For today’s Otaku Lounge, I’d like to take a step back from discussing specific anime titles and go with something more accessible to newer anime fans, by taking a (very brief, very generalised) look at the roots of modern manga and anime and its five core audience demographics – namely kodomo (children’s), shounen (boys), shoujo (girls), seinen (men’s), and josei (women’s) works.
While manga as we understand it today came about during Japan’s Occupation years, it was not until the 1950s that the solidification of these main demographics began to occur. Of course, there are plenty of girls and women who read and watch shounen and seinen manga and anime, just as there are a number of males who read and watch shoujo or josei manga and anime (albeit perhaps a little more quietly). There are also some anime and manga titles that have wide cross-demographic appeal. However, the basic distinctions between these demographics have remained strong and largely unchallenged within the industry over the years, particularly in terms of marketing.
The kodomo demographic can be viewed as perhaps the first type of manga in terms of Japan’s pre-Occupation years. The genre has its roots in the late nineteenth century, where short cartoons were published in magazines in an attempt to encourage literacy among the Japanese youth. However, magazines focusing solely on kodomo manga were not circulated until the 1970s, when publications such as CoroCoro Comic were first released.
Since its earliest days, kodomo manga and anime has often tended to use episodic stories that incorporate fantasy or science-fiction settings, often using fictional creatures and robots to appeal to their main audience of children in elementary school and under. These stories frequently have moralistic or otherwise educational subject matter encoded within them, and can be distinguished by their comparative lack of violence and sexual themes. The artwork is usually kept clear and simple, stylistically somewhat similar to shounen manga with its thicker lines and primary colour patterns.
The Bad: It’s hard not to get cynical when anime gets made for the sole purpose of adding to a cash-cow franchise, as with shows like Duel Masters. Not to mention those anime productions that go on for decades and get progressively worse as the original fanbase grows up and moves on, i.e. Pokemon.
The Good: This is where anime as a mainstream form of art and entertainment was born, and kodomo works continue to introduce some of the most well-known characters of all time. A Japan without Doraemon would not be a Japan I recognise.
Pre-modern shounen manga had been in mass circulation since at least the publication of the Shounen Sekai magazine, which ran from 1895 to 1914. However, in terms of contemporary work, the real game changer for shounen manga came about in 1968 with Shueisha Publishing’s Weekly Shounen Jump, which by the early 1970s it had become one of the leading shounen magazines of the day. It then grew from a publication that circulated to roughly three million in 1980, to around double that in 1990 – the best-selling magazine of any kind in Japan. Today, shounen manga continues to be the highest selling demographic of manga to date.
The typical art style of shounen manga and anime is kept simple, with clean lines and bold, solid colouring. Manga panel layouts are easy to follow and character designs often stick to a few basic stereotypes; boys with big eyes and spiky hair, girls with bigger eyes and, if old enough, fairly obvious chests. Many of Tezuka Osamu’s works, as well as those by other big-name shounen artists such as Toriyama Akira (Dragonball) and Oda Eiichiro (One Piece) are good examples of this style. Tezuka’s Mighty Atom, probably better known to Western audiences as Astro Boy, began publication in 1952 and has become typical of the shounen style, which often adheres to an action/adventure approach to storytelling and utilises science-fiction as a common theme.
The Bad: The potential for ridiculously drawn-out fight scenes and a lot of filler episodes in anime is high, especially with the longer series like Bleach and Naruto. Production values in long shounen anime are also frequentlymuch lower for this reason.
The Good: There’s a huge scope for storyline since the demographic as a whole can encompass such a wide variety of genres, from serious science-fiction and fantasy to comedic harem and moe. Occasionally we also see shounen stories that break with convention and deliver the unexpected like Evangelion did back in the day.
Prior to the 1960s, boys and young men was the chief demographic of manga in general, and shoujo manga was created primarily by males. However, increasingly large and varied readerships began to emerge during the mid-1960s when a flood of female manga artists began transforming modern manga. A group of female manga artists, later named the Year 24 Group, made their debut in 1969, marking the first major entry of female manga creators. While earlier shoujo manga almost always featured pre-adolescent girl heroines and little or no romance, shoujo manga from the 1970s and onwards focused much more on romantic relationships, and the demographic is now written almost exclusively by women.
