If you know anything about manga, you probably know that there are two broad genres: shoujo and shonen. Shoujo manga are targeted toward a young female audience–mostly girls between the ages of 10 and 18–and, likewise, shonen manga is meant for boys between the ages of 10 to 18. Some popular shoujo series you might have heard of include Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. For shonen, I can almost guarantee you’ve heard of One Piece, Naruto, Dragon Ball and Bleach. You might know them better as anime, but most–if not all–anime series begin as manga.
But what happens when shoujo and shonen readers grow up? They can keep reading the series they already love, of course. Salarymen in their 40s still read giant volumes of shonen manga on the train during their work commutes. But there are two genres that are complementary to shoujo and shonen: josei and seinen, respectively.
Josei is grown-up shoujo and seinen is grown-up shounen. What exactly does that mean? Read on to find out.
The biggest differences
When it comes to what makes josei different from shoujo, and what sets seinen apart from shounen, it’s difficult to produce a satisfactory answer. I’ve been reading both shoujo and josei manga (with a sprinkle of shonen) for years and years, and I’ve recently started to read seinen. Here’s what I can come up with, based on my own experiences:
Shoujo manga: features female protagonist, focuses on romance and/or friendship real-life drama, is often slice-of-life
Josei manga: features female protagonist (but not always – sometimes josei manga features an all-male cast), focuses on romance and/or friendship and/or work real-life drama, is often slice-of-life but somewhat “grittier” than shoujo (though not always the case; there are a lot of “dark” shoujo manga series as well)
It gets even more difficult for shonen and seinen:
Shonen manga: features boys/men as leads with sidekick ladies (but not always – sometimes shonen and seinen manga feature all-female leads), focuses on friendships/growing up, is action-oriented, but definitely not always
Seinen manga: all of the above, though sometimes brings up more mature themes
Categorizing manga, as you can see, isn’t an easy job. A favorite series like Hot Road from the 1980s is technically shoujo, but contains drug use, violence and has sexual themes, therefore making it more josei. Likewise, the popular Azumanga Daioh is about a bunch of girls at a high school–with a focus only on comedy, not on anything sexual–but it’s a shonen manga.
So how do you tell? There are two ways:
1. Which magazine published it?
Manga meant for one age group does not mingle with another when it comes to publishing. There are magazines that only print shonen manga, and magazines–by the same company–that only print seinen manga. (By “print,” I mean this is where they’re serialized before they are released as volumes.)
The two seinen magazines with the highest circulations are Weekly Young Magazine and Weekly Young Jump. Others include Big Comic Original, Weekly Morning and Weekly Manga Goraku. It is usually easy to spot a seinen magazine because they feature gravure models on the cover–that is, ladies in bikinis.
For josei, the two most circulated are You and Be-Love, followed by Kiss and Chorus.
2. Is there furigana with of the kanji?
Furigana (振り仮名) is a Japanese reading aid, consisting of smaller kana, or syllabic characters, printed next to a kanji (ideographic character) or other character to indicate its pronunciation.
The presence of furigana in a manga denotes that it is meant for people who have not yet mastered all the kanji learned from primary to high school–in short, the manga is meant for younger readers, and is probably shoujo or shonen. No furigana is a dead giveaway that it is in the josei or seinen genre.
In the above example, though it’s a little hard to see, there are small furigana next to the kanji, so it’s a shonen or shoujo work.
Here are some examples of seinen manga. You’ll probably look at a few of them and go, “Really? This is seinen?” But the publisher doesn’t lie.
The series, which crosses over with another Clamp work, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, revolves around Kimihiro Watanuki, a high-school student disturbed by his ability to see the supernatural, and Yūko Ichihara, a witch who owns a wish-granting shop. When Watanuki asks Yūko to remove his ability to see spirits, she grants it on the condition that he pay for his wish by working for her.
In the future, almost every person roams arounds with persocons, robots that look like humans and act (somewhat) like humans. However, poor Hideki, a cram student doesn’t have the money for his own. He crosses a persocon in the garbage wrapped in bandages. Once he activates her, she only knows the word “Chii.” As each day passes, Hideki finds out more about Chii’s past and in turn Chii learns more about the world. Hideki teaches Chii words, expressions and common things.
