The following is an article I wrote for the July-September, 2001 issue (Vol. 48, No. 3) of the now defunct journal, The Japan Quarterly.
Shôjo Manga—Something for the Girls
The story begins as 13-year-old Thomas makes his way across a field of snow at the crack of dawn. At the center of a pedestrian overpass that spans the railroad tracks some forty feet below, he pauses at a breech in the steel fence, looks down with an expression that seems at once calm, sorrowful, and determined. He leaps from the narrow steel bridge, and as he falls along with the late-winter snow, he calls out a name: "Juli." Two days later, Juli, an older boy, returns to school at the end of the winter holidays to the news of Thomas' "accidental" death, and finds a letter—the last of many—that Thomas had mailed to him that fateful snowy morning. The letter is brief, written with conviction in a matter-of-fact tone: "To Juli, one last time. This is my love. This is the sound of my heart. Surely you must understand." Tôma no shinzô ("The Heart of Thomas") was created in 1974 by female artist Hagio Moto as a serialized, illustrated story of love between boys set in a vaguely German, vaguely early twentieth-century boys boarding school. It remains a critical favorite, now a classic in a genre of illustrated stories known as "shôjo manga" ("girls' comics"). It is also the work that got me hooked on shôjo manga more than a decade after its first publication, influencing me to make a career of the study of manga (and "sequential art" generally) as a cultural anthropologist.
Manga magazines and books represent more than one-third of unit sales (and nearly a quarter of gross revenues) of all publications in Japan. In 2000, more than 1.5 billion manga magazines and books were sold, with gross revenues totalling ¥523 billion. Many of those were shôjo manga. Strictly speaking, the term shôjo manga refers only to those manga geared explicitly at girls below the age of eighteen, but as often as not it is used as I use it in this article, to refer to all female-oriented manga. I estimate that more than half of all Japanese women under the age of 40 and more than three-quarters of teenaged girls read manga with some regularity. At any time, there are more than 100 such manga magazines in circulation, targeting female readers of many different age brackets and specific tastes. They crowd the shelves of corner bookstores and compete for space with the many male-oriented manga on the magazine racks of convenience stores. The best-selling of these magazines, Ribbon (published by Shueisha), has a monthly circulation of well over one million copies. Nearly all the artists who create shôjo manga are women, and the most successful of them, such as Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko, are multimillionaires.
Casual, first-time browsers of shôjo manga may find them bewildering. The page layouts are dynamic and the backgrounds are often dominated by nebulous shapes and patterns that wouldn't seem out of place in an expressionist painting. Yet for all the visual cacophony (which is in fact quite structured and easily comprehended by experienced readers), it seems to be mostly conversations that are represented. This begins to make sense once you realize that shôjo manga are first and foremost about interpersonal relationships, which are of course developed and maintained (or ruined) primarily through conversations. Most shôjo manga feature a heterosexual romance, but as the same-sex-love theme of The Heart of Thomas suggests, this is by no means a requisite element.
Unlike boys' and men's manga, which tend to revolve around action or humor, shôjo manga are intensely personal in nature. The artist tries to move her readers, and the readers want to be moved, but whether or not a work "clicks" with a particular reader depends on a myriad of factors, most important of which are the experiences and personality of that one reader.
But when a particular work and an individual reader do "click," the click can be something like an explosion, resulting in inspiration and even catharsis. A Japanese woman friend of mine in her thirties used to enjoy adventure-oriented manga as a child, but hadn't read manga for years. Her interest was renewed by a conversation we had, and I lent her my copy of The Heart of Thomas. The next time I saw my friend, she gave me a letter. The Heart of Thomas, she wrote, had resonated with her own experience to an agonizing degree. Like Juli, she had been sexually abused as a child, and had grown up feeling unworthy of love. Reading the story brought forth things she had repressed for two decades, and allowed her to see a recently ended relationship in a new light. She became determined to be more open to others, and to accept the love of others. Clearly, reading The Heart of Thomas had been a cathartic experience for her,and, although painful, she was grateful for it. This woman's experience was extreme, but I have heard less earth-shaking variations on this theme in countless conversations with many readers over the past dozen years.
The roots of both shôjo and boys'manga can be traced to early magazines for children—boys and girls alike—which began to appear in the late 19th century, reflecting the Meiji era effort to encourage literacy. In 1902, Shôjo kai ("Girls' World") was first published, and children's magazines began to be segregated, as was the education system itself, along gender lines. In most of the prewar magazines, manga took up just a few pages, and manga for children were largely the unenthusiastic product of apprentices to established cartoonists who regarded manga for children as a stepping stone along the path to "legitimate" cartooning of the kind that appeared in newspapers and other adult-oriented publications.
While the manga appealed to the youngest readers, the older children were drawn to the exciting serialized novels, accompanied by exquisite illustrations, that were the real centerpiece of children's magazines of the day. These novels and illustrations would eventually influence the future of children's manga, but not before censorship and paper rationing throughout World War II all but devastated the field of children's magazines.
After the war, publishers in Osaka saw an opportunity to compete with the debilitated Tokyo publishers for the few yen children had to spend on entertainment. By using cheap, recycled pulp paper, they were able to produce inexpensive books of manga known as akahon ("red books") because of the red ink that was used along with black ink for a two-tone effect. Most were the standard fare, but one young artist, Tezuka Osamu, saw the potential in using those relatively thick (often 100 pages or more) books for a new form of manga expression. While remaining faithful to the "cartoonish" style of earlier children's manga, Tezuka incorporated pseudo-cinematic effects—Walt Disney animation and European films were among his biggest influences—to create epic manga stories that reflected the sophistication of children's serialized fiction and illustrations. The result was a whole new genre he called "story manga," and which developed to become a staple of the revived children's magazines that flourished in the 1950s.
Despite such innovation, however, "story manga" targeting girls failed to appeal to broad audiences throughout the 1950s. Male cartoonists (there were very few female artists) seemed largely unable to imagine a heroine who was not under the age of 13 and almost entirely passive, and the most common storylines were tragedies that (in keeping with an apparent world-wide trend of the times) involved mothers. Heroines were always being separated from their biological mothers, by death or other circumstances, and as often as not were abused or neglected by cruel, heartless stepmothers. They were buffeted about from one kind of misery to another, patiently awaiting someone—usually a kind, handsome young man—to rescue them. Since both the heroine and presumed reader were children, however, romance, other than the vicarious kind, was out of the question. Where romance was permitted in stories remote in time and space—set in ancient Egypt, for example—or presented as fantasy, as in Tezuka's Ribon no Kishi, ("Princess Knight", 1953-1956). The heroines of such stories, however, were not ones readers could easily identify with.
More appealing to older girls were the teen fashion magazines Himawari (Sunflower) and Junior Soleil, both of which were edited and illustrated by the multi-talented Nakahara Jun'ichi. Through his essays, articles, and gorgeous illustrations (which remain stunningly stylish half a century later), Nakahara depicted an ideal (if largely unrealized) life-style for the postwar Japanese teenaged girl with which the still-childish genre of story manga could not hope to compete. But among Nakahara's readers were future artists who would eventually apply his vision and sense of style to an entirely new brand of shôjo manga.
Postwar Japanese media became increasingly visual in orientation, and nowhere was this manifested as powerfully and literally as in the new medium of television. Taking root in the late 1950s and spreading wildly in the early 1960s, television set the pace for a new Japan, and that pace was a weekly one. Magazines, which had always been monthly or quarterly, suddenly seemed maddeningly sluggish. New weekly magazines for adults were created and thrived, and publishers tried the formula with children's magazines. Weekly boys' magazines first appeared in 1959, and in 1963 the first girls' weeklies appeared: Kodansha Publishing's Shôjo Friend and Shueisha Publishing's Margaret.
