Cult of the Shoujo: Manufacturing Desirable Girls in Shoujo Manga

Academic article written by Crystal for her MA.

Given the ages of its primary audience, children’s literature tends to play a role in presenting children the norms of society. Since shoujo manga, or Japanese comics for girls, target pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, the messages they send are important, as they can have a great impact on the lives girls decide to live. Some shoujo manga present extremes of behavior that may lead to immediate reader skepticism and protest, such as master-slave relationships blooming into romance or the tried-and-true romance between a submissive human female and a dominant vampire male. However, even seemingly-innocuous shoujo manga that merely present ordinary girls going to school and looking for romance can present problematic messages when looked at critically. Specifically, these series present a consistent trend favoring a certain kind of immature girlhood over its more mature equivalent. These two kinds of girlhood can be distinguished by basic character traits such as visual design, clothing, and behaviors, and throughout the narratives we can trace favorable responses to more childlike girls and negative responses to more sexually-aware girls. Because shoujo manga assist in the acculturation process of its young readers, the messages being presented could have powerful implications for its readers and for future analysis of shoujo manga.

Throughout this paper I will analyze depictions of cute, innocent protagonists and sexually-aware secondary characters in two recent shoujo manga series: Aya Nakahara’s Love*Com and Kazune Kawahara’s High School Debut. For each series, I will look at how these types of characters fit into Scott McCloud’s definitions of the “iconic” or the “realistic,” as pulled from comics criticism, and James Kincaid’s definitions of either the “childlike” or the “adult,” as pulled from his cultural criticism. I will identify each girl as either an iconic, childlike girl or a realistic, adult girl, using McCloud and Kincaid’s definitions to interpret and label them based on their physical character designs and behaviors. Following that, I will investigate how the narratives and other characters react to these two distinct kinds of girls, highlighting a trend of consistently rewarding iconic, childlike girls and punishing those who are more realistic and adult. I will begin by looking at Nakahara’s Love*Com, which lays out the basic ground rules for what kinds of girls are rewarded or punished based on their appearances and actions. Following that, I will address Kawahara’s High School Debut, which complicates the reward/punishment binary established in Love*Com, though it ultimately does so with an emphasis towards the same desired behaviors from its female characters.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud lays out his definition for the “iconic” appearance of characters within comics, and I will be referring to his definition throughout my paper. McCloud connects the iconic with the cartoonish, “a form of amplification through simplification” that leads to the artists “focusing on specific details” that can “amplify [a cartoon’s] meaning in a way that realistic art can’t” (Understanding 30). According to McCloud’s definition, to call an image “iconic” is to say that it exaggerates certain facial features, like the eyes and mouth, while deemphasizing, or perhaps not even rendering, features less important to the character’s expression, such as the nose. In his description of iconic characters, McCloud explicitly connects the blank, exaggerated features of the “iconic” with “childlike features” in general, from which it can be inferred that characters with simplified faces can be read as more childlike than other characters (Understanding 36). Though I will not be using the idea of the “iconic” in terms of how readers are invited to respond to characters in comics, iconicity tends to mark the primary, most relatable characters in comics, and I will looking at iconicity as an indicator of how “childlike” characters are meant to be.

Similarly, Kincaid allows for a succinct definition of what it means to be “childlike” and “cute” in terms of physical appearance and the accompanying actions. He states, “[D]esirable faces must be blank, drained of color; big eyes round and expressionless; hair blond or colorless; waists, hips, feet, and minds small” (Erotic 17). He further proposes that childlike faces include “large eyes, generally narrow chins, high cheekbones, and empty come-hither expressions,” while the most desirable faces “look like cartoon characters: [. . .] images vacated so we can write our passion there” (Erotic 18, 19-20). Like McCloud, Kincaid focuses on a set of facial features primarily characterized exaggeration of specific elements, such as big eyes, and an overall blankness of expression; additionally, Kincaid finds that this particular combination of features attracts viewers, “focus[ing] and allow[ing their] desire” (Erotic 20). Though I will not be looking at how viewers outside of the narrative respond to “childlike” characters as Kincaid does, this idea also holds for how others within the narrative treat characters depending on whether or not they fulfill his criteria for being “childlike.” As such, I will draw on his definition throughout my paper when exploring how the narratives or other characters reward or punish various kinds of girls within shoujo manga.

Though using McCloud and Kincaid to analyze shoujo manga may seem like a strange combination at first, shoujo manga have several traits that allow the genre to be the perfect field for exploring the intersections of McCloud’s and Kincaid’s theories of the iconic and childlike. Though Kincaid seems to have no knowledge of manga, McCloud does and declares iconic characters with “simple, emotive faces and figures” to be one of the “manga storytelling techniques” he discovered in 1982 that were absent from mainstream American comics (Making 216). A sample shoujo manga artist in Shojo Beat’s Manga Artist Academy elaborates on the importance of iconic characters in the genre, since “[t]he reader has to feel like she’s that person [the main character], like she’s his or her friend…” (Iizuka 44). Furthermore, in her how-to-draw book Manga Secrets, Lea Hernandez describes critical visual elements of the “Nice Girl,” or the shoujo manga protagonist, that align with McCloud’s description of the iconic character and Kincaid’s definition of an innocent, childlike person. Hernandez highlights these characteristics: “[s]he might have an unusual hair color, but rarely an edgy hairstyle”; “[s]he doesn’t wear lipstick so make her mouth ‘plain’”; her standard expression should be “thoughtful or pleasantly neutral”; and her “clothes are always neat and quite cute, not too mod or sexy” (39).

