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 women and girls can’t also appeal to boys and men. Or in other words, it’s not that girls’ manga will never appeal to men, but rather men 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 as much of a sucker as me, though. Maybe you’re just a curious fella 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 hearts and doe-eyed glances from across the classroom. There’s action, there’s fantasy, there’s horror, and 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 goal here. So how should you ease yourself into the world of shojo and josei manga? Let’s try starting with a genre you like.
BANANA FISH by Akimi Yoshida
In the jungles of Vietnam, an American soldier shoots at his own comrades, screaming about “banana fish.” A decade later, that soldier is now severely disabled and cared for by his younger brother Ash. Ash is the leader of a New York street gang and an absolutely incredible shot. One night Ash encounters a wounded man who, with his dying breath, gives Ash a mysterious vial, an address in California, and the words “banana fish.” 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 human trafficking. 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 stock market manipulation (is that an action movie hallmark? If it isn’t, it should be). 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 its 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 re-released all 19 volumes unflipped. Long out of print, all 19 volumes have been re-released yet again within the past couple of years, and an anime adaptation is available on Prime Video. Banana Fish has never been more accessible. Check it out.
See also: SUKEBAN DEKA by Shinji Wada. This manga about a schoolgirl detective who beats people up with a yoyo was never licensed in English, but the anime adaptation was licensed by ADV Films, and the live-action adaptation was released by Magnolia Pictures. Both are out of print but not terribly difficult to track down.
YONA OF THE DAWN by Mizuho Kusanagi
A pampered young princess is betrayed by the man she loves and forced to flee her kingdom or die. With no supplies and accompanied only by her bodyguard, who is madly in love with her, she sets out on a secret quest to find four legendary half-dragon warriors who may be able to help her reclaim the throne.
Yona of the Dawn is an epic in the truest sense, building from a low fantasy adventure about a teen girl and her supernatural boyfriends into a sprawling political thriller over 30+ volumes and counting. And while it has all the massive battles and magical superpowered warriors you could possibly want in a series like this, the real draw is how the titular Yona evolves over the course of the series. She starts as a helpless kid lost in the wild but quickly becomes a capable, badass warrior in her own right. And not because of any fantasy destiny BS, but through sheer determination and hard work.
Yona’s refusal to lie down and accept defeat, and her ability to step up and just do what needs to be done, to follow through on hard decisions in the face of impossible odds, makes her one of the most compelling characters in modern manga. She has many of the same qualities that draw people to Guts from Berserk, and Kusanagi and Berserk author Kentaro Miura were both big fans of each other’s work. I firmly believe if you like one then you’ll like the other, if you only allow yourself to.
Viz is releasing Yona of the Dawn in English, with 35 of the 37 existing volumes published so far.
See also: FRAU FAUST by Kore Yamazaki, in which 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. Darker and slightly more seductive than Yamazaki’s other series, the somber-yet-cozy shonen The Ancient Magus’s Bride. Released in full in 5 volumes by Kodansha and available to purchase on Right Stuf.
You can order Volume 1 of Yona of the Dawn on Right Stuf. The anime adaptation is available to watch on Crunchyroll. You can also read Laurelin’s spoiler-free review of the Yona of the Dawn anime.
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 into 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 hell into something exciting. Characters literally dive to slap the cards away from each other. Suetsugu also goes into great detail about the potential for mind games as part of your play strategy.
Interest in competitive karuta actually rose as a direct result of Chihayafuru’s popularity. The series 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.
Other shojo sports series include ATTACK NO. 1 by Chikako Urano and AIM FOR THE ACE! by Sumika Yamamoto. Neither have ever been licensed in English, however. 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 gross. Ito’s art improves over the course of the comic’s run, eventually becoming the stuff of legend that it is now, but his 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), and HELTER SKELTER by Kyoko Okazaki (available from Vertical)
You can purchase Tomie (Hardcover Deluxe Edition) on Right Stuf.
Isekai with Mecha
Unusually specific, I know, but it seems like there are a lot of these. Really, I only know two, but that’s more than I can think of for shonen/seinen ones, which is what mecha 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 robots.
