Manga tends to be categorized by the target demongraphic of whatever magazine it runs in. So shoujo manga is manga aimed at teenage girls, while shonen manga is aimed at teenage boys. Much like many things that are “for girls”, shoujo manga gets dismissed and stereotyped quite a lot. But it’s a mistake to do this, as shoujo has an important and impressive history and anime and manga wouldn’t be the same without it, as I go into in my article on the early history of shoujo. Shoujo consists of a diverse range genres and pretty much anyone can find a story they’ll enjoy.
Contrary to stereotypes, there’s a ton of shoujo out there that packed with action and has kickass, dynamic women in the leading role. There’s shoujo with gore, brutal fight scenes and high fantasy. There’s shoujo that challenges gender roles and tells empowering stories of female self-fulfillment. There's shoujo that's wildly out there. I’m going to list a few of my favorites below and talk about why they’re worth checking out. Do you have any epic action shoujo with awesome lady leads to recommend? Say so in the comments!
The Rose of Versailles was published in the late 1970s and was a groundbreaking manga in many ways. It is still heavily referenced to this day. This historical epic is set around the French Revolution and follows Oscar, a woman who dresses in men’s clothes and acts as a bodyguard for Marie Antoinette. The story shows how France was plunged into violence, exploring the class issues and political strife of that time. The story includes lots of swordplay and daring fights, focusing on Oscar’s rise as a soldier and her growing awareness of the oppression of the lower class.
In addition to class issues, it also focuses on gender identity issues and sexuality, as Oscar struggles with whether she can truly live as “a man”. This is definitely worth a looksee as an important part of manga history (it was the first manga ever used for teaching purposes in Japanese schools!)
Yona of the Dawn follows a princess named Yona, who is betrayed, cast out and forced to go on the run with her bodyguard, Hak. Determined to survive and save her kingdom, Yona begins seeking out the four legendary dragon warriors to aid her in her quest. Yona of the Dawn is a beautiful example of character development in manga, showing the protagonists journey from a naïve and sheltered girl to a leader and warrior with the strength to unite people. It’s also a truly heartpounding action adventure- anyone who thinks shoujo manga can’t be bloody and disturbing should take a look at chapter 100.
The political intrigue and complicated relationships in the manga are also well done and the story has a great balance of humor and drama with its quirky cast. If you like epic fantasy at all, this is worth checking out!
Revolutionary Girl Utena tells the story of a girl name Utena who wants to become a prince. While attending the prestigious Ohtori Academy, she discovers that her fellow students are dueling with swords for the possession of a girl they call “the Rose Bride”. Utena intervenes and quickly finds that a twisted world lurks behind the pretty surface of her school…
Revolutionary Girl Utena is a pointed deconstruction of fairy tale tropes and traditional gender roles. The anime is heavy with symbolism and anyone who likes deeply philosophical and psychological anime is sure to find a lot to sink their teeth into. You can either watch the anime or read the manga by Chiho Saito, but I definitely recommend the anime far more- it’s much more complex and subversive. Learn more here.
This manga and anime tells of a girl named Shirayuki who works as an herbalist. Her beautiful red hair gains catches a prince’s attention and he demands she be his concubine. Rather than submit, she cuts off her hair and runs away. While being pursued, she runs into another prince and becomes tangled in his affairs.
Shirayuki is not an action hero, but she’s unflinchingly brave and resourceful and very dedicated to her chosen career. The manga also still involves quite a bit of action and swordplay thanks to the prince and his friends. The story is more subdued than many on this list, but all the characters are likeable, the romance is sweet and there’s a lot of adventure to be had.