In addition to the aspects of physical appearance that Kincaid identifies—large, round eyes; round heads and narrow chins; barely-styled hair; and slender, pre-pubescent-looking bodies—he notes that their behavior also falls within a limited range: pure, idealized children can be overly full of energy, “moderately naughty” and “often in trouble but never malicious” (Erotic 57). While this potentially-troublesome energy of children may seem problematic within the idea of the innocent child, Kincaid explains that “[t]heir actions never cause us to doubt that their hearts are pure” (Erotic 57). Though children can get into trouble, they never intend to do so or to cause harm; rather, they are full of pure energy and, in expelling that genuine energy without direction, can cause mishaps. In their actions, shoujo manga protagonists frequently fall into this category of being energetic and sometimes causing difficulties for others, though they generally mean well and seldom think of intentionally doing ill to others. Overall, shoujo manga protagonists tend to visually resemble the kinds of iconic, childlike faces McCloud and Kincaid describe, and they also seem to align closely to the behavior of the idealized pure, cute, sexually-innocent child Kincaid defines.

Despite the overlap between McCloud and Kincaid, Kincaid takes his analysis further by addressing explicitly how viewers and narratives respond to idealized images of innocent children in our culture. Kincaid addresses many examples of our societal preference for children over adolescents or fully-mature adults, specifically how we reward certain forms of behavior and influence children to behave in certain manners. For example, when children are put on trial in molestation cases, Kincaid finds the idea of “‘the molested child’” to be “manufactured according to specifications that fit adults’ needs, not theirs,” as “[w]e insist so much on the child’s inability, seem to feel such desire to find this weakness in the child, that perhaps we are stuffing it in there ourselves” (Erotic 208). Horatio Alger’s popular rags-to-riches books emphasize “how boys are helpless and beautiful” and “depend [. . .] on fine outer qualities to attract responsive adult gentlemen who will more or less hand them their success [. . .] on a platter” (Erotic 64). When watching Shirley Temple films, Kincaid “was struck [. . .] with how doggedly she worked at being cute,” constantly rearranging her skirts to look proper on film while also “go[ing] right on with the demanding job of being darling”—for her pains, Shirley Temple remains the greatest child star in America (Erotic 120, 121). These examples all demonstrate the importance of children fitting within society’s definition of a cute, innocent child. Additionally, each example shows the role of adults in shaping children, whether they reward proper children, as in Horatio Alger’s books, or consciously coach and manipulate children so that they fulfill society’s ideal child image. For Kincaid, the adult’s work at manufacturing perfect children pervades popular culture, showing up in most of our narratives; because of this, Kincaid worries that we may also be manipulating our own children through the messages we send them. From this aspect of Kincaid, I will borrow his concern with the manipulation that accompanies perfect children, as well as the potential implications these images of children in media could have on children in real life.
In order to analyze a range of shoujo manga characters, the opposite of iconic, childlike images should also be established. McCloud discusses a pictorial spectrum between “realistic” images and “iconic” images, where “the photograph and the realistic picture are the icons that most resemble their real-life counterparts” in terms of the amount of details present (Understanding 28); those detailed images provide a convenient contrast to the images he defines as “iconic.” Kincaid briefly defines the opposite of the childlike, or the “adult”: “the child is that species which is free of sexual feeling or response; the adult is that species which has crossed over into sexuality” (Child-Loving 6-7). The distinction between children and adults follows several additional binaries: “innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge, incapacity and competence, empty and full, low and high, weak and powerful” (Child-Loving 7). Though Kincaid primarily differentiates between the childlike and the adult in terms of knowledge and other abstract criteria, we can assume that non-childlike people also have more mature and adult physical traits than children, such as post-pubescent bodies with secondary sex characteristics, more sharply defined facial features, and accessories that reflect their psychological and sexual maturity. As a whole, Kincaid’s definition of the adult’s knowledgeable, marked psyche matches McCloud’s definition of realistic characters; such experienced, more realistic characters appear throughout shoujo manga and make a stark contrast to the sexually-innocent, childlike, iconic protagonists.

As with innocent children, Kincaid explores common responses to adult-like characters within society. Because society prizes perfect children so much, we tend to punish children when they start adolescence and become too adult and sexually-mature for our tastes. For most real-life child success stories, a negative counterpoint exists following the onset of puberty. Kincaid offers a run-down of such cases: “Shirley Temple was enticing until she reached puberty, and instantly became a Republican frump; Rick Schroder lost our interest when he stopped calling himself ‘Ricky’; Macaulay Culkin soon teetered over the brink of unerotic oblivion; Tom Sawyer’s later adventures do not interest us” (Erotic 17). In the instance of the scientist Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and the wild boy Victor, who was found in the woods by hunters, Itard initially recorded great affection for the boy, but within five years those feelings waned. Itard “admits to ‘results much below . . . expectations,’ but [Kincaid] must wonder if his desertion was prompted by Victor’s illiteracy or by his puberty, more exactly, his adolescence and then dull adulthood. Victor ceased to be mesmerizing; Itard probably wondered how that magic boy vanished” (Erotic 62). Since society sets adulthood up as the opposite of childhood, these harsh rejections parallel the rewarding love showered on ideal children; furthermore, though Kincaid does not take his analysis this far, these reactions could also potentially influence children and shape the behaviors they pursue in their lives in order to retain adult love and approbation. I will borrow Kincaid’s concern for society’s openly negative attitude towards adults and children who begin puberty, especially insofar as it may influence how children seek to live their lives.

