Manga Before Flowers - Top Five Shojo Manga

Now that I have my own column (thanks go the good folks here at Comics Should Be Good) I've discovered list-making is so addictive - the following are my top five shojo (i.e. for girls! girly! girl-a-licous even! Have I scared the guys off yet?) manga currently being published in English. Actually, this list is probably close to my top five shojo manga of all time, which just goes to show how much good shojo is being published in the states.

Shojo, by the way, is not another name for "romance" -- the titles below emphasize *people* and how they interact with each other and what they *feel* -- about each other, themselves, the word they live in. Which means, yes, sometimes these titles are about sex and love and all those things...but first and foremost, these stories are about *us*.

Also, please note I'm still figuring out how to deal with images on this site --- so forgive me, if they appear a little "off" on this post. Maybe one day I'll get it right....

Now let's get to it....

1. Setona Mizushiro, After School Nightmare.

This series is pure shojo-crack - it tops my list for many reasons, but primarily because it completely turns the shojo tropes of gender-bending, love triangles, the high school setting, princess-y heroines upside down. Unlike every other title on this list, Mizushiro offers a fairly tight, yet emotion-driven narrative that doesn - ™t span 20 volumes or more. In other words, she isn't out to draw out a successful title because she can.

Basic plot: our protagonist, raised as a boy, discovers as a teenager that he (or she) isn't fully male or female when he has his first (& very unexpected) period. Chosen as a special student who takes an after school class, Mashiro struggles to resolve his gender issues in a special dream world in which he and his fellow classmates vie for the right to - œgraduate. -  Conflicted because he desires to be a man yet finds himself enacting certain "feminine" behaviors (such as falling in love with a man), the mangaka beautifully illustrates his desires, dreams and nightmares. The title is both horror and romance, but mainly it demonstrates how extraordinary the shojo genre can be and how much strangeness it can easily encompass.

The art is also extraordinarily well done, the mangaka is clearly at the top of her game here -- the pages are often beautiful even when emphasizing the horror-filled nightmare state of the students.

2 a. Ai Yazawa, NANA.

Technically, NANA is probably josei, not shojo (meaning aimed at young women, not teenage girls or young girls). But as the best soap opera currently being published in English, it would be downright criminal to leave it off this list.

NANA sounds really ridiculous when described by Viz: "Nana 'Hachi' Komatsu hopes that moving to Tokyo will help her make a clean start and leave her capricious love life behind her. Nana Osaki, who arrives in the city at the same time, has plans to score big in the world of rock'n'roll. Although these two young women come from different backgrounds, they quickly become best friends in a whirlwind world of sex, music, fashion, gossip and all-night parties!" It's the "all-night parties" part that actually makes me want to smack someone, to be honest, since the whole thing sounds to damn shallow and is actually any thing but.

In reality, NANA is about the bonds, joys and pain of friendship, more than it is really about "romance" since the greatest romance in the story is really between the two Nanas than between either Nana and their boyfriend(s). NANA starts small, and moves outward from a chance meeting between two people with the same first name and the same age. Author Ai Yazawa draws us into her web and we are completely unsuspecting when she yanks the rug from under us and gives us an entirely new comic that somehow is still NANA. Don't ask me how she does it, but in reality you can't say you fully understand the story Yazawa intends to tell until you've read at least 8 volumes (I kid you not.)

There is something wonderful about Yazawa's mature art style -- it is very shojo but never looks like anything else you've seen. Pick up the first volume and enjoy two independent stories about two girls named Nana and try to imagine how in the world Yazawa can build a comic through the interaction of these two characters. Then pick up the second volume and third volume watch her pull the whole thing off in style...then stick around 'cause damn if it doesn't heat up in the fourth, fifth and sixth volumes and if you're still around wait for the the top of your head to explode with volume eight. Hands down, NANA is still the best damn ride in comics out there.

2. b. Natsuki Takaya, Fruits Basket.

The thing about Fruits Basket is that the first few volumes completely fail to convey the heart-rending brilliance of the later volumes. While the series looks as syrupy as all get out, it actually delves into dark waters with its portrayal of child abuse and neglect, depression, suicide - do I really need to expand? Well, if you judge the series by the first volume cover, probably.