What really made the new weekly children's magazines sell, though, was an increase in the amount of pages given over to story manga. New artists were needed to produce the increasing volume of story manga, and young female artists, some still in high school, began to trickle into the male-dominated field. One, Nishitani Yoshiko, was one of the first to take what now seems like the obvious and inevitable step of creating stories in which the heroines were teenaged Japanese girls—characters who bore a striking resemblance to the slim, stylish girls drawn by Nakahara in his fashion magazines!—and in which romance, formerly taboo in magazines for children, was a prominent theme. Nishitani's heroines were different from the mature heroines in exotic locales that figured in some shôjo manga. Ordinary, teenaged Japanese girls finally saw themselves portrayed in Nishitani's shôjo manga, and a newer, older audience was born. The school-based romances Nishitani pioneered, such as Remon to Sakuranbo ("Lemon and Cherry"), were the precursors of the stories drawn by most young shôjo manga artists today. And, while those artists may not realize it, the characters they draw are direct descendants of the slim young fashion plates of Nakahara Jun'ichi's fashion illustrations, which in turn were influenced by prewar Art Deco and Art Nouveau illustrations.
The late 1960s and the early 1970s affected Japan much like the rest of the world. A dynamic youth counterculture grew and asserted its influence on every aspect of society, including the media. At the same time, fed by an increasingly broad age range of readers, a genuine manga boom was taking place, and the trickle of young female artists became a flood. While many emulated Nishitani's school romances, others began to explore themes and content never before tried in shôjo manga. These pioneers became known collectively as the Nijûyonen Gumi ("Year 24 Group"), because so many were born in the 24th year of Showa (1949). Although, there is no "official" membership, three artists are invariably included in a list of "Forty-Niners": Heart of Thomas creator Hagio Moto, Takemiya Keiko, and Ôshima Yumiko. Takemiya created a storm of controversy in 1976 with her Kaze to Ki no Uta ("The Sound of the Wind and Trees"), which begins with a portrayal of two boys in bed, naked, sweaty, entwined, and barely covered by a single white sheet. Ôshima dealt with teen pregnancy and abortion in her 1970 short story "Tanjô" ("Birth"), and created a complex allegorical love triangle involving a boy who is transformed into a girl through a freak accident in her 1973 work Joka e ("To Joker"). Other artists frequently named as Forty-Niners are Yamagishi Ryôko (Arabesque, 1971-1975), Kimura Minori ("Mamoru-kun ga Shinda" ["Mamoru's Dead"], 1970), and Kihara Toshie ("Mari to Shingo" ["Mari and Shingo"], 1977).
Almost anything was now possible in shôjo manga, from science fiction, fantasy and allegory to horror, history and period dramas. Shôjo manga began to gain not only a wide audience, but, for the first time, critical literary acclaim as well. Once scorned, shôjo manga were now seen as the cutting edge, and were read and discussed by college students of both sexes.
The genre of shôjo manga really burst into the popular consciousness, however, in 1972 with the huge success of Ikeda Riyoko's Berusaiyu no bara ("The Rose of Versailles"), which features a woman, Oscar, who was raised to behave and dress as a man. A captain in the French army, Oscar manages to draws the romantic interest of both Andre (a man who is a subordinate in the unit she commands, as well as a childhood friend) and of Marie Antoinette, whom she serves as personal bodyguard. A musical adaptation of The Rose of Versailles created for the all-female Takarazuka Revue remains a perennial favorite.
Although shôjo manga stories tend to be much shorter than many boys' manga (which often drag on for years), there are three notable exceptions, all of which began in the 1970s. Miuchi Suzue's tale of aspiring young stage actress Kitajima Maya, Garasu no Kamen (The Glass Mask), began in 1976. Hosokawa Chieko's Oke no Monsho (The Royal Hieroglyph) began in the same year, and describes the adventures of a 16-year-old American girl, Carol, who is transported to ancient Egypt by a mummy's curse. And in 1979, Maya Mineo, one of the few male artists in the genre, began Patalliro, a slapstick comedy about the boy-king of a tiny country who has a fetish for beautiful young men. All three stories continue today.
