Ask an average shoujo manga fan about their favorite series, and they’ll happily regale you with the plot’s fine details. But ask for the history of shoujo manga itself and they’ll probably have noticeable gaps in their knowledge.
Some might recall that Osamu Tezuka created Princess Knight in 1953 and assume that shoujo manga was just another creation of the so-called “God of Manga.” Others may presume that it began in the 1970s based on how discussion focuses on classic shoujo mangaka like Moto Hagio, Keiko Takemiya, Riyoko Ikeda, and the other artists lumped under the “Magnificent Forty-Niners” label.
While both of these are important milestones in shoujo manga history, these assumptions do a great disservice to the work done during the two decades between those points in history. The 1950s and 1960s were a time of incredible change, when a generation of young women emerged to forge many of the conventions and visual language we associate with shoujo manga. That makes it all the more tragic that this period has fallen into obscurity, as time and circumstances threaten to erase it.
Bringing the feminine touch to early shoujo manga
Before World War II, men called the shots even in shoujo magazines. At the time, the medium was less about entertainment and more about setting good moral examples for well-read young women.
The few comics featured were simple comedic pieces by readers or male artists hoping to transition into more adult periodicals. Katsuji Matsumoto was one of the few exceptions, as he distinguished himself during this time with a number of cute and clever gag series targeted at girls, as well as longer pieces like the swashbuckling adventure The Mysterious Clover.
Even after World War II, shoujo manga was a space for up-and-coming male mangaka to build an audience, much as Osamu Tezuka had done with Princess Knight in 1948. A number of future shounen manga heavyweights got their start in shoujo manga at this time, such as Shotaro Ishinomori, Leiji Matsumoto, and Tetsuya Chiba.
The look of shoujo manga was also dictated by male illustrators like Jun’ichi Nakahara and Macoto Takahashi, who drew from dolls and European fashion to create the stylish, starry-eyed girls that would come to define shoujo manga. The problem was that these men were creating stories based not so much on what young girls wanted to read but instead on gendered stereotypes and their notions of what stories would set a good example for their youthful audience.
It wasn’t a completely hopeless time for women in shoujo manga, though. For example, Toshiko Ueda began as an assistant for Katsuji Matsumoto in the 1930s but found success in the 1950s with Fuichin-san. This series was about the everyday adventures of a spunky Chinese girl, based on her own memories of growing up in Manchuria. Masako Watanabe made her name in the early 1950s with melodramatic stories full of missing mothers, separated twins, and dreamy pastel-colored luxury. Maki MIyako brought a contemporary style and elegant, doll-like charm to her own stories and those made with her future husband Leiji Matsumoto.
By drawing upon their own memories, tastes, and perspectives, these women and others like them helped create shoujo manga that better resonated with their audience. They would inspire those same readers to start drawing their own manga, with many making their professional debuts as high schoolers. This new generation would help turn shoujo manga into an art form that was truly made by girls, for girls.
Attack No. 1 and the rise of the shoujo sports story
By the 1960s, this new generation of artists were ready to make some major changes to the genre, starting with the style of stories told and the types of girls featured in them. Previously, shoujo manga largely consisted of sentimental melodramas starring elementary-aged girls. As manga scholar and translator Rachel Thorn described it:
Male cartoonists…seemed largely unable to imagine a heroine who was not under the age of 13 and almost entirely passive, and the most common storylines were tragedies that…involved mothers. Heroines were always being separated from their biological mothers, by death or other circumstances, and as often as not were abused or neglected by cruel, heartless stepmothers. They were buffeted about from one kind of misery to the next, patiently awaiting someone—usually a kind, handsome young man—to rescue them.
Meanwhile, these new mangaka preferred to write about “otenba” (tomboy) protagonists. These heroines still possessed the cuteness, innocence, and patience of their predecessors, but they were a little older, more strong-willed, and more willing to face challenges directly. They also expanded the types of stories told within shoujo manga from simple melodramas to a wide variety of genres.
In the 1960s, these two trends combined in one medium-defining genre: sports fiction. While shounen sports series of the time featured popular, action-driven sports like soccer and baseball, their shoujo counterparts remained based around stereotypically feminine, genteel activities like horseback riding and ballet.
That changed when the Japanese women’s volleyball team won a gold medal and inspired Chicako Umano to write one of shoujo manga’s first blockbuster titles: Attack No. 1. Its heroine, Kozue, leads her high school volleyball team to glory on regional (and later national) levels while making friends, dealing with rivals, and working through personal tragedy. Plot-wise this is fairly formulaic fare for sports manga, but what made Attack No. 1 revolutionary was its approach to Kozue and her struggles.
Kozue was not like the heroines of the past, suffering nobly until someone saved her. Instead, she faced her problems on and off the court head-on, overcoming them through perseverance and teamwork.
She was a fusion of the “otenba” and the fighting spirit that motivated the Olympic team that inspired Attack No. 1 in the first place. Just as the nation took inspiration and pride from its Olympic team, so too could young girls take inspiration from Kozue’s hard work and empathy and apply it to their own lives.
