In a society where a lot a media targeted at women are often disregarded no matter their quality, and media targeted at men are praised no matter their quality, it is sometimes complicated to openly enjoy anything. Sure I enjoy media from all across the spectrum of the ‘gendered division of marketing’, but I won’t bring it up to any stranger. Because I gravitate in circles that tend to be snobbish about media (not that they are very knowing, mind you — I often had to enter a heated debate about how yet another cult genre movie isn’t a movie ‘so bad it’s good’). And ultimately I don’t want to spend my life arguing about cultural pieces that I hold dear with people who have never seen and never will. Hey, I am human; sometimes I just want to get hammered in peace at parties.
But there is a genre unapologetically marketed for women that I equally unapologetically enjoy. It’s shojo and josei manga. They can be bright pink (I really don’t like pink), have questionable translations for titles…I am here for them. And I won’t hide. It’s true that as a general rule I won’t hide my passion for any manga. But shojo will always have a very special place in my heart. It might be because my first manga series was a magical girl. But still. I really like shojo and josei.
Not to say that there aren’t things that irk me the wrong way in shojo and josei manga. The ‘not like other girl’ trope or ‘the average protagonist’ trope get old really fast. But still I wanted to share with you my personal favorites. Thus, if you were tempted to give a try to shojo and josei you will have an idea of where to start. Or if you are already on this band wagon you might discover new titles to enjoy.
Also if you don’t see your favorite series here, don’t panic! Just put it in the comment sections. I like discovering new things too.
Author: Takaya Natsuki
Number of issues and status: 23 – Complete, however a spinoff is on progress.
This is one the most classic choices I could have made. But hey, there is a reason why Fruit Basket is a classic. Spoiler alert: it’s because it’s good. Fruit Basket is the story of Tohru Honda, a young high-schooler who, because of family issues, is currently homeless. She ends up being rescued by the prince of her high-school, Yuki Soma. He welcomes her in his house where he lives with his older cousin, Shirogane Soma. Unfortunately Yuki is attacked by another one of his cousins, Kyo Soma. Tohru tries to separate them. This leads to her discovering that the Somas are cursed. Thirteen individuals in the family, who is actually as big as a clan, are haunted by their Chinese zodiac sign. They transform into their assigned animal when someone of the opposite sex hugs them.
The rest of the story focuses on the Soma’s curses. I won’t say much more in term of plot because I would enter spoiler territory pretty fast. But I will expand on the themes of the story. Fruit Basket deals with growing up, family, friendship, forgiveness, and love. In order to do so it presents a full cast of characters with different issues doing their best to turn into the best version of themselves. All the characters are endearing and they are diverse enough that you will have no problem having several favorites (hi Yuki, Ayame, Momoji, Saki, Hatori I love you). The series showcases several toxic relationships, not exclusively but notably between parents and children. While the design is very cute the story explores quite heavy subjects. But in the end Takya Natsuki does right by every single one of her characters.
Yes Fruit Basket is a classic shojo manga and it deserves it.
Kaichou wa Maid-sama!
Author: Fujiwara Hiro
Number of issues and status: 18, Complete.
Kaichou wa Maid-sama! follows Misaki Ayusawa. She is an high-schooler (prepare to hear that a lot) whose father left her family several years ago leaving her to live with her mother and little sister. Because of this Misaki is full of hatred for men. The family is struggling to make ends meet and that’s why Misaki is attending the cheapest high school in town. It’s a recently open-to-girls high school where close to 70% of the students are boys. Misaki is the president of the student committee and is known as the demon president. Indeed, when she isn’t busy excelling at her studies and at sport she is keeping an iron grip on the school discipline to be sure that the girls are having a safe schooling experience. But she has a secret. In order to earn a bit of money to help her family she is working in a maid cafe. Something she absolutely doesn’t want any for her schoolmates to know.
So of course someone discovers it. And this someone is Takumi Usui. The only person who is a better student than her and who often makes girls cry because he rejects their love confession. Misaki is mortified. She manages to convince him to keep it secret but he keeps tagging along because he finds her interesting. From this point the manga follows the adventures of Misaki and Takumi, who are slowly falling in love with each other but it’s complicated.
You have guessed it Kaichou wa Maid-sama! is a romance manga. It is extremely well executed. The main pair has chemistry and both of the characters are interesting in their own rights. The cast of secondary characters is colorful and attaching. This manga features a lot of positive female relationships. But the themes of the story are also particularly well treated. It is notably about accepting oneself as we are. There is also the a lot about learning to show vulnerability to your loved ones and I really liked it. Also the manga is really funny. Like really.
