Two of the most common anime genres are “shounen,” aimed at teen and college-aged boys, and “shoujo,” aimed at teen and college-aged girls. Shounen often features cool fights, characters powering up their ludicrous abilities, and young men emotionally healing each other through the power of friendship. Shoujo, meanwhile, has relatively smaller stakes and focuses more on interpersonal dynamics and relationships. While friendship is important, nothing trumps couple shipping. Of course, these are generalizations. Many consider Haikyu!! a shounen despite its lack of city-flattening fights; Cardcaptor Sakura was a quintessential shoujo of the 90’s despite its plethora of city-flattening fights.
While shounen is well-established in America, with scores of international mega-hits like One Piece, Naruto, and My Hero Academia, shoujo has perhaps a dozen worthwhile titles to its name. Ever since I began watching anime, a shoujo entry would make zeitgeist waves once every year or two. Growing up as an action-craving boy, I never gave much thought to being in anime’s core demographic. Pokémon had Misty; Yu-Gi-Oh! had Téa AND Mai Valentine. What were millennial girls complaining about?
Looking back, female audiences must have been starved for programming. Today, however, quality shows aimed squarely at teen girls are popping up on nearly every streaming service, mainly because companies like Netflix and Crunchyroll can mathematically target and satisfy audiences better than ever before. Another reason, though, is that anime was traditionally considered a boys’ club, and many women in Japan have been making slow, steady gains in the industry over the past few decades. With more women in charge, creators have crafted programs so sharp that they can even be enjoyed by many people outside the intended audience.
Below are five critically acclaimed shoujo anime that are either currently airing or finished in the past year.
The genre’s gold standard of angst, love triangles, and family dynamics
Tohru Honda is an orphan longing for connection. She’s not going to find any, though, living in a tent in her grandfather’s backyard and being verbally abused by her Disney villain of an aunt. Thankfully, her popular classmate Yuki discovers her situation and offers her a job as a live-in caretaker of the Sohma house. What? The cutest boy in school asks her to live with him? Also living there is Yuki’s bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold cousin Kyo? This sounds like a teen girl’s fantasy come true!
Not so fast. Flirting and intimacy are difficult for the Sohma clan because every time any member is touched by the opposite sex, they turn into an animal of the Chinese zodiac. Tohru’s going to have a tough time getting to know everyone in her adopted family, much less break their curse, especially when some relations will do anything to keep the status quo.
Fruits Basket hit the manga scene in the late 90’s and ended in 2006, which makes one wonder why there was a 13-year gap before an anime adaptation. Here’s the thing: Fruits Basket DID have an adaptation in 2001… for one season. Even though the anime was a hit with women (Funimation famously asked the studio to do another season by sending them 1,000 origami cranes), the project investors never ponied up more money.
Thankfully, TMS picked up the show and adapted the entire story from 2019-2021. While the animation quality dips in the end of the first season/beginning of the second season, this is mainly due to COVID, and the production value picks up again.
In a roundabout way, the decade-plus-long gap proved Fruits Basket’s timelessness. Generations of women can relate to being passed over and left out, generations of men can relate to unhealthy methods of stress relief (lookin’ at you, red), and generations of people can relate to navigating complex family expectations. Where Fruits Basket excels, though, is its kindness and empathy. When the show asks why each member of the Sohma family behaves the way they do, the explanation is rarely predictable and often understandable, if not always excusable.
While Fruits Basket is no stranger to anime antics and exaggerated reactions, the show’s catharsis is rarely matched.
Revel in the social awkwardness; study a masterclass in comedic timing
Tadano was your average cringe-inducing middle schooler, so now that he’s gotten into a reputable private high school, he’s determined to be average and not make waves. Those plans are immediately dashed when he meets the cold, aloof Komi, a statuesque beauty whose icy glare demands worship from all. Even worse, he sits next to Komi in class, and gets concussed by one of her fanboys while trying to pick up her eraser.
Upon waking, Tadano sees Komi meekly practicing conversation with a cat plushie. Turns out, Komi isn’t aloof or cold at all—she has severe social anxiety! After establishing non-verbal communication, Tadano agrees to help Komi make 100 friends by the end of the school year. What Tadano does NOT know is that the school he attends values individuality and eccentricity above all else. Every encounter will be a battle for the already embattled Komi.
I am continually astounded when super attractive people complain about being fat or having body issues. Every time this attitude invades my thoughts, though, I have to check myself: a person’s internal world is not the same as their outward appearance. Komi Can’t Communicate thrives on this truth, creating relatable, gut-busting material, exploring Komi’s personal feelings towards difficult situations. Then, the show gets a whole new set of laughs running the same scene again from everyone else’s point of view! The show consistently brings home the message that, in strict opposition to the title, communication is the foundation of every relationship, and an effort MUST be made if one person is to understand another.
That’s to say nothing of Komi’s other trick: rhythm, or more aptly, a purposeful lack of it. In the first three episodes alone, I was bowled over near a dozen times at the cutesy background music abruptly cutting out and a petrified character reaction cutting in. As consumers watching a narrative, we’ve intrinsically let music and sound effects tune us in. Komi brilliantly uses that knowledge against us, expertly pulls our feet out, and repeatedly delivers a wallop of a punchline. Any aspiring film editor would leave this show with a stronger sense of craft.