I'm afraid I must warn you Fruits Basket has a plucky orphan heroine (see the volume one cover girl, our very own little Tohru Honda) and she is everything you think a plucky orphan heroine would be and more (she cooks, she cleans, she self-sacrifices like you wouldn't believe!). By accident she discovers a neighboring family's deep dark secret -- that they are cursed to change into an animal of the Chinese zodiac when hugged by a member of the opposite sex. At first it sounds so cutesy you might need insulin to recover from the premise alone -- I mean, people turning into animals when hugged? -- but there is a reason Takaya calls this secret "a curse" and certain members of the family shoulder harsher burdens than others due to this curse. (Imagine for instance giving birth a child and discovering the first time you hold them they aren't completely human...then imagine what this knowledge would do to you as a parent and your child as they grow up....and imagine how many different ways this can screw up a family and a child. Takaya seems to cover all them).

While some readers never really warm to Tohru Honda and instead prefer other characters in the series, she remains the heart and soul of the title and it is with her that this family can find salvation (of many different kinds). Takaya's art improves by whole universes by the time the title finishes and I have a real affection for her stark compositions which brilliantly convey her characters' emotional states. The title ends up being many things over the course of its 23 volumes (19 of which are available in the states) including comedy, tragedy, romance, slice of life, and even horror.

In the end, NANA and Fruits Basket share the second spot on this list because they dare to be epic without resorting to traditional plot-lines. They are surprising and often moving and, of course, they are never perfect. But they are always approaching greatness and they often reach it. In the end, I could no more choose between the two than I could choose between keeping either my left or right arm.

3. Yoshiki Nakamura, Skip Beat.

Skip Beat is sheer shojo genius -- it takes the usual cliche of the sweet, self-sacrificing girlfriend and pretty much implodes it, and does it in the first chapter. Seriously, if you pick up first volume and don't stick around long enough watch the heroine unleash her demons (i.e. meaning, they literally come out and attack you if you've angered her, that's how strong they are) than you haven't seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be done...ur wait. What was I saying?

Our heroine is Kyoko Mogami, and when we start this showbiz tale she's working two menial jobs to support her asshole prince, Sho, so he can focus on making it in the music biz. Now that he has made it, he has no use for Kyoko, who he treats like an indentured servant/maid. Once Kyoko learns about his true nature, she basically unhinges and vows revenge. How will she get revenge? By becoming a bigger star than he is, of course!

Kyoko's rise to "fame" is very, very slow -- she isn't an overnight sensation, and a lot of the first 10 volumes deal with not only her "healing" from her outright rejection of loving or the need to be loved, but also situates Kyoko as a kind of show-biz therapist, as she continually bests problem children in the industry and works to "rehabilitate" them as functioning human beings (just as she herself is actually rehabilitated by her experiences with them).

Skip Beat is first and foremost a comedy, with a bit of romance thrown in (trust me, if we ever see the main couple kiss, it'll be a miracle). Mainly the title is just so damn fun and really deserves more attention than it currently gets in the English language manga fandom.

4. Kyoko Ariyoshi, Swan.

I'm a little ambivalent about placing Swan last on this list -- as far as I'm concerned, it is by far the most significant shojo title currently being published in English. Originally published in Japan in the 1970's, it is one of those titles that expands not only shojo's subject matter (was it Erin F. of Manga Recon fame who said Swan is so girly it actually goes full circle and becomes manly?) but whose art is innovatively brilliant, as Ariyoshi manages to convey movement and emotion by completely deconstructing very notion of a comic book "panel." After reading Swan, you'll believe dance can be rendered to great effect through the medium of comics, certainly no small feat.

The story follows a young girl named Masumi, who dreams of becoming a great ballet dancer but has no access to resources that would allow her to seriously train to accomplish such a goal. Masumi, though, is graced by one of those unbelievable secret shojo connections to a great Russian dancer, visiting Japan in order to help them join the rarefied ranks of European and Russian dancers, who gives her a chance to prove herself and join an established Japanese ballet school in Tokyo. As a dancer, Masumi is flawed but talented and the narrative follows her as she competes and trains, which sounds dull but the ballet matches are so damn intense, I often feel like I'm holding my breath the entire time I read through a volume of this title.

This title probably needs more love than anything else on this list -- and is probably the title that is least likely to be picked up due to its subject matter and its age. All I can say is if you care even a little bit about art, Swan will surprise and startle you with its innovative, yet surprisingly natural, art. And isn't that what all great comics should do?

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