Valentine's Day is just around the corner. I considered several themes relating to love in Japan, but it didn't take me long to settle on my absolute favorite, shojo manga. If you're not familiar with the term, this is a genre of manga (Japanese comic books) that are marketed to girls. This as opposed to shonen manga, which are marketed to boys. It may sound a bit sexist, but these are old terms, dating as far back as 1908, and are not set in stone. Plenty of girls also read shonen, and some boys also enjoy shojo. However, it is true that girls are exposed to shojo from very early ages, finding manga for every stage of their lives.
The genre started as a few magazines with comic strips intended for young girls. The artists were men, who often had to consult their wives about how girls felt about various things. Then as the stories lengthened and evolved, the plots usually revolved around a young girl who is snatched away from her family and must endure hardship until rescued by a young man and restored to her family. However, things changed in the 1960s when a wave of new female artists took the industry by storm, not only working within the established guidelines, but also expanding the genre into the versatile category it is today. The field is almost entirely made up on female writers and artists now.
What makes shojo different from shonen? Well, shonen (boys manga) tend to be action based, whether it is fighting, like Dragon Ball, or sports, like One Outs. The protagonist is male, the cast is usually predominately male, and interactions are often based on friendship and comradery. If there is a romantic story line, it is usually a side plot and often involves the "harem" theme (in other words lots of girls like the main character and he must choose one).
Though, there are many types of shojo from sci-fi to horror, unlike shonen, you will find the themes focus on female protagonists, emotions, love, and personal growth. While it is not a requirement that shojo be a romance, that is a very popular subplot. One of the most popular settings for shojo is high school, and instead of shonen's harems that usually end with a confession of love, shojo often start with the beginning of love and the development of the relationship. The artwork is also usually different from shonen, softer, with thinner lines and less background interference.
I've been reading manga since I was a kid and what got me interested were shonen like Dragon Ball and Fullmetal Alchemist. However, I started reading shojo when I was around seventeen, beginning with Maison Ikkoku, by one of my favorite manga artists Rumiko Takahashi (best known for the shonen Inuyasha). Maison Ikkoku is a comic-romance about a boarding house in Tokyo. The people who live there are all very strange, except for Yusaku Godai, a college student with terrible luck. The new manager of the boarding house is a young widow, Kyoko Otonashi. For Yusaku it is love at first sight, but Kyoko is more reluctant to let her feelings free, as she is still mourning the sudden death of her husband.
The manga (which I just reread with great enjoyment) spans some five years, during which there are countless misunderstandings, confessions, near resolutions, and unrequited love. Though this is certainly a romance, much broader concepts are explored, such as self-esteem, depression, trust, jealousy, failure, self-sabotage and alcoholism. With this description it might shock you to hear that you will laugh your way through it, but trust me, Rumiko Takahashi is a master of comedy. The characters are perfect, the artwork is stunning, and the ending is... well, I won't give it away. After reading Maison Ikkoku, I delved into the genre more thoroughly, and though it is still my absolute favorite, here are a few others that I love.
Ouran High School Host Club, by Bisco Hatori, sounds incredibly cheesy by the title. In fact, I might never have picked it up except that I happened to watch an episode of the anime. However, I love funny things and this manga is certainly that. Haruhi Fujioka, a scholarship student at a very high class private school, gets into trouble by breaking an expensive vase. The vase belongs to the Host Club, a group of boys who spend their spare time entertaining the young women of the school, by throwing extravagant parties and events. They tell Haruhi that in order to pay off the money from the vase he must become a host and work it off. There is just one catch, Haruhi is in fact a girl, which the hosts did not realize dew to her short hair and baggy men's clothing. No trouble, they simply give her a makeover, turning her into a handsome young man, and the farce begins.
