Parts of Japanese culture continue to grow in popularity in the Western world, especially Japanese storytelling. Anime adaptations of light novels and manga are popular shows on streaming services, and physical copies of these stories are also experiencing an increase in sales. However, with this increase in popularity, there may be some confusion about the difference between these two storytelling mediums.
Light novels and manga are different storytelling formats. Light novels are novellas with various illustrations but rely primarily on words to tell the story. Manga is a type of Japanese comic that relies on illustrations for storytelling.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain what manga and light novels are in more detail, so you can get a better understanding of their differences. I’ll also offer recommendations on what you should read from each medium. If you’re interested in exploring the world of Japanese literature, keep reading!
Are Light Novels and Manga the Same?
Light novels and manga are not the same, though they have some similarities. Some Japanese series even have both light novel and manga editions for the same story available for you to enjoy. Light novels and manga both feature illustrations in similar art styles, and they both have a narrative, but they are still different storytelling mediums.
The main difference between light novels and manga is the role of illustrations. Light novels feature illustrations throughout, but they are not the primary way the story is told. On the other hand, manga is the Japanese equivalent of a comic, so illustrations are extremely important and vital to the story. Although the art style is similar between these two mediums, the role of art is significantly different.
The following table outlines some of the primary differences between light novels and manga:
|Illustrations||Only a few per book, not necessary to the story||Primary means of storytelling, essential|
|Text||Primary means of telling the story||Fragmented, usually only in dialogue and thought bubbles|
|Story||Stand-alone, each book tells a complete story||Chapters require the context of other chapters to make sense|
|Publication Schedule||One new book every six months||New chapters every two weeks|
|History||Emerged in the 1990s||Emerged in the 1800s|
Now that you have a general understanding of the difference between these two storytelling mediums, let’s take a closer look at each and what makes them unique.
What Is a Light Novel?
Light novels are similar to Western young adult novels, although they are typically shorter and more of a novella length, approximately 50,000 words. Because of the short length, authors can frequently write and publish new installments in a series, usually every six months.
Typically, each installment of a light novel series tells a complete, self-contained story told through prose. Light novels usually feature manga-style illustrations to enhance the writing and give readers a better image of the characters, but these illustrations are not essential for the telling of the story. These stories are extremely fast-paced, so many find them easier to read than longer books.
Most light novels are released as books, although some are published in serialized magazines, similar to manga. You can also read light novels online; for more information, you can read my article on the five best websites to read light novels.
Another unique feature of light novels is their long titles. Many titles are as long as thirty words, often to set themselves apart from the abundance of other light novels available.
Light novels aren’t as popular as manga, probably because they take up more time and require more focus and attention, but they are the inspiration for many manga series. They are written for both boys and girls, although they’re usually more popular with girls.
What Is Manga?
Manga is a central part of Japanese culture and has existed since the 1800s. It is similar in form to Western comics, although manga is largely printed in black and white to adhere to tradition and cut down on production costs. Unlike Western comics, manga is read from right to left. For more information, you can read my article on how to read manga.
Unlike light novels, the illustrations in manga are essential to telling the story. Manga also features text, but it is less important than it is in light novels, and it is usually in a speech or thought balloon instead of written on a page as prose.
Even though manga relies predominantly on illustrations, it is still considered a book. For a more thorough exploration of this topic, you can read my article on whether manga count as books.
While some manga is published comic-style, most people consume manga through serialized magazines that feature multiple series in one volume. Once enough chapters are published through this means, publishers put together a collection of chapters called a tankobon.
While individual light novels are stand-alone stories that fit within a larger series, most manga chapters cannot stand on their own and require the context of other chapters to make sense.
Manga can be published extremely quickly. The mangaka, the author of a manga, works with an editor and some assistants to create a new chapter approximately every two weeks.
Just like there are different genres of books, there are also different genres of manga. Let’s take a look at a few:
- Shonen. This genre features a lot of action, usually featuring a male protagonist. They are typically written with teenage boys as the intended audience, although anyone can enjoy them. Usually, a tight group of friends forms as the story continues.
- Shojo. The target demographic of this kind of manga is teenage girls. This genre typically concerns exploring relationships and emotional connections. This sometimes includes romance, but not always.
- Seinen. These manga are for men in their twenties and feature more mature storylines and themes than shonen.
- Josei. This type is targeted at women in their twenties. It features mature storylines, usually exploring relationships.
With so many genres and an abundance of available material, it’s no mystery why manga has become so popular around the globe.
Should I Read a Light Novel or Manga?
