Top 10 Manga by Katsuhiro Otomo [Best Recommendations]

Katsuhiro Otomo is one of the greatest directors of modern anime. His name is connected not only to Akira, possibly one of the most well-known anime movies in the history of the genre, but also with similar well-known movies, such as Metropolis, Steamboy and Memories. Not only that, he also is an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres in France, the fourth manga artist in the Eisner Award Hall of Fame, the first Japanese artist to receive the award of Grand Prix d’Angouleme and the recipient of the Purple Medal of Honor in Japan.

In short, Otomo may very well be one of the greatest manga authors of our time, even if he is mostly known for his work in animation, since he designed characters for the animated movie Harmagedon back in 1983. Even so, he has never stopped doing manga. Most of his work are short stories, and some are collaborations with other artists, but even so, he has a lengthy bibliography under his pen.

Because of this, here are what we consider the ten best manga he has worked on, all of which we recommend so you can get to know this pillar of manga and animation.

10. World Apartment Horror

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo (Story), Satoshi Kon (Art and Story)
  • Genre: Comedy, Action, Horror, Slice of Life, Supernatural, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1991

Ita is a yakuza henchman who has one simple mission: He has to evict all the tenants of a Tokyo apartment building, no matter what. However, he is not expecting that the building doesn’t just have human tenants. In fact, it is full to the brim with ghosts and evil spirits that will not leave just because the humans want them to leave. What follows is a collection of mishaps and frankly humorous situations as he tries to fulfill his mission come heaven or hell before his one week deadline runs out.

World Apartment Horror is a very interesting manga, as it’s not based on an animated film but on a live action collaboration between Katsuhiro Otomo and the late great Satoshi Kon, as well as the director Sabu (also famous for his role in Ichi the Killer). The movie, who won Best New Actor Award in the Yokohama Film Festival, is a very fun horror comedy that will please all Japanese horror fans. And the adaptation, which is what concerns us, is also a great manga, even if it falls on the short side. Since it’s not completely a Katsuhiro Otomo original, it falls on the tenth place of our list.


9. Visitors

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo.
  • Genre: Action, Horror, Slice of Life, Supernatural, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1995

When one lives alone, it’s hard to be ready to have visitors at home. And when one is going to make a surprise visit, it’s just common courtesy to knock before you enter. Those two are the main lessons one has to learn from this short story (Collected in the SOS Dai Tokyo Tanken-Tai collection, from Otomo’s short stories) that plays with the absurd horror of a man who just can’t keep his door closed. As per usual with Otomo, there’s no clear line between the absurdist humor –as the poor man tries to justify how he committed not one but two murders in the span of half an hour- and the absolute horror that dawns on us as we put ourselves in the place of the victims.

Still, the story alone wouldn’t be enough to earn a place in the list –especially without the rest of the anthology-, if it wasn’t because Otomo creates a very special atmosphere within it by making it all from the point of view of one of the man’s visitors. We never see his face, and the only time we see his body is when it’s reflected on the door’s knob. Other than that, the main character is literally our window into this crazy, somewhat scary and absurd world. And because of this, it earns the ninth place in our list.


8. Short Peace

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Comedy, Drama, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1976 - 1979

Many mangaka start their career by writing a lot of short stories, while trying to find the premise that will catapult their careers to the circle of those who have a serialized story. Sometimes, those stories are lost forever in the thousands of weekly tomes that are printed in Japan. But if the author gets big enough, they get rescued by the publishers in small tomes. This is the case of Short Peace (Sometimes Romanized as Short Piece), where one can see the early work of Katsuhiro Otomo as a mangaka.

This particular volume includes nine stories, some of them with a heavy science fiction slant, but all of them with the notorious black humor that we can find in Katsuhiro Otomo’s work. One of the stories, Hi no Yojin, was later on made into an anime short film also by Otomo, within an anthology of short stories that were collectively also called Short Peace. The very first one, Uchuu Patrol Sigma, is a good example of Otomo’s brand of humor: A group of friends are drinking on New Year’s Eve, and as they get drunk, they start to share some of their deepest secrets. Said secrets happen to be that all but one of them is an alien, hiding on Earth illegally. The last one, however, is a space cop that was tasked to arrest them. The resolution of the problem may seem anticlimactic, but it shows Otomo’s range and sets the pace for the rest of the volume.

Because of it’s amazing diversity, we give Short Peace the eighth place on the list.


7. Hansel and Gretel

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Comedy, Fantasy, Parody, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1981

Fairy tales are universal, because they were written as cautionary tales for children –at least, at the beginning. Now we have modern fairy tales written with different goals. And since the stories themselves don’t have a trademark or a copyright (Even after very strenuous attempts by a well known animation studio in the West), many authors try and put their own spin on these timeless classics. Hansel and Gretel is Katsuhiro Otomo’s personal view of not only the title tale of the two siblings that are abandoned in the forest by their parents, but also Little Red Riding Hood, The Boy who cried Wolf, The Three Little Pigs, Jack and the Beanstalk, and a few surprising additions like a very short resume of Robinson Crusoe for a total of 20 stories, all of them in Otomo’s particular style.

Calling this volume a collection of parodies stretches the concept of parody a lot, since there are times in which Otomo tells the story straight, only choosing the crueler of the available versions of the tale in question, where in others he goes for the easiest gag possible (Like he does in his personal take on Ali Baba and the forty thieves). Still, it’s a great collection that showcases Otomo’s evolving art at the time, as well as his diversity and humor. Because of this, it lands in our seventh place.


6. Sayonara Nippon

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Drama, Slice of Life, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1977 -1980

Leaving your country to live in a different place is always a jarring experience. You are not only leaving your family and friends behind, you are leaving your whole culture. Sometimes, even your language is left behind, as you need to learn a new one to communicate in the new country. Not only that, but sometimes money gets in the way of how you survive, and there’s always the nostalgia that can end up developing in a terrible depression.

All these are the elements around Sayonara Nippon, a short story about two Japanese citizens that move to the US: a judo/karate teacher, who also has to live with the stigma of selling out his culture to survive –this was in the seventies, in the midst of the kung fu/karate craze of the United States, but before it was acceptable to have non-Japanese practicing the arts: and a young guitar player that is looking for success away from their native land.

Sayonara Nippon is a good gateway to many of the subjects that we can find constantly in Otomo’s work: Nationalism, Memories, and identity. Because of this, this volume gets the sixth place on our list.


5. Kouen

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Slice of Life
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 2006

One of the most common themes in Katsuhiro Otomo’s works is the generational divide in Japan. In this very short story, a group of three delinquents meet three old men cleaning a park. While there’s not a physical confrontation; their different approaches to life, with the old men worried about the environment and the future, and the young students caring about nothing but their own problems, have an interesting clash for the readers.

Kouen points to the change in balance in Otomo’s work: In the past, his young characters had more charisma and a more nuanced point of view, while in Kouen, it’s obvious that we’re meant to empathize with the older men. Because of this, the short story for the Brutus magazine lands in the very middle of our list, the fifth place.


4. Batman Black and White: The Third Mask

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Superheroes, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1996

In 1996, DC Comics decided to create a four issue miniseries of short stories of their flagship character, Batman, drawn by some of the greatest comic book authors of the time. In this series, the only non English-speaking author invited was Katsuhiro Otomo, who was then given complete creative freedom to make one short story about Batman. The Third Mask was the result of said experiment.

In this story, we can see not only the great ability of Otomo to adapt to any medium, as his art is darker than anything we’d seen in Japan with the possible exception of our number one pick; we also see his talent as a storyteller, as he literally takes the breaking of Bruce Wayne’s psyche to the logical end. Nothing can be creepier than the very last line of the story, that despite being the shortest story we’re reviewing today, it earns the fourth place on the list by that panel alone.


3. Legend of Mother Sarah

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo (Story), Nagayasu Takumi (art)
  • Genre: Action, Drama, Adventure, Sci-fi, Seinen
  • Volumes: 7
  • Published Date: 1990 - 2004

There is nothing stronger than the love of a mother for her children. After Earth becomes so poisonous that it is impossible to sustain life, human civilization has retreated to space colonies that orbit the now-dead planet. However, there’s political unrest, and a terrorist attack insures that some of the survivors are forced into exile to the planet that may –or may not- have recovered enough for human survival in the worst possible environment. In the confusion created by the system, a young mother is separated from her three children, sent to be alone. However, Sarah has an indomitable will, and will not rest until she finds her children.

