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.
In 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.
If 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).
The 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.