I read this really good article on Anime Feminist a while back. One among the many points it makes is that there’s no reason manga nominally aimed at girls can’t also appeal to guys. Or more like, it’s not that girls’ manga will never appeal to guys, but rather guys don’t let themselves see the appeal of girl’s manga.
And even if they can see the appeal, it often takes a while for them to admit it, which was certainly the case for me. But it turns out I’m actually a sucker for it, and I saw the error of my ways and embraced my girliness. Maybe you’re not though. Maybe you’re just a curious reader who wants to cautiously expand their horizons, but is intimidated by the thought of bucking gender norms and diving headlong into a pile of flower n’ sparkle screentone.
Lucky for you, shojo and josei manga aren’t all just fluttering heaerts and doe-eyed glances from across the classroom. There’s there’s action, there’s fantasy, there’s horror, there’s smut. Good lord is there ever smut. But the sparkly romance stuff is my favorite, and getting you, dear dudely reader, to read that girliest of manga is my endgame here. So how should you trick ease yourself into the world of shojo and josei manga? Try starting with a genre you like.
BANANA FISH by Akimi Yoshida –
In the jungles of Vietnam, an American soldier shoots at his own troops, screaming about “banana fish”. A decade later, that soldier is now severely mentally handicapped and cared for by his younger brother Ash, the leader of a New York street gang and an absolutely incredible shot. One night Ash encounters a wounded man, who gives him a mysterious vial, an address in California, and the words “banana fish” before dying. With the help of Eiji, a Japanese reporter who’s in New York making a documentary about gangs, Ash begins to unravel the mystery of Banana Fish and discovers a conspiracy involving politicians, the mob, and child sex slaves. Also he and Eiji are super gay together, which is definitely a major selling point.
Banana Fish is a wild, gun-slinging adventure that has all the hallmarks of a great action movie. Mafiosos, mercenaries, drugs, guns, and uhhhhh stock manipulation. Many of its character designs are based on actors. And like any great crime movie or TV series, by the end the plot has developed into a complicated torrent of murder, betrayal, brainwashing, and romance.
There’s no explicit on-page sex, and Ash and Eiji’s relationship is relatively understated for such a well-loved BL classic, but there’s no getting around that it’s gay. If you can’t tolerate any gay stuff, then you have bigger problems than just not being in Banana Fish’s target demographic. That said, it’s not unusual for straight dudebros to not be drawn to BL.
And yet in it’s original American run in Pulp Magazine, Banana Fish was marketed as seinen, which is proof of its crossover appeal. Viz released the first 7 of 19 volumes in flipped editions starting in the late 90s. They later went back and rereleased all 19 volumes unflipped. The flipped versions aren’t too hard to find, but the unflipped ones are, and prices skyrocket when you get past volume 7. Hope isn’t completely lost though. Japan is getting new editions to coincide with the upcoming anime, and there’s a chance, however small, that Viz could get them too.
See also: SUKEBAN DEKA by Shinji Wada (never licensed in English, but an anime adaption is available from ADV Films, and a live-action adaptation was released by Magnolia Pictures. Both are out of print but not terribly difficult to track down).
FRAU FAUST by Kore Yamazaki –
A teen boy named Marion meets Johanna Faust, the doctor of legend, who’s on a quest to find the scattered limbs of her demon servant Mephistopheles (who she might be fucking? There’s definitely some sexual tension) so she can restore him to his full power and resolve whatever deal has bound them together. This one’s from the author of The Ancient Magus Bride, and it has the same level of ultra-detailed worldbuilding and distinctive character. Mood-wise however its quite a bit different from the beautifully somber AMB. Frau Faust is mysterious and sort of seductive, but Yamazaki does both equally well. Four of its five volumes have been released in English by Kodansha.
