Shoujo manga has existed for as long as manga has, and use of the term goes back to the turn of the 20th century. The term simply means “comics written for girls,” and just like in America and everywhere else, girls have always read comics as long as there’ve been comics to read. What we think of as the defining tropes of shoujo today, however, were codified largely in the 1960s and ‘70s by a group of manga-ka known as “The Year 24 Group.” (Manga authors born around year 24 of the Showa era, or 1949.)
The 24 Group influenced artists for decades afterwards and were themselves influenced by stories and ideas spread in pre-war Japan. Right Stuf is proud to have brought a number of works based on this influential and pioneering work to American shores over the years. From its inception, Right Stuf has always focused on classics and hidden gems, and pioneering shoujo ties neatly into both of those categories. (Of course, sometimes America’s hidden gem is Japan’s smash hit.)
One of the earliest unique shoujo genres was called Class S (S kankei). The genre focused on girls forming “sister” relationships at all-girls schools, which had recently come into vogue. The relationships were modeled after heterosexual relationships, usually with the older student playing the boy’s or “butch” role. These stories were transgressive enough that they were banned in 1936. One of the best-known Class S novelists was Nobuko Yoshiya. Her “Flower Tales” (Hana Monogatari), stories about romantic friendships, codified the genre.
It’s difficult to find these early works in English, but their influence has lasted long since the genre was forcibly killed. They were proto yuri stories, so if you like yuri, thank a shoujo writer from a century ago. The stories and authors also have strong ties to the Takarazuka Revue, an all-women theater troupe which was established in 1914 and frequently featured similar themes. Thanks to yuri’s ever-rising popularity, you can still get a sense of what these stories were like. Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru), for example, is explicitly based on the Class S system.
If you’re a student of Japanese manga or animation, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the name Osamu Tezuka, aka the “Father of Manga” and “Walt Disney of Japan.” After Astro Boy and Kimba were huge hits, an editor for the magazine Shoujo Club asked Tezuka if he could write a story specifically for girls. The result was Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi). Tezuka, who lived in Takarazuka, specifically drew influence from the revue in Princess Knight’s creation, going so far as to base certain characters on specific performances. Princess Knight is considered one of the first serialized shoujo manga stories; that is, a story which continues from chapter to chapter instead of being a “one-shot.”
Princess Knight first reached American shores in 1972, but languished in the ‘80s and after. As has been the case with many classic series, bringing Princess Knight back to America proved a tricky navigation of rights and chain of title disputes. Once the rights were settled, the materials turned out to have deteriorated. For more, read “Preserving the Classics,” originally published in the Right Stuf print catalog.
Another famous pioneer was Ryoko Ikeda, a prominent member of the 24 Group. Her smash hit Rose of Versailles, a fictionalized retelling of Marie Antoinette’s life, was responsible for a number of firsts. It sold so well in paperback (tankobon) that releasing magazine-serialized manga that way became the norm. It was one of the first manga translated into English for a wide audience. (Amusingly, however, that audience was still Japanese. The translated volumes were used to teach English in Japanese classrooms.) Through the character of Oscar, a girl who, like Princess Knight before her, is raised as a boy, Ikeda played with gender and androgyny.
Despite being released across the globe in many languages, Rose of Versailles has had a troubled history in English, largely due to rights issues. I hope you had a chance to buy the anime boxsets when Right Stuf released them a few years ago. If you missed them, Udon’s been promising the manga for a while. Here’s hoping the first volume is still on track for eventual release. Sadly, most of her other work goes unreleased in English, but the anime adaptation of Dear Brother had a limited release.
Keiko Takemiya is another member of the Year 24 Group. Her works span many genres, including shoujo, shounen, sci-fi, historical drama, and romantic comedy. Among other accomplishments, she is particularly known for some of the earliest shounen ai work (a specific genre within the BL sphere), including the first gay kiss in a shoujo series (in 1970!). Recognized as a leader and innovator, manga editors launching magazines frequently called on her for stories in their first issues (and many, many subsequent ones).
None of the anime based on her shoujo work has been brought over to North America (so far…), but Right Stuf was proud to bring the anime adaptation of her most famous and award-winning work, Toward the Terra (Terra e) to English fans in the ‘90s and again in 2008.
Be-Papas’ Revolutionary Girl Utena builds on the pioneering work and influences that came before it and turns everything inside out. Crossdressing, ambiguous gender, exaggerated slender body types, drama, experimenting with sexuality, Takarazuka-style theatrical flourishes – they’re all here and more.
Utena was created by the group Be-Papas, with Kunihiko Ikuhara leading the charge as director. Both the anime and manga came out of the same planning stages but were worked on separately, which is why there’s a lot of confusion regarding which came first and whether one is based on the other. Right Stuf license rescued the anime series and movie in 2011, much to fans’ delight.
What’s next for shoujo and Right Stuf? We’ll have to see. Anyone up for crowdfunding taped Takarazuka performances?
Sources include: Routledge Handbook of Japanese Media, Matt-thorn.com, International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Influence of Girl Culture, Hesomagazine.com, God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga, The Comics Journal, Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, and Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives.