Marketing vs. Genre in Manga – How They Can Get Confused
How we classify the genres of manga/anime is a fickle thing. Lots of people treat manga and any Japanese artform as its own genre with phrases like “I think anime is for kids”, and “I think manga art is superior to DC comics”. It is important to distinguish what genre in relation to manga is before moving on. Manga and anime have genres and subgenres like any other artform. It’s how we classify these genres where it can get sticky. The prominent ways to define genre in manga is the terms: Shonen, Seinen, Shojo, and Josei. I believe that the terms shonen, seinen, shojo, and josei, shouldn’t be used as placeholders for genre, or even depict demographic well because of how the Japanese manga industry works.
The definitions of these go like this; Shonen is manga aimed at younger boys, Seinen is aimed at young men, Shojo is aimed at younger girls and Josei is aimed at young women. The main issue with this categorization is that these are marketing terms, not genre terms. This wouldn’t be a problem if these marketing terms weren’t used interchangeably with genre terms. The waters muddy even further when some of these categories seem to share conventions. These surface level similarities give the illusion of a through line, and people talk about these terms like genres with their own genre conventions.
Some examples of a “typical” shonen are: Naruto, One Piece, Bleach, and Dragon Ball. Some examples of a “typical” seinen are: Vagabond, Berserk, and Vinland Saga. Some popular shojo manga are: Fruits Basket, Ouran Highschool Host Club, Banana Fish, and Sailor Moon. Popular Josei manga include: Kids on the Slope, Chiyahafuru, and Paradise Kiss.
Each of these categorizations have “conventions” or vibes that people place onto such titles. Shojo is usually stereotyped as “girly” manga usually depicting flowery romance. Shonen manga is usually stereotyped as action heavy, fast paced shows with a sprinkle of the power of friendship. Seinen are usually seen as a grittier version of shonen, delving into grislier plotlines. Josei seems to be categorized similarly. More realistic depictions of life and romance that are deeper and more complex than shojo. But as we see, there are plenty of stories breaking these conventions.
Examples of the discordance between these concepts can be seen in many different manga. Attack on Titan is a bloody, complex show with very mature themes and philosophies. The show tackles ideas like eugenics, anti-natalism, and many many shades of moral grey, yet the story is classified as a Shonen, the purported younger target demographic. Conversely, One Punch Man is an action-comedy which focuses on a colorful cast of characters in a mostly episodic format that focuses on battles and villains and humor. This seems like a very typical shonen but One Punch Man is a seinen show. Distressing and gory horror manga like the works of Junji Ito can be found in shojo, like Tomie, a classic horror story about a girl who is killed over and over again. She is regenerated in increasingly more disturbing ways. Tomie herself is a terrible person, constantly manipulating people to get what she wants. There are no role models and the story is complex and the themes it explores are nuanced.
Lets take an interesting case to expand my point. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. JoJo’s started weekly in shonen jump as a shonen manga yet transferred over to seinen to be published monthly ultra jump. The tone of the story didn’t really change too much to fit the new demographic. The biggest change was the art and length which had a vast spike in quality because the mangaka, Hirohiko Araki, had a month to write each chapter instead of a week.
So we see now that these aren’t genres and even the demographics can get confusing! So what actually defines a one of these terms? How does a manga get put into one of these categories? What is a shonen? Its simply the magazine the manga is published in. If a manga is published in Shonen Jump then its a shonen no matter the themes, content, or anything else. It’s a seinen if it published in a magazine like Ultra Jump as well.
How do these magazines work then? When a mangaka submits a work to a shonen magazine, the editors review it and suggest changes based on marketing to a mass audience. This marketing can sway in a lot of ways depending on the climate of the manga market in Japan at the time and what’s pushing volumes. Sometimes that is playing into the popular tropes of the day and trying to emulate the bigger recent successes. Some magazines even try to appease wider audiences with the manga they publish. This is a recent phenomenon in shonen magazines. This leads to manga published in shonen magazines specifically marketed towards women. (Prince of Tennis published in Jump Square for example.) With this constantly changing manga market, the genres and terms are getting more and more confusing.
The terms shonen, seinen, shojo, and josei, shouldn’t be used as placeholders for genre, or even depict demographic well because of how the Japanese manga industry works. At least for western manga consumption purposes I believe we should use more standard genre classifications such as: action/adventure, fantasy, romance, etc. to make manga classification more accessible and easier to understand.
What do you think? Leave a comment.