When people hear “shojo manga,” if they know what it even is, many of them probably think pink, frilly, and romantic. It’s true that many shojo series focus heavily on romance. “Shojo” means girl in Japanese and in this case refers to the expected demographic of the series. Therefore, like many items divided by gender, shojo manga often has elements that are directed toward girls, namely a female protagonist and romance. However, it’s a serious mistake to lump all shojo manga in your mind as fluffy stories about high school girls falling in love with the hottest guy in her school. While there are plenty of light stories like that, the shojo genre encompasses much more than just that. Some shojo manga feature male protagonists or focus on different kinds of love and the range of other genres shojo manga incorporates is vast (If you want to read more about shojo myths, I suggest you check out staramaria’s post on it at Shojo Corner). In this post I want to focus on several shojo manga series that are as most action/adventure series as they are romance and have female protagonists.
At volume 8, I am in love with this series. Basara is the story of a young woman who lives in a Japan of the future. Much of the land has turned to inhospitable desert and civilization with bustling cities with sky scrapers, cars, and modern technology has crumpled away into the sand. Several tyrannical kings rule various parts of Japan, oppressing the people, but a hero is prophesied to raise up and save them. That hero’s name is Tartara and he is the brother of the series heroine, Sasara. Sasara is largely overshadowed by her destined brother, especially in a patriarchal society. But when her brother is suddenly murdered by one king’s men, Sasara cuts her hair and takes her brother’s name to lead a rebellion in her brother’s place. This series is truly epic, filled with strong women who defy expectations and a sweeping adventure with battles and conflicts both emotional and physical around every corner. This shojo series does have romance, but it’s an equally tense and exciting romance of devastatingly star-crossed lovers to match the action half of the story.
MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH by CLAMP
Magic Knight Rayearth is an interesting mix of things. Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu are fourteen-year-old girls from Japan with little in common and who have never met until one day when the girls happen to run into each other at Tokyo Tower on field trips. Suddenly, all three girls hear the voice of a girl asking for help and next thing they know they are plunging through an unfamiliar sky with fantastical floating mountains and magic. After being rescued by a flying fish, Hikaru, Umi and Fuu are informed by a sorcerer that they have been summoned by this magical world’s “Pillar,” a princess whose will protects the world and who has recently been kidnapped by Lord Zagato, causing the world to slowly fall to ruin. The girls must become the legendary Magic Knights and save the princess and thus the world. The first half of this series is relatively light, mixing comedy and action as the girls make references to their journey being like a video game and chibi-forms are frequently popping up while minions of Zagato attempt to hunt them down and destroy them before the girls can accomplish their mission. However, a twist at the end of the first half makes this series memorable. Romance is relatively low key.
FUSHIGI YUGI: GENBU KAIDEN by Yuu Watase
Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden is the prequel to the classic, Fushigi Yugi. While the original series certainly has adventure, the romance elements were extremely strong and central to the story, even overshadowing other major events because the heroine is so wrapped up in her romance. That’s why I’ve been enjoying the newer prequel which takes place in a different century than the original and has a significantly more reasonable romance that compliments the other things going on in the story without overwhelming them. Takiko Okuda is a 17-year-old girl living in Japan in the early 1900s who has troubles beyond her years. Her mother is dying of tuberculosis and while Takiko cares for her ailing mother, her father, who has never paid much mind to Takiko, is too obsessed with a book he is translating to deal with them. Hurt and fed up with him, Takiko tries to destroy the book, but instead finds herself sucked into the story where she becomes a legendary priestess tasked with gathering seven Celestial Warriors to save a country from destruction. While still not perfect, Takiko is a huge improvement from the heroine, Miaka, from the original; rather than leave everything up to guys to protect her while she runs off with her boyfriend, Takiko is active and capable and while she does fall in love, that is but one element of her story as she tries to balance her life in Japan and the fate of a world in a book. There are a number of other strong female characters as well.
SAILOR MOON by Naoko Takeuchi
The last series I am going to mention hardly needs any introduction. Sailor Moon is one of the most famous shojo series, a series that follows fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsukino, a normal girl who finds herself caught up in the abnormal when she meets a talking cat one day and finds out she is Sailor Moon, a warrior destined to fight evil forces gathering. Despite battle outfits that have miniskirts and bows, Sailor Moon is filled with tough battles and girls who each have unique strengths to bring to the table, just like in shonen (boys’) action series. There is a very important romance plot to the series, but it’s clear that love only strengthens Usagi in her quests rather than turning her into a submissive girl who relies on the guy to save her as some series depict. If you want to read more about this series, check out one of my earlier posts on Sailor Moon.
In closing, what does this all have to do with feminism, besides depicting female characters as active and dynamic? All too often, when fiction focuses on female protagonists, romance becomes the focus of her story. While there is no doubt that for most people, love and romance is a big event in their lives, if fiction always focuses most heavily on romance in a female protagonist’s story, it sends the message that the most important thing that can happen to a girl is for her to find a guy. On the other hand, male characters are shown to be capable of saving worlds and becoming leaders. So, in these series I have named and others, we can see that romance is but one piece in the lives of these female protagonists. These female characters have lives outside of love in which they act as leaders and fight toward other equally important goals. That, I think, is a perfect message.