The Legend of Mother Sarah is probably the second most well-known manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, even when he was only in writing duties. It’s a heartbreaking tale of familial love and survival that every sci-fi fan must read. In fact, the only reason why it’s not higher in our list it’s because the art is not by Otomo himself. It is also one of the few that were completely translated into other languages, including English and Spanish. All that makes it the perfect fit for the third place on our list.


2. Domu : A Child’s Dream

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Horror, Supernatural, Seinen
  • Volumes: 1
  • Published Date: 1980 -1981

The Tsutsumi Housing Complex is rumored to be haunted. The rumors started when Mr. Ueno, one of the tenants, jumps from the roof, and marked the thirtysecond death in the complex in just three years. Because of this, inspectors Yamagawa and Takayama start to investigate, and discover that Ueno’s death is strange because there was no way he could’ve gotten to the roof, given that there was no way to open the access door. And as they investigate, they realize that there were many strange happenings around the residents: there’s an atmosphere of fear around them that is impossible to cut through. Yamagawa himself falls to the curse of the buildings: He discovers that the culprit is an old man with psychic powers, but is unable to save himself from this curious serial killer.

Another age vs. youth story, Domu is a haunting horror tale. It is very easy to side with Etsuko, a young girl who finds herself in the crosshairs of old man Cho’s and his desire to earn “trophies” for his games, since she’s the one who worries about the lives of people around the buildings. But the true horror of Cho’s actions comes from the fact that he is not evil: he is senile. In his mind, he’s a child even younger than Etsuko herself. And because of this, the story becomes more horrifying. While this is not Otomo at his best, it’s close to it, and this story more than earns the second place on our list.


1. Akira

  • Mangaka: Katsuhiro Otomo
  • Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Seinen
  • Volumes: 6
  • Published Date: 1982 - 1990

In 1988 an explosion destroyed Tokyo and started World War III. In 2019, Neo Tokyo is a strange city built on top of the ruins of Old Tokyo, a metropolis of huge skyscrapers and a huge divide between the rich and the poor. In this world, teenagers are easily ignored, so they have the choice to form violent gangs, join religious cults around strange psychics, or join the rebels that want to change the world. Tetsuo Shima and Shotarou Kaneda took the first option, and despite being in the exact same gang, they’re bitter rivals since Tetsuo has a terrible inferiority complex. He just can’t stop comparing himself to Kaneda. And trying to prove that he is his friend/rival’s equal, he ends up falling in the hands of the same secret laboratory that caused the 1988’s explosion, which is still trying to understand the power they unleashed back then.

Akira, the movie, is legendary among older anime fans. It’s a cult classic, not only because of the incredible animation, but also due to the complex story that, let’s face it, is just a scrap of what Otomo’s Magnus opus really was. Two hours weren’t enough to summarize 120 chapters of the manga, that was also one of the very first manga published in English in the eighties, by none other than Marvel Comics. To be honest, we don’t have enough space to explain exactly why Akira was so important to the English-speaking fans, and trying to do so would also spoil one of the great manga of the last centuries if you haven’t had the chance to read it. Thankfully, it’s still printed thanks to Dark Horse Comics, and later Kodansha USA.

So if you are looking for one of the first cyberpunk manga that changed the way in which manga was seen outside Japan, look no further than Akira. And when you finish reading it, you will see why it was our number one choice for this list.


Final Thoughts

There aren’t many names as recognized outside of the manga-reader world as Katsuhiro Otomo’s. We already mentioned he is one of Japan’s most awarded anime directors, in the same league as Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, and just under Hayao Miyazaki. Listing all the awards he has won would be redundant at this point.

However, he is also old school. Which means that the newer fans, the newer readers, aren’t as familiar with his works. Even in the eighties, most fans were only aware of Akira, Domu and Mother Sarah, which were just the tip of the iceberg of his work.

If you knew Otomo’s work before, we’d love to know your opinion of this list. Did we miss your favorite? Do you disagree on the order? The comments below are there for you. But if you didn’t know about Otomo, except by reputation, please, give these stories a chance. And once you have, come back and tell us how your first encounter with one of Japan’s greatest mangaka was.

Adalisa Zarate

Writer

Author: Adalisa Zarate

The fan with the rainbow hair. Has been an anime fan all her life. Lives in Mexico City for the time being.

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