See also: YONA OF THE DAWN by Mizuho Kusanagi (currently available from Viz)
CHIHAYAFURU by Yuki Suetsugu –
Chihaya Ayase is constantly living in her beautiful fashion model sister’s shadow. It doesn’t help that she’s kind of an odd duck compared to her normie family. Chihaya is super in to karuta, a game that’s sort of like full-contact memory with a classical literature theme. As a kid Chihaya was inspired to take karuta up by a transfer student, Arata Wataya. Arata eventually moved away, and now in high school Chihaya is trying to put a karuta club together so she can go to competitions and hopefully meet him again.
Chihayafuru’s primary focus is its interpersonal relationships and how the characters grow through playing karuta, but it also goes out of its way to make a game that seems like it could be dull as shit exciting. Characters literally dive to slap the cards away from each other. Suetsugu goes into great detail about the potential for mind games as part of your play strategy. And apparently she was succesful, because interest in competitive karuta actually rose as a direct result of Chihayafuru’s popularity. Chihayafuru won the second Manga Taisho award and the 35th Kodansha Manga Award in the shojo category, and it’s easy to see why once you read it. It’s legally available in English as a digital-only release from Kodansha, where 11 of the so far 38 volumes have been released.
See also: ATTACK NO. 1 by Chikako Urano (never licensed in English), AIM FOR THE ACE! by Sumika Yamamoto (also never licensed in English. Sadly, shojo/josei sports manga has never really taken off over here).
TOMIE by Junji Ito –
That’s right, everyone’s favorite gateway author to horror manga is actually a shojo mangaka. Ito’s tales of a supernaturally alluring woman who could never stay dead for long initially ran in Monthly Halloween, a shojo horror anthology. Like a lot of Ito’s stuff, some Tomie stories can be kind of goofy and darkly funny, but most are legitimately chilling, or just fuckin gross. The art improves over the course of the comic’s run, eventually becoming the stuff of legend that it is now, but Ito’s skills as a storyteller have always been top shelf. Every Tomie story is available in a single hardcover omnibus from Viz.
See also: REIKO THE ZOMBIE SHOP by Rei Mikamoto (partially released by Dark Horse, now out of print), HELTER SKELTER by Kyoko Okazaki (available from Vertical)
Isekai with Mechs
Unusually specific, I know, but it seems like there are a lot of these. Really I only know these two, but that’s more than I can think of for shonen/seinen ones, which is what mech series and isekai series stereotypically are. Anyway:
MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH by Clamp –
Three middle school girls, Hikaru (the tomboy), Umi (the angry one) and Fuu (the glasses one) get transported to the world of Cephiro, where they’re told by the Mage Master Clef that they are destined to become a trio of color-coded warriors called Magic Knights, save a princess, and restore balance to the world. They meet a fluffy mascot creature named Mokone and receive magical weapons. Hey wait. Color-coding? Mascot character? This sounds like a magical girl thing. And that’s because it kind of is that too, except their henshins are giant fucking robots.
Rayearth is very much a product of it’s time. As iconic as Clamp’s character designs are, they definitely look dated as all hell these days. But the action scenes still hold up, the characterization is nuanced, and the plot eventually reveals itself to be more than just a kids-on-a-quest story. Dark Horse released the entire manga in two big fat omnibus volumes. Check it out.
See also: THE VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE by Shoji Kawamori (this one is kind of cheating, because it was originally conceived as an anime and the only manga version released in English was a weird big titty shonen version from Tokyopop. But the anime is very shojo and available from Funimation)
MIDNIGHT SECRETARY by Tomu Ohmi –
Kaya Satozuka is the perfect secretary. She works quickly, she never makes mistakes, and she doesn’t pry into her boss’s business. Which is good, because her boss, Kyouhei Touma, has a lot of…questionable business engagements. The dude is a serious playboy, constantly boning different women in his office, and he has an ego and attitude to match. Kaya doesn’t take his shit, but she also doesn’t think its really her business what he does.
But when Kaya starts to wonder if he’s doing anything illegal to the girls, she sneaks into his office and learns that they’re not fucking: Kyouhei is a vampire, and he’s feeding on their blood. Kyouhei is not happy he’s been found out, but he values her work, and so he blackmails Kaya into staying on as his secretary. With little choice, she accepts, but the longer they work together, the more interested they become in each other. And when an emergency forces Kyouhei to suck Kaya’s blood, that interest develops into an obsession.
