Though if it were, things would appear brighter, at first glance. For instance: you would be that girl who is very smart and very pretty and never has to shave her legs because body hair is too fine a detail to draw, and you happen to play sports well too, though in convenient moments your strength will fail and the Perfect Boy – who, for the first fifteen pages, you will inexplicably hate – will save you. When that moment comes, he will smile at you with additional sparkles in his eyes, and you will blush fiercely. Your blush will manifest as several diagonal lines. It will occupy half the page. It may even have some toner splashed on it. Sometimes your blush will cover your whole body and you will be stained deep red with the shame and joy of your love, the love you will not admit.
Perfect Boy will say, “Let me take care of you sometimes,” implying that you are weak, which you are not, because you are the Heroine of this shoujo manga. You will let it slide because it is page sixteen and you are now supposed to love him. The fact that you deny these feelings of attraction makes you endearing. You will have one great flaw, which may be that at home you dress like a slob; or you are a virgin; or you can see dead people/fairies/tengus; or you have a fiery temper; or you are obsessed with fried potato skins.
You have a good heart. This is non-negotiable. Your good heart will triumph, chapter after chapter. Sometimes it will be emphasized by the image of you, smiling backwards at the Perfect Boy, or the Bitch Girl that you have now turned into your Best Friend, and there will be sunlight cut into hexagons, glinting against your smile. You will say something humble and pleasing, such as, “That turned out okay, didn’t it?”
Someone will want to hold you. The chapter will end.
I am twenty-three, and I have never been in love. I understand being in love is a slippery phrase. The statement itself can mean nothing. I am just stating a fact. There has never been a boy – or girl – whom I’ve wanted to kiss, who I’ve thought about endlessly, who I’d dare dedicate a love poem to. (And yet I have written love poems.) Perhaps I should clarify: I have never loved anyone within reach. I mean, I love Tom Hiddleston, but he is so far away, like a twinkling star, that if I were in a shoujo manga I would be in my
and in the next frame, my arm would be wobbly, boneless, reaching up to him, the tears pouring down my face in wriggly cascades. My pining for Tom Hiddleston is the pining of a shoujo manga Heroine. My love for him is my love for Loki, the trickster god, the idiot who got himself impregnated and gave birth to a magical horse. My love for him is as shallow as the next GIF-appreciator, yet as deep as the notes of his chocolate voice. If Tom Hiddleston were a manga character he would be トム−さん、 the prince type, outwardly evil yet secretly gentle. Or perhaps outwardly gentle yet secretly evil. Both princes exist.
I don’t think I could be the Heroine, though. I’m too old, already. I need to shave my legs every day I want to wear shorts. My great flaws cannot be overcome at the end of every chapter; they cannot end in sunlight. I cannot always say the pleasing things. My heart is only sometimes good.
The world in a shoujo manga is very limited. At times, a whole series seems to take place in a single classroom, a set of white panels, perhaps a garden with the impression of leaves. If there is a baking episode, there will be a kitchen. If there is a summer episode, there will be a beach. There will also be bikini jokes and flat-chest jokes and a girl throwing a bucket at a man. Occasionally there will be a monkey in the onsen. It will be wearing a bra on its head.
One of my first shoujo mangas, and one of my biggest influences, is about a girl who reads a book, gets sucked into it, and becomes the priestess in a war between two countries in Ancient China. She is fifteen. Her best friend reads the book to try and save her, and instead gets abused, tries to kill herself, and becomes the priestess of a rival country. The plot revolves around the two girls amassing their private harem of star warriors, who prove their warrior-dom by revealing the glowing tattoos on their bodies. If the warrior is a male of reasonable age with no existing lover, then he is in love with the priestess. The priestess’s main job is to summon the animal god which will grant her three wishes, but only if she gives it her body.
I was always cheering for the best friend, broken and unlucky, still with so much love, love she couldn’t manifest except through war. After the war, the girls went home, finished junior high, and exclaimed at each other’s new high school uniforms.
Their world included snowy mountains, forests, villages with dead bodies, deserts, and a heaven populated only by little girls and a single ancient oracle lady. There was a larger world in the pages of the book they lived in. So expansive, yet still nowhere near as wide as ours.
The problem with romance in shoujo manga: it is very clear who the main love interest is. The mangaka enters a contract with the reader when she ends the first chapter: here you have it, it’s these two. She promises a complicated love story, but none of the complication comes from the fact of their love. We will watch Perfect Boy and Heroine fight over stupid things. We will watch Perfect Boy’s fiancée, from the omiai his parents arranged in his childhood, come and try to sabotage their love. More often than not she will come to acknowledge that her love is inferior to the Heroine’s, and you will feel sorry for her (but not really), because she never stood a chance. We will calmly observe the school festival. The lovers will be so busy they can’t see each other, and one of them will climb to the rooftop and stand there and lament about how much it hurts when they can’t be together.
Their “ups and downs” will happen over several volumes. They will come close to kissing in the first two volumes; after an actual kiss happens in the third volume, it will happen at the end of every chapter.
There will be many other Boys, and some of them will be almost as good as Perfect Boy, and some of them will even at first appear to exceed Perfect Boy in perfection. At the end of those chapters, they will be shown to smile evilly, so you will know this is not really the case.
There will be a Crossdressing Boy who is cuter than the Heroine and who will confuse everyone around him with sadistic glee, before the Heroine makes him stop playing these twisted love games. Then he will feel, in his girlish heart, a conflicted bud of attraction for her as well. He will deny this and continue to wear his Lolita dresses with much aplomb.
There will also be A Boy With A Love So Pure he will almost get the Heroine, and she will spend some chapters thinking she really loves him. You will let that delicious doubt grow in your heart because deep down you still hold the contract with the mangaka from chapter one. You know how this will end. We all do.
