Analyse This: Shoujo Manga

Princess Knight by Osamu Tezuka and Mistress Fortune by Arina Tanemura

The shoujo demographic contains females generally younger than 18. Shoujo manga has a reputation for being over melodramatic, sugary sweet and suffocating their characters in flowers. Shoujo anime is much the same, albeit without as many flowers or sparkles.

Shoujo manga is actually quite varied. The only thing that has remained utterly constant in shoujo manga is the need for romance, preferably with a side dish of angst and the big eyes. Fantasy, action, psychological and horror works have been successful but this demographic has always largely thrived upon romance and ‘slice of life’.

The essence of shoujo manga has remained the same as ever – LONG LOVE TRIANGLES. Boiled down, generally the romance plot/subplot is – A (Main character) cannot pick between B (Love Interest One) and C (Love Interest Two) while D (Random) is in love with B, C or A and attempts to eliminate all competition. This is the most standard formula and can be rinsed, repeated or adapted for any scenario. Some mangas attempt to utilize the love triangle’s older cousin – the love dodecahedron.

The shoujo demographic was the one of the first demographics in manga, alongside shounen. Shoujo manga in the 1950’s was largely written by men, emphasizing the female ideal rather than an actual plot or characterization. Tezuka popped along in 1953 with ‘Princess Knight’ which had the characteristic big eyes, a lengthy dramatic story, cross dressing and action.

The ‘characters’ of the 1950s, began to actually become characters – with personalities, errors and emotions by the 60s. Protagonists tended to be more human – they had problems, they angsted and they were just humans. Gender was no longer a requirement to be a shoujo manga protagonist.  Hideko Mizuno’s Adam from ‘Fire‘ was one of the first male protagonists and she illustrated one of the first sexually explicit sex scenes in shoujo.

Panelling was a thing that was employed at the convenience of the mangaka. It occurred but comparison to the 1950s and 1970s, it occurred haphazardly more often than not. One of the staples of shoujo manga – random portraits and full body shots of the characters in order to emphasize their emotional state was developed. The utilization of random portraits and body shots became one of the key criticisms leveled towards shoujo manga.

In the 1970s, the Year 24 group revolutionized the genre both artistically and in story telling. Many of the defining conventions of shoujo manga were popularized in the 1970s. Facial expressions that one could not pull off in real life as the human tongue does not work that way. Eyes with either too much detail that you could see the galaxy in them or left entirely blank. Hair styles that would make 80’s hair slink away in shame with their over abundance of curls. Sparkles. Sparkles everywhere. Flowers blooming randomly and in unwise locations. Slender people.

Many, many, many good stories were pumped out during this era of which, I particularly recommend ‘Glass Mask’’, ‘Rose of Vesailles’ and Hagio Moto’s stories. The art style was compatible with the melodrama, which was the key word of the 1970s. If something occurred, it had to be dramatic. If a character fell in love, it was going to cause them a ridiculous amount of pain, full body shots of their aggrieved mental and emotional state with lighting everywhere.

The best example of how melodramatic and over the top 70’s manga could get is ‘Maya’s Funeral Procession’ . In 120-so pages neglectful parents, rich people, family skeletons rattling, angst over arranged marriage, angst over orientation, revenge, broken hearts, deaths, murder, murder plots, death threats, declarations of love, angsty past, challenges to love rivals, fire, injuries, GBH, self harm, teenage angst, attempted murder, more angst, incest, people dying left, right and center and a wedding occurred.

The melodrama started to tone down. In the 1980s,  more school stories, in which students got through the day with the minimum amount of angst possible, were published. The influence of the Year 24 group was still evident but stylistic evolution was occurring. Limbs grew longer, hairstyles grew more realistic and the eyes no longer displayed half the galaxy like they once used to. Love interests were no longer solely ‘good boys’.

At the start, the primary love interest was commonly ‘The Prince’, who was fairly interchangable with the ‘Foreigner’.  While the artistic depictions of ‘The Prince’ have changed, from the long flowing locks of the 70s to the bishounens of today, the traits attributed have not. The ‘Prince’ is the living embodiment of the perfect person – looks, manners, intelligence, maturity, money and niceness without the creepiness. Initially the Prince had traits of ‘The Foreigner’ and was an actual prince, although the title now describes any character whom is pretty much – ‘the perfect guy’. The prince usually was the winner of the love triangle.

By the 80’s, the ‘Rebel’ emerged and started to have chances of victory.  The ‘rebel’ has undergone some changes. From a delinquent to just a plain ole nasty guy, this guy is pretty much the ‘Jerk with a Heart of Gold’ or ‘Cold Exterior, Warm Interior’.  Their presence allows a ridiculous amount of melodrama to occur as the protagonist must find the ‘true’ personality underneath and the constant rejections allows the story to get dragged out.

While the ‘Prince’ and ‘Rebel’ archtypes are the primary love interests found in shoujo manga, in the 1980s-90s, the ‘everyday person’ started to gain some popularity. The key to the ‘everyday guy’ was that their personality was likable. It didn’t matter whether they got good grades or not, they were meant to be a person that everyone liked and thus so did the main character. Extra layers could be added, by giving them a dramatic past with overtures of the previous two archetypes.

The ‘good personality’ archtype thrived alongside pointy chins in the 90s. Chins positively grew pointier and pointer. Screen tones had a tendency to be abused and splattered everywhere. Limbs grew even longer though hairstyles were slightly more sensible.  The stereotypical look for shoujo manga of the 90s-00s still involved big eyes. Arina Tanemura pretty much the poster child for stereotypical shoujo. The galaxy eye evolved and became less sparkly though a lot more colourful. The ability to tell the male and female characters apart became an important skill when reading shoujo manga. Same face syndrome would often hit unsuspecting works with a vengeance.

Fantasy stories about girls getting spirited away were always fairly common. This is a fairly widespread plot device in which high school Japanese girls had an unfortunate and rather distressing tendency to get spirited away to another dimension entirely. However by some miracle and with luck, they usually managed  to speak the language and play an important political role. ‘Ouke no Monshou’ was one of the longest running shoujo mangas that utilized this device but in 1990s this plot device became popular, ‘Red River’, ‘Fushigi Yuugi’ and ‘From Far Far Away’ being prominent examples.

In the 1990s and 2000s, explicitness exploded. This is not to say, it had never occurred in shoujo manga before, it just became more common place. Euphemisms were tucked back into the cupboard. The boundaries between shoujo and josei blurred. The ages in which the protagonist fretted and fretted about her first kiss, first boyfriend, first misc. whittled and whittled down to 10-12 in it’s extremes.

In 2000s and 2010s, the trait of galaxy eyes is diminishing. Limbs are no longer as long as they used to be. Flowers are starting to decrease as screen tones fluctuate in popularity. The fantasy slice of life became more prominent with the success of ‘Fruits Basket’, though as always the focus is on romance. The love dodecahedron plot device remains as strong as ever, though some mangas have started having characters choose polygamy as a solution to picking one person from hundreds. Covers, with the exception to those published under ‘Hana to Yume‘ tend to be overlay with pink transparencies.

Shoujo manga grew and changed over the years, although images of the stereotypical 70s and 90s shoujo manga and the 90s are the strongest in the public consciousness. Although the art styles and plot lines have changed quite drastically over the years to accommodate a changing market, shoujo will always remain the same at it’s core – dramatic, romantic and full of big eyes.