The Joys of Josei

Manga and anime character tropes are a lot like gravity in that they can be said to follow a kind of unwritten law; the silver-haired pretty-boy, the bespectacled brain, the plucky but naive hero.

These archetypes stay in circulation because, for the most part, they work. But for fans drawn to the medium for its idiosyncrasy, these cookie cutter characters, though comforting, can get kinda tedious.

Sadly, I know people who have given up on manga and anime altogether out of sheer exhaustion at these recurring clichés – and Japanese anime fans are getting just as fed up as everyone else.

Like the improbably chested heroines manga artists seem so fond of, the genre is bloated with similar tropes. After visiting “Den-Den Town“, the otaku shopping district of Osaka, Japan, my boyfriend and I encountered entire stores devoted to Gundam gear and curiously ubiquitous Evangelion babes, but found precious little in the way of “mature” alternatives that weren’t mature alternatives. Those unfamiliar with manga and anime could almost be forgiven for thinking that the medium involves little more than monster mecha-bots and questionably attired schoolgirls.

And, while these manga forms have their place, there’s a lot more to manga than bots and booty (or an uneasy combination of both). Despite this, it was only after many years of reading and watching manga and anime that I serendipitously discovered josei – a genre of manga that caters for late teenage and adult female (and increasingly male) audiences.

Like its contemporary, shojo, josei focuses on love, relationships and the trials of tribulations of everyday life. The way in which josei sets itself apart from the former, however, is in its more realistic, less idealistic portrayal of its subject matter. There’s even a sexually explicit Harlequin adaptation series – delivering mature plot lines alongside mature sexual content.

Sadly, whether because of its generally low-key nature or a series of misguided marketing efforts, josei has remained relatively underappreciated. And, despite a number of standout examples of the genre, it continues to be hard to come across. Most manga publishers with strong josei output have now collapsed, including Aurora Publishing and Tokyopop, making every josei gem all the more precious.

So, in recognition of this criminally underrated genre, here are some of the josei titles to have made a deep impression on me so far:

Honey and Clover

Aya and MayamaThe byline for H&C reads “Love triangles – who says you don’t learn math in art school?” True to form, this often overlooked (at least in the west) series examines the intersecting lives and loves of a group of art school college students who share the same apartment building with warmth and humour.

Delightfully drawn, thoughtful, and at times heartrendingly nostalgic, authoress Chica Umino isn’t afraid to shy away from the painful reality of unrequited love. As they progress past graduation and into their careers, her characters lose their way, go hungry, and carry with them emotional as well as physical scars.

H&C tells a consummately real story that is sure to resonate with anyone who has loved and lost – whether the object of your affections was a person, time or place.

My boyfriend and I read H&C during our university years, while he studied in China and I stayed on in England, and the bittersweet nature of relationships presented by Umino during this transitional time struck a chord with both of us, but at the same time, bound us, too.

I actually procrastinated finishing H&C, despite having completed my collection for more than a year, because I just didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters.

Heartbreakingly, by the series’ end, [the male lead doesn’t get the girl]. It’s this poignancy that prompted one blogger to describe H&C as “more bitter than sweet“; it’s a testament to Umino’s powers of storytelling that despite this, H&C manages to be nothing short of uplifting.


Nana charactersThe original rock ‘n’ roll soap opera, Nana follows two young women who share the same eponymous name. The similarities end here, however; Nana Komatsu is a lovesick and naive small-town girl, who tails after her boyfriend and college friends to Tokyo. Nana Osaki, on the other hand, is a streetwise and ambitious punk singer who has lived with her boyfriend since she was 16.

Despite their differences, Nana K. and Nana O. lead parallel lives, and go on to form an unlikely alliance that sees them move in together. Most readers will be able to recognise something of themselves in both Nanas – which might explain why Nana was such a runaway success. The fact that the world of Nana is sexy and stylish, and exploding with music, fashion and all-night parties helps, too.