An old-fashioned, screwball battle of the sexes
Miyuki Shirogane and Kaguya Shinomiya are the president and vice-president, respectively, of the prestigious Shuchiin Academy. They work so well together that many believe the two are dating. IMPOSSIBLE! Love is for the weak and leads people to humiliate themselves in front of their partners. ‘Tis a jest and a manipulative power game.
That said, Shinomiya would have complete power and status at her school if she got the president to admit that he is in love with her. Shirogane, meanwhile, is a scholarship student, proud of his accomplishments. The only feather left in his cap is to get the richest girl in school, the vice-president, to admit that she is in love with him. Thus two players begin playing the greatest game there is: love. The first to admit feelings for the other loses!
One would think the above premise would wear thin after a few episodes, but the amount of comedy built from such minute scenarios never gets old. Season three just started airing, and half the episode is dedicated to someone listening to music on their phone without the headphones plugged all the way in.
With such perfectly orchestrated segments, Love is War pulls back its character development to a slow-motion pace. This isn’t a criticism. The show uses character reveals to gently shift the group dynamic, making each episode feel fresh. Before I knew it, the show had made me care about its characters as well—even the ones I initially found repellent. I was laughing too hard to notice the solid narrative construction being built. The stellar animation gags and blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em callbacks add to Love is War’s already deep bench and make the show a joy for almost any audience.
A mellow slice of life with reversed gender roles
Yu is an average high-school boy—or rather, he wants to be. Instead, he’s a cosmically cursed magnet for accidents and mishaps. Good thing he’s dating Shikimori, who has a spidey-sense for danger. Anything heading for Yu goes through her first.
The average observer wouldn’t know this, though. Shikimori, to them, is just a cute girl who’s a little athletic. Only Yu and his friends get to see Shikimori’s intense side.
This show continually subverts expectations, putting its main guy in an emasculating position while making the lead female save the day. The supporting cast also defies archetype, with Yu’s best guy friend being a competitive jock who’s also gentle and supportive towards the people around him. Shikimori’s friend, meanwhile, is an introvert with both a sharp wit and laissez faire attitude. The show also STARTS with the main couple already in a relationship, making the content’s focus on the daily ups and downs of being with someone.
For all its good points, though, Shikimori is the only show on this list that I would categorize as an acquired taste. The daily ups and downs featured are just that: Yu and Shikimori go to a movie or watch each other play sports. That’s it. While I laughed plenty during the episodes, the stakes were pretty low. As a result, the show is fairly mellow and relaxing—though some may justly perceive that as boring. All in all, I’d say a person just has to be in the right mood for this one.
NOTE: There’s a special treat for viewers of this show who also watch My Hero Academia. A certain character in this poster looks like a certain other character from My Hero. Both are played by the same Japanese voice actor. Honestly, I was blown away by the range and personality differences he was able to pull off between the two roles.
Steamy teenage hormones fueled by unexpected wholesomeness
Wakana Gojo lives with his grandfather, a master craftsmen of “Hina dolls,” precious, handcrafted royalty figurines that wear custom kimonos. Gojo has long wanted to follow in his grandpa’s footsteps, but was shamed by his childhood crush for liking something “girly.” To guard his heart, Gojo has become a friendless loner.
That all changes when, one day after school, Gojo sees Marin Kitagawa, the coolest girl in his class, using a sewing machine. She’s attempting to sew a costume for a character she wants to be at an upcoming convention. Gojo sees an opportunity for friendship and a new outlet for his passion. Kitagawa sees a way to take her hobby to a professional level. Of course, neither party of this mutually beneficial deal takes into account where their relationship could go from here.
What many teen romance shows fail to accurately portray is the near-impossible expectation put upon adolescents to juggle both increasingly complex relationships and responsibilities while dealing with developing hormones. In the United States, most shows for teens just go all in on sex (because their parents aren’t around and their classes don’t matter anyways). In many Japanese shows, the execution in the other way around, showing kids diligently studying while having Disney-esque lovey-dovey fantasies about their crushes.
My Dress-up Darling walks the tightrope between the two, showing horny teenagers falling in love while trying to be respectful of the other person in the relationship. Additionally, the show fully explores each of its characters’ dreams and self-discovery. The result is, as a friend of mine calls it, “wholesomely lewd.” While there’s nothing in the show above a PG-13 rating, I found myself relating to some of the awkward scenarios on a level I’ve never experienced with anything from the CW or Freeform.
The other aspect I find refreshing about the show—besides its unabashed message to pursue your interests, no matter how quirky—is its inclusion of all the WORK the main characters put into one another’s happiness. Gojo’s first dress for Kitagawa is an order way taller than he realizes, but he melts upon seeing her reaction. Conversely, Kitagawa gently yet firmly navigates Gojo’s self-esteem issues and lack of social experience, which means the world to the boy. The truth My Dress-up Darling reveals is that romance only grows when a person gives of themselves in a way that doesn’t diminish one’s identity or self-worth. That’s a lot to ask for anyone, much less a pair of teenagers. It’s also what makes the audience root for Gojo and Kitagawa.
Writing this, I’m amazed at the complexity of the themes these shows discuss as well as the maturity and nuance with which those themes are executed. It’s more than this genre’s ever given its audience before—hell, it’s more than most American rom-coms give its adults! Perhaps that’s why I consider this trend obligatory. These shows treat their target viewers as complex people with complex fears and desires. Above all, these series actually DO what their genre promises—they contain both good romance and good comedy.
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The Big Sleep: “You’re Cute.” “Gettin’ Cuter Every Minute.”