Yona of the Dawn – Akatsuki no Yona
Author: Mizuho Kusanagi
Number of issues and status: 27, in progress.
Yona of the Dawn is a jewel. It is a high fantasy story set in a Chinese/East Asian inspired world. The title character is Yona, the only daughter of the king of the kingdom of Kouka, a sixteen years old girl. She is living a pretty idle life up until the moment her father is murdered. She is forced to flee the capital in the middle of the night with only her childhood friend and bodyguard, Hak, to keep her safe. Hak is promptly accused of having killed the king and kidnapped Yona so they are both trapped in a never ending flight.
To add insult to the injury, the kingslayer, who now occupies Kouka’s throne, is no other than Soo-Won, Yona’s cousin and crush but also the childhood friend of both Yona and Hak. Yona decides to start a quest to find the four dragons and be able to make Kouka a better place. The four dragons are part of the founding legend of Kouka. They are four warriors blessed with divine powers who have sworn allegiance to Kouka’s first king, king Hiryuu. And, as she meets the current incarnations of the dragons, it appears that Yona is the reincarnation of Hiryuu.
Yona of the Dawn is an epic story that will delight every fantasy lover. One of its best qualities is its characters. They are incredibly attaching and complex. Even Soo-Won isn’t actually the villain of the story and is given excellent justifications. I still have trouble forgiving him though. Apparently I am the human embodiment of Hak on that. I am particularly fond of Yona’s relationship with the dragons. They share a single bonds but every relationship is unique and important.
There is currently no end in sight for Yona of the Dawn. And that’s great. Please Mizuho Kusanagi, keep blessing us with this wonderful manga.
Kamisama Kiss – Kamisama Hajimemashita
Author: Suzuki Julietta
Number of issues and status: 25, Complete.
Kamisama Kiss is an urban fantasy story taking place in modern day Japan. Nanami Momozono is a poor high-schooler who has to endure her father gambling problems and debts. One day to escape his creditors her father disappears which leaves her homeless (what is it with manga and disappearing fathers and homeless teenagers?). While despairing in a public park she saves a man from a dog and he offers her to go stay at his home. Home where he isn’t currently living.
Turns out his home is a shinto shrine and the man was the god of the place. Nanami is now the interim goddess and has inherited the god’s messenger: Tomoe a very grumpy and powerful kitsune. The rest of the story features several arcs centering around different figures of Japanese mythology with an overarching plot. This plot focuses on Tomoe’s mysterious past.
The manga includes gods, yokai, time travel and high school drama. It is a very energetic story whose mystery is very well handled. It features some of my favorite tropes such as villain decay. I love the characters (for a change) and especially the relation between Tomoe and Akura-Ou. You like Japan, you like urban fantasy, there are good chance you will like Kamisama Kiss.
Author: Mitsubachi Miyuki
Number of issues and status: 14, in progress.
One the two manga on this list that I do not own (yet), Namaiki Zakari is a romance manga taking place while its characters are in high school and at university (yes!). Yuki Machida is an high-schooler who is also the oldest siblings of 6. Because of the role and responsibility she had to take in her family she is used to not being very assertive with her feelings and desires. She still has enrolled herself as the manager of the boys’ basketball team to be closer to the boy she secretly love. But since she has never voiced her feelings the boy ends up going out with another girl.
For the rest of the club Machida is a responsible cold girl who would never start working for the team for such a futile reason as love. However one of the boy, the very talented and nonchalant Sho Naruse, did notice and starts having an interest in Yuki.
Namaiki Zakari started as a fairly, albeit extremely well executed, traditional shojo manga. However, the story develops and gets more original with every chapter. I absolutely love Yuki as a protagonist. She is a very serious very hard working girl always finding time to help others. However she lacks emotional maturity in part because she has always tried to not be a bother. Having this mix of maturity and lack of emotional maturity is very pleasing. I also really like that Naruse is actually younger than her. It is quite unusual in shojo manga, so is having the story continue after high school. Also the manga corrects some of its early mistake such as having a lack of positive female relationship for Yuki outside of her family. And it works pretty well as a sport manga too.
Angel Sanctuary – Tenshi Kinryōku
Author: Kaori Yuki
Number of issues and status: 20, Complete.
Genre: Technically it’s a shojo, but really who knows what this mess is?
Trigger warning: while my critique will not touch most of this, Angel Sanctuary features incest, rape, child death/murder etc etc (it’s a shojo am I rigth?!).
Angel Sanctuary is my most problematic fave. It is the love child of an author that I love and it is my favorite series from her and among my favorite manga period but it’s not for everyone.
