The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

The pseudo-feminist shojo lead

If there’s one gripe that fans have with shojo manga, it’s the pervasiveness of weak female leads. Most readers are turned off by female protagonists who are romance-obsessed, average in looks and intelligence, and who have a tendency to be clumsy or cry a lot. In recent years, many shojo romance manga have made attempts to correct the trend of boy-crazy, passive heroines by replacing them with more assertive, independent females who have largely been embraced by the fandom. Characters such as Ouran High School Host Club‘s Haruhi and Maid-sama‘s Misaki are appreciated because of their no-nonsense attitudes, intelligence, and most of all, the fact that they are not interested in romance whatsoever. Yet, I seem to feel differently about these characters than most fans do. While characters like Haruhi and Misaki, along with Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku are considered strong female leads, they are actually more bothersome to me than their boy-crazy counterparts. One of the most common traits about this type of character is that they are often emotionally detached. Thus, not only is this the reason they’ve never had romantic feelings, but it also results in these female characters ‘going with the flow’ of their surroundings because they don’t care either way. Thus, their indifference leads them to be ‘swept off their feet’ by the guy who pursues them, rendering them passive despite their supposed ‘strength.’

Of course, boy-crazy shojo leads often end up being swept off their feet too – but since they’re interested in love and getting a boyfriend, it’s more problematic in my opinion when it happens to a ‘pseudo-feminist’ shojo lead because it’s practically against her will. But there are other problematic aspects of this type of character that disturb me even more. While so many people find the typical no-nonsense, ‘strong’ female character to be a refreshing change, I actually find these characters to be boring. I’ve written before about my problems with Haruhi’s character – that her blasé attitude toward the people and events around her made me indifferent to her character, and thus I ended up more interested in the male characters in the series just as I would have if she were a more stereotypical plain shojo lead. And while I wouldn’t call Maid-sama‘s Misaki ‘boring,’ she still somewhat annoys me because of the way the series stuffs the fact that Misaki is perfect at everything down the audience’s throats, resulting in Misaki’s strength feeling forced. Her misandry also makes her come across as ‘bitchy,’ which is bothersome because of media’s tendency to turn strong women into bitches.

And then there’s Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun‘s Shizuku. Shizuku’s probably the most extreme example of the independent shojo lead – she is only focused on studying, has no close friends, and has a brutually honest tongue. Many fans like Shizuku because she voices her honest opinions about the people around her. But something about Shizuku feels extremely robotic to me. While many fans admire the fact that Shizuku places so much importance in her schoolwork, it’s troublesome to me that when female characters are smart they are often social outcasts, as though it’s impossible for smart women to make friends on their own. Even after Shizuku tells Haru she loves him, I feel little of her emotional investment in Haru or her relationship with him. When she says that Haru has changed her world, I’m left unconvinced because Haru hadn’t been in Shizuku’s life for very long, and he had done little but be a nuisance towards her. I almost felt like she only said this line because the author ‘programmed’ her to; rather than out of genuine character development. And while fans admire Shizuku for standing up to Haru (such as when Haru tells her not to see his brother anymore and she tells him no), her motivations for doing so are left unclear, making her character feel undeveloped and unrealistic in my opinion. Thus, Shizuku’s lack of personal investment in anything leaves me uninterested in becoming invested in her.

Yet there are other harsh shojo leads in the vein of Shizuku who feel genuine, and have grabbed my attention. The best example is Maria from A Devil and Her Love Song, a beautiful and intelligent transfer student who has a tendency to call people out on the kind façades they put on. While Maria says things that are truly cutting (the first thing she says to her new classmates is that she got kicked out of her previous school for beating up a teacher), she feels like a fully-dimensional character because there are tinges of sorrow to her. No matter how indifferent or cruel Maria may appear to be on the surface, it’s made clear that she wants to have friends and dislikes herself. It’s clear that she is trying to become a better person by learning to love even the people who scorn her, which has endeared her to me. More than focusing on romance, Maria’s personal struggles are what’s most important so far in A Devil and Her Love Song, which sets her apart from Shizuku. Rather than treating her bluntness as a sign of strength, Maria’s callousness is both her greatest blessing and curse, which allows her to feel more well-rounded. And while I know that there will be many fans who disagree with me for arguing that ‘no-nonsense’ characters like Haruhi and Shizuku are dull or passive, I think it’s important to question why a female character who is isn’t interested in romance or who is ‘aggressive’ should automatically be labeled strong.

