mō ichido, shōjo. (70s, 80s & 90s shōjo manga retrospective)

A very brief history of the manga industry

Anonymous asked

Hey there! You're mostly into older series, right? (Me too!) So I was kind of wondering what you think about popular shōjo series these days, like what they lack, etc.

That's a difficult question! So this got pretty long, I'm sorry.

The usual disclaimer: I don't believe that manga (or fiction in general) has gotten inherently worse since the 70s. The usual pitfalls still apply: we only remember what has already gone through a historical selection process and deemed "worth keeping around"; the works we experience at a young age or as a teenager leave a larger impression both because we are more excitable and because we have less to compare them to; I'm no longer in the target demographic for regular shōjo1, meaning they're not for me, and that's okay; I also do not read that much current shōjo so I'm probably not the best to judge; etc.

Having said that, if shōjo (and shōnen, really) seems less interesting today than it did through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, it's probably because of the market. The 60s and 70s were an age of growth for shōjo manga: female artists entered the industry and widened the scope of what shōjo manga (and, by extension, shōnen manga) could be about, and since the genre was still relatively new, there were themes and genres to be explored, innovations to be made, and techniques to be invented. The industry was growing (the baby boomers were children and teens at this time), so new magazines were established to meet the high demand, giving ample opportunity for young, up and coming talents to innovate as much as they pleased without being hampered by the old guard. It's really no coincidence that the year 24 group emerged in this era, and with the innovative new shōjo manga of the late 70s, a new audience for shōjo manga also emerged: men. The world's biggest amateur comics convention, Japan's Comic Market, was established by people who really, really liked Hagio Moto,2 and shōjo manga gained acceptance as "worthy" of otaku interest as well as academic interest.

80s shōjo rode on that wave, and because women who had grown up reading shōjo manga entered the work force (they didn't all grow up to become good housewives and smart mothers now), the themes and possibilities of shōjo expanded again: sex and careers became major themes, obviously, and it's during this time that ladies and young ladies (usually referred to as "josei" in English-language fandom) split away from shōjo. Japan had entered into a bubble economy by the mid-80s, everyone seemed to have ridiculous amounts of money, so new magazines were still being established and there was breathing room for non-mainstream magazines3 like Hana to Yume and Lala to run shōjo manga that wasn't focused on romance and still have them gain massive popularity, as well as mainstream magazines to run series like Banana Fish. If you have the money, and your magazine's readership is big enough to sustain niche stories and innovative art, you can take a gamble!

The trend of manga being massively popular and the industry having loads of money continued about halfway into the 90s, then crashed. Both Weekly shōnen Jump and Ribon had their record-breaking circulations in the mid-90s (6.53 million for Jump, 2.55 million for Ribon), and has not been able to reach those standards since (neither has any other Japanese magazine, really). Reason? Well, the usual, like games and later the internet and other types of entertainment taking over so much market share, and because the decades following the economic crash meant people had less money for entertainment in general. But also because Japan plainly does not have the amount of children it once did. Birth rates have dropped dramatically since WW2, obviously, but they have also dropped steadily since the mid-70s. Schools have been closed down, and school buildings that used to house 10 classes per year have closed off the majority of their classrooms because there just aren't enough kids. No kids, not enough people to buy manga, magazines folding, less profit for publishers, less pages for manga writers, less need for new manga artists, less innovation.

The way shōnen manga dealt with this was to have longer and longer series. Dragon Ball's number of volumes used to seem ridiculous, as Jump forced Toriyama to draw even when he no longer wanted to, but Dragon Ball is "only" 42 volumes. Naruto is 72 volumes, while One Piece is 78 volumes and still going. Once a magazine has a popular property, it refuses to let it go, even more so now than back in the 70s/80s/90s – because if you lost that one property, who knew if you could win over that big of a demographic ever again? Whereas in the past, it was more of a given that the manga industry was growing and magazines and tankobon would continue to sell.

I think the same is true for shōjo, except most shōjo magazines are monthly or bi-weekly at best, so the volume numbers don't pile up so fast. Skip Beat has been going on for 13 years! It's 36 volumes long! Kimi ni todoke has been running for 10 years! Both of those titles are (in my opinion) dragging on unnecessarily just because they're popular, not because the plot couldn't have ended 10 or even 20 volumes ago. It used to be almost unheard-of that shōjo manga ran for so long; 10 volumes used to be a lot and 20 used to be more than enough even for a bi-weekly series. The exceptions would be stuff like Tokimeki Tonight (actually 3 separate stories), Glass Mask (an exception to shōjo rules in all ways), or Patalliro! (comedy which could theoretically go on forever). I firmly believe this is killing innovation and causing a drop in quality. Less magazines mean less pages mean less of a chance for new artists or new innovations to get through the needle's eye; less economic stability means clinging to the same old thing because better the devil you know.

So, basically, the manga scene is like current Hollywood! Reboots and sequels galore, because they want economic security rather than innovation. That doesn't (necessarily) mean that the new titles are bad (I don't think Skip Beat and Kimi ni todoke are bad, just way past their sell-by date), it just means that (paradoxically!) I find old titles more interesting and worth exploring.

Wow, I hope that diatribe answered your question. I'm sure this probably wasn't what you were looking for, wah! But basically, it's not that I think new manga is bad. And there's still innovation being done, usually in the more niche magazines that go beyond demographics like shōnen, shōjo, seinen, or ladies; I'm thinking of magazines like ITAN (Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju) or Beam (Emma, Thermae Romae, Imuri, Wandering Son). But mainstream shōjo manga, I feel, is definitely more boring to me.

  1. As opposed to shōjo for grown women, which is also a thing.
  2. I've seen some people on tumblr imply Comic Market was established by a Hagio Moto fan club, so this means women created it, but that's false. These people were male Hagio fans.
  3. At the time. I know Hana to Yume and (especially) Lala are huge sellers today, but their target demographic is traditionally nerdy and niche.

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