First I will look at Aya Nakahara’s Love*Com, which follows Risa Koizumi, a comically-tall, cute, and sexually-innocent girl, as she falls in love with and begins dating Atsushi Ôtani, a comically-short boy. Over the course of the series, Risa faces the romantic rivalry of an adult-like, sexually-mature girl, Mimi Yoshioka. The treatment these two girls receive at the hands of the narrative and its primary agent, Ôtani, indicate an essential systematic preference within shoujo manga for iconic, childlike girls over their realistic, adult counterparts.

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Image 1

Risa’s character design conforms to both McCloud’s description of iconic characters and Kincaid’s description of cute, childlike characters, as seen in Image 1. This image, from early in Love*Com’s first volume, introduces the series’ main character to the readers. Notably, Risa’s face resembles that of a child, despite her being 15—her eyes are big and round, taking up a quarter of her face, while her mouth and nose are as small as possible so as not to detract from her eyes. Though Risa’s face has some specific details, such as the eyelashes that mark her as female, her face generally remains simple and iconic, devoid of the blush marks or makeup that more sexually-aware characters tend to have.

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Nakahara created Risa with an iconic visual design that emphasizes her childlike, straightforward nature, and Risa’s actions further illustrate how sexually innocent and unaware she is, matching Kincaid’s description of the cute and childlike. Though Risa frequently looks cute and attractive within Love*Com, this happens without her meaning to, and whenever she explicitly tries to be coy with her love interest, Ôtani, he laughs at her awkward efforts. Ôtani’s harsh responses to Risa’s adult-like attempts essentially punish her for trying to act in a manner outside of her designated group. After Risa has confessed her feelings to Ôtani but before he returns those feelings, Risa’s best friend Nobu encourages Risa to knowingly “[s]trut [her] stuff” in order to attract Ôtani (5.59). Following this advice, Risa asks Ôtani about his plans for Christmas, a lover’s holiday in Japan. Risa is clearly trying too hard, as seen in Image 2: she clenches her hands demurely in front of her, tilts her head, and turns one knee in; her face exhibits a forced grin and thick, embarrassed blush marks; and a heart even appears in her speech bubble. In response, Ôtani shivers, then gets goosebumps and responds, “Yuck!” (5.62). Rather than, as Risa had hoped, liking her coyness, Ôtani finds Risa’s knowing façade to be unnatural and punishes her for it with his obvious rejection. Only when Risa returns to her normal ingenuous behavior does Ôtani reward her by reacting positively to her actions.

This pattern of rejection, changed behavior, and reward recurs throughout the series. After Risa and Ôtani have begun dating and she has met his childhood friend Mimi Yoshioka, Risa renews her attempt at acting coyly to impress Ôtani. Risa tries calling Ôtani by Mimi’s childhood nickname for him, “Atchan,” while affecting coyness: her eyes are shut, her hands are in fists by her face, her elbows are by her sides, her head is tilted, and she again has a heart in her speech bubble (8.92). The tall stack of lines used for her closed, grinning eyes suggests that Risa’s act is an unnatural façade, and Ôtani’s reaction of shuddering with a thick outline shows that he feels creeped out by Risa’s uncharacteristically knowing and coy actions. On the following page, Ôtani, covered in short hairs that suggest goosebumps, yells, “Don’t call me ‘Atchan,’ it creeps me out!!!” (8.93). As above, Ôtani reacts extremely negatively to Risa’s attempt to be knowing and adult-like, suggesting a preference for a more innocent, childlike version of Risa. Risa seems to take Ôtani’s message to heart, as she never acts in this manner throughout the rest of the series. Through his reactions to Risa based on her adult or childlike behavior, Ôtani manipulates her into limiting her desires to be coy or knowledgeable, instead leading her to play to her supposed strengths as an innocent, childlike girl.

Ôtani primarily finds Risa attractive due to the purity of her uncalculated actions and emotions, encouraging her to remain that way if she wants his affection. Take, for example, a scene in which Risa, tired of crying over Ôtani after being rejected, tells him she will give up on liking him and quit making him feel uncomfortable by her feelings. Though Ôtani normally keeps his emotions to himself, Risa’s honest, thoughtful words bring him to tell her, “Don’t quit,” and he shares his thoughts with her (7.37). He confesses, “But see… I don’t know, things’re different now. From then. I see you all over Mighty all the time, it pisses me off. You say you’re gonna quit loving me, I don’t want you to. Whatever. I don’t know what’s the matter with me” (7.39-40). Ôtani stops short of telling Risa he likes her, but his words give her enough to hope for a relationship, and later in the volume the two begin dating. In this example, Ôtani deliberately manipulates Risa’s emotions, telling her what she is allowed to feel for him and dictating the terms of their relationship. Despite Ôtani’s manipulation, though, Risa finds hope in his words and is ecstatic when Ôtani finally rewards her patience by kissing her.