Rayearth is very much a product of its 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 huge omnibus volumes. Check it out.
See also: THE VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE from 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 an ecchi shonen version from Tokyopop. But the anime is very shojo and available from Funimation).
You can purchase the Magic Knight Rayearth manga boxset on Right Stuf.
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 any crap from him, but she also doesn’t think it’s 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 having sex: 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. There’s some nudity in the very first chapter, and not long after the banging starts in earnest. Midnight Secretary wastes no time showing you what it’s 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 fantasy fuel. The visuals are probably an acquired taste, but I dig it. Every character has an incredible (if slightly dated now) fashion sense, and not a single look fails to smolder. It’s really nice to look at. The characters are a lot of fun too. Kyouhei is a smarmy playboy without being a complete dirtbag, which is a delicate balance to strike. Kaya doesn’t let her boss push her around, which is refreshing in a genre where the main woman is often a doormat. And the dubious consent that is unfortunately pretty common in stories like this is largely absent. Midnight Secretary is a top-tier guilty pleasure story, 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. Read it and revel in the trash with me.
See also: FIRE IN HIS FINGERTIPS: A FLIRTY FIREMAN RAVISHES ME WITH HIS SMOLDERING GAZE, by Kawano Tanishi, a (mostly) sweet and silly, very 18+ josei series. Ryo is a 20-something woman whose childhood friend Souma, now a firefighter, saves her from her burning apartment. This kicks off a sudden, extremely physical attraction between the two old friends that neither is emotionally equipped to handle well. Available from Seven Seas’ Ghost Ship imprint.
You can order Volume 1 of Midnight Secretary on Right Stuf.
The Good Stuff
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 manga people think of when they think shojo – 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.
MY LOVE STORY! by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko
Takeo is a massive, good-natured lunk of a guy who always gets shot down by girls, who prefer his classically handsome best friend Sunakawa. One day the two save a pint-sized girl on a train from a creep. Takeo simply goes on his way, expecting nothing in return, because 1) it was the right thing to do and she certainly doesn’t owe him romance just for saving her, but 2) why would she want him when he looks the way he does and when Sunakawa was right there? But Takeo is in for a surprise.
My Love Story is a life-threateningly cute comic with some great underlying messages about body positivity and loving a person for who they are. Also, the main character is a big strong burly boy just like you, dear reader, which will hopefully make it easier to get into. Published in English by Viz.
PRINCESS JELLYFISH by Akiko Higashimura
An awkward girl who lives with a bunch of man-shunning otaku and is obsessed with jellyfish meets a cross-dressing 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. Published in English by Kodansha.
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. A sad but ultimately rewarding story with really cute art. Published digitally in English by Kodansha.
You can read House Of The Sun on Azuki.
ORANGE by Ichigo Takano
A girl 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 take a backseat to the romance and tough themes. Published in English by Seven Seas.
And 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 legend in the shojo manga world, and the manga world at large.
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 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. Available from Viz.
You can order Honey So Sweet Volume 1 on Right Stuf.
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. Available from Kodansha.
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. Published in English by Viz.
You can order Love*Com Volume 1 digital via Barnes & Noble.
THE FULL-TIME WIFE ESCAPIST by Tsunami Umino
Twenty something 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 anyone. 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 it’s like to work in Japan. It sounds weird as hell but it works amazingly. There’s nothing else like it. Released digitally in English by Kodansha.
YOU’RE MY PET 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 this manga under the name Tramps Like Us years ago, but that physical version is long out of print. However, Kodansha recently re-released it digitally.
You can read You’re My Pet Volume 1 digitally on Kindle.
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 is 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 boys. Has a very reverse harem-y vibe, if that’s what you’re looking for. Released in English by Kodansha.
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 follows 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. If that alone doesn’t interest you, it’s also very gay. It’s a masterpiece, and I can’t recommend it enough. Published in English by Kodansha, and its stunning anime adaptation is available on Crunchyroll.
Now go read something.
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