Not Just Roses and Sparkles: Unpacking assumptions about shoujo through Hagio Moto’s work

By: Mehitabel Glenhaber June 14, 20240 Comments

Content warning: mentions of sexual assault and childhood sexual assault in the material of some comics discussed

Minor spoilers for The Poe Clan, Marginal, A Cruel God Reigns, and The Heart of Thomas

Like a lot of people, before I ever read a shoujo manga, I used to think of shoujo as “romance comics.” For me, the word would evoke a mental image of an unserious, weepy soap opera about girls with curly hair and very shiny eyes, with a lot of sparkles and stylized roses around the panel borders. In other words, not for me—a butch, working through a lot of internalized misogyny about not liking “fluffy romance stories for girls.” I assumed that all shoujo manga was melodramatic and over the top, and that I, a “serious comics reader,” wouldn’t enjoy it very much. 

Several years ago, though, I stumbled into reading some of the work of the Year 24 group—a group of female artists who were incredibly influential on the evolution of shoujo manga in the 1970s—and fell in love, not just with their series but with shoujo manga itself. I discovered that shoujo was so much more than I had first assumed: not a genre, but a demographic category (manga aimed primarily at a young, female audience) and a style—and a set of tools and conventions for telling stories. Shoujo manga is all about focusing on melodramatic emotion, and using expressionistic linework to depict a character’s internal emotions as images on the page, and what I thought of as just that “sparkles and roses” style was used even from the demographic’s earliest days to tell stories to all kinds of emotional effects. Manga artist Hagio Moto’s work in particular opened my eyes to how versatile the iconic shoujo style can be as a storytelling tool—not just for romance, but for horror, mystery, and mind-expanding science fiction. Her classic work is emblematic of the exciting range of stories under the shoujo umbrella, and how the visual and narrative hallmarks of shoujo itself can be applied to great effect in many different genres. And if you’re like me, and think you won’t like shoujo manga because you’re not a “romance person,” I think checking out her work might be worth a try.

Juli kissing a crying Oskar's cheek against a background of trees and the school

While a lot of early, classic shoujo manga featured romance stories, even the earliest shoujo manga spanned a variety of genres including sci-fi (Takemiya Keiko’s Andromeda Stories (1980-1982) and Toward The Terra (1977-1980), Hagio Moto’s They Were Eleven (1975)); heist and spy capers (Aioke Yasuko’s From Eroica With Love (1976-1986)), historical fiction (Ikeda Riyoko’s The Rose of Versailles (1972-1973) and The Window of Orpheus (1975-1981)), and regency fantasy (Tezuka Osamu’s Princess Knight (1953-1956)). What really connects these works even more than the presence of romance in their plots is a set of stylistic conventions. Shoujo manga often uses flowing inked lines, and a combination of sumptuous detail and abstract representations of a character’s internal emotional state.

Shoujo comics focus on character’s expressive faces and large eyes with extreme closeups to really allow the reader to dwell on the emotion a character is experiencing in a moment. They often use irregularly shaped panels, highly varied page layouts, and “floating” text not tethered to any particular panel to give the reader more of an abstract sense of a character’s emotional experience than a literal depiction of events happening to them in linear time. Some of the details that people often think of as stylistic hallmarks of shoujo manga, like large shiny eyes, copious sparkles, and panel borders bursting with roses and lilies, are common specific instances of the general innovations which I find really exciting about the shoujo style: using abstract linework and non-literal images expressionistically to convey what is going on inside a character’s head.

This sort of highly internalistic storytelling can be great for showing characters pining or in love by letting the reader see the feelings they bottle up and don’t express, as actual lines on the page. But these tools which show a character’s internal mood aren’t just good for romance. They’re useful in any genre which focuses on a character’s emotions, including, and maybe especially, genres like mystery, horror, and thriller. As feminist film scholar Linda Williams points out in her 1991 essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” romance, horror, and melodrama are really just three aspects of the same being—they’re all genres which are all about pushing their characters to heightened emotional states  and then viscerally showing the reader what it’s like to exist as that character in that moment.

promo image of Edgar and Allen

It’s not an accident that many early shoujo romance manga stories also feature dark horror or psychodrama elements like murder, abuse, suicide, ghosts and vampires, taboo or forbidden feelings, and betrayal—all taking advantage of shoujo’s storytelling techniques to show us characters having the most intense emotional experience possible. Along with soap operas and pornography, Williams calls romance and horror the “body genres”  because they are genres which focus on conveying to the reader or viewer the emotions a character is feeling in their body. Williams points out that unlike the “Hollywood Style” of “efficient action-centered, goal-oriented linear narratives driven by a single protagonist, involving one or two lines of action leading to definitive closure,” romance and horror stories are often told as series of “unmotivated events, rhythmic montage, highlighted parallelism” to focus more on giving the reader a feeling than conveying the specifics of a plot. And this is often exactly what shoujo manga is doing, with its focus on character’s expressions and internal emotions, over a literal, more external flow of events.

If you want to explore just how versatile the shoujo style can be as a tool for storytelling across the body genres, there’s no better place to look than Hagio Moto’s work. Her body of work across more than 50 years includes sci-fi social commentary (Marginal (1985-1987)), Gothic-horror romances (The Poe Clan (1972-76)), psychological dramas (A Cruel God Reigns (1992-2001) and The Heart of Thomas (1974)), political allegory about nuclear power (Nanohana (2011-2012)), literary autobiographical short stories (Iguana Girl (1992)) and even an Inception-like surreal thriller about a homicide detective who can enter people’s dreams (Otherworld Barbara (2002-2005)). Almost all of Hagio Moto’s comics have a romance element—but even her most straightforwardly “romance genre” comics are anchored at least partly in horror or thriller conventions. And as much as Hagio’s linework is effective at displaying characters pining, yearning, and experiencing romantic euphoria, it is equally effective at helping readers feel characters’ anxiety, dread, terror, despair, and crushing remorse.

Take, for instance, this set of panels from A Cruel God Reigns. Serialized from 1992 to 2001, A Cruel God Reigns is a psychodrama about a 15 year old boy, Jeremy, who murders his mother and sexually abusive stepfather in an attempt to escape from the abusive situation. The comic follows the series of events which lead Jeremy to this breaking point, and his psychological breakdown as he attempts to cover up the murder. While A Cruel God Reigns does not contain any explicitly supernatural elements, the style of the story is one of Gothic horror comparable to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca—a story about murder, madness, and doubting one’s sanity, all against the backdrop of a luxurious British estate house.

Jeremy hallucinating a body falling out of the wall and dissolving into a skeleton

This panel, depicting a moment of total psychological breakdown for Jeremy, is in some ways a very typical shoujo manga panel: a close up showing us the emotion on Jeremy’s face, especially focused on his large expressive eyes. Hagio uses every line in the image in service of conveying this emotion, varying the color of Jeremy’s hair from panel to panel to create the most striking color contrast, and using extreme contrast of black and white. Abstract lines give us a visual representation of Jeremy’s internal emotional state. But rather than exuberant flowing linework conveying a moment of romantic ecstasy or a crush, these cramped, twitchy lines almost evoke shivers, against a dark black void of despair. Rather than sparkles or glinting light, Jeremy’s visage is surrounded by stylized drops of sweat to viscerally give the reader a feeling of how he is reacting as his blood runs cold in response to this vision. Like much shoujo manga, Jeremy’s face is drawn with an expressive focus on his eyes, highly detailed with highlights to convey a particular subtle expression—but rather than shines and sparkles which convey a misty-eyed romantic look, Hagio’s anxious concentric lines circling his pupils give an impression of vertigo, eyes quivering and unfocusing in response to a horrible sight. The symbolic language of Hagio’s linework gives the reader a visceral sense of what it is like to exist inside Jeremy’s body as he experiences this emotion.