On their first date, when everything goes awry due to Risa trying to act feminine, this pattern reemerges—Risa finally acts ingenuously, causing Ôtani to feel touched and reward her for that shift. Risa breaks down crying and explains, “Well, gosh… This was our first date! I wanted to dress up a little and look pretty…” (8.48). Shocked by her transparency, Ôtani, with blush marks on his cheeks, grabs his heart and says, “That kinda got me. Felt a little tug over here” (8.49). The interactions between Risa and Ôtani follow this pattern throughout the series, emphasizing the success of Risa’s innocence over any artificial act she may attempt to use. Through his responses to her, Ôtani encourages Risa to continue to be essentially transparent and lacking in knowledge instead of maturing sexually or continuing her attempts to be coy. Ôtani’s emotional manipulation of Risa results in her continuing to be cute and childlike in Kincaid’s sense, and these personality traits match with her iconic, childlike visual character design. Risa’s iconic, childlike design and her sexual innocence, coupled with Ôtani’s constant rewarding of that behavior, forms the basis for one end of the spectrum of kinds of girlhood and how they are rewarded or punished within shoujo manga.

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Mimi Yoshioka, Ôtani’s childhood friend and Risa’s romantic rival, finishes out the spectrum of iconic/innocent vs. realistic/knowing girls within shoujo manga, demonstrating how realistic and adult girls tend to look within the genre. Mimi has a much less iconic character design than Risa, as seen in Image 4, a close-up of her, and Image 5, which allows for a comparison with Risa. Despite being two years younger than Risa, Mimi has a face that more resembles that of an adult: her eyes are more almond-shaped than circular; she has longer eyelashes than Risa, which line the outside edges of her eyes instead of the entire upper eyelid; and her jawline is more angular and less rounded. Image 5, which is the first close-up of Mimi, also emphasizes the curve of her lips with shading, which only happens for Risa when she dresses up as a model. The details of Mimi’s character design, which contrasts with McCloud’s description of the iconic and Kincaid’s description of the childlike, mark her as a mature, sexually-aware character.

Mimi’s clothing choices and actions further the impression of her as mature and aware of her sexuality through her manipulative attempts to make Ôtani into her boyfriend. When around Ôtani, Mimi seems sweet, friendly, and innocent, perhaps because she knows that Ôtani’s ex-girlfriend is that way, but her drastic shifts in demeanor around Risa show her personality to be a consciously-put-on act. Once she learns that Ôtani has a new girlfriend, Mimi actively begins to fight Risa for Ôtani by crashing their date; this occasion demonstrates how knowing and adult-like Mimi can be as she tries hard to manipulate him into liking her. Mimi dresses in a manner that flaunts her physical assets in a sexual manner: her off-the-shoulder sweater shows off her collarbones, tank-top straps, and shoulders; her leopard-print miniskirt shows off her thighs and knees; and her slouchy leg warmers resemble kogal-style1 loose socks and suggest a similar sexual awareness (8.152). Her clothes signal her sexual awareness of her body and knowledge of how to best attract attention to it, and she uses her body to physically get Ôtani’s attention by hugging his arm (8.150). Ôtani punishes this behavior, shrugging her off and yelling, “I said, get off of me!! Leave me alone!” (8.150). Soon after, Risa, who rarely touches Ôtani, joins Mimi by hugging Ôtani’s other arm, which prompts another admonitory outburst from Ôtani: “Will you two just cut it out?! Lay off of me!!” (8.152). In line with his earlier rebukes, Ôtani rejects Mimi at the end of the date she crashed and explains that he likes Risa instead because there is “[n]ever a dull moment around her, that’s for sure,” presumably due to her childlike, energetic personality (8.169) Rather than rewarding the artful, mature Mimi by romantically liking her, Ôtani chooses the innocent, genuine, and childlike Risa as more worthy of rewarding with true romantic love.

Next I will look at Kazune Kawahara’s High School Debut, which covers Haruna Nagashima’s quest to get a boyfriend with the help of her love coach—and eventual boyfriend—Yoh Komiyama. Though Haruna faces little romantic rivalry in her relationship with Yoh, especially as compared with Risa in Love*Com, she does encounter two sexually-aware secondary characters: her middle-school softball rival, Leona Matsuzaka, and Yoh’s younger sister, Asami Komiyama. Generally, the females within High School Debut conform to the paradigm established in Love*Com in which iconic, innocent girls are rewarded for their behavior, while realistic, knowledgeable girls are punished. However, Asami complicates this binary, as she attains a strong, lasting romantic relationship, despite her distinct lack of sexual innocence. Asami presents an intriguing potential middle ground for girls within shoujo manga, demonstrating that mature girls can still be rewarded if they bring themselves to act within a certain set of prescribed conditions.

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Though the premise of High School Debut suggests that its protagonist may be somewhat mature and sexually aware, with its focus on Haruna’s search for a boyfriend, in actuality Haruna is a naïve, innocent girl like Risa who wants the fluffy version of love she reads about in shoujo manga. Haruna’s visual character design aligns with her straight-forward personality and limited knowledge of the realities of love, as she fits both McCloud’s criteria for being iconic and Kincaid’s definition of the cute child. The dominant features on Haruna’s face are her large, wide eyes and her wide mouth; however, unlike Mimi’s curvy, shaded lips, Haruna’s mouth has only a flat line suggesting the presence of a child’s full lower lip. Haruna may have the requisite eyelashes that mark her as female, but Kawahara deemphasizes Haruna’s other features by giving her a simple, un-highlighted hairstyle and only hinting at her nose. In agreement with McCloud’s definition of the iconic, only the essential elements of Haruna’s design—her eyes and her mouth—are emphasized to make her look as simple, blank, and childlike as possible. As far as Kincaid’s definition of the childlike, Haruna has the big eyes he speaks of, as well as a narrow chin, nondescript hair, and a slightly androgynous appearance. When not at emotional extremes, Haruna’s appearance foregoes extra details, such as the blush marks that almost constantly adorn her friend Asami’s cheeks, in favor of representing her basic, iconic face.

Haruna’s actions conform to her appearance as an innocent, sexually-unaware girl who may try to attract male attention but has no idea of how to use her body to her best advantage. A large part of Haruna’s attempts to find a boyfriend at the beginning of the narrative focus on her dressing herself according to fashion magazines’ advice and failing miserably, as Yoh informs her. Following an insult or rejection of her outfit by Yoh, Haruna always tries her best to find another outfit that will draw his approval, directly showing how Yoh’s opinion shapes the person Haruna becomes. Shortly after they first meet, Haruna dolls herself up to the best of her abilities in a ruffled, off-the-shoulder dress that shows off her buff arms, and she stands at a public spot, arms crossed and feet shoulder-width apartment, anxiously waiting for hours for a guy to pick her up. After waiting for a while and seeing other girls get picked up, Haruna, almost crying, thinks, “Maybe I’m just hopeless? I want to keep trying…but I don’t know what I should do anymore” (1.47). Just then, Yoh shows up and informs her, “You’re wearing too much perfume. You also overdid it with your outfit. Nobody wants to hit on a girl who’s trying too hard. You’re doing it all wrong” (1.47-48). Because Haruna constantly consults fashion magazines about the best way to knowingly look attractive instead of relying on her innocent ingenuity to attract boys, she faces a great deal of criticism from Yoh, punishing her for her incorrect decision.

This trend of Haruna failing to look attractive when she goes out of her way and being chastised by Yoh occurs throughout the rest of the series, such as when she dresses up in a fancy dress with a transparent pink wrap to go shopping for a skirt with Yoh. Upon seeing her, Yoh looks shocked (with wide eyes and empty irises) and states blankly, “I’m not walking around with a girl who’s dressed like that” (1.59). Following this, Yoh takes her to his house, forcing her to change into some of his clothes instead of allowing her to continue wearing clothing that offends his sensibilities. Clearly, Yoh punishes Haruna for dressing in an incorrect, too-mature fashion; similarly, the narrative rewards Haruna for following Yoh’s advice, as within the chapter another boy hits on Haruna, presumably due to the laid-back, unsexy T-shirt and jeans she borrowed from Yoh. Consistently throughout High School Debut and in line with Risa’s experiences in Love*Com, Haruna fails at love and faces Yoh’s disdain when she consciously tries to be coy or dress in a sexy, mature manner.

On the other hand, Haruna succeeds at being attractive to Yoh, and therefore feels rewarded, when she does not go out of her way and acts like herself without any pretense. After their first date, when Haruna acts more like a child than a girlfriend, Yoh states, “Sometimes, instead of feeling like your boyfriend… I felt more like your guardian” (3.154). Haruna worries about Yoh’s disapproval of her behavior and asks Yoh out on another date to try to improve her behavior; this second date ends up similarly, as Haruna ends up playing softball with her old middle school team while Yoh watches. This time, though, Yoh watches Haruna’s grinning face with a serene expression and later reassures her, “Don’t worry about us too much. Maybe it’s not how it usually works, but let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing. Getting caught up in your pace and rhythm is something I don’t mind at all” (3.184). As with Haruna’s clothing choices above, Yoh acts as the arbiter of relationship correctness—Haruna will try to change herself if Yoh seems unsatisfied, and she will only relax once he has voiced his approval of her actions. Just as Yoh acted as her love coach at the series’s beginning, Yoh seems to act like love coach within their relationship, perhaps because he has previous relationship experience, or perhaps because he is older and male. Regardless, Haruna obviously and full-heartedly strives to achieve Yoh’s approval, only doing so when she continues to act innocent and childlike.

Later in the manga, Yoh again rewards Haruna for acting childlike and energetic, showing how pervasive this trend is throughout the series. When Haruna’s rival Leona Matsuzaka locks Haruna and Yoh in the gym’s storage basement in revenge, Haruna’s genuine concern for Yoh’s wellbeing spurs him into helping her find a way out of the room and voicing his emotions. Haruna begins ramming the door with her shoulder and earnestly declares, “Don’t try and stop me! I’m going to protect you! We’re going to get out of this alive! And we’re gonna do lots of fun stuff together!!” (5.69-70). Touched by her actions, Yoh has a rare candid moment and openly reciprocates her feelings: “You know… I feel the same way. I mean… I want to protect you too” (5.71). Blushing, he concludes, “Why do I always have to say it out loud before you’ll understand?” (5.72). Yoh only drops his guard and says romantic things to Haruna when her impulsive, childlike actions show that she sincerely cares about him, and, when she outright tries to be attractive, he instead criticizes her misguided attempts. Through these interactions, Haruna and Yoh seem to reinforce the trend of rewarding innocent, iconic girls and emotionally manipulating them to repeat similar actions, as established above in Love*Com.

