Turning Japanese: A Starter Guide to (Shoujo) Manga

In the United States, the "reign" of comics has come and gone. Even though these days comics are infiltrating pop culture and movies, reading them is still considered a very niche hobby/passion, one that is sometimes stereotyped or made fun of as "geeky". Imagine if that WASN'T the case; imagine that at bookstores it was completely normal for at least half the shelfspace to be taken up by graphic novels. Imagine going on the train and not being shocked by seeing an older lady or a business man reading comics. Imagine comics infiltrating advertising campaigns, from billboards to commercials. Basically, imagine comics had the same power in America as manga does in Japan.

Being in my twenties and growing up as a total social reject girl-nerd, I was the perfect target audience for manga when it started to become popular in the United States. As a lifelong comics reader, I never questioned the validity of manga and read it quite religiously through my teen years. However, I've come to find that manga doesn't seem as accessible to some people. At this point in time there is a definite overload of titles available… and I would guess that only about 40% of it is any good. There are plenty of fluffy "shoujo" titles (manga for girls), and strange, predictable series with boring plotlines. But amidst the shelves at your local Border's Books, if you're willing to elbow your way through piles of mall goths, there are many manga gems to be read. And manga has its own unique brand of art and storytelling, so it's not as if you're being "disloyal" to American comics.

Manga first became popular in Japan around World War II, mainly popularized by Astro Boy. Now it is an accepted part of life – I studied abroad in Japan and I could get manga ANYWHERE, from a cafe to a gas station. Manga-ka (that is, manga artists) are basically on the same tier as celebrities, and they are managed by studios that employ people just for inking, lettering, etc. It's a very efficient market, and one that has made the Japanese publishing industry about 3.6 billion dollars before 2007.

BECAUSE there is such a broad market for manga, there is something to be found for EVERYONE. From children's stories to "soap opera" types of manga to adults only (hentai), manga covers a broad spectrum of every sort of entertainment… for every taste. So in the coming weeks I will introduce you readers to "starter" manga for different genres.

I walk a fine line between embracing being "girly" and denying everything about it. Growing up with rather tomboyish interests (comic books, kung fu, video games, action figures, whathaveyou), I've always striven to achieve a delicate balance between the two. I wear dresses and jewelry to offset my terribly inappropriate jokes and my love of spoutin random obscure trivia. However, there is one part of my girlish side that I've never been able to dispel… and that is a weakness for shoujo manga. It's like crack cocaine for teenage girls, with likable female characters, cool fashion, and of course the LOVE STORY.

The closest English translation to the word "shoujo" is literally "girl", but the characters it is based off of mean "little/small" and "woman". It is not necessarily a genre, exactly, but a group of books targeting young women between the ages of 8-16. It encompasses all sorts of manga: from fantasy to sci fi to action. Usually the main characters are likable and relateable on some level, and it focuses intensely on human relationships.

However, do not allow shoujo manga to intimidate you. Although it is aimed primarily at young women, there are plenty of good, solid stories that are considered shoujo that I believe most people can enjoy. Shoujo is just more fluffy than most manga: I would liken American examples to things like Scott Pilgrim or Blankets by Craig Thompson.

If I didn't know all too well what shoujo manga was, I'd just assume they were slightly girlier manga. Basically, what I'm saying is: Don't knock them until you try them. Following are some shoujo manga that are not TOO girly… that have good, solid stories and strong characters.


Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya

One of the key aspects of shoujo manga is completely ridiculous and unique storylines. The aspect of disbelief is definitely one of the things that carries shoujo, but Fruits Basket has a really bizarre storyline, even for shoujo.

The three main characters are all drastically different but very likable: There's Yuki Sohma, a mysterious and withdrawn boy who is very charming and exudes a sort of magnetism that has earned him the attentions of many of his peers in high school. But despite his popularity he remains detached and shrouded in mystery. He lives in the forest with his older cousin, and various members of his family who come and go. Then there is Tohru Honda, the heroine of Fruits Basket and a hapless but endearing character. She is naive to the extent that she seems stupid at times, but she is completely genuine and places other people's happiness above herself. She has recently lost her mother, so instead of burdening her other family members she sets up camp in the forest and decides to live in a tent, which eventually leads her to coming across Yuki Sohma's household. They agree to let her live with them, which is where she makes a discovery: thirteen members of the Sohma family are cursed. If someone of the opposite sex is pressed against their body, they turn into all the animals of the Chinese zodiac… plus a cat, which is embodied by Kyo, the third main character in Fruits Basket.

Tohru is shocked and amazed by this discovery, but agrees to keep it secret. This thrusts her into a love triangle (of sorts), with Kyo and Yuki. But Fruits Basket isn't necessarily a manga about romance. It is a story about the development of friendship, and the different sorts of love that exist in the world. It's very sweet, but not in an overbearing or over the top sort of way.


Hana-Kimi: For You in Full Blossom by Hisaya Nakajo

Hana-Kimi comes with a premise so ridiculous that if I were to have read a summary of it before I actually picked up the manga, I would have laughed out loud. However, it is probably one of my all time favourite manga due to the great characterization and honesty that it portrays, not to mention its subtle undertones at the way that femininity and masculinity are viewed and defined within culture. It is an older series that is still insanely popular, and even bred a TV show in Korea that was surprisingly awesome (naturally, I watched it).