There’s a lot to like about the magnificently trashy Midnight Secretary, and honestly there’s not much to not like. They get right down to business with the boning. You see a titty in the first chapter, and not long after the banging starts in earnest. Midnight Secretary wastes no time showing you what its all about. You will need a tolerance for a little bit of kink. There are definite BDSM vibes, which is not unusual for vampire stuff. And things can get a little bloody, but it never approaches guro levels or anything.
But there’s more to it than just smutty vampire fap fuel. The visuals are probably an acquired taste, but I dig it. Everyone dresses so fucking natty, and not a single look fails to smolder. It’s real nice to look at. The characters are a lot of fun too. Kyouhei is a smarmy playboy without being a complete piece of shit, which is a delicate balance to strike. Kaya doesn’t let her boss push her around (although she’d like it if he pushed her down heyooooo), which is refreshing in a genre where the main woman is often a doormat. And the rapey-ness that is unfortunately pretty common in stories like this is largely absent. Midnight Secretary is top-tier guilty pleasure shit, not that I feel an ounce of guilt liking it. It’s pretty short at 7 volumes long, and has been released in its entirety by Viz. Buy it and revel in the trash with me.
See also: HAPPY MARRIAGE!? by Maki Enjoji (available from Viz)
The Good Shit
And now we’ve arrived at the endgame. You’ve eased yourself in, dipped a toe in the water. You’re ready to cast aside your fragile masculinity and read the kind of shit people think of when they think shojo manga – pure romance aimed straight at your maiden heart. I’m gonna keep these recommendations shorter, because I have a lot, but I’m begging you to check them all out.
PRINCESS JELLYFISH by Akiko Higashimura – An awkward girl who lives with a bunch of man-shunning otaku and is obsessed with jellyfish meets a crossdressing boy from a political family. Together they take on the fashion world and turn each other’s lives inside out and upside down. One of the best comics ever, period. Read it.
HOUSE OF THE SUN by Taamo – This Kodansha Award winner follows Mao Motomiya, a quiet high school girl who feels unwelcome in her own home after her father remarries. Her childhood friend Hiro offers to let her stay at his house, where he lives alone after the death of his parents and the fracturing of what’s left of his family. Together they try to piece their lives back together. The art is really cute. Kodansha USA has released the whole thing in English digitally.
ORANGE by Ichigo Takano – I really wanted to do a sci-fi section, but Orange was the only sci-fi shojo manga I’ve read. It’s about a girl who gets a letter from herself 10 years in the future, telling her that the hot new transfer student will take his own life before the end of the school year if she doesn’t follow the instructions in the letter. The sci-fi elements takes a backseat to the romance and tough themes. Seven Seas put this one out in two big fat omnibus volumes, plus a single volume sequel called Orange:Future.
If you’re looking for more sci fi shojo, check out the works of Moto Hagio. She’s not exclusively a sci-fi writer but she’s done a lot of it and she’s a a legend. I just haven’t read any of her shit.
HONEY SO SWEET by Amu Meguro – A delinquent with a heart of gold confesses to a short, cute, nervous girl who helped him after he got his ass kicked one day. He’s kind of scary so she blurts out her intimidated acceptance, but she quickly learns what he’s really like and they spend 8 volumes being really fucking adorable together. This one’s not deep or harrowing, it’s just cute. The art’s cute, the characters are cute, the romance is cute. It’s so saccharine it could send you into diabetic shock at fifty paces. Available from Viz.
KISS ME AT THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT by Rin Mikimoto – Hinana, a (supposedly) stuffy and proper honor student, is actually celebrity-crazy and dreams of fairy tale romance. When her school is used as the set for a drama and the students get to be extras, she has an encounter with the star, Kaede, and she gets her whirlwind secret fairy tale romance, more or less. Incredibly funny and surprisingly horny and perverted. 5 volumes so far are available from Kodansha USA.