Hagio’s work also often uses the panel layout styles typical to shoujo to create unnerving effects as well as romantic ones. Consider this page from one of Hagio’s earliest romance series, The Poe Clan, a thriller about a messy and psycho-sexually-entangled family of vampires who must plot and carry out murders together to survive. The middle arc of the comic follows a romance between Edgar, a vampire, and Alan, a young man who Edgar falls in love with, and is forced to choose between his hunger to consume Alan and his desire to protect him. (The comic’s gothic horror influences are obvious, not just in the style, but in Hagio’s very overt homage of naming her main characters Edgar and Alan of the Poe Clan.)

Edgar watching Alan from the shadows

On this page, Edgar encounters Alan after a bad fall, and is tempted by the sight of his blood. In the top left panels of the page, the stark black backdrops give us a visual for Edgar’s internal emotional state. We see the blood on Alan’s hand from Edgar’s point of view. Edgar’s eye glints, conveying the intensity of his gaze, and an abstract shape in the background shows some kind of jagged feeling surging from Edgar’s chest—perhaps desire, or hunger. As he bends down to lick the blood from Alan’s hand and Alan comes to, the reader returns to Alan’s point of view, signified by the return to white backgrounded panels. 

The next few panels are portrayed in a more neutral, less stylized form, with lighter backgrounds, creating a sense of Alan’s obliviousness—marked with a stab of tension in the close-up panel on his bandaged hand, which might remind the reader that Edgar is still looking at it with dark intentions. Like other shoujo manga which use roses or other vegetation in the panel borders to create a romantic mood, Hagio uses the leaves framing each panel here as symbolic lines; but in this case, wavy unsettling ones, which maintain a lingering feeling of tension, even after we have moved back to Alan’s point of view. This interplay of internality is exactly what creates the tension in this scene, where the reader is both tensely aware of the darkness inside Edgar, and Alan’s innocence of the whole situation. It creates a depth of suspense that a less internally focused comics style couldn’t—using the exact same sort of tools which shoujo manga uses to let us in on one character’s unrequited crush on another, but, in this case, to horrific effect.

Like many shoujo manga artists, Hagio Moto is highly experimental and fluid in her panel layouts. Her comics alternate between more literal sequences, more rigidly constrained by the panel grid, and more fluid, non-literal sequences where panel borders dissolve to show a character’s emotional experience. Often, these sorts of panels are associated with moments of floaty, dreamy romance. But consider this page from Marginal, one of Hagio’s sci-fi psychological thrillers set in a Dune-like post-apocalyptic desert world populated only by men. Here, Hagio uses the same techniques which many shoujo comics use to depict romance to show characters in the throes of a mind-bending cosmic vision. In a romance comic, techniques like repeating images of a character’s face in different expressions, floating out of time against an abstract background, might convey a character’s all-encompassing, dreamy thought process of romantic obsession so overwhelming that it cannot be contained in a linear panel grid. But here, Hagio uses many of these same techniques more generally: to convey a character’s literal out-of-body experience, their identity confusion, and the scale of a feeling which cannot be contained within a human brain.

A figure dissolving against a background of space and planets

When people try to parody the shoujo style, they often tend to do this by slapping a bunch of roses and sparkles on their comics. Which is fair—as discussed above, there are quite a few roses in shoujo manga, especially in a few core classics like the aptly named Rose of Versailles. It’s easy to have a very simplistic, essentialist read on the symbolism of roses in shoujo manga —that they signal when a character is having a romantic moment. But looking at Hagio’s comics, it becomes clear that shoujo manga’s use of motifs like roses is actually one specific example of shoujo manga’s non-literal imagery and use of symbols as a graphic equivalent of a metaphor. Consider, for instance, how these two pages from The Poe Clan and The Heart of Thomas use rose motifs as a visual metaphor that has little to do with romance.