As the birthplace of bishounen, magical girls, and other now well-established archetypes, the artwork of shoujo manga and anime regularly portrays characters with large and expressive eyes, perfectly arranged wisps of hair, and sensual (but non-gratuitous) nudity. Because the main focus tends to be on emotional bonds of one type or another, the art style also leans more towards the whimsical and the inexact than in any other demographic – usually by extensive use of varying screening tones and soft, fanciful colour palettes. Stories created by Ikeda Riyoko (Rose of Versailles), Takeuchi Naoko (Sailor Moon), and Watase Yuu (Ayashi no Ceres) demonstrate this to good effect.
The Bad: It’s easy for things to become too dramatic and overshadow what could otherwise be strong stories. Added to this, the lean towards romance, while not bad in and of itself, can also sometimes result in several hours of characters screeching out each other’s names – I’m looking at you, Fushigi Yuugi.
The Good: Characterisation can be extremely nuanced and sophisticated, even with larger casts as in Cardcaptor Sakura. There’s also been a trend of shoujo productions openly satirising their own conventions while still managing to present extremely strong narratives, for example Ouran High School Host Club.
As an eventual offshoot of shounen manga, the seinen demographic has a history dating back to 1960s – the time when shounen audiences of the previous decade were growing up and looking for more serious comic book fare. Weekly Manga Action and Monthly Big Comic are both seinen magazines that began publication in the late 1960s, targeted primarily towards males aged eighteen and older. The focus is more on plot and character development than exclusively action, and while not necessarily particularly sexual or violent in nature, seinen stories do sometimes tend to be more explicit in one form or another.
The overall art style of seinen stories is especially difficult to pin down. To some extent, seinen manga more closely resembles Western comic book or graphic novel artwork than other demographics – many characters have smaller eyes and more realistic proportions in general, while lining and shading can have an enormous amount of subtlety and detail. Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira and Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell can both be considered distinctively seinen pieces for instance, both in terms of content and art style. On the other hand, Crayon Shin-chan is an example of a seinen story that sometimes gets mistaken for a kodomo production due to its very unconventional art style, which really does look as though a child might have drawn everything with a crayon.
The Bad: Stories that are obviously trying way too hard to be deep and thought-provoking, or else dark and gritty, can result in titles that are pretentious, convoluted, or just plain oversexed. Gantz and Elfen Lied are both good examples of this.
The Good: When the focus remains on the narrative the outcome can be spectacular, especially combined with a talented art team. Productions like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Wolf’s Rain have become classics for this very reason, while Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo and Mushishi are feasts for any anime fan that enjoys outstanding visuals and atmosphere.
As seinen manga was to shouen, so was josei manga an offshoot of shoujo manga. The previously mentioned Year 24 group also consisted of women such as Moto Hagio and Takemiya Keiko, two of the founding mothers of the boys love/yaoi genre – a significant genre of josei manga. Historically the latest of the manga demographics, josei-specific magazines did not appear until the 1980s, when Be-Love began circulation. However, by the end of the decade there were over fifty of these magazines, many of which were especially heavy on themes of sex and sexuality. Others focused more on portraying realistic romance, still highly stylised but not as idealistic as some of the relationships depicted in shoujo manga.
Since many josei stories are also simply about the everyday experiences of young adult women living in Japan, conventional josei artwork often comes across as a more restrained version of that seen in shoujo works. Extremely large and sparkly eyes are not as common, and while colours often remain soft with flowing lines and a gentle, graceful feel, the usual style is more realistic and refined. These points can be obviously seen in titles like Paradise Kissand Nodame Cantabile.
The Bad: Because the focus is often heavily skewed towards character development and the subtly emotional, pacing can be a particular issue. This is what occasionally lets down otherwise excellent shows like Honey and Clover, and why I will probably never watch Natsuyuki Rendezvous ever again despite its numerous merits.
The Good: When done right, josei works can have tremendous emotional impact. Despite its clichés for example, Sakamichi no Apollon brought both realism and nostalgia to a story that would otherwise have been just another teenage drama, and I don’t think any adult with a beating heart could ever bring themselves to dislike the Usagi Drop anime.
Question of the post: In general, are the majority of your favourite anime or manga titles from one or two particular demographics, or do you watch and enjoy a wide variety of them all? If you see a title you haven’t watched before, are you more or less likely to give it a try depending on its demographic, or does demographic have no influence at all on your viewing choices?