the start of a relationship, when in reality that’s just the beginning. The whole story is about their growth as a couple and as people.
5) Chikan Otoko
Written by: Takuma Yokota
This one’s cool because it’s not actually a manga, in the traditional sense. It was never serialized or published in a magazine. The author wrote it based on a real story posted by a university student in Japan’s infamous imageboard 2ch.
It’s the proof that you don’t have to be a professional mangaka to create something beautiful, though. It’s a very short manga, 21 chapters, that manages to stick a whole lot of plot in there. Basically, the main character gets confused for a stalker by a random girl on his way home, and from there on becomes friends with her and her co-workers, and finds love in an unexpected place.
I really, really like this manga because of the realistic way it explains and describes love. It’s not all necessarily sudden or random. Well, it’s based on a true story, so it makes sense it would be like that.
Written by: Tanaka Yutaka
One of the first romance manga I ever read. It’s a tragic yet beautiful story about a young guy facing an imminent death due to complications from a traffic accident in his childhood. He finds comfort in Ai, who is actually an artificially generated human, from a series that was created to help terminally ill humans.
She is, however, very clearly a person, even if she’s a robot, and she teaches the main character, Ikuru, to look for the good parts of life and to enjoy what time he has. It’s a wonderful story that tries to tell you that while being alone is not necessarily a bad thing, sharing life with someone else can make it much better, if you find a partner that is also a teacher.
Ai-ren is so high up the list mainly because of its superb ending that leaves you satisfied with the story, although it is quite sad, so if you’re as sensitive as I am you will also probably be a crying mess for a few hours.
Written by: Aki★Eda
This is one of those Sunday afternoon type of reads. It’s very short, just 35 chapters, and it’s a light, simple read that doesn’t require deeper analysis or anything of the sorts. However, simple does not mean bad by any means. In fact, simplicity is something that is often missing in manga nowadays, with people trying to make longer and more complex stories with tons of characters.
Bonnouji only has a handful of characters and the whole story is set in maybe three or four different locations. It’s basically the story of two neighbors, an office businesslady and an IT guy that works from home, who get to know each other and eventually fall in love. The other characters are one of the guy’s friends, his brother, and one of the girl’s coworkers.
Oftentimes, mangaka add a panel, or even a full page or two, that function as switches, to tell the reader that the character has now fallen in love. This is not a good thing, as it just means that the author is unable to tell it through actions and has to force it. A good example is the character blushing, looking confused, and “Doki doki” showing in the background.
I love that Bonnouji shows love as a simple thing, and the feelings develop so naturally that there’s no clear “switch” between just seeing the other person as a friend to falling in love with them. It reminds me of Horimiya, but maybe for an older audience.
Written by: Mori Kaoru
The only historical romance manga in this list. While not based on a true story, Emma is set in Victorian London (yes, a non-fantasy manga not set in Japan!). This is an absolutely great manga.
It’s a romance, but, in perfect contrast to everything I said for Bonnouji, it’s highly complex and it’s not really just about love. It’s a historical manga showing the difficulties that couples from different social classes had to be together. The main characters are Emma, a maid, and William, a merchant class millionaire who’s close to becoming a nobleman.
Because of the implications, William’s family is entirely opposed to their relationship, and even Emma doesn’t want to hurt William’s chances in life. The story is 72 chapters of them struggling against the odds to be together, and also them introspecting and developing as characters.
The art in Emma is comparable to Aria by Kozue Amano in how meticulous it is. The mangaka did her best to recreate late 19th century London, and she’s done an amazing job. The love put behind the making of this manga is astounding and you can just feel, page after page, the immense amount of work that must’ve gone into research, planning and drawing. A must-read for any romance manga fans.
1) Nodame Cantabile
Written by: Ninomiya Tomoko
Nodame is a music student and a proficient piano player, who happens to be an irreparably clumsy and messy person. She falls deeply in love with Chiaki, an aspiring orchestra conductor, who attends the same school and is her neighbor.
There is nothing that captures romance quite as well as music. Nodame Cantabile is a manga about classical music first, and a romance second, but these two genres compliment each other so well that this title is just on an entirely different level.
136 chapters long, the story deals with the two main characters as they begin to build their careers in the world of classical music and as they develop their relationship more and more. Nodame is in love with Chiaki from the get-go, which normally is too cliché for me, but when it’s done well, it really is. Over time, the chemistry in the way they behave with each other changes, and it does so very clearly although subtle. It is sublime.
The main characters seem simple at first, but they reveal different facets of themselves as the manga goes on, and they change their priorities as well. The supporting cast in manga about music is very important – it’s about orchestras after all, you can’t make a story about a single character. Teamwork is one of the most important things in music. In Nodame Cantabile, this side cast is very good and likeable. Over time, they take more and more screen time, and some become pseudo main characters as well. The main characters in most romance manga are less interesting than them.
In any case, Nodame Cantabile is a long and precious love story. One of my favorite manga of all time, and the brightest gem in a sea full of boring, uninteresting romance stories. 136 chapters is long enough to get really involved with the story and the characters: Nodame and Chiaki will take you on an adventure that will leave you feeling like a different person at the end.