Contrary to popular belief, this branch of anime is almost as old as anime itself, seeing as its origins date as far back as 1966 with the creation of Magical Witch Sally. This anime sported a concept that was perhaps unoriginal (mostly a copy of the sitcom Bewitched, which aired in 1964) but became popular among girls because it presented a female lead character for the first time.
Another unique characteristic that is hardly known by anime enthusiasts is most of the first shoujo anime were not created by women, which is a given these days, but by men! Magical Witch Sally, for example, was created by Yokoyama Mitsuteru, more widely known for creating the giant robot subgenre with anime like Tetsujin 28th, Babel II and Giant Robo. The same can be said for the other groundbreaking series of the era: Princess Knight, which was a creation of the “God of Manga” himself, Tezuka Osamu.
It wouldn’t be until 1973 that a relevant television series with characters created by women would see the light of day: Aim for the Ace!. Even though it was not the first shoujo anime out there (other anime like Attack No. 1 have that honor), it became a moderate hit at the time. From that moment forward, most anime aimed at women would be created by women, and it was dramas like Candy Candy and Rose of Versailles in the mid and late ’70s that proved to the network executives that this particular form of animation could be a commercially viable product. The rest, as they say, is history.
What put the “shoujo” in shoujo anime?
From my own experience, I have noticed three, distinctive primary characteristics and one secondary characteristic:
1. The main character is usually a girl or woman, and every aspect of the anime gravitates around them.
2. The plot is secondary to the characters. The creators are more preoccupied in developing the characters and their relationships, and the plot is usually made to increase the appeal of the character. Curiously enough, it is the clarity with which the characters are created that makes it easier to make a convincing plot for them.
3. The shows tend to be serialized, having one grand tale to tell and dividing it in little pieces. Therefore, continuation via cliffhangers is almost a given from episode to episode.
The secondary characteristic is the character design itself. Eyes tend to be larger, with a certain twinkle present. Male characters tend to be unusually handsome and, in many cases, almost girl-like in appearance. The only reason why I don’t catalog this as a distinctive characteristic is because anime character design has changed, and some elements which used to be unique to shoujo anime have now crossed into the mainstream.
Not every shoujo anime is created equal
There are three styles out there that try to appeal to the female population, and the peculiarities have a lot to do with the age bracket each try to reach.
1. Mahou shoujo (magical girl): This is the oldest of the three groups. It is aimed at younger audiences and usually involves a girl with pure intentions trying to help out others through the use of magic or some magical artifact. It can be said that the modern profile for this branch of anime came into existence in 1982, with the
appearance of Minky Momo, which established the elements that are now staples in the genre: magical transformation (usually involving an almost X-rated sequence complete with an incantation or catch phrase, making the character appear older and sexier); use of batons, flashy costumes, presence of some sort of pet whom gives advice to the main character and a mission that must be fulfilled. Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, Pretear, Full Moon wo Sagashite, Fancy Lala and Kaleido Star are good starting points for novice viewers.
2. Dramatic series: As the name indicates, this branch of shoujo anime is more preoccupied with making, for the lack of better words, “teen soap operas.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are melodramatic or cheesy, but there is a lot of tension involved, and usually the heroine has to suffer and jump through many hoops to reach some level of happiness. This genre is aimed mostly at teens, although some of the best series out there can have an even older demographic. Candy Candy, Brother Dear Brother, Hana Yori Dango, Glass no Kamen, Rose of Versailles and Kodomo no Omocha are particularly recommended.
3. Yaoi and yuri: These are definitely for older audiences and share several similarities with the Dramatic Series genre, with the clear distinction that it involves romantic situations among members of the same sex (yuri for women and yaoi for men). Recommended anime in this category include Gravitation, Kizuna and Maria-sama ga Miteru (this last one is borderline yuri and is the best introduction to the genre for those who are faint of heart).
Present day anime and the blurring of barriers between shoujo and shounen genres
In the present state of the industry, it is getting harder and harder to distinguish between shoujo and shounen anime. People wonder why that came to be, since it used to be fairly easy to find differences between the two. There are, once again, historical reasons that created this situation:
1. Female character designers: In the mid ’80s, a generation of female character designers stormed the scene and started working in anime usually aimed at boys. Spearheading this movement were people like Takada Akemi (Kimagure Orange Road, Maison Ikkoku, Patlabor and Urusei Yatsura), bringing some of the shoujo art sensibilities to the mainstream.
2. Takahashi Rumiko: She is an uncommon phenomena just by being a female manga-ka writing shounen anime.Even rarer is that she has become the most important creator for both the manga and anime scene in the last 25 years. She brought elements of the series for women into the mainstream… from a more stylized and simplified character design to a more playful use of the stories, making the male lead less dashing and stoic (and in many cases dumber than a doorknob) and their female counterpart becoming the strong character.
3. Studio Ghibli: It was Miyazaki’s strong female characters that made it possible for a new generation of viewers to finally break the taboo that placed female leads in the shoujo realm and made it acceptable to embrace them in the mainstream.
My prediction is that the distinction between the genres in animation will continue to blur as anime producers look for a wider appeal for their final product. I expect manga to be the last bastion where the difference between genres will be fought (it is actually very easy to distinguish between the two in that medium). It appears that “unisex” anime is going to be among us for a long time; that is a shame, since many of the products which have been a result of cross-pollination between genres end up having such a hard time deciding what they want to be, and the results are mediocre at best.