It seems that shôjo heroines have been taking some hits lately. They’re seen as too passive, supporting characters in their own lives. They’re clumsy, boy-crazy stereotypes who may have greatness thrust upon them but are never quite as admirable as their go-for-the-gold shônen counterparts.
I don’t feel particularly qualified to discuss the larger issues that drive some of these accusations. I can’t say with any certainty whether Japanese culture is inherently more sexist than American (though I note that there plenty of women who are superstar manga-ka, whether in shôjo, shônen, josei, seinen, or some hybrid all of their own). There certainly are plenty of starry-eyed klutzes cluttering up the manga section, but English-reading fans only see a fraction of what’s out there.
And there are plenty of intriguing, unique protagonists on those shelves as well. And for this week’s purposes (and maybe the sake of balance), I’d like to take a look at eight of my favorites:
Makishima Misaki of Iwahara Yuji’s Chikyu Misaki (CMX): As the manga begins, Misaki finds herself transplanted to the rustic community of Hohoro Lake. Before she can face any of the conventional issues associated with such a relocation, she’s thrown into the thick of a supernatural mystery and can’t shake the sensation that it’s tied to her own past. Misaki isn’t given to cringing; she faces questions and challenges head-on, showing imagination, inquisitiveness, and an independent spirit that keep the three-volume story chugging along. She’s funny, too, and Iwahara surrounds her with a diverse group of equally interesting women.
Megumi Noda of Tomoko Ninomiya’s Nodame Cantabile (Del Rey): Any number of manga characters could be said to march to the beat of their own drummer, but Megumi (known as “Nodame” to her music-school classmates) seems to have an entire orchestra providing a decidedly odd rhythmic pattern to her life. She’s clumsy, sure, and she’s hopelessly smitten with stuck-up conducting student Shinichi, but she’s so endearingly weird that conventional shôjo rules go out the window. She’s also a gifted musician whose truest expression comes out at the piano, where she takes notes on the page and transforms them with passion and innovation. Nodame is a charming variation on a familiar theme.
Yaya Higuchi of Satomi Ikezawa’s Othello (Del Rey): Ikezawa provides two protagonists in one in this manga, and deconstructs a bunch of shôjo stereotypes in the process. Poor Yaya loves to sing, but she’s terrified of standing out. The cruelty of classmates, insensitivity of adults, and over-protectiveness of her father have left her desperate to fade into the background. But her passion and self-confidence emerge in an unexpected way with the arrival of Nana, her take-no-prisoners alter ego. While Yaya takes life’s blows with heartbreaking passivity, Nana kicks ass and takes names. Ikezawa’s central question is one of balance. Will Yaya find a meeting point between her gentleness and Nana’s courage? I won’t say, but it’s certainly worth diving into the six-volume series to find out.
Alice Seno of Yû Watase’s Alice 19th (Viz): Watase has crafted what seems like the perfect blend of emotional urgency and magic-girl action in this underrated series. Alice, like many of the manga sisterhood, is reluctant to express herself. She keeps her deepest feelings under wraps, and it can have negative consequences. In this case, it’s not quite as simple as not being noticed by the boy she likes. Alice learns she’s part of an order that can use magical words to heal people in pain, fighting cruelty, jealousy and anger. The battle takes on a personal dimension when her outgoing older sister is manipulated by the order’s opposite number, and it’s up to Alice and her friends to save the day. Watase keeps Alice at the heart of things; she has a learning curve and relies on her friends, but she’s brave and resourceful. It’s a perfect example of the every-girl becoming extraordinary.
Yukari Hayasaka of Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss (Tokyopop): If there’s a better rendering of the nebulous period between adolescence and adulthood in manga, I can’t think of it. Yukari is plodding along on auto-pilot, stressing about her studies and not really connecting with anyone around her until she meets a group of student fashion designers. Their passion, even though it’s for something she finds trivial, begins her transformation. The changes manifest on every level, from the cosmetic to the deeply emotional. The best aspect of Yukari’s journey isn’t that she becomes certain of precisely what she wants from life but that she becomes open to the possibilities it presents and more adventuresome in her willingness to make choices. She faces disappointments and difficulties, and she isn’t entirely likeable, but she is very, very real.
Nobara Sumiyoshi of Mitsuba Takanashi’s Crimson Hero (Viz – Shojo Beat): What do you do when your passions don’t match up with the expectations of the people around you? That’s the question faced by Nobara, a talented volleyball player whose formidable mother wants to groom her for a larger role in the family’s very traditional inn. Nobara cringes at the forced delicacy of the inn’s atmosphere; she’d rather be on the court spiking. It could come off as by-the-numbers generational rebellion, but Takanashi has created a character that’s very firm in her beliefs and willing to sacrifice to pursue her ambitions. Romance hovers around the edges, but the real conflict rests on Nobara’s right to do what makes her happy, even if it’s unconventional.
Tanpopo Yamazaki of Yû Watase’s Imadoki! (Viz): Okay, so making friends may not immediately seem like a challenge on the scale of becoming the world’s greatest ninja or uncovering the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone. But when you factor in the odds Tanpopo faces at snooty, class-conscious Meio Academy, you have to admire her spunk. You also have to admire her approach. Tanpopo doesn’t wheedle or scheme or transform herself to break through the wall of social norms that govern everyday life at the school. She just pounds away at them with her unique brand of outgoing determination. And she isn’t pursuing some nebulous idea of popularity or status; she wants to connect with people and understand their hopes and what makes them happy. What’s really wonderful about Tanpopo is that she starts out in pretty great shape – funny, kind, and enthusiastic; it’s the people around her who change for the better, blossoming under her influence.
Nana Osaki in Ai Yazawa’s Nana(Viz – Shojo Beat): Yes, there are two Nanas in Yazawa’s look at twenty-somethings making their way in the city, and Nana Komatsu isn’t without her charms in a deconstructed shôjo heroine kind of way. But it’s rocker Nana O. who provides the most mesmerizing moments. She’s moved to Tokyo to become a star, and she’s done it on her own terms. She could have tagged along with her rocker ex and taken a ride on his coattails, but she opted for the independent approach. Nana O. is tough, sexy, and funny, but she also has moments of kindness and compassion. She’s a complex mixture of humanity and star quality. That shouldn’t be surprising; Yazawa excels at giving her characters added dimensions, from leads to small supporting players.
So there they are, in no particular order – eight intriguing heroines who chart their own paths. Could shôjo benefit from more characters like them? Definitely. But it isn’t like there are no strong women in the category.
Now if someone would just bring Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight back into print.