It follows the story of Setsuna Mudo, an high-schooler (I promise it is the last story where the main protagonist is in high school) who is quite good at finding trouble. One the reasons he keeps looking for trouble is because he is romantically interested in his one year younger sister, Sara, and doesn’t want to have to face that. But he gets entangle in a cosmic conspiracy. An angel wants to bring back the inorganic angel Rosiel whose has been sealed on earth by his twin sister the organic angel Alexiel. In the mean time some evils want to bring back Alexiel, who has led an insurrection against God, and has been condemned to reincarnation for her crimes. As it happens Setsuna is the latest reincarnation of Alexiel.
Setstuna gets entangled so well that he gets Sara killed, after they declared their love for each other, and destroys Tokyo after awaking his powers. The rest of the story is about Setsuna travelling to hell and heaven to bring his sister back while everyone gets entangled in an even more complicated cosmic situation.
If you like complicated and twisted story with characters with more than dubious morality facing cosmic forces and trying to go against cosmic plan get in. Angel Sanctuary tells a story of unconditional love (all the kind of love not just romantic) and where it can leads us. It is also a story about taking responsibility for your actions. It deals with gender issue, predestination etc. I love it, okay? I love the art, that is lavishly beautiful, and I love the characters. Especially the secondary characters such as Belial, Raphael, Michael, Yue, Kurai, Katan, Astaroth, Sevoth-tart etc etc. It struck a chord in my young teenager life and I will always love this manga.
A Bride’s Story:
Author: Kaoru Mori
Number of issues and status: 10, in progress.
Well Bride’s Story is a beautiful historical manga taking place in central Asia and following mainly women in their daily life. It is interesting, it is beautiful, it is well documented, it is funny, it is touching and there is suspens. If you want to know more about it I direct you toward my longer review of the series.
But check out this other series by Kaoru Mori: Emma. It takes place in the 19th century in England.
Tramps Like Us – Kimi wa Pet:
Author: Yayoi Ogawa
Number of issues and status: 14, Complete.
The other manga on the list that I do not own (yet) because I borrowed it from the library and it is not available for sale in France anymore. AGONY!
Tramps Like Us follows Sumire Iwaya, a talented young journalist who isn’t living the best moment of her life. She was transferred to a less prestigious unit of the newspaper for having hit her superior who was a misogynist pig. Her boyfriend also left her for the girl he was two-timing her with because he was intimidated by her career. In addition to all that, Sumire is starting to have trouble combining her public persona of successful business woman who is also a cold beauty and her less traditionally accepted way of life. Indeed she like watching pro-wrestling, smoking, and playing video games. Also she is very unsure of herself, hence the public persona.
One evening while coming back home she finds a young man, Takeshi Gouda, sleeping in the street. She agrees to have him live in her flat under the condition that he accepts to be her pet and goes by the name Momo. Being her pet is absolutely not kinky. It includes listening to her sharing her day and fears without judging, playing video games with her, and letting her wash his hair from time to time. Takeshi, who apparently has already exchanged sexual favors to stay at women’s places, finds the deal to his advantage and obliges. He becomes Momo.
The rest of the manga follows the development of their relationship but also Sumire quest to learn to love and accept herself. She also reevaluates the values she has adhered to. What she wanted in life, what was acceptable in herself and what wasn’t. Actually Sumire is on her way to become a more happy person by becoming her authentic self. Considering that there are good chances that Sumire at the beginning of the manga is me in ten years (plus the good hair) I am always happy to read the story of how she got happy. Also Takeshi isn’t your typical male character and he learns to assert himself. I love him.
Special mention Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
Author: Fumi Yoshinaga
Number of issues and status: 15, in progress.
I haven’t read Ōoku: The Inner Chambers entirely. I have read 5 volumes but I love it. It is alternate history. It takes place in Tokugawa Japan. A strange disease has emerged. It only kills boys and young men. As a result the population of men in Japan is reduced to 1 man for 4 women. Therefore the men are kept inside or sold in prostitution by their family because they have become of great value. The political power is also held by women (the manga explains in great details how this came to happen). The Inner Chambers refers to the personal ‘harem’ full of men of the shogun.
The story explore the political and some personal intrigues brought by the situation. It follows the history of Japan pretty closely but it cleverly twists it. For example the interdiction for foreigners to enter Japan is also a measure to prevent the outside world to discover the situation. While the political intrigue is of the outmost importance the personal drama is high too. By god, Arikoto and Chise are star-crossed lovers and it hurts so much.
Long story short I will keep on reading this manga and I warmly recommend it.
That’s it with my personal recommendations. I hope some titles caught your attention and that you will enjoy them as I did and still do. Don’t hesitate to comment with your own favorites shojo and josei manga.