If you didn’t know already, shonen is a hugely popular category of Japanese comics and anime. Ask someone who knows even a little about manga or anime and she will most likely recognize shonen mega hits like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball. The aimed demographic of this monster of a category are boys (shonen is a Japanese word that translates basically to “boy”) and many of these mega shonen hits are created by men. But did you know that there are actually a good number of shonen series created completely by women, many of which are quite popular in their own right? Here’s are some of the shonen manga I’ve read that are created by women:
To Terra… (地球へ。。。) by Keiko Takemiya
To Terra… takes us back to the late 70’s and all its retro manga glory. Keiko Takemiya is one of several female manga artists who pushed boundaries back in the day to create some groundbreaking pieces of work. Among other accomplishments, Takemiya successfully crossed over demographic lines, creating both shojo (girls’) and shonen manga. (If you’d like to read more about Takemiya’s experiences and work, check out her interview on Manga.about.com.)
To Terra… is her two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen epic about a future controlled by computers and cold, hard logic. When children reach puberty, they undergo a process ridding them of memories and emotion, all in order to transform them into rational adults. Those who fail the process are systematically wiped out. But something happens when Jomy Marcus Shin fails his test. Not only does he find himself rescued and in the hands of a group of super-powered humans called the Mu, but they’re asking him to succeed their leader in the fight against the supercomputer society.
The series encapsulates a few decades and soon inserts another protagonist, Keith Anyan. Keith is a young man thought to be the perfect result of the supercomputer’s training, but who secretly struggles to suppress the question boiling inside himself as his surroundings as he rises up the ranks of the society. If To Terra… doesn’t grab you immediately, wait until Keith has been introduced before giving up on the series since he’s arguably the more interesting of the two protagonists. Keith adds contrast to Jomy’s rebellion and when their paths cross, ideologies crash against each other as the two protagonists battle. There’s action aplenty, complete with big battleships, space guns, and superpowers, but the action is tied to and mized beautifully with the internal struggles of Keith and Jomy in the fashion of a masterful psychological drama.
I also highly recommend the 2007 anime version (translated as Toward the Terra in English), which keeps close to the original, but makes some slight changes that I felt improved an already wonderful story. Additionally, if you absolutely can’t stand the style of older manga, the anime renders a more modern look to the characters.
Pandora Hearts (パンドラハーツ) by Jun Mochizuki
Pandora Hearts takes us away from dystopian sci-fi future to full-blown fantasy, complete with a healthy helping of mysterious nobles, dangerous
secrets, and magical contracts. The story opens with ever-smiling and slightly mischievous Oz Vessalius, a soon-to-turn-15-year-old son of a nobleman. Together with his little sister and faithful–if overly self-critical–servant, Gil, the young man prepares to be the center of attention as noble families gather for his coming-of-age ceremony. Things go terribly wrong, however, when an antagonist group crashes the party and sends a bewildered Oz into the Abyss, citing him for a sin he knows nothing about. With the help of a being from the Abyss named “Alice,” Oz manages to escape, but his life as he knew it is gone. Throw in two battling secret organizations, figures lurking in the shadows, time gaps, and creepy creatures from the Abyss that grant humans power as they simultaneously shorten the wielder’s life, and you have Pandora Hearts.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this series. While it may not always come together perfectly, intrigue is never lacking. like Oz’s smile that masks the emotions of a confused young man, the story never is quite what it seems. Manga artist Jun Mochizuki is a master of weaving seemingly standard tale as the main cast go on their quest for answers, only to tear away the established structures when those answers are uncovered and leave both cast and reader spinning. So, if you are looking for dark fantasy, mystery, and action rolled up into one imperfect but intriguing ride, pick up Pandora Hearts.
Blue Exorcist (青の祓魔師) by Kazue Kato
Blue Exorcist is a stylish series running in the English release of Weekly Shonen Jump, right alongside big name shonen series like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. Although this series runs in another manga magazine called Jump Square in Japan, in the U.S. edition of Shonen Jump, Blue Exorcist is the only series created by a woman. (You can click here to read her interview about this series on Anime News Network.)
In Blue Exorcist, 15-year-old Rin Okumura lives with his twin brother Yukio and their foster-father, struggling to express to others the goodness in his heart. Life gets exponentially more complicated when he finds out that he’s the son of Satan and daddy dearest has decided it’s time Rin came back home, whether he wants to or not. When Rin’s foster-father is killed trying to save him, the boy makes a bold decision to join the group of exorcists that are considering killing him. Thus starts an unorthodox tale of the son of Satan’s journey to become an exorcist in order to take revenge on Satan.