Everyday romance with Yoshiko Nishitani
It’s hard to believe there was a time when romance was not a common part of shoujo manga. Before the 1960s, the popularity of younger, childish heroines meant that romance was out of the question outside of elder siblings and fantasy princesses.
The times were changing, though, and shoujo manga’s audience was growing up alongside its creators. They were ready for romance, and Yoshiko Nishitani was ready to give it to them.
Nishitani made her debut at age 18 in 1961. Five years later, she would quietly revolutionize shoujo manga with titles like Mary Lou and Lemon and Cherry. These weren’t stories set in faraway lands, but instead in ordinary Japanese high schools.
Her heroines did the same things their readers were doing: negotiating friendships, doing homework, and—most notably—dating ordinary Japanese boys. With this approach, Nishitani brought shoujo manga down to earth, closer to modern “slice of life” stories.
The shift to older heroines also allowed Nishitani to tackle more complex topics alongside her teen readership. Today such stories are commonplace, even cliché, but that’s only because countless mangaka since Nishitani’s time have been refining on the innovations she made.
Hideko Mizuno and her Fire-y ambition
As their audience got older, shoujo mangaka grew more ambitious with both style and subject matter. If there’s anyone who best represents this ambition, it would be Hideko Mizuno. She started drawing manga at 12 years old and made her debut just four years later.
As a girl, she met Osamu Tezuka. He was so impressed by her talent that she became the first (and only) woman invited to live and work at the Tokiwa-so apartments alongside the likes of Shotaro Ishinomori, Fukio Akatsuka, and Fujio Fujito.
From the start of her career, Mizuno was not a fan of the sappy melodramas that were typical of early shoujo manga and strove to make the kinds of stories she enjoyed. Over the course of the 1960s, she would dabble in everything from mythological epics like Harp of the Stars to comedies like Honey Honey’s Wonderful Adventures. Her drive to experiment with genres and follow her interests would come to a head with 1969’s Fire!!
Mizuno drew upon a research trip to America and the real-world story of singer Scott Walker to create Fire. It follows young Aaron Browning, who is inspired to become a singer after meeting the delinquent musician Fire Wolf. Aaron forms a band and finds success, but soon gets caught up in the sex, drugs and tragedy of American counterculture in the late 1960s.
Fire was a timely story, exploring serious social subjects such as drug use, racism, suicide and sex. In fact, it was so controversial at the time that Mizuno had to publish it in the Japanese edition of Seventeen instead of a normal manga magazine. Its themes were equally matched by her artistic ambition, as she experimented with layout, paneling, and perspective to create art that was beautiful and psychedelic.
Fire was a sensation in its day, winning over many older and otherwise unconventional readers and winning the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1970. It was also an incredibly influential work. Its approach to heavy subjects and appeal to older audiences were a precursor to the works of the Magnificent Forty-Niners just a few years later, and some consider it an ancestor to josei manga. In the relationship between Aaron and Fire Wolf, some have seen the first stirrings of the genre soon to be known as Boys’ Love.
Mizuno’s ambition to explore new subjects and experiment with her art expanded shoujo manga’s horizons in ways never seen before, and its impact can still be felt today.
The Lost (but not forgotten) Generation
It’s hard to believe that this era of shoujo manga history could ever be forgotten, but a number of circumstances threaten to destroy its legacy.
The first is that many of these stories were not published in collected volumes. The notion of collecting magazine chapters into bound tankobon did not begin in Japan until the late 1960s, which means that much of the shoujo manga from this era was never republished outside of their original magazine runs.
Early print runs tended to be small in number and seldom reprinted. There have been a few modern re-releases, but their low quantities and high price tags leave them out of reach for all but hardcore collectors and libraries.
And many cannot be republished at all because the original manuscripts were not preserved. As Hideko Mizuno herself notes in an interview in International Perspectives on Shojo & Shojo Manga:
In those days, there was no use for manuscripts after they were published, since there wasn’t a custom of compiling them and making a single-story book….editors didn’t seem to realize how precious manuscripts were. Although I asked many times that they return my manuscripts, they never came back. I was told ‘We don’t know where they are’ and that was it.
This short-sighted approach led shoujo publishers to give away manuscript pages as contest prizes, color and alter them for advertisements, or simply throw them away. The few existing collections of the original magazines are scattered across various libraries, archives, and private collectors, and none are complete. Since they were cheaply printed, mass-market magazines made over half a century ago, physically preserving and scanning these surviving volumes is a challenge onto itself.
Even academic bias played a role in its erasure, as many earlier Japanese scholars did not consider shoujo manga made before the Magnificent Forty-Niners worthy of study. It’s only in recent years that scholars have started to substantially analyze this era of shoujo manga history.
The final factor may be the most unavoidable of them all: the passage of time. The young women making and reading these manga are now in their 70s and 80s. Within a generation, most will die from old age, and this era of shoujo manga will slip from living memory.
The only way to keep this metaphorically lost generation from becoming literally lost to the ages is for modern fans and scholars to engage with these works, preserve the names and stories of the women who made them, and share them with future shoujo fans. These pioneers of the genre deserve to have their names and stories remembered. It’s up to us to make sure that happens.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication to correct a minor date error: Princess Knight was published in 1953, not 1948 as originally stated.