While there are limited shounen works that weave in tragedy, there is a plethora of popular seinen and shoujo series that layer tragedy in with artfully crafted stories. They often have more realistic romances that have catapulted to being cult classics with the perfect amount of bitter and sweet.
If you long for real drama or can’t stand the unstoppable optimism in more mainstream series, these manga are must-reads.
Mangaka: Inio Asano
Quick Pitch: Meiko and Taneda have been dating since their college days, but they have no real goals or direction. Meiko has been working as an office lady for the past two years and Taneda works as an illustrator. They earn just enough to pay the rent. One day, Meiko decides to quit her job to find a worthy goal and Taneda decides to reunite with his old bandmates. The couple is prepared for the unpredictable future, no matter what hardships it may bring.
2Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit
Mangaka: Motoro Mase
Quick Pitch: Under the National Welfare Act, every first-grader receives a vaccine. A small percentage are injected with a radio-controlled capsule which will kill them between the ages of 18 to 24. It’s believed that the threat of an unexpected death will increase productivity and prosperity with the citizens.
Kengo works for the government and delivers death papers 24 hours before a selected citizen’s death. He is unsure about the program, but the choices people make in their final hours will shape Kengo’s opinion.
Mangaka: Naoshi Arakawa
Quick pitch: Kousei Arima is a young musical prodigy. His mom meticulously taught him to play the piano, which allowed him to dominate music competitions. After her sudden death, Kousei the will to play music and disappeared from the stage. His monotonous life changes upon meeting Kaori Miyazono, a violinist known for her free-willed performances.
4Our Happy Time (Watashitachi no Shiawase na Jikan)
Mangaka: Sumomo Yumeka
Quick Pitch: Juri Mutou is a pianist who has attempted suicide three times and has grown to resent her mother. Monica, Juri’s aunt, is a member of the clergy at a prison and invites Juri to visit a death row inmate.
Yuu is a death row inmate convicted of murdering three people and has attempted suicide to escape his punishment. He receives letters from Monica as part of a clergy program, but he views the letters as pity. Yuu decides to accept a meeting with Monica so he can request for her to stop sending letters but encounters Juri.
These two people shrouded in depression and suicide begin a new journey to find hope and solace.
Mangaka: Inio Asano
Quick pitch: Punpun Onodera is a typical 11-year-old Japanese boy. He is a hopeless romantic and thinks he has a chance at first love with a girl named Aiko Tanaka. Slowly, his naive worldview crumbles after learning that relationships are a lot of work and after witnessing things in his hometown that he can’t comprehend. These two events throw his life into a slow spiral.
Mangaka: Kei Kusunoki
Quick pitch: Daisuke is a popular high school student who would date any girl, except for Aikawa. He finds her “sweet virgin” type annoying and aversion to physical contact offensive. His attitude changes after he accidentally learns of Aikawa’s secret past. Aikawa is not aware that Daisuke knows her secret, but becomes more relaxed around him due to his sudden compassion.
7Koizora: Setsunai Koimonogatari
Mangaka: Mika (Writer) / Ibuki Haneda (Artist)
Quick Pitch: Mika is a normal high school girl who fantasizes about finding a wonderful love life. One day, she meets Hiro, who seems to be the man of her dreams. Despite having a tragic life, Mika is always happy around Hiro as she tries to keep control in her life.
Mangaka: Mohiro Kitoh
Quick pitch: During summer camp, 15 children discover a network of computers and electrical equipment hidden inside a grotto. The owner of this equipment is Kokopelli and claims to be a programmer working on a new game, which involves a giant robot defending Earth against 15 alien invasions. Kokopelli asks the children if they would like to test the game. All but one child agree and sign a contract, not knowing that they are about to enter a dark world.
9Full Moon o Sagashite
Mangaka: Arina Tanemura
Quick Pitch: Mitsuki is a 12-year-old girl with a great singing voice. She dreams of becoming an idol and becoming reunited with her crush, but a throat tumor crushes her dreams. While Mitsuki can still manage to sing, she needs surgery to remove the tumor, but it will damage her vocal cords. Determined to push through, Mitsuki accidentally overhears two shinigami comment that she only has a year to live.
10Half & Half
Mangaka: Seo Kouji
Quick Pitch: Shinichi and Yuuki die in an accident, but God gives them a second chance at life. There are strings attached: they have seven days to enjoy life with each other, but one of the must permanently die after the time limit.
11Deep Love: Ayu no Monogatari
Mangaka: Yoshi (Writer) / Yuu Yoshii (Illustrator)
Quick Pitch: Ayu is a 17-year-old high school student with a cynical outlook on life. She doesn’t believe in love or happiness, and that money is the only thing that matters. This leads Ayu to prostitution, but an encounter with an elderly woman may lead to a new worldview.