Saturday, June 13, 2009

GIRL POWER: A Look at Shoujo Manga in the U.S.


Published in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly May 28-June 3, 2009.

Nichi Bei Times Contributor

Walk into any major chain bookstore these days, and you will most likely find shelves of manga translated into English by any one of a half dozen companies. Where there was once one tiny stack of manga in a corner over near the science fiction and fantasy books, there is now, in many cases, an entire aisle of options. In the past six years, the popularity of manga in the United States has exploded. Bookstores are carrying manga volumes, libraries are starting manga collections, and newsstands are carrying manga anthology magazines.
But what kind of stories, exactly, will you find on these bookshelves and in these magazines? For the most part, manga licensed in the United States has been aimed at a young male market. We’ve been given shounen (boys) manga full of heroic samurai stories, martial arts comedies, serious space operas, and series featuring spiky-haired teens with magical powers blasting demons to bits.

This is all fine and good, but what about female audiences? In the mid-1990s things slowly began to change when San Francisco-based publisher, VIZ Media, LLC ventured into shoujo and josei manga territory.
Shoujo literally means “young girl,” and in Japan there is an entire range of manga created with young girls in mind. Shoujo itself is not a genre, but a target audience that encompasses a wide variety of genres. The stories range from simple idealized school romances, to gothic horror, and include thoughtful and provocative space dramas, as well.

Similarly, josei is manga created for an older female audience — women in their late teens and ‘20s — who are part of the workforce or at home taking care of a family. The stories have more mature themes and content, often taking place in locations such as the home or the office. The plots are realistic, more complex, and generally revolve around work, love, marriage, sex, family and children.

The style of shoujo and josei manga differs from shounen manga both visually and thematically. The art is generally more detailed and delicate. Characters are slim and graceful. Scenes are enhanced with sparkles, flowers, or other stylish effects. Plots are character and relationship driven, and can be intricate, while the settings are as wild and varying as any shounen (boys) manga. From the halls of an average high school to the hills of a far off European country, the world of shoujo and josei manga is vast and surprising. There are comedies, romances, tragedies, sports stories, science-fiction epics, workplace dramas, historical adventures and more.

With “Four Shoujo Stories” in 1996, VIZ tested the waters of United States mainstream shoujo acceptance. This volume included the short story, “They Were Eleven,” a gripping science fiction mystery by Hagio Moto, one of the most influential and respected shoujo manga authors in Japan. “Four Shoujo Stories” allowed a glimpse into the more complex, character-driven stories that are the trademark of shoujo and josei manga.
However, because the major outlet for U.S. comic books at the time was the independent comic book shop, VIZ tried to market their manga there, doing everything they could to conform to traditional United States comic book style. Most of the titles they released were shounen series, but for both shounen and shoujo manga, they followed the same strategy, publishing individual manga chapters in single pamphlet-style comics that looked like American comic books, and colorizing some of the black and white pages. Many of VIZ’s early shoujo efforts were packaged together with non-shoujo titles in Animerica Extra, a short-lived anthology magazine.

Unfortunately, male comic fans were mainly frequenting independent comic book shops in America at the time. Finding a female audience there was tricky.

In the late ‘90s Mixx (now Tokyopop) jumped into the fray, starting MixxZine and later Smile magazines, specifically targeting a female teen audience, and this time aiming their efforts at the regular magazine newsstand instead of niche comic shops. Their release of “Sailor Moon,” one of the most popular anime and manga titles in history, opened the world of shoujo manga up to a much wider audience.

While “Sailor Moon” was a great success, it wasn’t until Tokyopop’s release of “Fruits Basket,” a humorous tale of a girl living with a family who can turn into various animals of the Chinese zodiac, that shoujo manga truly gained a foothold in the American market.

A key factor that aided in the success of “Fruits Basket” is that instead of simply being serialized in a manga magazine, it and other titles released around that time were starting to creep into bookstores. The average female reader is more likely to wander into a bookstore than a comic shop, so this made manga much more accessible. “Fruits Basket” was able to attract a strong following, both male and female. This crossover appeal helped the title repeatedly hit BookScan’s Top 20 Graphic Novel list.

In June 2005, VIZ launched Shojo Beat, an anthology magazine collecting several shoujo titles and a few josei titles as well. Some of the titles have a limited run in the magazine, before they are split off and released in collected volume format, making way for new titles. VIZ also launched a “Shojo Beat” manga imprint in which they release many other shoujo series that don’t appear in the magazine.

Suddenly, the United States was a viable market for shoujo titles. Soon both TokyoPop and VIZ were releasing a healthy amount of shoujo along with their usual shounen blockbusters. Other publishers came on board as well, and now we have a steady stream of works from VIZ, Tokyopop, Dark Horse, CMX, Aurora, Del Rey, Vertical, DMP, Go! Comi, Yen Press, and more.

Where should someone interested in exploring the world of shoujo and josei manga start?