Hana-Kimi is a gender bender: it is centered around a hapless and obsessed fangirl named Mizuki Ashiya, who is completely fixated upon high jump champion Izumi Sano. However, Izumi has stopped competing in the high jump, and Mizuki takes it upon herself to make him jump again… because she has never seen "something so graceful and beautiful in all her life". Her idolization of the boy is squashed when she somehow manages to transfer to the all boy's school he attends and realizes he is a withdrawn and brooding person. She takes this personally and is even more determined to make Izumi compete in the high jump again, especially once she ends up as his roommate and earns his trust.

Basically, Hana-Kimi is a shoujo manga about an obsessed stalker (Mizuki), a misogynistic, bipolar teenage boy full of angst and baggage (Izumi), that incorporates several other character archetypes in the form of "bishounen" (attractive men). Even though Nakajo's art style isn't necessarily the most streamlined for storytelling and the actual story itself is totally insane, I still love Hana-Kimi a rather ridiculous amount. It's a great read, with increasingly bizarre and hysterical situations that are indicative of what manga is really all about… completely inflated situations and characters.



Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori

Ouran High School Host Club is another manga that employs the common plot device of a girl-as-a-boy cross dressing, but unlike Hana-Kimi it is not because the girl is a frail and obsessed character who feels the need to stalk her idol. Instead, the main character Haruhi is a sharp witted but mostly indifferent girl with exceptional intelligence who is so lackluster in her appearance that she is mistaken for a boy. She is so unconcerned with this mix up that she doesn't bother to correct the misconception, and it gets her in all sorts of trouble throughout the series.

Ouran High School Host Club takes the "classic" tale of a poor girl in a rich man's world and makes it all topsy turvy. Haruhi is super brainy, and therefore gets into one of the most prestigious private high schools in Japan on a scholarship. She is mousy and boyish with no friends, completely engrossed in her studies and disinterested in most everything else. However, one day she stumbles across a club within the school: The Ouran High School Host Club. The Host Club was created by incredibly attractive boys with too much money and time on their hands. Every day they meet in a room and host different luncheons, or parties, so that they can mingle with the girls of the high school. The boys of the club are celebrities within not only Ouran High, but surrounding schools. Haruhi, as hapless as she is, breaks a vase at the host club, and they decide that to pay off the debt she has to join their host club and be one of its members. It isn't until much later that they realize she is a girl, but at this point her charade is too deep, and she must continue to uphold it.

This manga is full of all sorts of hilarious situations, entirely endearing characters, and a storyline that somehow works despite its completely out there concept.

So, there you have it. Three very excellent examples of what the spirit of shoujo is all about. If you like these three staples within the "genre", there are literally hundreds more out there as shoujo manga is so insanely popular in Japan.


Molly McIsaac points her camera at everything, rides unicorns, and enjoys fictional characters with green hair. You can stalk her to your heart's content on Twitter, where she talks about her various misadventures.


  1. Never thought that in a million years would I see Ouran High School Host Club on this site. You ma’am have made my day!

  2. I wanna be into manga reading girls! I’ll start reading!

  3. Molly thanks so much for writing this article and for the wonderful recommendations! My sister has the first three volumes of "Fruits Basket" and thanks to you I’ve decided to go ask if she’ll let me borrow the first one.

    Do you recommend "Fushigi YugI"? I leafed through one of the VizBIG volumes at Barnes and Noble the other day and found myself really into the art 

  4. Molly,

    You mention the example of Manga permeating all age groups in Japan and being socially acceptable. What do you think is the main reason why comics in the US have not reached that level of appreciation? Fantasy/Superhero/Sci Fi films have all been blockbusters….why wouldn’t that appetite translate to the graphic format? It’s a frustrating situation.

  5. Molly, everytime i read your manga columns i sing the Sailor Moon theme in my head. what did you do to me?

    and Blankets is an amazing book ( i know not manga) it is my go to book for introducing people into comics.

  6. I wish superhero comics start taking themselves as seriously as shoujo manga. They would be more fun that way.

    Now I am not gonna go out and buy any of these for the same reason I never saw the Proposition in its entirety; its not made for me.

    Like chick flicks, shoujo manga have a certain target, and I am not it. Except Before Sunrise. Are there any shoujo like Before Sunrise?

  7. Not into manga, but this is a great article. I’m gonna try some of your recommendations. Looking forward to more of them.

  8. Shojo manga has nothing to do with anything "girly". Getting people to try Shojo manga, but telling them it’s girly and recommending not-to-girly stories would immediately throw people off anyways. I don’t think the author should have mentioned "girliness" so much ’cause I think it meant more harm than the good that was intended.

    I look at shonen and shojo manga as this: Shonen manga feature battle-action, energized scenes, while shojo features stories of human nature. They’re not "girly" because of that. I can read any shojo and never consider it girly because it is simply about human friendships. Romance is not necessarily the main deal with all shojo manga. Calling shojo "romance comics" is not going to bring in any new readers because it is misleading and not altogether true. 

    PS. I know you chose the "non-girliest" shojo manga titles (according to you), but those pictures that you chose say otherwise. 

  9. Here’s something that will surely catch some people by surprise: Cowboy Bebop is shojo. It walks quite a fine line, but after all, when you strip everything down to its core, what is the overall story to Cowboy Bebop? At the end of the day, it’s all about Spike and Julia, and their ill fated relationship. It’s proof that "shojo" isn’t synonymus with "super girly and cutesy".