Anime genres and categories can get confusing whether or not you're a new fan. Few media have such a range, from Shonen and Shojo to Seinen and Josei, not to mention anime subgenres you might haven't heard of, like Isekai. In this article, we explain each Japanese anime category and what it entails.
What Is Shonen?
In Japanese, "Shōnen" means boy. Shonen, like many of the other categories we will discuss here, is not a genre in itself. Rather, it describes the intended demographic and the act of marketing works towards this demographic; in this case boys.
This doesn't mean that Shonen anime is only for boys of works, just as Shojo isn't just for girls. In the 21st century, this would be a gross oversimplification. Shonen simply describes the targeted demographic, not the entire, demographic.
"Shonen" then describes manga and anime marketed towards boys aged from around 12 until their late teens. But while the term only describes the demographic, this is not to say that there aren't some characteristics that make us think of "shonen" just by watching a couple of scenes.
The act of targeting manga towards specific genders dates back to the early 20th century, but it's a little after WWII that shonen manga and anime started taking the form we associate them with today. Perhaps this is why so many shonen works take place in war-torn settings, like Osamu Tezuka's Dororo, often featuring highly stylized fights.
More modern examples range from huge franchises, like Naruto and One Piece, to masterpieces like Fullmetal Alchemist and even some more aesthetic works such as Black Butler. Often but not always, shonen will feature young male protagonists who are practicing some form of magic or martial art and are striving to improve themselves.
Bear in mind, however, that there are exceptions. After all, what makes a work shonen is first and foremost the way it was marketed and the place it first appeared. The Promised Neverland for instance focuses on a group of children led by a girl but it's still shonen as it was first serialized in a shonen magazine.
Many shonen works tend to adopt an optimistic view on humanity but of course, there are still exceptions. The first adaptation of the shonen manga Fullmetal Alchemist was significantly darker than the second. Jujutsu Kaisen is marketed as shonen, but some have argued it's got too many horror elements to comfortably fit into the shonen category.
But as the world moves forward, and fans' tastes change, shonen will likely become even more varied, and be about much more than young boys shouting about becoming stronger.
Shonen should not be confused with shonen-ai (meaning boys love in Japanese). This describes works that feature romantic relationships or subtext between male characters, without this being necessarily the main focus and without being overtly sexual like "yaoi."
What Is Seinen?
Once again, Seinen which means "youth in Japanese, mostly describes an older male demographic than the one shonen works target: usually men around the ages of 18-45. Once again, to say only men enjoy seinen would be an oversimplification.
After all, Seinen works like Terror in Resonance, Tokyo Ghoul, Berserk and others are often much shorter and more contained, with a more subdued style compared to the often highly stylized fights depicted in shonen. It would be more inclusive, therefore, to say that they can be enjoyed by any adult who likes the subject matter they deal with – which varies from Seinen to Seinen.
Overall, Seinen tends to have darker, often more violent storylines. They can be much less optimistic than shonen, without this meaning a happy ending is impossible.
While many Seinen works have male protagonists around the age of the targeted demographic, this isn't the case with every Seinen. In some cases, you will be surprised that a manga is classified as Seinen at all.
Such is the case with Rozen Maiden, a fantasy work with horror elements, about ball-jointed dolls fighting for the love of their maker, while works that violently deconstruct shojo stereotypes like Maho Shojo Madoka Majika are so dark considered by fans to be seinen even though the creators didn't choose to classify them as such.
What Is Shojo?
Shojo, as a marketing practice, is on the opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to demographics. Shojo works are usually marketed towards girls from around 12 until their late teens.
Bear in mind, that just like Shonen, Shojo isn't enough as a term, when it comes to describing a manga or anime and its fans. A shojo work can be a work of fantasy, romance, historical fiction, or something else entirely, and it isn't enjoyed only by girls. Some slice-of-life shojo works like Fruits Basket are primarily about life and can feel relatable to anyone.
Manga targeted towards young female audiences also made their first appearance in the 1900s. But while Shonen thrived in the postwar period - perhaps because this period-inspired motifs like the stylized fighting boys were thought to enjoy – Shojo fared a bit better in the 70s, when female authors and manga artists created iconic works like The Rose of Versailles and Candy Candy.
As is the case with Shonen, Shojo works have come to be associated with a specific style, often softer, wide-eyed, and focusing on pastel or calming color palettes. Many Shojo works have a female protagonist, including Kimi ni Todoke, Ouran High School Host Club, and Yona of the Dawn.
We tend to associate Shojo with human relationships and everyday occurrences rather than the stylized fights we most often link with Shonen but this isn't always the case. The 80s and 90s marked an increased amount of anime about girls who have friends and love interests but are also fighters, capable of saving the worlds including Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
As is the case with all anime categories, you might be surprised by some works' categorization as shojo. An infamous example of that would be Banana Fish, an anime that features gang violence, drugs, and sexual abuse among other horrors, but was still classified as a Shojo either because it was serialized in a shojo magazine or because of the heartwarming relationship between the two main characters.
Much like Shonen-ai, "Shojo ai" is not the same as just Shojo. The term describes romantic relationships or subtext between girls while keeping the show relatively family-friendly, without sexual elements found in the adult version, Yuri.
What Is Josei?
With Josei, we complete our overview of the marketing practice to target manga and anime towards a specific gender and age group – in this case adult women, typically aged 18-45.
We could say that Josei is a female-targeted version of Seinen but once again that would be an oversimplification, as the targeted marketing of works as Josei doesn't mean that women are the only ones to enjoy them, or that they are all women enjoy.
Josei anime and manga tend to be the most underrepresented ones in the West, largely because they are thought by some to be nothing but "adult Shojo." Of course, those who characterize Josei as such, are likely to misunderstand Shojo too, as being romantic and nothing more.
Some works marketed as Josei do tend to focus on romantic relationships – and they're often more sexually explicit since they're read by adults. Others might focus on the experiences of young housewives or mothers, but this isn't all Josei works are about. Many will be just as complex as you will find Shojo to be if you give them a chance; they might just be less family-friendly and feature some mature themes.
Nor are Josei only about women. Bunny Drop, for example, follows a 30-year-old man with no childcare experience who finds out his dead grandfather had an illegitimate daughter, whom he decides to raise when the rest of the family rejects her. Higashi no Eden, which is considered by many to be a Josei work, is a complex political and psychological thriller.
From the above, we see that no matter how a certain work is marketed, and to whom, it's important to be open to exploring any age-appropriate work that seems interesting, without rejecting it just because of a label.
What Is Isekai?
"Sekai" means "world" in Japanese, while Isekaiessentially means "different world" or "otherworld." It's a fantasy subgenre that is extremely popular in anime; the Japanese equivalent to portal fantasy.
Isekai is used to describe cases of characters being transported to another world, permanently, as the main character of Inuyasha, or temporarily, as is the case with Chihiro in the beloved Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Another type of Isekai, particularly popular with anime and light novels focuses on reincarnation; in this escapist subcategory, a typically human character who lived a mundane life dies, and gets reincarnated in a new world – often a magical one. Such is the case of popular works such as Mushoku Tensei and That Time I Got Reincarnated a Slime.
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