LOVE SO LIFE by Kaede Kochi – Shiharu Nakamura is a high school student who works at a day care. Akane and Aoi Matsunaga, a pair of earth-shatteringly adorable twins, go there. Their uncle Seiji is their guardian since the twins’ father went AWOL after his wife’s death. When Seiji, picks the twins up one day, he finds out just how attached they are to Shiharu, and offers to pay her double if she agrees to be their personal babysitter. She accepts, and quickly becomes like another member of the family. The twins are the reason you read this manga. They’re fuckin’ deadly cute. You’re stuck with Japanese imports for this one if you want to read it legally. There’s also a sequel called Life So Happy, which is set a few years later and focuses on the twins as fifth graders.
LOVE*COM by Aya Nakahara – Risa Koizumi is 5′ 8”, much taller than the average Japanese girl. Atsushi Otani is 5′ 1”, much shorter than the average Japanese boy. They bicker frequently but when they both end up crushing on someone an “appropriate” height for them, they decide to put aside their differences and help each other get a date. They fail spectacularly and their crushes end up dating each other. Risa and Otani end up becoming good friends though, and eventually more than that. Love*Com is hilarious with incredibly expressive art. Viz has released all 17 volumes of the manga in print (some of which may be out of print) and digital, as well as the live-action movie on DVD. There was also an excellent 24 episode anime, released by Discotek in the US.
THE FULL-TIME WIFE ESCAPIST by Tsunami Umino – Twentysomething Mikuri Moriyama is fired from her temp job and, looking for work, begins housekeeping for Hiramasa Tsuzaki, an acquaintance of her father. Hiramasa is almost forty, awkward and reserved, and has never dated. When her parents decide to move out to the country, Mikuri enters into a contractual marriage with Hiramasa, which is beneficial to both of them financially. An awkward, business-like love story ensues. Nearly every chapter has a long aside about the state of Japan’s economy or what its like to work l in Japan. It sounds weird as hell but it works amazingly. There’s nothing else like it. Kodansha USA has released it digitally and I highly recommend it.
TRAMPS LIKE US by Yayoi Ogawa – Sumire Iwaya has hit a rough patch. Her fiance left her for his mistress. She got demoted at work. And there’s this injured homeless (but hot!) guy lying in the trash outside her apartment. Taking pity on him, she lets him stay at her place for a bit. As they get to know each other, she semi-jokingly says she wants to make him her pet, and to her surprise he agrees. She names him Momo and struggles both to keep him a secret from her friends and keep a lid on the brewing sexual tension between them. A stone cold josei classic. Just really well written with great characters. Tokyopop released it in its entirety, but it’s long out of print.
WAITING FOR SPRING by Anashin – I almost put this one in the Sports section, but the sport in question (basketball) isn’t really the focus. Waiting for Spring follows Mizuki, a quiet girl who desperate to make friends in her new high school. She’s not having much luck, but when the four stars of the boys’ basketball team start coming to the cafe she works at, her luck turns around a little bit. But she also has to deal with jealousy from the girls in her class, and with her developing feelings for one of the the boys. Has a very reverse harem-y vibe, if that’s what your’re looking for. Kodansha USA is releasing this in print and digital. Six volumes are available so far.
DESCENDING STORIES by Haruko Kumota – A multi-generational story about rakugo performers. It’s nuanced to a degree that I won’t be able to capture in this short summary. It follow two young boys, then young men, then old men and their offspring, and their relationship with each other, the world, and the art of rakugo. It’s quite gay, to the point that I almost made a BL section for it but I don’t have any other BL reccs. It’s a masterpiece, and I can’t recommend it enough. Kodansha USA has published 7 of its 10 volumes in print and digital. It also has a 24 episode anime, equally masterful, that you can watch on Crunchyroll.
Now go read something.
I just learned recently that Angry Orchard makes a pear cider and it’s very good. I bought a 24 bottle party pack with a bunch of different kinds in it (all for myself of course) and there were a couple pears in there and they’re tasty. Try it.