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Leona Matsuzaka, Haruna’s rival from softball, fits in with Mimi from Love*Com as looking realistic and adult-like, meaning she also faces punishment by the narrative for not conforming to the desired category of innocent, childlike girls like Risa and Haruna. When placed next to Haruna in Image 7, the most notable difference between Haruna and Leona is the size of their eyes: Haruna’s big, childlike eyes take up about a quarter of her head, while Leona’s resemble the size of eyes in a realistic adult face. Leona has about the same amount of eyelashes as Haruna, but they stand out more on Leona due to the smaller size of her eyes, suggesting the use of mascara. Furthermore, Leona has sleek, slanting eyebrows, a line demarcating the bridge of her nose, lines and shading emphasizing the curve of her lips, and a sleek, sophisticated hairstyle. Everything about Leona’s detailed, realistic appearance suggests the mature and creates a visual distance between her and Haruna, who resembles the ideal cute and iconic child.

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Leona’s actions further indicate her sexual awareness, for, though she does not have a boyfriend, she aptly manipulates boys to follow along with her suggestions. Image 8 shows Leona asking a boy to trade his seat with her so she can sit next to Haruna in class. Her sex appeal and suggestive “Please…?” lead the boy to give in, eyes and mouth wide; in the next panel, a screentone circle covers his round eyes, glowing like he has become a robot (5.12). Leona uses the same attack later on, such as when she is on Asami’s group date with rich boys and instructs a boy, “Do. Not. Touch. Carry” (7.80). The boy, eyes glowing and surrounded by love-struck sparkles, replies, “Okay,” with a heart in his speech balloon (7.80). Leona can willfully turn her sex appeal to a higher level, due to her status as a sexually-aware, mature girl; however, she fails to find romantic success through this method.

Though Leona’s ability to turn boys into her servants seems to hint that she may successfully find a romantic relationship, the narrative ultimately punishes her due to the egocentrism and artifice inherent in her basic character design. As a sexually-aware character, Leona can overwhelm males with her sexuality, but her egocentrism keeps them at a distance so they cannot fall in love with her. Unlike Haruna, Leona never prioritizes establishing a strong relationship with boys based on her true personality; instead, she exploits them for the moment and then ignores them, as demonstrated above. Once she has secured what she wants, Leona moves on to other concerns, like exacting revenge on Haruna through any means necessary, and ignores the very presence of males. On the group date with rich boys, once Leona has secured her chance to sing, she utterly ignores the boys, caught up in herself and her rivalry with Haruna. Indeed, as Leona relates to Haruna, she has been asked out many times, but she “turned down all these guys and never got a boyfriend” because she was focused solely on her desire to beat Haruna in softball (5.26). Because Leona focuses on a goal other than finding a man, she never finds happiness within the narrative and always comes out below the childlike, innocent Haruna, whether it be at sports or love. Like other knowing, realistic characters in shoujo manga, Leona fails to find any lasting romance within High School Debut, despite her seeming success at using her sex appeal to manipulate males. Leona’s perceived failing aligns with that of Mimi, unifying these realistic, sexually-aware girls on the punished side of the spectrum within shoujo manga, in contrast with the successes of Risa and Haruna, who are iconic and sexually-innocent and therefore receive encouragement to stay that way from their steady boyfriends.

Image 9 (2.69):

Image 9

Despite the consistent trends within Love*Com and High School Debut, the second sexually-mature girl in High School Debut, Yoh’s sister Asami, challenges the either-or nature of the reward/punishment paradigm that has so far been established. From her first introduction, Asami fits into the category of the sexually-aware girl with a knack for attracting boys that Haruna cannot emulate. Asami does have large, round eyes and a narrow chin that make her seem somewhat iconic and childlike, but the extra details in her character design firmly place her on the side of the more experienced, adult-like characters alongside Mimi and Leona. Image 9 shows Haruna and Asami side-by-side on the same page and allows for comparisons between the two. In contrast to Haruna, Asami has dark, curly hair with two shades to it, longer, clumped eyelashes that seem to be treated with mascara, detailed irises, thick blush marks on her cheeks, and round highlights on her lips that suggest the use of lipgloss. These additional details all suggest Asami’s psychological maturity and explicit attention to looking attractive through the use of makeup.

In addition to looking less childlike and more mature, Asami also acts and dresses like a sexually-aware woman, consciously using her looks to her best advantage. Early on in High School Debut, Asami feels lonely and decides to hit on Fumiya Tamura, the guy Haruna likes at the moment. Blushing, Asami boldly climbs on Fumiya’s lap and asks, “Don’t you like me? Fumi…I like you” (2.40-41). These actions result in the two of them kissing and becoming a couple, though recently he had told Yoh he would be open to dating Haruna if he had the chance. At later points in the narrative, Asami again turns on her seductive charms against Fumiya, rich boys from another school, and even Haruna. Asami also dresses in reflection of her psychological maturity, frequently wearing feminine designs that show off her assets like frilly, low-cut dresses, lace, and flouncy skirts. The combination of Asami’s physical features, decisive actions, and stylish wardrobe signal her sexual awareness and her ability to make decisions on her own about how to act in certain situations and when to take the lead in a romance.

