Shoujo Through the Eyes of a Bishoujo Fan

by eternal on May 24, 2010

[tsubaki ki]

There was once a time when I called myself a fan of “romance” anime. As I know now, romance is not as useful a category in anime as it is in some other mediums, since anything from Love Hina to Inuyasha could fall under its umbrella. However, even as a dedicated fan of one of Japan’s greatest inventions – the 2D girl – my taste in anime often returns to the central premise of romance. My interests often fit closely with bluemist‘s old tagline – where shoujo and bishoujo meet.

The interesting thing about viewing a very gender-targeted genre through the eyes of the opposite gender is that some tropes and clichés have a completely different effect. Here are some of my observations of the shoujo genre that have allowed me to experience the stories from a personal level as well as from a third-person level.

I should start by saying that my shoujo sample pool is not very large. It’s also true that, like shounen, shoujo can include a variety of different styles, some of which have nothing to do with romance. This post will focus on shoujo romance, specifically Fruits Basket and Arina Tanemura’s manga, since those are the ones that had the strongest effect on me.

So, it’s a fact that shoujo is female-targeted. This is evident in a lot of ways, although I like to separate them into two major categories: internal and external. The internal factors are related to the protagonist – generally, the protagonist is a character whose trials and tribulations are relatable to the viewer in some way. They don’t have to be a harem lead “blank slate” type of character, but their thoughts and feelings should make some connection to reality. Likewise, many of the external factors in the story – the characters and story arcs that surround the protagonist – are based on fantasy in some way. Note that they don’t have to be fantasy fulfilling; this simply means that they involve scenarios that your average teenage girl would not end up in. Like with Key games, some of these scenarios can be more painful than real life, which is literally the opposite of fantasy fulfillment.

Ever notice how everything is more dramatic in shoujo?

I’ll start by discussing the external factors since they’re slightly simpler to explain. The first question is obvious: if a manga is about a girl who gets thrown into a dramatic love polygon with several attractive bishounen vying for her heart, why would a straight male want to read it? In terms of factors outside of the protagonist’s internal narration, the main reason is that it’s surprisingly easy to distance yourself from the protagonist’s eyes without distancing yourself from the story.

Take, for instance, Haine and the Shizumasa twins in Shinshi Doumei Cross. Haine’s story is appealing from a first-person perspective, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but what about when she pines for the Shizumasa of her memories? What about the Christmas Eve date, the dramatic panels of moody bishounen whose dark secrets remain locked away within their hearts? There are times when you can’t help but notice if you’re outside of the target audience, but it’s surprisingly easy to switch perspectives, and it rarely takes a conscious effort.

For example, Takanari might not be a relatable character, but I can see things through his eyes. The same goes for Haine’s pained dilemma over her wavering heart. The dialogue between them feels real, and the romance comes to life from a third-person perspective. Even if I can’t share the bittersweet daydream of having to choose between two handsome bishounen from an affluent family, I can sympathize with their love triangle. It’s not just sympathy, either; love’s bittersweet pain is visible in all of the characters, and it feels real. The only difference is that there’s no self-insert. Actually, the female-targeted clichés don’t bother me at all because I have no obligation, or desire, to look for anything in the story other than the story itself. The generic bishounen, the indecisive yet kindhearted heroine; I can take them at face value because I don’t need to pretend that the story is realistic. If anything, the archetypes are less jarring than they would be in a typical visual novel because I’m less sensitive to them.

It’s also interesting that some character archetypes work in reverse. I’ve come to enjoy oranyan (male tsundere) characters like Takuto from Full Moon o Sagashite and Kyo from Fruits Basket more than I expected. Presumably, both of these characters are appealing to the female audience for the same reason that tsundere characters are appealing to the male audience, but what makes this stereotypical embarrassment work both ways? Oranyan characters are actually relatable in a strange way. Sometimes Takuto would blush at a panel that I would have blushed at; sometimes Kyo’s stubborn resistance to Tohru’s feelings make him seem more real rather than artificial and targeted. Again, since the characters have no obligation to act as hasubando material or otherwise idealistic boys, the clichés help more than they hurt. Even to me, stubborn embarrassment and male pride induce kyaa‘s, not facepalms.

