Deeming a manga as one a girl would like and one a boy would like should be as easy as violence vs romances, right? Not so fast. This is a potential misnomer: “made for girls” and “made for boys” are not so simple as “boys will like trucks” and “girls will like dolls.” Here are some interesting tibdits on why classifying a manga as “shojo” or “shonen” is more complicated than it first appears.
This past month, this blog began a monthly manga release blotter. In the interest of making it easy to navigate, a natural inclination is to split up the teen-demographic releases into two sections: boys’ (shonen), and girls’ (shojo). Manga publishers in the U.S. use the Japanese terms in part for flavor, but also because there are nuances held within the terms that may not otherwise come across.
In Japanese, shojo (show-joe) means “youthful/young girl” and shonen (show-nehn) means “youthful/young boy.” Luckily, in manga, logic follows here: Shojo and shonen are terms applied to books written for readers between the ages of about ten and twenty. They feature teenage characters as the leads almost exclusively, as that is the expected reader base.
However, Shojo and shonen can be also used as genres as well as age markers. As genres, they have some identifying characteristics that play off of girl and boy stereotypes: For example, shojo (girls’) focuses on romance and life issues growing up as a girl. Shonen (boys’) manga focuses more on action, adventure, contests, and fighting. Both tend to be coming-of-age stories in some form or another because of the age group — but guess which one babies probably won’t ever appear in. Shojo as it is today has almost exclusively female main characters; likewise, shonen manga usually has male leads.
Furthering the issue of classification is that, in Japan, manga are classified as “for girls” or “for boys” based not on what’s inside the story, but by what magazine they are published in. Usually this proves an unremarkable distinction, but it has proven difficult in recent years: the most successful and enjoyable manga seem to mix elements, and so a manga that doesn’t follow the tropes of either demographic can be classified arbitrarily. A comic that focuses on overcoming school bullying with male and female characters may be deemed a “girls’” comic because it’s published in, for example, Flower and Dream Comics (Hana to Yume Comikkusu), rather than by looking at its content or readership. Luckily for the American buyer, but making classification harder on the blog list, when published in English, most manga are given shojo, shonen, or other classification by content alone.
Take, for example, D.Gray-Man. It was originally serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump, which is a boys’ demographic magazine. Even though it is written by a woman and most of its readership is female, it is still a “boys’” comic. In Japan, it is labeled “shonen” because of the magazine it is in (and by its content somewhat); in America, it is labelled “shonen” because of structure: It has a male lead, is an action/adventure, and romance is secondary, even tertiary to the plot. Yet, it is extremely popular among girls/women, because it has fully developed characters of both sexes, handles feelings and relationships realistically, and, of course, girls like explosions too.
Despite mainstream manga growing ever more gender neutral, there are generalizations that can still be made about what to expect from a “girls’” or “boys’” comic, along with what’s written above. Quite often themes of youth and growth overlap between shonen and shojo because they share an age group. A general rule of thumb is that ninety percent of readers who can connect to party-line shojo are female; ninety percent of readers who will enjoy “fan-service” shonen manga are boys; and socially-responsible shonen manga are enjoyed equally by male and female readers.
So when you, dear reader, see Unbound Worlds’s manga updates, expect “boys’” and “girls’” to be used as a loose indication of what’s inside and who might like it, rather than a hard rule found in a dictionary. If you want a romance or girls’ empowerment, seek a shojo (or a shonen written by a woman). If you’re looking for something with action and adventure, and good doses of heroic angst and fight scenes — regardless of your gender — check through the shonen titles.
Check back again for further handy guides on different classifications of manga and their jargon!