Anime and manga come in many shapes and sizes: from adventures to romantic dramas and from mecha to horror there are as many variations and subgenres as you would find in any other medium. Shōnen and Shōjo manga are amongst the most well-known types since these are usually the ones that have vibrant fandoms, largely consisting of young viewers who are very vocal about their favorite manga and shows.
Whether or not you watch anime, you have most likely come across both Shōjo and Shōnen even if you don’t know them by that classification. In this article, we explain just what the classifications Shōjo and Shōnen mean and what’s the difference between the two.
In Japanese, Shōjo, and Shōnen simply mean “girl” and “boy” respectively. Knowing this, it might have been tempting, especially in the past, to classify works labeled this way as being “only for girls/boys.” In fact, things are much more complicated.
It’s important to note that while Shōjo and Shōnen are used to describe well-known manga titles, these terms aren’t genres the same way that Fantasy, Sci-fi, Horror, and Romance are, for instance. Rather, they describe the marketing practice of targeting a (usually teenage) male or female audience.
Thanks to the popularity of titles such as Sailor Moon and Fruits Basket in the Shōjo side of the spectrum and of Shōnen such as Fullmetal Alchemist and One Piece, Shōjo and Shōnen might be the first, and sometimes the only connotation when the uninitiated think of manga.
However, this type of targeted marketing is not limited to young demographics. The adult versions of Shōjo and Shōnen, Josei and Seinen are aimed towards adult women and men respectively.
Does this mean that manga is gender-restricted? In the 21st century, it would be pointless, even harmful to think of it that way. Both Shōjo and Shōnen have their fanbase, regardless of gender, and the demographics that enjoy either are likely to become even more diverse in the future.
Even so, the terms can still be valuable in anime scholarship and as marketing tools; beyond their gendered connotations, Shōjo and Shōnen each come with specific expectations regarding their plots, characters, and overall aesthetics. Let’s dive more deeply into them:
Although the classification of manga and the attempt to target different demographics goes back to the early 20th century, Shōnen manga as we know them have their roots in the post-WWII period.
After all, manga created during that time often featured war-torn settings, battle sequences, adventures, and technology, with the works of Osamu Tezuka such as Dororo and Astro Boy being a characteristic example.
Contemporary Shōnen might not be as heavily influenced by the post-war period, but some elements of that time remain. A lot of manga and anime that are classified as Shōnen have young male protagonists who embark on adventures work towards mastering their combat skills or, in the case of Fantasy works, some supernatural ability.
The stylized, carefully choreographed battles that characterize many Shōnen have influenced a number of Western works, with Avatar: The Last Airbender being a prominent example. The typically male Shōnen protagonists are often keen on improving themselves and becoming stronger or overcoming some barrier.
In general, Shōnen anime tend to be humorous and idealistic, rather than cynical, though, of course, there are plenty of deconstructions and exceptions. One of the most well-known and loved manga series, Fullmetal Alchemist, and its second anime adaptation, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood fall towards the idealistic side by avoiding unnecessary violence and allowing morally ambiguous characters to be redeemed.
On the other hand, the first, looser adaptation went into darker places, commenting on the misuse of technology and not being as anti-violent. Another famous work, Neon Genesis Evangelion, tragically deconstructs the young, idealistic hero, showing that is expected to save the world would likely have a detrimental effect on a child. But overall, Shōnen tends to be light and fun, with a sharper and more defined style compared to Shōjo, often using darker colors and more shading.
Of course, not all Shōnen series look the same. Naruto, One Piece, Dragon Ball, Fullmetal Alchemist, and others might be the first that comes to mind when we’re asked to think of the Shōnen aesthetic.
Yet, the combination of Shōnen and Shōjo elements in anime that are marked as one or the other is not unheard of. Kuroshitsuji or Black Butler by Yana Toboso, for instance, was serialized as Shōnen but looks quite different than most works characterized as such.
The detailed costume designs and overall luscious Victorian aesthetic border towards the Shōjo style, while the main character depends on his brains and his demon butler, rather than any magical ability or combat skills.
While Shōnen was initially written and animated with a mind to include elements young boys were perceived to like, many Shōnen have dedicated audiences of any gender, especially as they become increasingly diverse, with gorgeous visuals and fresh storylines.
As we mentioned above, Shōjo and Shōnen are not exactly genres. This means that they come in different forms. A Shōjo work can be Fantasy, Romance, Historical, Drama, or any combination of these.
Regardless of genre, Shōjo manga tends to have female main characters and themes such as friendship and romantic love, with a particular focus on emotion. This might cause action fans to dismiss Shōjo as boring, but in many cases, this could not be further from the truth.
Many Shōjo titles tell empowering stories of girls who fight for justice and often prevail over older and more experienced enemies. There are also many works in which romance takes a backseat, allowing the main focus to be on adventure or female friendship.
One of the most common subcategories of Shōjo is the Magical Girl anime and manga. The most iconic example, and arguably one of the most iconic Shōjo in general, is Sailor Moon which helped popularize the Magical Girl genre for Western audiences, even influencing subsequent works of Western animation.
In terms of aesthetics, Shōjo tends to focus on cute and pretty character designs, often with even larger eyes than other manga. They’ll often go for dreamier designs. Outlines might be lighter than in Shōnen and, compared to the sharp, rectangular borders found in other styles, Shōjo might have softer borders or no borders at all.
But does this mean that Shōjo is only dreamy, light-hearted, and romantic? Far from it. While most Shōjo will have fun moments and at least hint at romance, this doesn’t prevent them from exploring very dark themes.
One of the most well-known examples is Takaya Natsuki’s manga Fruits Basket which is currently being adapted into an anime series with the first two seasons already out.
While the series has a female main character who goes to high-school, creates fun memories with her friends, and spends time with idealized boys, this is not the story’s main focus, not what it does best. Rather, the show focuses on each character’s troubled past, their struggle with mental health, and the desire to get better and truly connect with others.
And for those who are tired of overused Shōjo tropes, there are those that subvert or parody what we think we know about this anime category. Works such as Revolutionary Girl Utena play with a magical girl and romance tropes by presenting characters who move beyond gender conventions, while Ouran High School Host Club parodies high school romances, particularly the reverse harem subcategory.
Although most Shōjo is not as popular with Western viewers as some of the most well-known Shōnen, they’re just as diverse, so most anime fans can find one or two for them – regardless of gender.
While the above is a helpful overview for those who want to better understand the conventions of anime and manga, at the end of the day, Shōjo and Shōnen are marketing choices about the best place to feature a particular work.
However much you know about Shōjo and Shōnen conventions, you’re still likely to find a few categorizations surprising. One of the most notorious examples is Banana Fish, a story that features drugs, abuse, and gang violence, but is considered as a Shōjo by many, both due to the heart-warming relationship between the two main characters and because it originally appeared in a Shōjo magazine.
Works such as the aforementioned Kuroshitsuji display elements of both, while Mahō Shōjo Madoka Magica, a clear deconstruction of the Magical Girl genre is often not classified as Shōjo. Moreover, specific tropes, characters, and plotlines might cause fans to categorize anime and manga a certain way – but the Japanese creators might not necessarily agree with this evaluation.
At the end of the day, the terms Shōnen and Shōjo are tools that can help readers and viewers find more works with a subject matter and aesthetic that they like, rather than definitive lists of what a manga or anime should be about – or by whom it should be enjoyed.
As our understanding of gender keeps expanding, so our understanding of media categorizations might expand too. Still, as long as these categories remain helpful and flexible, rather than prescriptive, they can be a valuable heads-up as to what tropes we can expect. After all, when done right, anime tropes can still be fun and comforting.