Given her appearance of a realistic, knowing adult, Asami seems destined to be punished by the narrative for not being an innocent, childlike girl; however, unlike Mimi or Leona, Asami has a steady, mostly-successful romantic relationship throughout the majority of the narrative, complicating the trends noted above. Significantly, though, Asami’s relationship with Fumiya only flourishes due to occasional instances of her acting genuinely by sharing her hidden insecurities with Haruna or her boyfriend, Fumiya. At the start of her relationship with Fumiya, Asami feels guilty about taking him from Haruna, who had briefly liked him, and leaves Fumiya outside in the cold while she confesses her shame to Haruna. Once Fumiya finds her and she sees how cold his hands are from waiting in the cold, Asami’s façade breaks down and she cries while apologizing, then expresses her true feelings: “Fumi…I like you too” (2.119-20). In this instance, Asami adapts her normal cutthroat self to Haruna’s more innocent, childlike morality, and the narrative rewards her only after she does so by reconciling her with her boyfriend.

Another situation later on begins to follow in the vein of punishing sexually-knowledgeable girls as established above, but again Asami’s experience complicates the binary. Feeling insecure about her relationship with Fumiya, Asami decides the girls should go on a group date with rich boys so she can find a better boyfriend than Fumiya. However, the ringleader does not respect Asami due to her realistic, knowing appearance and tries to force himself on her. He explains to her, “I do think you’re cute, and I’m going to get what I want. I’ll show you what happens when you work a guy up. [. . .] And I’m going to teach you how to please me” (7.121). Due to Asami’s sexually-mature appearance and confident, flirtatious behavior, the guy believes that Asami owes him sexual favors and should act fully in accordance with how he interprets her appearance and behaviors. At this point, the narrative clearly seems to be punishing Asami for being sexually knowing by using her sexuality against her through the threat of rape.

However, instead of continuing on to punish Asami for her undesirable sexual awareness, as would be expected by the binary already established, the narrative rewards her for the strength of her relationship with Fumiya and her potential to be genuine in sharing her feelings with him. Following the ringleader’s threat, Asami screams, and Fumiya comes to her rescue, beating up the guy and defending Asami’s honor. He declares, “Asami is a good girl! Whenever we go to eat something, she always lets me eat her leftovers! If she’s late, she always apologizes. She’s a good girl! Don’t ever say she’s not!” (7.127). Images of Asami’s face appear throughout Fumiya’s speech, showing the effect his words have on her via her round, empty, more iconic eyes, and on the following page, secure again that Fumiya likes her, Asami reconciles with him. She shares, “We’ve been dating for half a year already. You never do anything to me. You don’t initiate anything… I was feeling unsatisfied…and insecure” (7.129). Fumiya instantly understands her emotions and kisses her passionately in response, then cries, “I was holding back! I care for you! If that’s what was making you feel insecure, then I won’t hold back anymore! I love you, Asami!” (7.131). Importantly, this conversation takes for granted that Fumiya has the agency in the relationship. Though Asami’s desires matter, she does not consider making a move herself; instead, she relies on Fumiya to set the pace of the relationship and to reassure her that she should continue to feel secure about her feelings. Even when Fumiya defends Asami, his words validate Asami’s form of girlhood, just as Risa and Haruna rely on the positive responses from Ôtani and Yoh when determining how they should feel and act in the future.

Asami’s happy ending complicates the strict theory that innocent, iconic girls always get rewarded in love while knowing, realistic girls get punished in the long run and never find true love. Though Asami fits the same criteria as Mimi and Leona and clearly is more psychologically mature than Risa or Haruna, she also finds real love within the main narrative of High School Debut by baring her genuine feelings and more happily bearing her passive role in her relationship with Fumiya. Asami’s success indicates that, despite a girl’s appearance, being emotionally genuine and devoted to pleasing a single man determines whether or not characters in shoujo manga will be successful in love. Without a doubt, the innocent, iconic protagonists will always find long-lasting, secure love over the course of the manga’s narrative, but Asami suggests that knowing, realistic characters can be redeemed in certain circumstances and receive similar happy endings by following certain rules. In Asami’s case, she achieves happiness by dropping her artificial confidence and being comfortable with Fumiya taking full charge of their relationship, acts which show her commitment to a serious, monogamous relationship with him. Instead of entirely relinquishing her sexual knowledge as might be expected, though, Asami only gives up her manipulative coyness and begins to share her genuine feelings with Fumiya so he can guide their relationship in a mutually-agreeable direction. Asami’s tradeoff points to the potential for a halfway point between the two extremes, so long as a realistic, sexually-mature girl sacrifices some elements of herself and begins to shape herself into the perfect girl in the eyes of her boyfriend.

As a whole, though, these examples indicate that iconic, innocent girls will be rewarded in shoujo manga by finding love, while their realistic, knowing counterparts will most likely be unlucky in love. The narratives themselves reveal this pattern, but oftentimes male love interests stand in for society by doling out the reward or punishment to girls; by doing so, the males function as Kincaid sees adults within society, manufacturing ideal children through their responses to certain sets of behavior. This dynamic between the male love interests and the female protagonists reinforces gender norms by encouraging girls to submit to the desires of boys, as well as strongly indicating the necessity of being childlike and innocent in order to find a successful romance.

Because girls who read shoujo manga tend to still be learning the rules of society, given their young ages, this trend within shoujo manga could have a strong impact on young girl readers. Just as Kincaid worries about media and adults manufacturing a desired kind of child, shoujo manga could continue that work with girls, spreading ideas about what ideal girlhood looks like and how those girl readers should be. On the one hand, shoujo manga with innocent, childlike main characters could exist to encourage more immature girls who feel inferior to more mature and knowledgeable girls; however, they could also encourage girls who are rapidly approaching puberty to remain as childlike and innocent as they can in hopes of being found attractive within society.

