Origins of Shojo Manga
Manga historians tend to identify the prolific and influential artist Osamu Tezuka as the creator of shojo manga, but the true origins of the genre are somewhat more complicated – and interesting!
Osamu Tezuka is primarily known as the creator of the Astro Boy franchise, but he’s authored dozens of other works, from the coming of age parable Kimba the White Lion to the epic space opera Phoenix to the philosophical yet humanistic Buddha. In the United States, due to a coincidental convergence of interests, comic book fandom in the 1970s was primarily male, so the people who began to import and write about manga during this decade, such as Fred Patten and Frederick Schodt, were male. These men tended to be interested in stories written for men, which were written primarily by men. Since Tezuka was quite sociable and also understandably invested in the overseas expansion of his manga empire, he made friends with the early manga and anime fans in America, and his work became relatively well-known in the States. This is perhaps the reason that, when Anglophone scholars talk about “the first shojo manga,” they always mention Tezuka’s Princess Knight.
Princess Knight is a fantastic piece of work, but there is more to the story of early shojo manga.
The first emergence of a shojo subculture (shôjo bunka) was at the turn of the 20th century, when the modern Japanese publishing industry had really started to take off, printing magazines targeted at an intensely literate public and distributed on a national scale. To educate a nascent market in the subtle ways of buying magazines, publishers put out weekly and monthly periodicals aimed at young men and young women, who were typically educated separately and tended to identify with distinct youth cultures. Girls of ages five and up had all manner of magazines to buy and read, and these magazines encouraged them to send in their stories, letters, and drawings. The shojo style of illustration, which emphasized huge eyes, delicate features, and flowery backgrounds, was used for cover images and color insert pages in periodicals such as Shôjo gahô (Girls’ Journal) and Shôjo no tomo (Girls’ Friend). Prominent artists included Kôji Fukiya and Jun’ichi Nakahara, both of whom were strongly influenced by Parisian fashion illustration.
Fast forward to the postwar period. Even in an era of intense deprivation, paper was cheap, and kids had way more free time than they adults who were tasked with rebuilding the country. By the 1950s, magazines for children had started to feature illustrated comics, which proved so popular that some magazines began to specialize in manga. Two of the most popular of the many magazines targeted at girls in the 1950s were Shôjo and Nakayoshi, and one of the star artists of these two magazines was Macoto Takahashi. In North America and France, Takahashi is known primarily as an illustrator, as he’s something of an icon for international Lolita fashion communities. In Japan, however, he is famously one of the leading shojo manga artists of the 1950s and 1960s, having pioneered the fluid panel layout and visual devices we still associate with shojo manga today, including full-body portraits of characters overlaying panels.
Takahashi’s work as a character-centric illustrator was conveniently merchandisable in the form of tear-out postcards and sheets of stickers. Girls and young women (and many older women) came for Takahashi’s fashionable stickers and stationery, but they stayed for his melodrama, which often played out on European stages, with girls pursuing their interests in exotic pastimes such as ballet and tennis.
Although we don’t mean to diminish Osamu Tezuka’s prominence as a pioneering developer and supporter of narrative manga as an art form, we want to emphasize that many of the most famous early shojo artists were queer men who embraced gender fluidity and encouraged young women to expand the scope of their own identities by looking beyond the constraints of contemporary Japanese society.
By the late 1960s, however, the women who had read Macoto Takahashi’s manga as girls had grown up and were ready to start creating manga of their own. The most famous and influential of these artists are collectively known as the Year 24 Group, meaning “born in 1949” (or the 24th year of the reign of the Shōwa Emperor). One of the best and brightest of this group is Riyoko Ikeda, whose art and stories are arguably just as influential as those of Osamu Tezuka and Macoto Takahashi.