Edgar shivering and afraid from his craving for blood

On the page from The Poe Clan, Edgar, who has recently been transformed into a vampire, descends into despair after discovering that he now thirsts for human blood. Roses play a semi-literal role in this story: the vampires in the Poe Clan can feed on two foods, roses and blood, but roses do not sustain them in the same way blood does. Throughout The Poe Clan, roses and blood are often equated, and used as symbolic stand-ins for each other, a technique which Hagio sometimes uses to depict far more upsetting violence in this comic symbolically than censors may have allowed her to draw literally. (Roses, in fact, have a long history in the shoujo genre of being used as a symbolic stand-in for not just romance, but violence, a throughline you can trace from The Poe Clan to Revolutionary Girl Utena). On this page, the symbolic roses in this abstract panel are much more of a gothic horror motif than a romantic flourish. I read the figure of Edgar as somewhere between being trapped in it, and being born from it—perhaps symbolizing that he is feeling both trapped and reborn as a creature who must feed on human blood. The breakdown of panels and presence of more abstract symbols also back up Edgar’s claim of his descent into madness, as we see more literal representational reality breaking down around him.

Juli shocked at seeing upperclassman Seigfried

Compare this to the use of rose motifs in this page of The Heart of Thomas, a gothic psychodrama set at a boy’s boarding school. On this page, the main character, Julius, has unexpectedly encountered Sigfried—an older student who he was close with, but who bullied and physically abused him—who he has hoped he will never run into again. Again, Hagio uses the motif of roses not literally present in the scene to convey an emotion, but here the visual metaphor is different: a sudden blooming of shock and fear at the unexpected encounter, tinged with just a bit of soft feeling—perhaps nostalgia for what their relationship once was. The cramped, anxious linework of these roses is very different from in The Poe Clan page: the jagged lines of the rose petals and their leaves create a shape like action lines which help to focus the reader’s gaze on Julius’s startled expression, upping the emotional intensity. The way the roses encroach on Julius’s body, especially his arm, give a tight, claustrophobic feeling, potentially symbolizing that Julius feels trapped or cornered by this sudden encounter.

In both of these cases, Hagio is not unaware of the romantic connotations of flowers in shoujo manga—in fact, using roses, which might be seen as a symbol or romance, in these negative emotional moments, adds a very effective sick sense of mixed feelings, or of conflict between external appearances an internal experience to both of these scenes. But comparing these two pages also make it obvious how versatile Hagio’s use of metaphorical images in her comics is—even the flowers she uses in panel borders are complex symbols, which can convey all sorts of emotions.

Juli remembering Thomas, who's asking him if he'll never fall in love, or if he might return Thomas' feelings

In “Film Bodies,” Williams writes that both romance and horror are often looked down on as “trashy” genres, perhaps for the reason that stories which focus intensely on emotion are often seen as low-brow, indulgent, or “feminine.” She argues that perhaps critics like to judge these genres harshly because their ability to intensely affect our emotions unsettles them. Romance, horror, and melodrama have the power to do something amazing—to affect our bodies, and make us shiver, cry, scream, sigh, or even get turned on—just using two dimensional pictures and words on a page, and that power is something that can make people uncomfortable. Maybe this is also a reason that so many critics (and manga fans) would like to dismiss shoujo manga, and sideline it as just a “romance genre for girls.”

The way some audiences deal with this discomfort is to say that shoujo comics are weepy, that they are self-indulgent, or that they are “too much.” Yes, shoujo manga often is melodramatic and over the top! But this is the real power of the shoujo style: its ability to use all of the tools of comics storytelling to help the reader really get inside of a character’s head, and to drive the reader to the same heights of emotion that that character is experiencing, be it yearning, pining, creeping discomfort, or absolute terror. Hagio Moto’s work, which can never really be neatly characterized into one genre, but is always sumptuously and viscerally intense, is a great place to start if you want to explore the power of shoujo’s “body genres” and the raw emotionality of this artistic medium.

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