PART 2: SHOUJO
Next we have shoujo, which is manga targeted at a young female audience. The most common characteristic of this genre is romance, and in the West, quite a few romantic manga are mislabelled as shoujo because of this – for example, Love Hina by Ken Akamatsu is actually a shounen. Most shoujo will also feature a young female protagonist, though I believe it is still more common for shoujo to have a male protagonist than it is for shounen to have a female one.
Some titles from this genre that you might recognise are Sailor Moon, Vampire Knight, and Shugo Chara!, as well as a few of the recommendations that I’ve selected below. In terms of magazines, some of the top-selling ones in Japan are Ciao, Ribon, and Nakayoshi, but the one that Western audiences will probably be most familiar with is Shoujo Beat – which is actually a North American magazine, and published a selection of popular shoujo manga from various different Japanese magazines.
[Please note that the following recommendations are not necessarily my favourite shoujo manga – but they are series that I think will make good starting-points for people unfamiliar with the genre.]
Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori (LaLa). A reverse-harem romantic comedy about a girl called Haruhi, who’s attending an elite school for the super-rich on a scholarship. One day, while searching for a quiet place to study, she stumbles upon the Host Club – group of attractive male students dedicated to making girls happy (basically with over-the-top flirting) – and is forced to join them in order to pay off a debt after accidentally breaking an expensive vase. This series is surprisingly not as heavy on the romance as you’d think – instead, the main draw of it is the comedy, which plays off Haruhi’s reactions to the boys’ excessive lifestyles and often ridiculous mannerisms, and their reactions to her “commoner” life. I don’t usually go in for Japanese-style comedy, but this series is hilarious.
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya (Hana to Yume). This series follows a high school girl called Tohru, who, after being discovered living in a tent on one of her classmates’ property, is taken in by his family and becomes their housekeeper. Once she’s there, however, she soon discovers that the Sohma family is cursed. Whenever they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into animals! This premise could easily have made the series incredibly weird, but it’s actually done really well. Tohru is a great protagonist (though a little dense), and each of the Sohmas has an interesting, and often very sad backstory, which ties into the Chinese Zodiac tales. There’s a reverse-harem aspect to this series, as well, but it’s not nearly so prominent as in Ouran High School Host Club, and the main relationship dynamic is really much more like a love-triangle – between Tohru, her classmate Yuki, and his estranged cousin Kyo.
Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP (Nakayoshi). A magical-girl series featuring Sakura, an elementary school girl who opens a magical book, and accidentally releases a whole load of spirits that were sealed inside a pack of cards hidden in the book. These spirits are called “Clow Cards”, and the story follows Sakura as she attempts to track them all down and re-seal them. Major themes in this series are friendship, teamwork, and finding one’s place in the world. There’s quite a bit of romance, too, though it’s understated (usually remaining at the “crush” stage), as most of the characters are very young, and the art is lovely. Cardcaptor Sakura is my personal favourite of CLAMP’s numerous series.
Ghost Hunt by Fuyumi Ono & Shiho Inada (Nakayoshi). For those who like their stories a bit spookier, this series follows Mai, who becomes involved with an organisation called Shibuya Psychic Research when they come to investigate a supposed haunting at her school. After, she joins the company as an assistant, and throughout the series, they go on a great many ghost-hunting adventures. This manga was adapted from a popular series of light novels, so it’s incredibly well-written. The art is great as well, and there’s a whole cast of wonderful, interesting characters. I personally didn’t find most of the story arcs too scary, but they were definitely very creepy, and some of SPR’s later cases are truly chilling. There’s also a slight romantic element to the series, but it’s not too in-your-face.
Natsume’s Book of Friends by Yuki Midorikawa (LaLa DX). Finally, I bring you something a little different. Natsume’s Book of Friends (also sometimes called Natsume Yuujinchou) follows Natsume, a largely isolated high school boy, who’s spent most of his life moving from relative to relative, none of whom really want him, because his ability to see spirits – and their tendency to be drawn to his power – make him behave strangely. Now living with a new family, and attending a new school, Natsume finds himself in possession of his grandmother’s old “Book of Friends”, in which she kept the names of spirits that she had defeated, so that she could call on them when she needed their help. This series is probably a bit harder to get into than the others that I’ve mentioned, but it’s absolutely worth it. The art (and colours, where they have them) is beautiful, and the story – which focuses on Natusme’s struggle to make human friends, his growing understanding of the spirits around him, and learning to accept kindness – is incredibly touching.