Boy With A Love So Pure will have the consolation prize of his own fanbase. These readers will write fanfic where Boy WALSP actually gets the girl, or at least several more tense, dramatic moments with her, the angst in his heart (and in their fan hearts) blossoming like a beautiful flower. In truth his love story is better than Perfect Boy’s. In real life, Boy WALSP would make the better boyfriend. He is naïve, there is no denying that. He is not slick, and is more likely to trip on his own feet. He is the one who would love the Heroine even if she was not the Heroine: at the top of her class, well-versed in karate, and attractive in all her varying hairstyles.
Boy WALSP and Perfect Boy will have a strange, fluctuating relationship of Manly Understanding, and at times this understanding will be more meaningful than whatever they have with the Heroine. But because this is a shoujo manga, they will not fall in love. Instead, the fangirls will write stories where they do.
Actually, the fangirls will probably write stories where they fuck. A lot. On all kinds of surfaces. Fangirls can be so lewd sometimes. But the stories will be beautiful, in between the fucking, and the Manly Understanding will go deeper than it ever did in the manga. It will be twisted and tangled and bent out of shape, a sharp dagger that juts out from our computer screens, making us all wince as we hope for a love even half as true as theirs. Even if it hurts. Even if it’s an understanding that leaves one gasping.
In these stories the Heroine, upon learning of their relationship, will sigh, shake her head, and say, “I already knew.”
I am a slow reader, so I try to spend time only on stories I’m really enjoying. I want the heartache, the broken glass, the stories that nibble at my guts; I want the empty hands and bloody knees, that incomprehensible moment, the old lady throwing weed killer and saying “Gah” when she realizes her heart is gone; the conversation about God and art between John the Savage and the World Controller. I want the prince dreaming of the rose in her glass cage, the tigers approaching with their claws, licking their lips.
But I don’t expect these of shoujo manga. I want shoujo manga to make me feel silly, to give me the inevitable when the page turns. I want shoujo manga to give me broad-shouldered men with long noses, who have secret sensitive sides. I want shoujo manga to give me Heroines crying in the rain. When this happens, their eyes will be half-closed, and their tears will sparkle.
When a Heroine raises her head to reveal a shocked look, the person who made her cry will flinch. The flinch will have a sound effect. The background will be black.
A shoujo manga should give me the first meeting, the first kiss, the first screaming match with a slap. It will give me the tearful reconciliation. It will have that awkward passage about sex, where the Heroine is oblivious and Perfect Boy is a paragon of self-control. It will give me all the heartache in wonderful forty-page bite-sizes, and if I want more, I just have to read the next chapter. The mangaka’s contract stipulates a happy ending, unless it’s a shoujo manga from the seventies, like Rose of Versailles, which is about Marie Antoinette. Then the ending will involve death. That’s okay; I already knew that was coming.
In a shoujo manga, other girls are only important inasmuch as they serve to highlight the Heroine in some way. They include: the Sexy D-Cup Girl, the Fangirl, the Cute Little Child, the Mean Little Bitch Child, the Girl With Glasses (usually the Class President), the Crying Princess, the Serious Girl, and the Rival (sometimes the Fiancée). Some of these girls may be fused together. They will vary in hairstyle, hair color, accessories, breast size, way of speaking, and disposition towards the Heroine. To the reader, it will be very clear how these girls feel about the Heroine, even if the Heroine herself is stupid or dense or in self-denial about these relationships.
In real life, girls have many more dimensions, and fewer breast sizes between them. I went to a Catholic girls school for fourteen years of my life; I should know this. I look at my girl friends and they’re complicated and unpredictable, lead characters in their own stories. Alas, they could never slot in perfectly to a chapter or two in a shoujo manga. They’d put their fists through the page first, cackling, saying who needs this shit anyway, we’ve outgrown our uniforms long ago, and look at all this sunlight, look at all we still can do.
I am twenty-three and I have never been in love, and sometimes I think I have outgrown shoujo manga. These stories are no longer for me. I do not have a delicate maiden’s heart. I could just as easily fall for a girl as I could for a boy. I am wry about the contract and wary about the conflict, and often I am more interested in the Crossdressing Boy or the Rival or the Boy With A Love So Pure than the main characters. Often I hate the Heroine and Perfect Boy. They are perfect for each other. They deserve to have their heads smashed together.
Still, every time a friend tells me to read one, or Wikipedia or TVTropes drags me down the wrong rabbit hole, there I am: clicking through the pages, wanting more.
In the epilogue, it is ten years in the future, but you still look the way you did when you were sixteen. Everyone knows your secret: that you pretended to be a boy for four years, that you were actually not dainty at all, that demons kept attacking your school because they wanted to drink your goddess blood. Everyone is okay with that. You are married to the Perfect Boy. The wedding and the honeymoon happened in that dark space between chapters, and now you have a daughter who has his eyes, except this is not true, she just has Anime Daughter Eyes. Boy WALSP has ended up with Perfect Boy’s ditched fiancée. When you see them, they will smile and pretend they are happier than ever.
It will be your high school reunion. Everything will be the same, but brighter, shinier, your dreams now realities. You will talk about things left to come. Everything will be happy and hopeful, and there may be a photograph of your 2LDK with an optional dog, named Pochi.
The mangaka will begin her parting note with an image of herself bowing. She will explain that the story was not to her satisfaction, but she hopes that it was enjoyable, anyway. She will ask for your support in her next endeavor. The shoujo manga is now yours to continue, or
Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she currently lives in California. She has read a lot of shoujo manga and is somewhat prone to tears. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming inThe Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010, Nightmare Magazine, and Tor.com. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is isalikeswords.wordpress.com