If you’re familiar with manga, you know that instead of being broken up into genres as we know them, it’s primarily categorized by target demographic. We’ve already got posts highlighting shōnen, seinen, and josei manga, and we’re finally here to talk about the final remaining demographic group and offer up some of the best shōjo manga reads.
What is Shōjo Manga?
In Japanese, shōjo means “young girl,” so accordingly, the primary demographic targeted by shōjo manga is adolescent and young adult women. Of course, these demographic breakdowns don’t mean too much as people of all ages and genders read across categories all the time. However, it continues to be an easy way to identify manga since weekly and monthly magazines in which they are serialized are still divided into these categories.
Early on, shōjo manga focused on simple, light-hearted stories and was aimed at an audience of younger, elementary-aged girls. It was also dominated by male mangaka, until a golden age of shōjo manga emerged in the 1970s. At this time, a new generation of female artists made their rise, incorporating more complex themes and reflecting attitudes from the women’s liberation movement. This generation of artists are known as the Year 24 Group, due to the fact that many were born in or around the 24th year of the Shōwa era. This group expanded shōjo manga to include more aspects from sub-genres like adventure, fantasy, and so on, and brought about a shift to a slightly older audience of teens and young adults. Shōjo also enjoyed a huge increase in both commercial and critical success with this shift, having been largely dismissed up until that point.
Today, shōjo manga seems to carry the image of being about school-aged girls, romance, and more likely both. And while there are certainly many shōjo manga that reflect this, it also continues to be inclusive of a variety of sub-genres and should by no means be considered equivalent to romance. If one does want to define shōjo overall, a very common theme is the exploration of relationships (of all kinds) and emotions. I’ve picked out a selection of some of the best shōjo manga available to English-language readers today that hopefully reflects at least part of the wide range of stories that can fall under the category.
The Best Shōjo Manga
The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda
First serialized starting in 1972, The Rose of Versailles revolutionized shōjo manga, proving the category could be a commercial success among a wide readership and not just for a small niche market. A member of the Year 24 Group, mangaka Riyoko Ikeda wished to write manga with social and political themes, showing shōjo could be more complex and sophisticated than thought before. A historical drama set during the French Revolution, The Rose of Versailles focuses on the story of Marie Antoinette and the fictional Oscar François de Jarjayes, a female commander of the Royal Guard. The way Ikeda plays with gender has also been heavily influential in the growth of yuri manga.
Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
We, of course, cannot talk about shōjo manga without talking about the seminal “magical girl” manga, Sailor Moon. By combining the idea of transforming heroes from popular live-action hero shows a la Kamen Rider with feminine themes, Sailor Moon completely altered the magical girl genre from comedic stories where girls’ powers caused trouble, to empowering stories about strong, capable teams of girls who fought evil forces.
Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP
Another big name in shōjo manga is Cardcaptor Sakura, another hugely influential series in the magical girl genre, especially in its crossover appeal among a varied demographic as well as in its aesthetic and the concept of moe. The series follows Sakura Kinomoto, an elementary-aged girl who discovers she has magical powers upon accidentally releasing a set of magical cards into the world. It is now her mission to retrieve and seal away these cards by battling the personified forms of each.
Fushigi Yûgi by Yuu Watase
Fushigi Yûgi is an isekai manga about Miaka and Yui, two middle school girls who are transported to an ancient Chinese kingdom after reading from a mysterious book they find while studying at the library. Miaka finds that she is a priestess in the book’s universe, and it is her mission to save the kingdom by finding and gathering the seven Celestial Warriors of the god Suzaku.
Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya
Due to a series of events following her mother’s death in a car accident, Tōru Honda finds herself living with the family of her classmate Yuki Sōma. On her first day there, Tōru accidentally discovers the Sōma family secret: the family is cursed, with each member being possessed by a different spirit from the Chinese zodiac. If put under stress, or under other specific conditions, they will transform into the animal form corresponding to their zodiac spirit. Tōru vows to keep the family’s secret to herself, as well as to try to help them break the curse.
Boys Over Flowers by Yoko Kamio
Tsukushi Makino is a tough, strong-willed teenage girl enrolled at an elite academy for children from upper-class families. As one of only a few students from a middle-class background, Tsukushi feels out of place and dislikes the school, and is determined to just get through high school unnoticed. However, she attracts the attention of F4, a group of the four wealthiest boys in school, when defending her friend from being tormented by them. Though he bullies her at first, Tsukasa Dōmyōji, F4’s hot-headed leader, finds himself drawn to Tsukushi because she is the only person who has ever stood up to him. This classic manga is an international phenomenon, and has led to many adaptations, not just in Japan, but in a number of other Asian countries as well.
My Love Story!! by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko
Takeo Gōda is a kind-hearted guy who just wants love. Unfortunately, his towering, muscular appearance turns a lot of people off, and all the girls end up falling for his handsome and charming best friend Makoto Sunakawa instead. One day, Takeo comes to the rescue of Rinko Yamato when she is being harassed on the train, and thus Takeo’s love life starts to turn around!
Library Wars: Love & War by Kiiro Yumi
In an alternate version of Japan, the government has passed the Media Betterment Act (MBA), which allows the censorship of any media that could be considered harmful to society. The Media Betterment Committee is deployed to enforce the MBA and target anyone trying to exercise freedom of expression. Libraries have become the front line in this conflict, with the paramilitary Library Defense Force (LDF) defending them under the Freedom of Library Law. Iku Kasahara is a new recruit in the LDF, after having been inspired as a child by an LDF official who saved a book she’d wanted that had been a target of censorship. This manga is an adaptation of a light novel series by Hiro Arikawa.
By the by, make sure you’re keeping up with our weekly censorship news roundups, because writing this description frankly felt eerily prescient and terrifying.
My Love Mix-Up! by Wataru Hinekure and Aruko
Shōjo is home to a lot of BL manga, and while there are plenty of conversations to be had about the problems with this dynamic, there are also a great number of very genuinely lovely manga to come out of it. And My Love Mix-Up! is one of them! In this sweet slice-of-life romance, follow Aoki and Ida, two teenage boys drawn to each other due to a misunderstanding, as they navigate first love, friendships, and high school.
Voice Over! Seiyu Academy by Maki Manami
Hime Kino’s dream is to become a top voice actor for her favorite anime series. Her acceptance into the voice acting department of a prestigious arts school is a step in the right direction! Both her classmates and teachers underestimate Hime, who has a low, rough voice, but she’s ready to do what it takes to prove them wrong and make her dreams come true. Fun fact: for accuracy in its depiction of the seiyu industry, the manga was produced with the cooperation of a seiyu talent agency and an arts college with a voice acting department.
Chihayafuru by Yuki Suetsugu
In a prime example of how the lines between manga demographic categories are not actually clear, here’s Chihayafuru, a manga that was serialized in a josei magazine but won shōjo awards (shrugs). It’s a sports manga, though about a unique and unexpected sport to western audiences. Chihaya Ayase becomes interested in competitive karuta (a Japanese card game) after befriending a talented karuta player, and forms a karuta club at her high school. The manga follows Chihaya and her friends and teammates as they strive to become a top karuta team.
The Cain Saga by Kaori Yuki
In a real turn from what most would think of as “typical” shōjo manga, The Cain Saga is a gothic mystery set in Victorian London. The manga follows a young earl named Cain Hargreaves as he solves murders and tries to bring down Delilah, a secret organization that experiments with bringing back the dead. The Cain Saga is the collective title for five parts or series — each released as a separate volume — as well as a sequel series, Godchild.