It also helps that, in some cases, the female protagonists are quite attractive on their own. This mostly applies to Tanemura’s work, and that’s mostly because I love her art, but it can be applied to anything. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve noted to myself that Haine and Mitsuki are incredibly cute. Better yet, the allure of shoujo protagonists is different from the male-targeted bishoujo style – it feels more innocent and less artificial because it’s, for the most part, unintentional. Instead of self-inserting into the story, girls like Haine simply make me want to see a suitable bishounen take her away in the most dramatic, heart-pounding fashion possible.

And they claim this stuff is made for girls?

This theory came to mind a few months ago while reading Shinshi Doumei Cross, but the central point of it is something that I realized years ago during Fruits Basket – the internal narration of the protagonist is what makes the stories as real as they feel.

Despite the difference in gender, the dilemmas of most shoujo protagonists are often relatable. Love is gender-neutral, after all – the basic emotion is always the same. In fact, the concept of a 15 year old girl pining for her distant love is not all too different from the “pure love” ideal reflected in many bishoujo games. Yuuichi doesn’t reveal much of his personal feelings in Kanon, but the ideal is there. Story-centric bishoujo games rarely talk about dating or sex, even when the game revolves around the girls rather than an overarching plot – the entire relationship revolves around a pure, almost childlike ideal of romance. For those who played Key’s visual novels, the ero-scenes are incidental, and there’s noticeably little description of, shall we say, the “important” parts. If the scenes feel pivotal, it’s because they act as a consummation, which is technically what they should be to begin with.

What I mean to say is that the fantasy-fulfilling ideal of love and romance is present in both shoujo and bishoujo, so it’s only natural that they both strike the same chord in the hearts of fans. Amusingly, shoujo often does a better job of involving the viewer in the story because female protagonists targeted at a female audience naturally lend themselves to cheesy lines and melodramatic narration. This style of writing and storytelling fails miserably on those who aren’t spellbound, but for those who are, it’s the icing on the cake. Shoujo has a way of reaching the heart and spilling its contents all over the pages. That’s why I love it as a genre, and that’s why a 14 year old girl can be a more effective protagonist than the most relatable harem lead, even for a male viewer.

Idealistic teenage romance in fiction, what would I do without you?

As I said in the beginning, the main question for male shoujo fans is this: putting the plot aside, how can you relate to a female-targeted love story from a personal perspective? I admit that the synchronization with the protagonist is not always flawless, but there are some interesting switches in perspective that occur unintentionally. Male characters never act as the objects of affection that they’re meant to be, but they can be anything from a respectable peer to an idealized version of the self. Female characters are neither self-inserts nor waifu-material; they’re like the shounen protagonist, the young, idealistic kid who we sympathize with and root for because we see ourselves in them.

Of course, you could say that a good story would be appealing regardless of gender, but I’m talking about something slightly deeper than that. Romance fiction is all about reaching the heart – it’s something that has to affect you emotionally, not intellectually. In my currently limited ventures through the heartwarming world of shoujo manga, I’ve learned that I can find idealism and fantasy-fulfillment in a world of handsome bishounen with stubborn hearts – and above all, I’ve come to realize that shoujo and bishoujo aren’t as different as they look.


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Aorii May 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm

Drama won’t always be well written though, most average shoujo is actually pretty lacking in that regard; nor will characters always be well-rounded instead of easy insertables. But then, that comes with the moe genre just as much…

Nevertheless, sounds like you’re well set to enjoy any of the great shoujo stories out there~ now try reading something like Vampire Knight with its far more gender-unbalanced sparkling bishie cast xD


omo May 24, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I think it’s probably misleading to say that bishoujo and shoujo are similar, in that it is probably safer to say that shounen/seinen rom-coms are similar to romantic shoujo stories, on the virtue of sharing quality in moving romance and sophisticated characterizations. The narrative styles and communication styles are different to appeal to gendered stereotypes, but that’s where their differences end for the most part.

It is very hard to say what exactly is “bishoujo” categorically. It is very different kind of thing when I think of, say, Tokimeki Memorial versus Shuffle. Well, I just don’t understand what is “bishoujo” in terms of story. Isn’t that just a general term about pretty 2D girls? :p

I wonder what your take is on Kaichou wa Maid-sama.


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 9:18 am

That’s a more accurate explanation of my point, yeah. Bishoujo can vary a lot in terms of story, but then again, so can shoujo. I don’t think there’s any specific subgenre to refer to the kind of stories I’m talking about; it’s just a general trend in some male-targeted romance anime/games to tell the same kinds of stories as the equivalent in shoujo. Categorically, I’m using bishoujo to refer to shows that rely on that style, or at least emphasize it, rather than shows with isolated bishoujo characters.

