I’ve been watching anime for nearly sixteen years, but it wasn’t until I hit college that I really started picking up manga on a regular basis. I read the occasional odd series or volume during high school, but the sheer amount of books to pick and where to begin can get overwhelming, especially for new readers. Especially when you get to more popular titles that run into 60 or 70 volumes.
May I recommend shojo manga? While not necessarily romance manga (although romance plays a huge role in most shojo), shojo is essentially pink, cotton candy brain fluff on the surface that manages to delve into deeper and sometimes more richer character arcs, where the story more about the character development and the story. (And occasionally screaming “JUST KISS ALREADY” at the characters.)
The world of shojo is as richly diverse as their male counterparts, so picking up a series to begin with is just as daunting at times. But here’s what I think some good series to get started on, with some familiar manga-ka and series you may have seen, but just were never sure about.
When I want to show someone an example of shojo manga, I show them Arina Tanemura. Tanemura’s artwork is nothing but flowing lines and flowers and sparkles and upbeat , cheerful heroines. Nearly every one of her stories starts with “I’m a normal everyday girl!” She is shojo manga incarnate.
But what I love about Arina Tanemura is that while she entices you in with the fluffy sweetness, a lot of her works take surprisingly dark turns with the characters and their motivations. The dead characters of Full Moon wo Sagashite have committed suicide; Phantom Thief Jeanne deals with magical girls, “pureness,” and sexual assault; Sakura-Hime has an incest plotline. The events never do fully explore these situations, but it’s completely jarring given what’s expected. And although Tanemura never deals with the full consequences and does tend to force a happy ending on her characters, she’s a good starting point for discussion. And she does make you emotionally invested in her characters that you want that pay-off of a happy ending.
Although I recommend her in general, the Tanemura work I recommend a lot of people to start with is Phantom Thief Jeanne, which is finally getting reprinted in a five volume set. Magical girl reincarnation of Joan d’Arc steals demon-possessed paintings. It’s way better than it sounds.
Kimi ni Todoke – Karuho Shiina
“Sawako Kuronuma is the perfect heroine…for a horror movie. With her jet-black hair, sinister smile and silent demeanor, she’s often mistaken for Sadako, the haunting character from Ringu. Unbeknownst to but a few, behind her scary façade is a very misunderstood teenager. Shy and pure of heart, she just wants to make friends.”
For a manga with a very one-off premise (an outcast girl who just wants to make friends; the first chapter was actually conceived as a one-shot), and currently at 21 volumes, I’m so hooked on this series in all of its fluffy, fluffy goodness. Yes, the filler arcs can be a little much, and this is a series where you’re screaming at the characters to just SHUT UP AND KISS HER ALREADY, but it’s so good.
What I love about Kimi ni Todoke isn’t just the fluffy goodness of Sawako/Kazehaya, but rather it’s the story of a girl learning how to make real friends for the first time. Sawako’s awkward and unsure around people, but because they’ve never really taken the time to get to know her personally. And I love the supporting cast in this series. Everyone has a fully developed romance of their own, but it never feels like filler and I’m excited to see where all the characters are going to end up eventually. And if you need more convincing, have an AMV; it sums up everything about the series perfectly.
Magic Knight Rayearth – CLAMP
“Umi, Hikaru, and Fuu are three schoolgirls out on a field trip to Tokyo Tower, whisked suddenly away by a strange voice and light to Cephiro, a world full of spirits and sorcery. They were summoned here through the last remaining strength of the Princess Emeraude, who hopes that they are the trio destined to become the magic knights legend says can save her realm!”
You really can’t talk manga without talking CLAMP. One of the most popular manga groups, their work spans a wide variety of genres and styles. And although the much more influential Cardcaptor Sakura would be the more obvious pick for a list like this, I’ve decided to go with Magic Knight Rayearth. Fantasy RPG-meets-magical-girl-meets-epic storytelling. (Also the titular creature is one of three biological mecha controlled by the main characters.)
For a six volume series, this packs a lot of punch in the two arcs. What seems like a generic “Save the princess, save the world” story on the surface actually turns more complex as our heroines are forced to confront what that actually means, and if saving someone really means just killing the bad guys. And the second arc of the story explores the consequences of that decision and what it means for the world of Cephiro. It’s moving and engaging, and just some absolutely gorgeous artwork throughout. Again, probably not as obvious as Cardcaptor Sakura or even Angelic Layer, but still highly enjoyable and my definite must-reads.
Alice 19th – Yuu Watase
“Alice Seno seems like a normal girl in high school. She’s a bit shy, she has a crush on a boy name Kyo, and she has a pretty older sister, Mayura, who is more popular than she is – especially with Kyou. Pretty normal stuff, until one day when, walking down the street, Alice hears strange voices instructing her to save a rabbit from being run over by a car. Alice’s brave act almost costs her life, but the handsome Kyo saves her. Meanwhile, it seems the rabbit is no ordinary bunny, but a magical entity with great powers. Before she can figure out what’s going on, the rabbit vanishes, only to reappear as a beam of light with a strange message just for Alice.”