Both light novels and manga make for an excellent way to explore Japanese culture and storytelling and provide yourself with top-notch entertainment. You can use the table below to determine which medium is right for you:
|You should read light novels if:||You should read manga if:|
|You prefer more developed characters You have time to commit to reading 50,000 words You prefer a complete story instead of ending on a cliffhanger You don’t mind waiting for the next installment in a series You prefer reading prose over reading dialogue and thought bubbles||You don’t have a lot of time to commit to reading You prefer more pictures than words You’re interested in seeing more manga-style artwork You prefer a fast-paced story You want more frequent installments You want lots of different options|
Keep in mind that you don’t have to choose between the two! You can always read both if you’re feeling up to it.
Light Novel Recommendations
If you’re ready to dive into the world of light novels, you’re in for a treat! Here are some of my top recommendations:
Slayers by Hajime Kanzaka, Illustrated by Rui Araizumi
This series follows Lina Inverse, a teenage girl who also happens to be a powerful sorceress with destructive magical powers. Lina and her friends go on various adventures throughout the series and battle wizards and demons to try and save the world.
Slayers has been adapted into many manga series and anime shows. Multiple role-playing games take place in the Slayers universe.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya by Nagaru Tanigawa,Illustrated by Gaku Tsugano
This series, of which The Melancholy is the first installment, is one of the most popular light novel series. The story follows Haruhi Suzumiya and her friend Kyon as they start a club called the SOS Brigade. All the club members except Kyon are supernatural figures, which makes for some interesting interactions and experiences.
The series inspired a popular anime adaptation, so after you’re done reading the series, you can watch it too!
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai by Hajime Kamoshida, Illustrated by Keji Mizoguchi
This book is the first in the Seishun Buta Yaro series, a more recent series of light novels that features strange supernatural occurrences. The series focuses on Sakuta and his friends and family, and the supernatural events that plague them often concern their psychological state.
The story begins when Sakuta meets Mai Sakurajima, a famous actress, when she is dressed as a bunny girl. The series inspired a manga adaptation, an anime television series, and an anime film.
Monogatari by Nisio Isin, Illustrated by Vofan
This story follows Koyomi Araragi, a high school student who survives being attacked by a vampire and then tries to help his female friends and sisters with their aberrations, which often reflect their emotional issues.
The series inspired an anime television adaptation and a prequel anime film trilogy. There is also a manga adaptation.
One of the great things about manga is that there is so much to choose from. While you could spend hours searching for something that is right up your alley, here are my recommendations for some of the best manga:
One Piece Written and Illustrated by Eiichiro Oda
One Piece is the most recognized and sold manga globally, with more than 516 million copies sold. It was the best-selling manga in the world from 2008 to 2018.
The story focuses on pirate Monkey D. Luffy, who is seeking the ultimate treasure called “One Piece.” After he eats a Devil Fruit, Monkey D. Luffy gains the properties of rubber. He and his crew, the Straw Hat Pirates, search for the treasure hoping to become the next Pirate King.
The series inspired a film, an anime series, thirteen television specials, a trading card game, and multiple video games.
Dragon Ball Written and Illustrated by Akira Toriyama
In this manga, the main character, Son Goku, searches the world for Dragon Balls. If he collects all seven, he’ll get to make a wish. Throughout the story, he has to prove his strength through training and battling other characters.
Dragon Ball is one of the most famous martial-arts-themed manga and is highly regarded for its unique battle scenes and techniques. In Dragon Ball Z, Goku is all grown up, and the story also follows his sons Gohan and Goten.
Dragon Ball is one of the best-selling mangas of all time and has sold over 300 million copies globally. The anime adaptations have also been extremely successful; in 1999, one of the episodes of the anime had 1.7 million viewers, which beat the Cartoon Network United States audience record at the time.
Naruto Written and Illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto
This manga follows Naruto Uzumaki, who is a ninja in the fictional world of Shinobi and wants to become the leader of his village, known as the Hokage. The series has sold approximately 250 million copies globally. He and his friends must battle using various ninja techniques and chakra energy.
The series inspired a sequel that follows Naruto’s son, named Boruto. It also was adapted into an anime television series, which aired 220 episodes in Japan and an English dub aired on Cartoon Network and Disney XD.
Fullmetal Alchemist Written and Illustrated by Hiromu Arakawa
Fullmetal Alchemist is a modern manga that follows alchemist brothers Edward and Alphonse, who can use alchemy to create anything they want in exchange for something that holds equal value. The brothers live in a steampunk world styled after the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
Edward and Alphonse are searching for the philosopher’s stone to repair their bodies after they made a mistake trying to bring their mother back from the dead.
The series inspired:
- two anime television series
- two anime films
- a series of light novels
- video games
- a collectible card game
- and action figures
There is also a live-action film adaptation.
Light novels and manga are both compelling ways to experience a story, and they are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world. While they share a few similarities, and some series feature both light novel and manga editions, they are not the same medium. The main difference is that light novels mostly use words to tell the story, whereas manga mostly uses illustrations.