I haven’t seen Maid-sama, but it does sound interesting. Perhaps it will lead to another post!


Ryan A May 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Oranyan characters are actually relatable in a strange way.

That’s because most males are tsundere by nature, e.g. asking for directions, etc. :)

I find there are a two focuses when with comes to males and the shoujo demographic, one is the fluffy romance (pretty love) , and I think that’s what I’m drawing from this entry. The other is precisely the “waifu” potential of the heroine; she may not be ideal, but for me, I must know what attracts the male characters to her, as well as how she responds to their acts…. it’s fascinating, females are fascinating, and fiction need not be deep to perk my inquisition.


Daisy August 14, 2014 at 6:44 pm

It’s great to read something that’s both enjoyable and provides prsmagtiadc solutions.


bluemist May 25, 2010 at 1:02 am

I never really lived up to that old tagline, I blogged mostly bishoujo material. I would have wanted to talk about shoujo the way you did. Very good read.

Completely agree with your point about internal narration – it’s probably the main reason why I love the shoujo genre. It lets you emphatize with the character in a deeper level. For some reason I can’t explain fully, maybe it’s because of the male viewpoint, this kind of aspect is sorely lacking in what you may categorize as bishoujo (which I categorize as mostly galgame adaptations and some harem).

If you’re so used to like stories that seem skin-deep like those in the bishoujo genre, you might see shoujo as more thought-provoking, and therefore heartfelt. On the flipside…
Kaichou wa Maid-sama (and Special A) is an interesting example of a shounen romantic comedy in a shoujo veil. No I’m not talking about maids and moe, I mean it’s chapters full of episodic “nothing happens” filler similar to what long-running harem stuff like Ichigo 100% and Love Hina was. Characterizations tend to be shallow, and even if it has internal monologue by Misa-chan, I don’t tend to like her much.


omo May 25, 2010 at 6:35 am

Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But I’m curious as to his opinion :p

On the topic of internal monologues, it’s one of the biggest barrier to entry for me for shoujo titles. Because it is very difficult to write good monologues. To the extent it is a genre format, too few titles do it right (…if any).


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 9:23 am

Hmm, I’m not sure about the whole “thought-provoking” thing. Even “heartfelt” might be an exaggeration. I mean, given the choice, I’d still take Kanon over Full Moon. I’ve just found that shoujo gets its feelings across in a different way, which can be more effective in some regards. The narrative style is probably a big factor: shoujo helps me relate to the protagonist, whereas a lot of the drama in visual novels comes from the characters that surround the protagonist.

Generally, both genres can be shallow if they’re done poorly. :P


LostGamer May 25, 2010 at 2:16 am

Shoujo has become one of my favorite genre since I started watching anime on a regular basis. I could never really put my finger on what made me enjoy it so much other than I always thought they had a deeper story than many of the shounen shows I’ve watched. I’ve gained a bit more understanding after reading your post. Thanks for the insight!


Shirley August 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm

That hits the target dead cernet! Great answer!


kluxorious May 25, 2010 at 9:25 am

I can’t stand shoujo. They just pissed me off somehow.

But I do enjoy certain shoujo because they were funny, and does not rely on cliche so much. Not to mention the characters themselves are unique and kinda unpredictable. I facepalmed when you mentioned Fruit Basket because Sir, that manga/anime makes me so damn angry.

Have you tried Lovely Complex? or Honey and Clover? Now that was fun!


Heinsia May 25, 2010 at 12:23 pm

but Honey & Clover is josei , Yazawa Ai’s manga is a good recommendation imo

@memories : nice post except for the fact that all of the titles you mentioned is just a small part of the shoujo genre and I hate them. Must say they really do seem like the type you’d love based on your image though.


kluxorious May 30, 2010 at 11:02 am

were you referring to me in your second para?


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 9:33 am

Well, you’re right that I like stories like this :P

There are a ton of other shoujo stories to talk about; even “shoujo” as a genre is somewhat vague. I should have probably been more specific about this, but as you can see, the post is based around a specific style in shoujo rather than the genre as a whole. I just don’t think there’s a word for this subgenre because it isn’t really a subgenre.