I happen to love gender-benders (favorite movie is Some Like it Hot), so it is no surprise that I ate this manga up. I pretty much didn't sleep for a week while I read it. Haruhi is a courageous young woman who is unconcerned with gender stereotypes (mostly because her father is a cross-dresser). The "King" of the host club, Tamaki Suoh, at first seems like nothing more than a flamboyant, egotistical, vain, spoiled, rich boy. However he is soon revealed to be kind, loyal, and passionate. He has a domineering family who are constantly pushing him to prove his worth, and never had friends before the Host Club, which means he will do anything for them. The manga explores gender, sexuality, and class. I actually know several men who like Ouran High School Host Club almost as much as I do.
Kimi ni Todoke by Karuho Shiina is another high school romance that centers around Sawako Kuronuma, an extremely shy girl. Due to the fact that she has a bad case of "resting bitch face" (meaning she looks angry), and the fact that she bares a striking resemblance to Sadako from Ringu (Japanese horor film), everyone is terrified of her. However, she is a sweet, loving, inocent girl, who wants nothing more than to make friends. Shota Kazehaya is a very out going and popular boy, who is the only person who sees Sawako for who she is. With his encouragement, she is able to make friends with two girls from her class, Ayane Yano and Chizuru Yoshida, and also a quiet boy named Ryu Sanada. What fallows is a inspiring story about friendship and love.
Though the characters are all very different, they all face problems about their self-esteem, their shyness, and their roles in life. I find it to be a very accurate account of what it is like to be a teenager. For example, Ayane at first seems like she has it all together, she's confident, beautiful, and is dating a college boy. However, as time goes on you see that she has a very low opinion of herself, has zero confidence in her ability to succeed, and doesn't think she is worth Sawako and Chizuru's friendship.
The girl who is in compitition with Sawako for Kazahaya's affection (albeit without Sawako realizing it) is at first underhanded and then out and out antagonistic. Upon realizing that she's loosing herself in her obsession over the crush she uses her passion to push herself to greater academic achievements in order to build a better future for herself. It is a manga that portrays many different people as both their outer persona and their inner self, a valuable lesson for any teenager or young adult. Kimi ni Todoke is still running and at the last installment the characters stand at the brink of adulthood, the young women now facing decisions about whether their relationships are holding them back or if they can still maintain them without sabotaging their future. I am extremely excited to find out what happens next.
It is no secret that I happen to love the coming of age theme, which is probably why I am so in love with high school shojo. Another recent discovery of mine was My Little Monster by Robico, which I have haven't gotten too far in as the site I was using to read it shutdown. Now I shall have to invest in the paperbacks. This story begins with two people who are complete opposites. Shizuku Mizutani, nicknamed "dry ice", is a girl completely absorbed in her studies. She had no interest in friendships or social interactions of any kind and is cold to the bone. Haru Yoshida is seen as a deviant because of his brash nature, absence from school, and violent outbursts. Shizuku is sent to Haru's home by a teacher to give him some printouts and is surprised by his declaration that they are now friends. As it transpires, Haru is desperate for friendship and affection, though he is completely ignorant of socially acceptable behavior. More like a rambunctious child then a deviant youth, his over eagerness is what gets him into trouble. Against her will, Shizuku is dragged into a group of students who are all looking for a friendship they have never known. As the only person who can control the frequent outburst of Haru, she finds herself thawing to his earnest and pure nature. I cannot wait to see where this series ends up!
Shojo manga can sometimes be seen as "girly" (as though that is a bad thing), but personally I find that there is a depth of character and emotion to them that is refreshing (in other worlds they are girly). As a hopeless romantic, I enjoy being swept away in the love story, but even more I like getting to know and care about every person who appears on the pages. Of course, there are many shonen manga that I love as well, and I'm certainly not claiming that they do not contain deeper messages (they often do). However, ever since I picked up the first volume of Maison Ikkoku I have fallen in love with the stories, the romance, and the artistic style of shojo. Though it is technically for ages 10-18, many people in Japan and world wide read shojo well into adulthood and beyond. If you have never tried reading shojo, or manga in general, I recommend giving them a try, you might be surprised.
Until next time, I hope you get swept away in a romance!
P.S. I write and illustrate a manga-inspired graphic novel, though I think it is closer to shonen. To read the first two chapters for free, go here.