Kazue Kato gives readers plenty to love in this series: gripping action scenes, stylish art, twists keep coming, and cool characters that you’ll want to read more about. I especially love the exploration of relationships as Rin struggles to make connections and understand his comrades, just as they try to do the same in a high stake environment. If modern day demon hunting peppered heavily with a search to connect with others is your kind of tale, check out Blue Exorcist.
Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師) by Hiromu Arakawa
If you read my earlier post on the female characters of Fullmetal Alchemist, you already know I adore this series. Another two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen manga, Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a 19th century industrial Europe-inspired fantasy world where alchemy really works.
The story follows Edward and Alphonse Elric, two teenage brothers and alchemists on a quest. A few years ago, the boys committed a great taboo: after losing their mother, they attempted to use alchemy to bring her back to life. Their plan went horribly wrong, however, and in addition to failing to revive her, Edward lost a leg and an arm while his younger brother lost his entire body, reduced to nothing but a soul inhabiting a suit of armor. Now Edward has become an alchemist who works for the military, becoming what some call a “dog of the military” in order to search for a way to get their bodies back. Their only lead? The Philosopher’s Stone, said to be a source of tremendous power.
Fullmetal Alchemist is another series that boasts crisp, distinctive artwork, complex characters who struggle and grow, and solid storytelling. The story is packed with emotion, from heartwarming and laugh-out moments to extremely dark and tragic ones. As for action, despite the protagonists’ prowess, the action scenes will always have you holding your breath as they engage in tight battles full of alchemy. Finally, FMA has the best cast of female characters I’ve seen so far in a shonen manga and the male characters are also some of my all-time favorites. This one is an all around winner in my book.
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic (マギ) by Shinobu Ohtaka
Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is a hot shonen series right now in the anime and manga community, largely because of the popular anime adaptation, which is streaming on sites such as Crunchyroll. But the anime isn’t the only hot thing. In 2013, the manga received Japan’s Shogakukan Manga Award for best shonen manga, speaking to Shinobu Ohtaka’s ability to craft a classic adventure tale with a squeeze of freshness that keeps readers hankering for more.
Pulling inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, the story sets readers in a richly imaged world of the ancients, from the Middle East to Asia. We start in the Middle East where a curious young boy named Aladdin meets the ambitious lad with a heart of gold, Alibaba. Alibaba is determined to conquer a mysterious tower called a “dungeon,” which have appeared around the world and are said to hold as many dangers as riches. But he’s not the only one with his eyes on this dungeon; a vicious young master also enters the dungeon in hopes of riches, dragging a powerful slave named Morgiana with him. With that, a story of adventures that span across the world, chance meetings, and intertwined fates begins.
The world Ohtaka has created is full of magic and a colorful variety of cultures and kingdoms, which is one of my favorite aspects of the series. Not only does the number of distinct kingdoms allow for variations in landscape, character design, and clothing, but also for clashes in ideologies, backgrounds, and alliances. Put that together with the growing cast of characters and you get plenty of explosive and intriguing character interactions. At its weakest, this modern, manga-style One Thousand and One Nights-type of adventure is still a lot of fun. At its strongest, Magi will have you pining for the next installment.
And that’s a wrap! There a many more artists/series I could talk about (such as Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (ツバサ) by CLAMP and Nabari no Ou (隠の王) by Yuhki Kamatami), but those might be for another post. It should be noted that just because these titles are created by women doesn’t necessarily mean they are free of sexism–many of these series suffer from overly sexualized female characters, damsels in distress tropes, and the like. Others features some great female characters along a vibrant cast of male ones. Regardless, one of the things I enjoy about these series is they seem to meld the emotional pull of shojo with the tight action-packed sequences of shonen, albeit some more successfully than others.
I wanted to write another post featuring shojo manga created by men, but sadly, I’ve only found a few rare examples of this, namely Osamu Tezuka. I wonder if that may be because it is more acceptable for a female manga artist to pen a series outside of the female demographic than it is for a male manga artist to make one outside of the male demographic (the shojo manga, Otomen, touches on this topic). Anyway, if you know of any male manga artists who have created shojo manga, please let me in know the comments!