Be-Bop High School (Kazuhiro Kiuchi)
The story revolves around the lives of two rough-and-tumble high school friends, Kato Hiroshi and Nakama Toru, who frequently cause trouble and start fights. In keeping with the spirit of the manga, Toru and Hiroshi style their hair in punch perms and also adopt exaggerated swaggering gaits. The manga also features an assortment of outlandish characters who also sport unusual fashions and hairdos.
Gantz (Hiroya Oku)
Gantz is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Hiroya Oku. Gantz tells the story of a teenager named Kei Kurono, among others, who die but find themselves brought back in perfectly healthy bodies and forced to participate in a “game” where they must hunt down and kill aliens. Those who die on missions are quickly replaced by others in following missions. The series is known for its graphic violence, sex, action and similar mature themes. It has sold at least 19 million copies so far.
Elfen Lied (Lynn Okamoto)
Elfen Lied revolves around the interactions, views, emotions, and differences between human beings and the Diclonii, a mutant species similar to humans in build but distinguishable by two horns on their heads and “vectors”, transparent telekinetically controlled arms that have the power to manipulate and cut objects within their reach. The series is centered on the teenage Diclonius girl “Lucy” who was rejected by human beings and subsequently wants revenge.
Here are some examples of josei manga. You might have read them and thought they were shoujo or BL (boys’ love), but rest assured they were published in josei magazines.
Loveless (Yun Kouga)
On his first day at his new school, 12-year old, Ritsuka Aoyagi meets a mysterious 20-year old man named Soubi Agatsuma. He claims to be a good friend of Ritsuka’s brother, Seimei, who was recently murdered, and the suspicious organization called Septimal Moon may be responsible for the death. As Ritsuka quickly finds out, Seimei and Soubi acted as a pair involved in spell battles. Now Soubi is Ritsuka’s ‘sentouki’, or fighter, and Ritsuka is his ‘sacrifice’. Together, they challenge the organization to find out the truth behind Seimei’s death and the reason for Ritsuka’s amnesia, but end up forming an intimate bond with each other as they unravel the mystery.
Paradise Kiss (Ai Yazawa)
Yukari Hayasaka has led a life of boredom, until a group of students, Miwako Sakurada, Arashi Nagase and Isabella Yamamoto, from Yazawa School for the Arts discover her. They want her to be their model in the school fashion show, but Yukari outright refuses. Their leader George Koizumi, has set his sights on her after seeing her school photo, and will not take no for an answer.
Nodame Cantabile (Tomoko Ninomiya)
Shinichi Chiaki, an arrogant, multilingual perfectionist, is the top student at Momogaoka College of Music and has secret ambitions to become a conductor. Born into a musical family, he is talented in piano and violin and once lived abroad in the music capitals of the world as a young boy (namely Prague), but is trapped in Japan because of his childhood phobia of airplanes and the ocean. In contrast, Megumi Noda, or “Nodame”, is a piano student at Momogaoka, notorious for messiness and eccentric behavior. Despite being very talented, Nodame prefers to play by ear rather than according to the musical score; thus, she is regarded as sloppy and playful.
Kuragehime (Akiko Higashimura)
Princess Jellyfish centers around Amamizukan, an apartment building in Tokyo, where the only tenants are otaku women, and where no men are allowed. While each character has her own particular fixation, the protagonist is Tsukimi Kurashita, whose love of jellyfish stems from memories of her deceased mother taking her to an aquarium and linking the lace-like tendrils of jellyfish to the dresses of princesses. Tsukimi hopes to becomes an illustrator and is an awkward girl terrified of social interaction, attractive people and the prospect of formal work.
Shirokuma Cafe (Aloha Higa)
Shirokuma Cafe (しろくまカフェ Shirokuma Kafe, lit. Polar Bear’s Café) is a Japanese manga series by Aloha Higa (ヒガ アロハ Higa Aroha). It revolves around the everyday lives of a group of animals mingling with humans at a café run by a polar bear.