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
The 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] (highlight to view spoiler). 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.
The 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.
Manga 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 mainstream josei titles, but there are many more besides. Which josei titles -- or profound manga plot lines in general -- spoke to you?
This post is also published on my Kinja.