It helps to begin with some classics. Many of them are no longer in print, but you can still find these older gems:

“Swan” (by Kyoko Ariyoshi – CMX – January 1, 2005) — one of many female takes on the classic shounen sports manga genre, Swan follows a young and talented girl named Masumi as she struggles to train and succeed as a ballerina. She faces grueling hardships and fierce rivalries while growing as a dancer and finding romance. This series contains beautiful artwork and is a classic example of ‘70s shoujo manga. (Rated: All Ages)

“From Eroica With Love” (by Yasuko Aoike – CMX – November 1, 2004) Welcome to the world of Earl Dorian “Eroica” Red Gloria, a flamboyant, openly gay, international art thief, and Klaus Everbach, a straight-laced German NATO officer. The two play cat and mouse across the globe as Dorian tries to steal beautiful works of art and Klaus doggedly tries to stop him. This series is filled with ridiculous situations, fun Cold War thriller stunts, and playful banter. (Rated: 13+)

For a taste of contemporary school-life stories, I recommend:

“High School Debut” (by Kazune Kawahara – VIZ Media – January 1, 2008) A sweet and adorable look at high school romance. Awkward, fashion-challenged tomboy Haruna has just started high school and is determined to make a fresh start and find a great boyfriend. To accomplish this social miracle, she enlists the reluctant coaching of a popular classmate, Yoh, who agrees to help her on the condition she not fall in love with him. But will he break the rule first? (Rated: T For Teens)

“Boys Over Flowers” (by Yoko Kamio – VIZ Media – August 6, 2003) Makino Tsukushi is a poor girl attending a high school for the rich elite. As a scholarship student, Tsukushi just wants to lead an uneventful high school life until graduation. Unfortunately, once she crosses the path of the F4, a quartet of wealthy guys who rule the school, all bets are off. Can tough-girl Tsukushi shape up these spoiled rich guys? (Rated: T For Teens)

“Honey and Clover” (by Chika Umino – VIZ Media – March 4, 2008) Moving beyond high school this time, “Honey and Clover” is a josei manga about of a group of friends at an art college. Hopes, dreams, and complicated relationships tie the friends together and push them apart. This series will sparkles with original characters and sweet, funny moments. (Rated: T+ For Older Teens)

Tired of this humdrum real world? Explore the realms of fantasy with these titles:

“Red River” (by Chie Shinohara – VIZ Media – June 23, 2004)
An epic story about Yuri, a modern Japanese girl who is transported back to the land of the ancient Hittites in the 14th century B.C. There she is pursued by an evil queen to be a blood sacrifice while at the same time being hailed by the people as the reincarnation of the goddess Ishtar. This is a historical soap opera, and while it may feature some starry, melodramatic romance involving a prince, it also is not afraid of showcasing some of the real dangers of the time as Yuri struggles to make a place for her and find a way home. (Rating: 16+)

“Basara” (by Yumi Tamura – VIZ Media – August 13, 2003) A sweeping romantic war adventure about Sarasa, a girl who assumes the identity of her deceased twin brother who had been prophesied to save the kingdom from the evil Red King. Sarasa works hard to lead her people and gather allies to her side while pretending to be her brother. At the same time, she falls in love with none other than the Red King in disguise, neither party realizing that their loved one is the enemy. Bold artwork and a colorful cast of well-developed supporting characters make this an exciting, entertaining read. (Rated 16+)

Looking for something off the beaten path? These titles are not your average love stories.

“Nodame Cantabile” (by Tomoko Ninomiya – Del Rey – April 26, 2005) A music college is the setting for this whimsical and funny tale of Shinichi Chiaki, a talented and arrogant music student who dreams of becoming a world-class conductor, and his next-door neighbor, the free-spirit pianist Megumi Noda (“Nodame”). Shinichi’s perfectionism and secret quest to become a conductor clashes with Nodame’s cheerful lack of ambition. However, each character grows and learns from the other. (Rated 16+ Older Teen)

“Skip Beat” (by Yoshiko Nakamura – VIZ Media – July 5, 2006) A hilarious story of love and vengeance. After being cruelly dumped by Shotaro, her rising-star musician boyfriend, Kyoko vows revenge. Her method? Enter the entertainment industry and become an even bigger star! As she fights her way through the fierce and competitive Japanese show business world, she discovers a lot about herself, including a natural talent for acting, and a burning desire to succeed that has nothing to do with revenge. (Rating: T For Teens)

“Kitchen Princess” (by Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi – Del Rey – January 30, 2007) A delightful blend of romance and mystery, this is the cute story of an orphaned girl with a remarkable talent for cooking who searches for her “prince,” a boy who helped her when she was a child. Her quest leads her to a prestigious school, where she faces many challenges, yet remains true to herself and uses her skill in cooking to spread warmth and happiness to others. (Rating 13+)

“Walkin’ Butterfly” (by Chihiro Tamaki – Aurora Publishing – August 22, 2007) A striking, raw, art style perfectly captures the story of Michiko, a gangly girl who, after years of being teased about her height, feels uncomfortable in her own skin. After a chance encounter with a fashion designer who rejects her after recognizing her inner weakness and insecurity, a fire is lit in Michiko’s heart, and a new dream is born — to conquer her feelings inadequacy over her self-image by becoming a world-class fashion model. (Rated 16+ Older Teen)

What does the future hold for shoujo manga in the United States? The outlook is uncertain. With the recent economic downturn, U.S. manga companies are pulling back on the number of titles they license, sticking to sure-bets and already-popular mainstream series. Unfortunately for shoujo fans, this means that tried-and-true shounen series will be the ones to survive, with less-profitable shoujo manga being shelved first.

In May 2009, VIZ announced that their Shojo Beat magazine is closing shop, with the final issue hitting shelves in July. In August, subscribers will receive a free issue of Shonen Jump magazine, along with information about what their refund and subscription options are. Fortunately, the Shojo Beat manga imprint will survive, but we are now left without a primarily shoujo-focused magazine. However, shoujo manga has faced obstacles in the past and still survived, so hopefully shoujo fans will continue to support the industry by buying shoujo manga and helping it to survive until economic winds change for the better.

No comments: