Snips, Snails, Sugar and Spice

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Thanks to Viz Media’s marketing tactics, you can’t browse the manga section of the bookstores without seeing the labels, but are the labels really necessary? The labels I’m referring to, of course, are “shojo” and “shonen,” or girls and boys - manga specifically geared towards one gender.

While Viz is the greatest perpetrator of the shojo and shonen labeling, they aren’t the only ones doing it, just the ones that have been doing it the longest and with the most flash. Tokyopop, for example, proudly plasters “The #1 selling shojo manga in America!” on the cover of each new volume of “Fruits Basket,” and has started including “shojo” and “shonen” in its cover blurbs.

I have to wonder, though, how necessary the labels really are, and if they might not even hurt titles, at times.

For one thing, a quick flip through a book will often tell you what kind of a book it is. It would be very difficult to pick up, say, “Blade of the Immortal,” “Priest,” or “Happy Hustle High” and not have a pretty good idea what kind of a book it is just by looking at a few interior pages, or even reading the first few pages of the book’s description.

The labels often tend to also place a stigma on the books. Often, “shonen” ends up being associated with hyperactive boys easily beating men twice their size, and kids operating giant robots, while “shojo” gets associated with wide, and often teary, eyed girls who spend all their time either sighing about whether or not a boy likes them, or transforming into a magic princess whose giggle smites evil. Fortunately, these are not the norm, but rather, the most extreme version, with most books only having moderate levels of these themes. Unfortunately, many people have one or both of these ideas firmly planted in their minds, and won’t touch a book with a “shonen” or “shojo” label.

The labels themselves can be misleading, or at least, limiting, at times. Take, for example, “Fruits Basket.” While it’s target audience is clearly girls, I’ve encountered as many male fans of the series as I have female, and have had several male fans express a deep concern that Tohru may choose “Rat Boy,” also known as Yuki, over what they consider to be the more deserving option, Kyo (I share the sentiment, myself.)

Then, of course, there’s “Fushigi Yugi,” possibly the most famous shojo title, and one whose appeal seems to spread to anyone who likes both fantasy and humor. At Waldenbooks, a male shopper saw me pick up the then-latest volume of a lesser known shojo title, “Wallflower,” and strike up a conversation, much of it centering on why he thought that title was superior to many other comedy mangas.

One day, while browsing the anime section of Hastings, fruitlessly hunting for the newest volumes of “Otogi Zoshi” and “Shura no Toki,” I heard a male voice proclaiming “Basara” to be a great fantasy epic and revenge story, and then promptly launching into a lecture on the title’s virtues. As much as I love the book, the speaker was a bit too enthused for me to even consider joining in, though I did look around the corner to see the other side of the aisle, where the manga was located, to see if he had his listener searching for an escape route.

The flipside of this phenomen, naturally, is the female readers who enjoy shonen manga. More than once, Nobuhiro Watsuki, the creator of “Rurouni Kenshin” has mentioned how surprised he is at the number of female fans the series has, and their reactions to certain characters after their introductions. Interestingly, many of the most popular shonen manga are, in fact, love stories.

Take, for example “Love Hina.” Take away the over-the-top humor, and you’re left with a love story about a boy who can’t get things right, a girl who has troubles looking past his surface, but becomes his strong right arm, and their topsy turvy journey into adulthood. Its fellow “harem manga” title, “Ah! My Goddess” is the story about two people who make what amounts to an arranged marriage work, while dealing with the insanities of their friends and family.

Then, of course, there’s “Inu Yasha,” which at its core is the love story of a half demon who failed to protect the priestess he loved, and now protects her reincarnation. There is, of course, far more to all of these titles, but the romances at their cores are the driving force of the books.

The labels, of course, are meant to be helpful guides in regards to the book’s content, but I can’t help but think that, ultimately, they’re an unnecessary segregation. Of course, the flipside to that is that, when Viz slaps a label on a book, they’re probably going to drop the price. Take that as you will.

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