As the 1970s wore on, however, the counterculture lost its momentum, and younger people became more inwardly directed, resulting in a Japanese equivalent of what Americans called the "Me Decade." The Nishitani-style romantic comedy reasserted itself forcefully, but it was now informed by a decade of experimentationand a decade of social upheaval. Artists such as Mutsu A-ko ("Tasogaredoki ni mitsuketa no" ["I Found It at Twilight"], 1974), Tabuchi Yumiko (Ringo Monogatari ["Apple Story"], 1977), Tachikake Hideko ("Milky Way," 1976), and Iwadate Mariko ("Hatsukoi Jidai" ["The Age of First Love"], 1975), turned away from formal experimentation and began to concentrate on individual identity and human relationships. Their works were catagorized as "otomechikku" ("maidenesque"), because they were heavily infused with a dreamy, 1970s-style femininity characterized by frilly cotton dresses, straw sun bonnets, herbal tea, and Victorian houses.
"Getting the boy" was still a central concern, but more important now was the psychological growth of the heroine. "Finding oneself" was the new theme, and it was not only the fictional protagonists but their real-life readers who "found themselves" in the pages of shôjo manga. The male critics drifted away from shôjo manga, and the genre gradually reverted, in a sense, to its rightful owners: teenaged girls.
As all this was happening, the formats of manga were also transforming. It had always been the case that manga were published in magazines and never republished, but in the 1970s, manga paperbacks began to appear in quantity. After being serialized in such anthology magazines Shôjo Comic or Ribbon, individual manga stories were now compiled into paperback form. This new format did not simply prove popular: it became the raison d'être of manga publishing. Publishers had always earned their profit from advertising in and sales of magazines, but now they turned entirely to the paperbacks and hardcovers for their profits, and the magazines were transformed into eleborate and popular ads for those books. Literally none of the top-selling manga magazines today makes a profit, nor is any expected to.
The new format proved to be especially well suited to shôjo manga, which, much more so than the suspense- and action-oriented boys' manga, stood up to re-reading. As readers themselves grow and change, their re-reading of favorite stories reveals new elements that had gone unnoticed before. A reader identifies favorite stories in serialization, then buys and saves the paperback collections, weaving the stories into her own sense of identity. In this way, manga become part of a reader's autobiography.
On the other hand, the fast pace of the weekly magazine ultimately proved ill-suited to shôjo manga. Epic dramas such as The Rose of Versailles and sports stories such as Yamamoto Sumika's tennis saga Eesu o nerae! ("Aim for the Ace!") had worked well in the weeklies, but most shôjo manga focused on relationships, feelings and moods, rather than action, and these required more deliberate treament than the 16-pages per week allowed in Shôjo Friend and Margaret. Weeklies were changed to biweeklies, and eventually only monthlies and quarterlies remained.
Another trend in the way shôjo manga were published was also intimately linked to the nature of the genre. Because readers looked for works that clicked with them personally, they were not happy to simply read what everyone else was reading. As a result, shôjo manga became increasingly niche oriented. The number of magazines increased, but the circulation of each slipped as the pool of readers became dispersed. For example, the top-selling teen magazine, Bessatsu Maagaretto ("Special Edition Margaret") stuck rigidly to the school-based hetersexual romance. Juné and other magazines, on the other hand, focused exclusively on the theme of boys' love. Wings was created for fans of science fiction and fantasy. By contrast, the bulk of young male readers gravitated to just three weekly magazines: Jump, Magazine, and Sunday. Boys were concentrated in a vertical column, all reading virtually the same manga, whereas girls were spread out horizontally, each seeking a manga world suited to her own identity.
In the 1980s, artists retained the focus on identity and relationships, but stripped away the maidenesque frills. One of the most influential artists of this decade was Tsumugi Taku, who combined an almost documentary-like realism and stream-of-consciousness approach to storytelling with a highly refined drawing style that makes unprecedented use of "light," white space and fluid page layout. Her now-classic hit Hot Road (1986), is the story of Kazuki, a high-school girl who becomes involved with a member of a bosozoku (a gang of hot-rodding drivers and bikers). Although some readers reject Tsumugi's work as a glorification of narcissism, Hot Road is one os those rare works that remains a favorite among teenaged girls who are too young to have read the work in serialization, an extraordinary feat in the constant-turnover world of modern manga.
Manga magazines geared at adult women also began to appear in the 1980s, and after a shaky start (early "ladies comics" were ridiculed as porn for frustrated housewives and office ladies) have blossomed into a healthy and diverse genre, as magazines such as Shueisha's Chorus and Young You consistently produce high-quality and critically-acclaimed work. A current popular and critical favorite is Anno Moyoko's Happy Mania, whose heroine, Shigeta Kayoko, has the problematic habit of sleeping with practically every man she meets. Although this heroine is extreme, shôjo manga (including those geared at teens) today tend to reflect increasingly casual attitudes about sex and a cynical-yet-not-entirely-hopeless attitude about romantic relationships in general. Such trends can be interpreted negatively, but they canalso be seen as an indication that teens and young women have no qualms about pursuing their own pleasure, and approach romantic relationships more cautiously and with more realistic expectations than did their predecessors.
Sales of manga peaked after the collapse of the bubble economy of the 1980s, registering a total of ¥586 billion in 1995. But recessionpersists after more than a decade, and consumers are more cautious. Although the percentage occupied by manga of all publications sold remains constant, overall sales of print publications are in gradual decline. Manga magazine sales in particular are unstable, and since magazines are required to popularize manga sold in paperback, publishers are panicking. New magazines appear every month, and those that fail to sell well immediately (which is to say most) are shut down after just a few issues.
Selling manga magazines to girls and women is especially tricky. Because they are particular in their tastes, they prefer to buy a paperback by a favorite artist (which they can keep and reread) rather than spend money on a magazine that includes stories they are not interested in, and which they will throw out anyway. Add to this the fact that girls and women have many other things they want to spend money on (including fashion magazines) and the frugality required in the current economic climate, and you can see why so "tachiyomi" (reading a magazine or book in the store without buying it) is a disproportionately female sin.
Unsurprisingly, the times are reflected in the content of shôjo manga. One of the biggest hits in recent years is Kamiyo Yoko's Hana yori Dango, ("BoysBefore Flowers"), the tale of working-class teen Makino Tsukushi, who finds herself the center of attention in a group of handsome and fabulously rich teenaged boys. These and other poor-girl-meets-rich boy manga can be seen as a reflection of anxiety in a time when young women face uncertain job prospects and blatant discrimination in the workplace.
Shôjo manga, like manga in general, are in a delicate time. Although the first "manga generation" that grew up with the manga weeklies of the 1960s and 1970s was—and remains—passionately loyal to manga, young readers today take the medium for granted. Whereas manga reading was once the favorite way to kill time on the train or subway, today you see more young people using their cell phones to do e-mail and surf the Net while commuting. Publishers, striving to increase sales with more sex and violence, have abandoned the crucial pre-adolescent "entry market," while makers of video games have lured that same demographic away. The long recession and newmedia are certainly major factors in waning sales, but it could be that the editorial control of shôjo manga is helping drag the genre down. In the 1970s, women artists took over the genre in a silent yet dramatic revolution. But the editorial offices of manga publishers are still run, for the most part, by middle-aged men. Perhaps what is needed now is another fresh infusion of young women, this time into top editorial positions.
Readers interested in seeing some examples of shojo manga in English by such artists as Hagio Moto, Yoshida Akimi (Banana Fish, 1985), Nishi Keiko (Love Song, 1993), Ueda Miwa (Peach Girl, 1997), Watase Yu (Fushigi Yugi, 1992), CLAMP (Clover, 1997) and Takeuchi Naoko (SailorMoon, 1992) can find them through the Internet from such publishers as Viz and TokyoPop.
©Matt Thorn 2001