Author Ai Yazawa is also known for her Paradise Kiss series – another josei favourite. Sadly, Nana has been put on hiatus as the author recovers from sickness.

Nodame Cantabile

nodame-cantabile-paris-hen-sky-high-500x281Manga artist Tomoko Ninomiya’s love letter to classical music, Nodame Cantabile follows another odd couple during their university years and post-graduation.

Megumi “Nodame” Noda and Shinichi Chiaki are aspiring classical musicians. Nodame is eccentric and messy, but possesses raw talent and a certain je ne sais quoi. The arrogant yet adored Chiaki, on the other hand, is a perfectionist and prodigy, but held back from his dreams of conducting in the music capitals of the world due to his crippling fear of flying.

While Nodame quickly becomes besotted with Chiaki, however, Chiaki takes longer to appreciate Nodame’s… “unique” qualities.

Nodame Cantabile has been roundly praised for its effervescent humour, quirky, interesting characters and clean art style that really allows the reader to focus on those central characters. It’s the emphasis on character, after all, that makes josei such a joy.

There aren’t nearly enough josei titles in the mainstream, but there are many more besides. Which josei titles – or profound manga plot lines in general – spoke to you?

6 thoughts on “The Joys of Josei

  1. I’ve heard of Honey & Clover before — although I’ve never read the mangas I saw a couple of episodes on Youtube (in fact, I recently discovered a live-action version. Check it out and see what you think.). The others are new to me, though. I’ll have to see if I can find them!

    • Yeah, there’s a live action movie and a live action TV series! I’m ambivalent as to how I feel about them, exactly. Part of the reason why I love Honey and Clover is for Chica Umino’s unique hand drawings and watercolours. I also think there’s a lot of goofiness and quirks to the series that the manga genre is apt in expressing, while the nuanced sentimentality of the book can seem downright schmaltzy when committed to film. I’ve felt the same way about other live-action adaptations of manga, too. I’m sure with the right direction, it could work, however, so I’ll certainly check it out and see for myself.

      Did you enjoy the episodes you saw? I enjoy the anime, but personally prefer the books, finding the anime to be more heavy handed, but I know there are others who feel the opposite way.

      And yes, check some of the others out! Then we can talk about them!

      • I thought what I saw was just OK — I’m not really dying to see more. I should check out the books, I think. There’s a bookstore near my uni that has a huge selection of manga so I’ll see what I can find in my spare minutes when I get back to the States.

  2. Great article! I also really enjoyed Honey and Clover, Nana, and Nodame Cantabile, although Nana is probably still my favourite of these three. Did you also like Paradise Kiss? The two titles seem to be compared a lot since both were created by Yazawa Ai. I think my top favourite josei anime has got to be Usagi Drop though, with Sakamichi no Apollon/Kids on the Slope coming in a near second.

    • Thanks so much, Artemis! Sounds like you have impeccable taste in manga. ;) Nana is indeed awesome – I love the idea of individuals leading parallel lives. Which parts are your favourite?

      I haven’t yet explored Paradise Kiss or Usagi Drop, but I’m familiar with them and intend to remedy my ignorance soon. I think my choices are somewhat reflective of my partiality for characters in a similar age bracket to myself who are also making that awkward transition to adulthood (which doesn’t seem to stop with graduation).

      I’m a huge Cowboy Bebop fan, so Kids on the Slope is at the top of my to-read/watch list. I also really admire Kiriko Nananan’s work, though have found it very difficult to get a hold of in the UK! Have you read any?

      Thanks again for commenting, I’ll be sure to check your blog out. :)

      • My favourite thing about Nana is the characterisation. Usually in anime I only have one, maybe two characters I either really like or really relate to, but in Nana there were several – and even the ones I didn’t like or couldn’t relate to still felt real and genuine.

        I’m afraid I haven’t read any of Kiriko Nananan’s work – I’m mostly an anime fan, so I usually don’t read manga as such.

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