The impact of the idealized innocent, cute child already exists within Japan, and its pervasive influence has been noted by several scholars. In her article that addresses the beginnings of shoujo culture in pre-World War II girls’ magazines, Mizuki Takahashi includes a magazine editor’s description of how the ideal girl should act: “To pretend to read a book that you cannot understand, to pretend to know what you do not know, and to pretend to be an adult are all what you should not do. These behaviors are disliked and laughed at rather than liked and appreciated. . . . Thus, you, shōjo must be neither babies nor adults. You must be loved as shōjo for your gentleness, innocence, and wholesomeness” (117). Like shoujo manga after them, these early shoujo magazines suggest an ideal form of sexually-innocent, childlike girlhood and explicitly encourage their readers to follow that ideal in their lives through their advice columns. In a footnote to the following chapter, Deborah Shamoon takes this analysis a step further by “hypothesiz[ing] that girls’ magazines promoted an ideal of sameness not only of gender but of national identity as well, and that this ideology of sameness continues to haunt shōjo manga and girls’ culture in general” (153, n. 3). Through these two examples, we can already see the widespread effects shoujo manga may have in terms of influencing how future generations of girls act in response to popular portrayals of idealized, innocent girls who “dream of becoming happy future brides,” presumably adapting themselves to please their husbands (Takahashi 116).

The appeal of the cute and childlike also appears outside of shoujo manga, indicating a culture presence as widespread as Kincaid finds the allure of the innocent child within America. Though icons of cute culture like “Hello Kitty [or] Pikachu [do not come] directly from the realm of shōjo manga, the cuteness that they represent is very much in line with shōjo manga in this era” (Prough 51). Looking at cute culture during the 1980s, Sharon Kinsella notes that “[t]he word kawaii [‘cute’] itself was by 1992 estimated to be ‘the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese’” (220-21). Cute culture appears through various outlets, like handwriting, “using baby-talk, acting childish and wearing virginal childish clothes,” and, while it originated on the streets, it spread through girls’ fashion and shoujo manga magazines (Kinsella 225). Kinsella also explicitly ties the idea of cute with a voluntary loss of agency: “Rather than acting sexually proactive to emphasise their maturity and independence, Japanese youth acted pre-sexual and vulnerable in order to emphasise their immaturity and inability to carry out social responsibilities” (243). This connection between cuteness, immaturity, and a lack of agency reflects the experiences of Risa, Haruna, and Asami within shoujo manga, as they give up some control over their lives to men in order to have successful relationships. Though Kinsella writes specifically about the 1980s, cute culture continues to have a strong influence in Japan today: “Cute is one element of the vast popular culture which has flourished in Japan during the last quarter of a century, overwhelming and threatening traditional culture” (252). Within shoujo manga in particular, cute protagonists continue to reign, as seen in Love*Com and High School Debut, potentially appealing to girls being brought up within the culture of cute and perhaps helping to perpetuate its elevated status and strong hold on what counts as desirable for girls within society.


1. The term kogal (or kogyaru) refers to a popular fashion trend among Japanese schoolgirls that began “in the late 1980s and early 1990” and “blends the notion of kawaii (cute) [. . .] with a carefree, sexy attitude, adding an urban flair” (Prough 116, 117). When in school uniforms, kogals can be recognized by their “baggy socks, short skirts, and oversized sweaters,” through which they transform their uniforms “into an almost ‘prostitute-chic’ look” (Prough 122, 117). Kogals are closely associated with the phenomenon of enjo kōsai, or compensated dating, which “refers to the practice of schoolgirls giving their time and, sometimes, sexual favors to older men in exchange for money to buy designer goods” (Prough 118). Though not all kogals engage in enjo kōsai or are sexually active, girls who style themselves as kogals or dress similarly do seem to be passing themselves off as sexually aware.

Works Cited

Hernandez, Lea. Manga Secrets. Cincinnati, OH: Impact, 2005. Print.
Iizuka, Hiroyuki. Shojo Beat’s Manga Artist Academy. Trans. Mai Ihara. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2006. Print.
Kawahara, Kazune. High School Debut. Trans. Gemma Collinge. 13 vols. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2008-2010. Print.
Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. ACLS Humanities E-Book. Web. 5 Feb. 2012.
—. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. London: Duke UP, 1998. Print.
Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. Ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 1995. 220-54. Print.
McCloud, Scott. Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: Harper, 2006. Print.
—. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.
Nakahara, Aya. Love*Com. Trans. Pookie Rolf; JN Productions. 17 vols. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2007-2010. Print.
Prough, Jennifer S. Straight from the Heart: Gender, Intimacy, and the Cultural Production of Shōjo Manga. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i P, 2011. Print.
Shamoon, Deborah. “Situating the Shōjo in Shōjo Manga: Teenage Girls, Romance Comics, and Contemporary Japanese Culture.” Japanese Visual Culture. Ed. Mark W. MacWilliams. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. 137-54. Print.
Takahashi, Mizuki. “Opening the Closed World of Shōjo Manga.” Japanese Visual Culture. Ed. Mark W. MacWilliams. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. 114-36. Print.


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