In broad terms, the two largest categories of Japanese comics are shonen manga(“boys’ comics”) and shojo manga (“girls comics”). Among many fans, shonen manga have a stigma of relying on the same hackneyed storytelling patterns, over and over again. There’s generally a young male protagonist who sets out to become the strongest…something (ninja, mecha pilot, and even baker have all been done to great success). Along the way, he faces off against a series of powerful rivals, many of whom become the hero’s allies after he defeats them through a combination of newly discovered techniques and the power of determination.
Shojo series, the popular logic goes, are more sophisticated, with an emphasis on interpersonal conflict and dynamics in a setting closer to the real world. That’s not to say girls’ comics in Japan can’t be just as formulaic as their shonen counterparts, though, as emphasized by a poll of the top recurring tropes in shojo manga.
The survey of 500 women was conducted by research firm iBridge for Japanese Internet portal Goo. Respondents were asked for shojo manga storytelling conventions they’d describe as “aru aru.” A repetition of the Japanese word for existence, aru aru doesn’t have quite the same negative connotation as calling something a full-blown cliché, but it implies that yeah, readers have seen this sort of thing plenty of times before.
Let’s take a look at the top 10, all of which are related to the series’ main character. Taken as a whole, they should serve as a handy primer if you’re new to the world of shojo manga, and a trip down memory lane if you’re a veteran fan of the genre.
10. The main character becomes best friends with someone who has a completely different personality from her own (17.6 percent of respondents)
Having two central characters with such differing ways of thinking makes it easy for the author to keep the story going in places where one or the other wouldn’t produce a dramatic reaction.
9. A cool guy moves into the house next door (19.4 percent)
The closer the heroine and her love interest’s homes are, the greater the chance of cute, romantic run-ins.
8. The only thing she has going for her is her cheerful personality, but all the guys are after her anyway (21.2 percent)
Sort of like how the shonen manga hero will always get stronger if he keeps trying, the shojo manga protagonist can attract a reverse harem of heartthrobs if she remembers to keep her chin up.
7. She loses touch with her childhood friend, who’s a guy, only for him to transfer into her high school after becoming a total hunk (24 percent)
This superfecta of shojo manga happens so often you start to think the main character should quit school and make a living handicapping race horses.
6. While running down the street, she turns a corner and crashes into a handsome guy (24.2 percent)
Double score bonus if she’s running because she’s late for school, and triple bonus if she has a piece of toast in her mouth at the time.
5. The guy she likes is the “prince” of the school (24.6 percent)
In all fairness, manga are serialized, with the goal being to become popular enough to run for years. If the heroine sets her sights on a guy at the bottom of the social pecking order who’s so desperate for female companionship he’d immediately go out with her, it kind of hampers the ability to create sustainable romantic tension.
4. Her hand brushes against a guy’s as they both reach for the same book (26.8 percent)
Doesn’t matter if it’s in the library or the bookstore, similar taste in literature is a handy shortcut to establish that the two characters’ hearts and minds operate on the same wavelength.
3. She’s kind of a ditz, but loved by her friends (27.2 percent)
This is essentially the platonic version of the number eight response.
2. For some reason, she ends up living in the same house as a cool guy (28.2 percent)
Meanwhile, this is the powered-up version of the number nine response.
1. The main character is a scatterbrain (34.6 percent)
This one probably has more to do with helping the readers identify with the protagonist than anything else. While comics are generally considered to be a more acceptable hobby for adults in Japan than many western countries, the majority of manga readers are still in their teens and 20s. It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed when you’re growing up, with your world changing and your hormones raging, so seeing that the lead in the manga you’re reading isn’t constantly cool and collected can make you feel a little better about yourself, not to mention the character.
Looking back over the list, we’ve got to say they do sound awfully familiar. At the same time, some of these aren’t necessarily exclusive to shojo series. Swap “cute girl” for “cool guy” and you could easily claim these are some of the most common scenarios for shonen manga as well.
Hmm…could it be that, in some ways, shonen and shojo manga aren’t that different? Shocking! We think we need a moment to wrap our head around this revelation, and we look forward to iBridge hopefully doing a follow-up study that finally answers the question “Boys or girls, which one really has the cooties?”