Understanding Categories of Manga: From Shojo to Gekiga

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsUnderstanding Categories of Manga: From Shojo to Gekiga

If you are new to Manga, you might want to know a few key terms used to describe it. These terms are well-known to fans of manga, and as I’ve come to understand the way manga is categorized in Japan, I’ve learned much about the publication side of the business as it shapes what an author is expected to do: If an author writes for a shojo magazine, s/he will have to follow certain expectations that fit that demographic. The same is true of the other types of publications aimed at specific audiences, but in a way very different from the way a typical American magazine works. Writing for males or females of a specific age can also pigeon-hole a writer or artist as fans begin to expect only that type of artistic creation after a successful series in a particular category.

So, what are these main categories? In Japan, shojo manga is aimed at females aged 10-20; josei, at women older than the age of 20; shonen, at males up to age 18; seinen, at young men age 18 to 30; and seijin, at older men (these are estimates). I love that manga is categorized first by its intended audience and only second by its content, a distinction that is not emphasized in Western comics or literature for the most part.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIn the West, we may assume that a genre is read by a particular demographic, but we don’t give a name to that demographic prior to mentioning the genre. For example, in the West, we have Vampire Horror novels, Vampire Romance novels, and any number of Vampire novels that are described by adding genre or sub-genre labels. However, we do not mention the intended audience specifically.

In Japan, on the other hand, manga are written for different audiences very intentionally. A Vampire story could be aimed at teenage girls, teenage boys, older girls, or older boys. Nothing makes this labeling of manga clearer than what is called yaoi manga which features homoerotic male relationships depicted for an audience of (mainly) female readers (not lesbian women). Though some men do read yaoi, bara is another type of manga that IS aimed specifically at a gay male audience. In the West, we’d merely label a book based on its content and label both yaoi and bara manga as Gay Literature. As a professor of composition and rhetoric, I find fascinating this awareness of intended audience on the part of both the creators AND the readers.

There are many other sub-categories I haven’t covered here, and some of those categories are based on demographic and some on content. The final category I’ll mention is perhaps my favorite and is based on content: gekiga. It is realistic, has a dark mood, and often explores the ugly realities in life, at times borrowing what one might call a bleak, noir outlook. At other times, it consists merely of realistic, slice-of-life stories (as this type of Western comic is called). The term was coined by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and the late, great works of the “god of manga,” Osamu Tezuka, were written in the gekiga style. These are my favorite two manga author/artists, mainly because of their writing gekiga manga.

Most Americans have never even seen gekiga manga; in fact, most Americans, if they’ve even looked at manga, have seen only shojo and shonen, manga aimed at kids and teenagers! I have read some great shojo and shonen manga, but most Americans have formed an opinion of manga based soley on manga for kids, and that is quite a shame. Until one has read the works of Tatsumi or the late works of Tezuka, a final judgment on manga should not be made by anyone.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsIf one were to read only two works and wanted to learn the most about manga as possible, I would suggest reading Bakuman, an excellent shonen book about two graduating high school students — one a writer and one an artist — who team up to create manga. Reading Bakuman will expose a reader to shonen, but the story will introduce the reader to even more styles and categories because the main characters spend most of their time discussing their art, how to break into the industry, and how their style of stories differ from other types. They get published, get assigned an editor, and wrestle with success and failure over the course of the series (which, though it is twenty volumes long, does not need to be read in its entirety).

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe second work I would suggest is Tatsumi’s biographical work A Drifting Life. In this book, Tatsumi talks of early manga and its influence on him, particularly the early works of Tezuka. The book traces his development as an artist and his evolving the artistic genre of gekiga, the type of manga to which his own artistic hero — Tezuka — will eventually dedicate himself to and master. A Drifting Life, like Bakuman, both is a manga demonstrating a specific type of manga and is a manga that discusses different types of manga very specifically. They are also fun to read and brilliant works of art.

So, if you want to read some of the manga you can find on the shelves of any bookstore in the U.S. that carries manga, you’ll probably just be reading shojo and shonen, and that’s fine, but I would get some suggestions or you’ll hit much garbage, just like in reading DC and Marvel comics at random. If you want manga aimed at adults with more sophisticated and darker themes, you’ll probably need to get on Amazon or go to a larger comic book store and get some recommendations.

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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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  1. “Planetes” by Makoto Yukimura is a good seinen manga that’s been published in America (hard SF in a ‘near future’ setting). Just 4 or 5 volumes, though.

    I’d never heard of gekiga, so I’ll try to check some out, thanks!

  2. Brad Hawley /

    I’ll check out Planetes. Thanks for the recommendation, David. And thanks for reading and replying.

    By the way, A Drifting Life is also available as an animated movie of the type that Marvel often uses and was used for the animated version of The Watchmen. I forget what that style is called: motion comics, I think.

    Yep. That’s it. I just looked it up on Wiki, and they credited Philip K. Dick with coming up with the motion comic concept in Zap Gun — that might be of interest to some others here on the site (Sandy!).

    Late Tezuka is amazing — I’ve had to snap up his books as they come out in translation because they do such small runs and then sell out and then they get sold for crazy prices. Check out my review of Apollo. Black Jack is good (a long series of short stories–any volume can be purchased and read out of order because they are all collections of short stories). I loved Barbara by Tezuka if you can track that one down; it’s an excellent example of gekiga.

    Tatsumi has an early noir graphic novel that’s great: Black Blizzard. Other than it and his autobiography, he has only four works available in English right now I think, and they are collections of short stories. Hard hitting, but brilliant. I plan to teach some of them in the future since I love prose short stories so much — compressed narrative in either prose or comics is of interest to me (at the moment, I’m reading through the short stories of Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Bradbury, Asimov, and my favorite, Maugham, who is not SF).

  3. Thanks again! I have read Tezuka’s “Metropolis” but that’s apparently VERY early.

    I just checked my local library, and they’ve got much more Tezuka (mostly Astro Boy, but Black Jack is there too).

    I also see Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, Black Bird, Good-bye, Push Man, and Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

    I’ll have to see how this is. I haven’t started any new manga recently (I started Lone Wolf and Cub, but the art and writing was too small for me get much out of).

    Speaking of demographics, I think there was a previous PM of Japan (I think Taro Aso) who was a big manga guy. Wikipedia says he was seen at an airport reading Rozen Maiden (seinen, apparently), haha.


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