The flow of time in shojo manga

The flow of time in shojo manga

After marrying Naoki, Kotoko struggles (but ultimately succeeds) in becoming a nurse.

There are many things shojo manga does extremely well. Crafting multi-layered characters, engrossing romances, and addictive melodrama are all staples of the best shojo on the market today. But one element that is often overlooked that stands out to me is the way shojo subtly handles the passage of time. While many shojo series seem to be stuck in the golden years of high school, several of my favorite manga take place over many years of the protagonists’ lives. This allows us to get an all-too rare glimpse at the adult phases of life – careers, marriage, and the start of a family. One of the very things I love most about Itazura na Kiss is how much time passed over the course of the series. At the start of Naoki and Kotoko’s rocky relationship, both charcaters are seniors in high school. They quickly enter college and are faced with important life decisions – especially Naoki, who despite his father’s expectations for him to take over his toy company, starts to dream of becoming a doctor. But I think watching Kotoko’s career path is even more fulfilling – because for so long in the series her attentions are only focused on Naoki. When Kotoko fails to graduate on time and considers dropping out of school, Naoki scolds her for shirking her responsibilities and never giving any serious consideration to her future, she ultimately decides to become a nurse because her dream is to help Naoki. Through the passage of time we can see the characters mature and not only overcome their foibles, but also learn how to accept responsibility.

Photos and Ann’s iconic hourglass shows the importance of the passage of time throughout the series.

One series in which the passage of time, especially the passing of the seasons, is especially important is Sand Chronicles. The series follows main character Ann from ages 12-26, and each chapter is given a title using the Ann’s age and what season it is (e.g.: Winter, Age 18: First Star). The seasons add to the mood and forbode important events, such as the death of Ann’s mother during the snowy winter or the end of Ann and Fuji’s relationship amidst the late fall trees. But the passage of time is most clearly represented through Ann’s hourglass, which was given to her by her mother at the beginning of the series. After her mother commits suicide, Ann breaks the hourglass, but it returns to her hands when Daigo buys her a new one because she shouldn’t ever let go of the things that are most important to her. On that day, Ann makes a wish: that she and Daigo will be together for the rest of their lives. But when Ann’s depression from her mother’s death begins to consume her, she breaks things off with Daigo and puts the hourglass away – a symbol for Ann being stuck in time. Their decision to live by the sand once Ann overcomes her depression and reconciles with Daigo is meaningful because it shows that time has started for her once more.

But series don’t need to take place over years and years to feel the passage of time. One series that makes use of a detailed account of time is Red River by Chie Shinohara. In Red River, 15-year-old Yuri Suzuki is sucked into 14th Century Anatolia. Shinohara intergrates real-life historical figures such as Kail Mursili, prince of the Hittites, and Egypt’s Nefertiti. Historically-accurate events such as the death of Zannanza (Kail’s brother and a prince of the Hittites, who became pharaoh of Egypt but was killed before he could take the throne) give me great respect for the series. But the series in which the flow of time feels the most authentic is without a doubt Nana. Cell phone conversations are given exact dates and times, enveloping the series within the real world.  Beginning at volume twelve, the series occassionally flash-forwards several years into the future, giving the audience clues of what will happen during the present. We Were There also uses this technique after it’s main couple goes their separate ways, and the audience is thrust five years into the future to figure out little by little what happened to each character. Thus, there are many interesting ways to use the passage of time within a series to make it feel unique. Overall, I think the main reason I have such a fondness for series which take place over a long portion of the cast’s lives is because it allows the audience to grow even more attached to the characters and their personal stories. Watching characters grow over a specified period of time makes them feel real, as though their stories are taking place somewhere else right as we speak.