Josei Manga in the US

Between the Sheets cover

(This article was originally published in PiQ #3, June 2008.)

Josei manga, or in Japanese, “ladies’ comics”, are titles aimed at women between 18-30 years of age. They usually deal with the same romantic subjects as girl-targeted shojo, but with more realism and mature content, including sex scenes. In addition to questions about finding Mr. Right (or Mr. Right Now), the female leads may deal with workplace issues, including harassment or finding the right job. Visually, the books tend to be less detailed, with elements given more room on the page, and less sparkly than shojo. Their loose, flowing lines suggest fashion illustration as an influence.

In the US, josei titles have struggled. That’s unsurprising, given the typical audience for comics and graphic novels; older women are the last untapped market. Today, several of the most successful josei titles are sold as shojo, with age ratings or “mature content” warnings the only suggestion that they’re aiming for an older audience.

There’s also the question of labeling. In Japan, titles are categorized based on the target audience of the magazine that they originally appeared in. In the US, that method of classification is obscure at best. Arguments may also arise over whether something is josei or just mature shojo. The age of the protagonist, the challenges she faces, and the type of content all factor into this decision. That said, here are some of the high points of the genre in the US.

Between the Sheets cover

Tokyopop has the deepest selection of josei titles. They began in 2003 with both Happy Mania, an 11-volume sex comedy about a Tokyo twenty-something craving a boyfriend, and a series of six books by Erica Sakurazawa. The latter were stand-alone stories branded, unusually, under the author’s name. Unfortunately, readers were destined to be disappointed, as the last book of the set ended with “to be continued”, a promise yet to be fulfilled.

In 2004 came Tramps Like Us (in Japan, Kimi wa Petto), one of the best of the genre so far. It’s the story of a working woman who is criticized for being too smart, too tall, and too successful. After an accidental meaning, she adopts a younger man as her housepet and a source of support. During their comedic interactions and attempts to hide their living situation, the two find the strength to follow love and defy societal expectations imposed on them. The last of the 14 volumes was published earlier this year.

In March 2005, Tokyopop announced “Manga After Hours”, a marketing effort that would promote those three series as summer reading for women who were “a little bit older, intelligent, independent, and discerning.” The promotion never happened, which is unfortunate, because chick lit buyers would be an excellent audience for these titles. Instead, two volumes of low-key erotic stories were released under the umbrella title Passion Fruit, which was cancelled for low sales before more volumes arrived.

Tokyopop continues to aim for the older audience, though, with new series Suppli, another working woman story, starting last year. If they can find success, they have the potential both to reach a new audience and to continue providing current readers with material of interest as they grow up.

All other US manga publishers have at least one title that can be considered josei, although none are labeled as such. For Del Rey, it’s Nodame Cantabile, about music students falling in love as they pursue their careers. Digital Manga put out Antique Bakery, which is sometimes mistaken for yaoi due to its gay characters. New publisher Yen Press released With the Light, about raising an autistic child.

Viz has published two of the most popular titles in this genre, both award-winning, but they’re marked as shojo, to fit better in established purchasing and marketing patterns. Nana was first serialized in Shojo Beat magazine in 2005, only to be rotated out once themes became noticeably mature (including an unexpected pregnancy for one of its title characters). It’s still available in book form. Honey and Clover, collected beginning in March 2008, is unusual in that its protagonists are male, art school students who find themselves in a number of love triangles.

Voices of Love cover

Which brings us to new publisher Aurora, bent on bucking this trend for josei in the US. They’re not shy about who they’re targeting. Their announcement of their arrival at the end of 2007 stated that they were “dedicated to publishing manga of the highest artistic quality with the highest entertainment value for females of all ages. … It is Aurora’s mission to introduce the highest quality Japanese manga titles to the wider population of North America, and develop the manga market here for a more mature audience.” Since they’re the American subsidiary of Ohzora, a preeminent Japanese josei publisher, they have the background to do it.

Walkin’ Butterfly was their first josei book, released in August 2007 as one of their launch titles. (They also publish shojo.) A young woman blames being tall for her lack of purpose and love, until she stumbles into a fashion show and decides to become a model. First, she has to learn to be comfortable in her own skin, a challenge symbolized by the artist drawing the character as a full-body nude. As a personality, she’s prickly, even unlikable, which makes for a challenging yet rewarding read that most women can relate to, given mood swings and body image issues. The remaining three volumes in the series will come out during 2008.

Even more interesting is an Aurora imprint named Luv Luv, which releases even more explicit material, or as they put it, “hot and sexy… passionate manga”. Voices of Love, a stand-alone collection of short stories, initiated the line in January. Whether finding out that the noisy neighbor next door is her student or running into an old classmate, the women in these tales encounter fantasy-worthy men and have sex with them. Several of them are rescued by men who then declare their love. They’re Harlequin-style romances, in other words, and the single volumes provide quick enjoyment without ongoing commitment. Luv Luv promises a new book every two months, with titles that include Real Love, Love for Dessert, and Pretty Poison. All promise to explore relationships and, no doubt, provide happy endings.

Prior to the launch of Aurora, no one was willing to go public about their commitment to this audience and follow through whole-heartedly on their intentions. One noted industry observer has commented that a josei boom is unlikely to happen until “a good anime geared toward adult women shows up on afternoon/evening television and pushes readers toward an equally good manga series.” Others speculate that it’s only a matter of time, as teenage manga readers hit college age and try new titles that better reflect more grown-up concerns. Aurora’s launch brings hope for more josei titles to reach the US and satisfy the adult female audience, the leading group of book buyers.

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