And you can’t talk shojo manga without at least mentioning Yuu Watase. Another high profile creator, anime fans who started out in the 90s are probably more familiar with her high fantasy romance epic, Fushigi Yugi. (All together now: “TAMAHOMEEEEE!” “MIAKAAAA!” And repeat.)
Unfortunately, I’m actually not that huge of a Watase fan as I used to be, given the endings of Fushigi Yugi and Absolute Boyfriend (which I swore at extensively), but there is one series that I will still recommend. While Alice 19th is full of the problematic tropes that Watase loves—girl-on-girl hate over a boy (and they’re sisters this time), love triangles everywhere, assault on the female main characters—there are parts about it that I do still really enjoy. Specifically, that this is a story about a shy, lonely girl learning to harness her inner strength, not just magically, but in her everyday life as while. Alice may not be as dynamic as some other heroines, but I do like how she develops over the course of the series. And despite the Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry, I do like that this is a story about sisters who don’t always get along, but will always be there for each other.
Millennium Snow – Bisco Hatori
“Seventeen-year-old Chiyuki Matsuoka was born with heart problems, and her doctors say she won’t live to see the next snow. Toya is an 18-year-old vampire who hates blood and refuses to make the traditional partnership with a human, whose life-giving blood would keep them both alive for a thousand years.”
The story of an average girl torn between a vampire and a werewolf. No, not that story. Originally a two volume series cut tragically short because of Hatori’s juggernaut success with Ouran High School Host Club (similarly, fantastic; go watch that series, it’s brilliant), Millennium Snow is a short sweet story about terminally ill Chiyuki who meets the ‘vegan’ vampire Toya. (Well, he actually just hates the taste and texture of blood; no moral choices for him.) They eventually make friends with cool guy Satsuki, who hides the fact that he’s a werewolf.
Despite the lack of a full arc in the stories, the two volumes are sweet and fun, even with the lack of ending. But! Since Hatori wrapped up her more popular series, she finished Millennium Snow towards the end of 2013, and the final two volumes are set to appear in English in June and December. There’s a omnibus rerelease of the first two volumes, so if you like your paranormal stories with a bit of sweetness, I definitely recommend checking this out.
Honey & Clover- Chica Umino
“Takemoto is an art student in Tokyo trying to make ends meet while dealing with friends, family, and relationships…”
Probably more appropriate for the josei label (geared towards older readers), Honey & Clover is a slice-of-life romance series dealing with growing up and what being an adult entails, while dealing with first real romances outside of high school. Taking place at an art school, the story revolves around ten college students and how their lives entangle with each other.
While the first half of the series goes into rapid comedy (Morita-senpai) juxtaposed with the sweetness of the main character Takemoto’s crush on the diminutive Hagu, the story develops into a mature and blunt look at life as the cast of characters as they go through the challenges of finals, finding a job, part-time work, and day-to-day life in general. It’s a story about unrequited love that doesn’t judge or place blame on any of the characters, and the ending still makes me curl up in a corner and cry. The live-action films and dramas are probably more well known, but I still really highly recommend this series. (Plus, it’s a manga that talks about college, which is not as popularly explored in a lot of anime and manga that comes overseas.)
Sailor Moon – Naoko Takeuchi
“Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl until she meets up with Luna, a talking cat, who tells her that she is Sailor Moon. As Sailor Moon, Usagi must fight evils and enforce justice, in the name of the Moon and the mysterious Moon Princess. She meets other girls destined to be Sailor Senshi (Sailor Scouts), and together, they fight the forces of evil!”
Disclaimer: Sailor Moon is my favorite series of all time. Not only was it my first series, but it’s endured for me the longest. I still go back and rewatch episodes on occasion, I reread the manga all the time, I continuously look for plushies and figures — I own a Sailor Saturn pendant that I wear every day and only comes off if I’m sleeping or in the shower.
And even though Sailor Moon is pretty much the default image if someone’s talking about anime, I’m still recommending the manga. Not just because the remake anime is going to stick closer to the original material (is it July 5th yet, I’m so excited), but because I genuinely believe that Naoko Takeuchi’s manga is one of the most epic series that I’ve read. Yes, if you’ve seen the anime, the story’s basically the same. But Takeuchi infuses her universe with this rich mythology that’s barely scratched at by the end of the story. And it’s all centered around this fantastic epic romance (no really, Tuxedo Mask is a million times better in the manga), and great female characters everywhere. And Usagi’s character arc from the clumsy crybaby at the beginning of the series to the mature, graceful future Queen of the Earth is wonderfully done. Seriously, go read the manga. I mean, the anime’s great, but if I have to pick? The manga wins every time.
Missed a few of your favorites? Disagree with me violently about my picks? Want to squee/argue about the new Sailor Moon design? Comments are appreciated and welcomed!