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 9:30 am

The Lovely Complex anime was pretty good but it didn’t make much of an impact on me. Honey and Clover is actually my favourite anime ever, but I liked it for pretty much the same reasons that I talked about in this post. The cliches are actually part of why I like the genre, just like with generic but well-written eroge plots. I can certainly see why these stories wouldn’t appeal to you if you need original and unique characters.


Chikorita157 May 25, 2010 at 2:12 pm

There are stuff that are similar to shoujo and bishoujo, yet so much differences. I haven’t watched much shoujo, but the main differences is that the girl is the main lead with a harem of men. I tried out Fruit Basket about a year ago and it bored the heck out of me since it felt so cliched and the lead character looked like a Mary Sue. I’m watching Kaichou wa Maid-sama this season and while it has the usual cliches in shoujo anime, it’s quite interesting.

Still, I find less cliche storm in bishoujo, although I don’t mind what demographic it came from, as long it’s not the typical hot blooded shouen anime.


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 9:36 am

When I first read Fruits Basket, I couldn’t stop thinking of it as “reverse Key”. I don’t have enough to say about that to turn it into a post, but basically, it was actually kind of fun to delve into the hearts of those generic bishounen, kinda like a girl crying at the end of every route in Kanon.


choux May 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm

I’ve always thought that they were alike, but you are the only other person that I’ve ever known to mention it. On the reverse side of things, I have to say that certain shoujo mangas (such as good morning call) bore me the exact same way that some bishoujo games bore me. You can’t avoid boring plots where nothing happens and characters that annoy you no matter what medium you’re looking at.
This post really reminded me of those nostalgic days, eagerly awaiting the next chapter of Shinshi doumei cross and Fruits basket… For some reason I get the feeling that only stories I really like end, with stuff that annoy me more than they entertain me (parfait tic, vampire knight, etc etc etc) continuing on into infinity.
Fan service in shoujo manga is definitely intentional though, and I don’t just mean the smutty titles. For instance, in a Shinshi doumei cross illustration , Arina Tanemura had a little note on how Haine had sexy thighs (don’t quote me on this, I’m paraphrasing).
Oranyan characters are definitely the best (this is kindling my inner fangirl again, kyaaaaaaa~). Well, the “too pure pure boys” are interesting too, but no one needed to know that, did they? *cough cough
Anyway, the main purpose of this comment is for that first image. It looks like it’s from full moon, but I don’t remember that scene, even though I just re-read it, like, last month or something (I can’t believe I just typed in like, I never type like). Where’s it from?
P.S.: I feel SO lucky to be drawing for another person who loves Arina Tanemura and Jun Maeda.


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Good to know that the fanservice is intentional; there’s something disorienting about being attracted to a girl from a shoujo manga, even if it’s technically normal :P

Anyway, the picture is from Full Moon, although I can’t remember which chapter specifically. I think it was during the first half. The thing is, I read the series from the tankoubon so I couldn’t take screencaps while reading. I ended up skimming chapters online until I found something that looked appropriate for the post.


Krozam May 28, 2010 at 8:37 pm

The thing that bothers me in most shoujo is the… narrowness… of the world, the strong focus on the main characters. The authors tend to get lazy about the settings and side characters. I’ve found that I can usually enjoy only shoujo which present more multi-dimensional characters than the central 2-4 ones. Certainly, it is also a problem that as a male I can’t really get “in character” with a female protagonist, nor a “perfect” bishounen, but I still find myself touched by the beautiful scenes in Maid-sama and some other skilfully written shoujo manga. Neither am I terribly bothered by most clichés. My real problem with shoujo is that very few of them are able to immerse me into their worlds, unlike many even mediocre shounen can.

There’s one easy way to avert the problem: make the story short. In my experience, shoujo is at its best in one-shots or single-volume stories. In a short story there’s no need to tell much about the world or side-characters, concentration on the main characters and their feelings only makes the story better. Seriously, I’ve read some very touching shoujo one-shots.


ETERNAL May 31, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I think most shoujo just don’t need to emphasize the side stories. Unlike, say, a fantasy or sci-fi series, the setting is fairly plain and the main emphasis is on the characters. I know you’re not just talking about the literal setting, but even so, I think the genre works by focusing on a specific group of characters. Of course, that means that if a story is boring, it won’t be saved by its setting or entertaining side characters.


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