One thing that’s caught my attention lately is how, in terms of genre and target audience, categorising an anime or manga series is surprisingly complicated. Many titles are marketed along the lines of age and gender of the target audience or readership: namely shounen (young, male), shoujo (young, female), seinen (older, male) and josei (older, female). In fairness, it makes a lot of sense to divide things up like this when looking for a recommendation that is in line with you and your time of life. It goes without saying that Japanese writers don’t usually have overseas audiences and their differing expectations in mind so it’s possible that a title finds favour abroad in a completely different demographic to that was intended which leads to some interesting and unexpected results.
Bear in mind that for the sake of clarity I’m making some generalisations of my own here. I’m not knocking shounen shows by calling them unsophisticated and generic, nor am I implying that you should be put off by a title that “isn’t aimed at people like me.” There seem to be some differences in culture that dictate target audience between fans in different countries and because of these cultural differences, not to mention preconceptions among international fans and the differing ways in marketing, the genre boundaries seem to be all over the place. It’s a confusing issue but I think it’s worth thinking over because I honestly believe that trying to be aware of it helps in your appreciation of the medium.
Firstly I’ll take on the issue of age. In the case of your average Miyazaki movie, it’s a family film in that it’s intended for children but also has plenty to entertain older viewers. You can also have grown men enjoying shounen series, despite the immature humour or simplistic protagonist/anagonist premise because they are undemanding fun. I daresay there are plenty of grown women who enjoy a good shoujo series too for similar reasons, but while the age issue is fairly straightforward the audiences or readers aren’t always divided by gender as neatly.
Can be loved by everyone
The bottom line really is that a good story is a good story and it’s only when the clichés and tropes are rolled out to an excessive degree that they begin to be an issue. You certainly shouldn’t be put off by the idea that you won’t enjoy a certain title because your make-up of X and/or Y chromosomes is wrong! As we get older, our interests begin to be the same whether we’re male or female: boys might be into giant robots and sword fights while girls like fluffy animals and magical fairytales but when we grow up a bit, social and real-life issues like careers and relationships, common topics in josei and seinen, are universal.
This means that a romance story or high school/college drama might fall into the more character-driven areas of shoujo but it can also appeal to seinen and josei fans too. Honey and Clover for instance was originally a josei series but it’s a story about a bunch of male students so the issues raised and events portrayed also appeal to male viewers of a similar age. Josei can be thought of as shoujo that’s grown up, but its content can often overlap a lot with the more character-orientated (as opposed to action-orientated) aspects of seinen (which can also be thought of as a grown-up type of shounen!).
It’s a seinen title, honest
The matter is complicated by not only the target market a title is intended for back in Japan, but the target market overseas. The more popular anime titles in the US and Europe are often shounen and to a lesser degree shoujo; seinen is a bit of a niche area and josei even more so. The manga series Translucent for instance was serialised in Comic Flapper, a seinen manga magazine, which means it was originally written with a young but grown-up male audience in mind. It’s a romantic comedy with a fantastical twist and has character interaction instead of action, but I imagine a similar demographic over here would be harder to sell to. As a result Dark Horse have aimed it at a younger and female readership with cover designs using pastel shades and back-cover text using the word ‘shoujo’ that’s clearly italicised in several places.
Although the US/UK publisher is trying to sell the title to a different group of readers than the Japanese magazine it’s serialised in, it can’t be purely down to ignorance on their part. Translucent has been put up for a number of awards so I suppose it’s doing well back in Japan; unfortunately I don’t know how many other twenty-something males here in the UK and stateside will enjoy reading it as much as I am, or indeed as much as those of its Japanese readership. The fact that it’s a light romcom about fourteen-year old schoolkids is more likely to be picked up by Western readers who are also in their teens (and probably female because there are no fast cars, gun fights or robots), since quite a few older readers might feel a bit self-conscious about queueing up to buy a high school romcom manga in their local bookshop*.
Defining the genre of a manga title is easy in that the magazine it appears in determines who it’s written for. Comic Flapper will serialise stories written for a seinen demographic; manga series such as Mushishi and Genshiken are serialised in Afternoon, a magazine intended for a broad range of readers under the age of thirty. Anime is trickier since shedule slots often occur late at night, which doesn’t tell us much at all (unless it really is intended for insomniacs and students)
*Are insecurity and self-image regarding gender indeed serious issues for anime and manga fans?
Perhaps it’s easier to define anime and manga along the lines of aesthetics and approaches to storytelling, as opposed to those of age and gender of the consumer. If a story has a sophisticated plot and good characterisation it ought to appeal to grown-up viewers or readers, be they male or female after all. It’s also worth remembering that, through an accidental misunderstanding or a calculated marketing move, Western DVD and book sellers will aim their adverts at a narrower or completely different group of people to their Japanese counterparts.
The lack of awareness among Western industry people and fans alike contributes to this I think but if you’re going to open your mind enough to dive into an overseas pop culture in the first place, you should also be open-minded enough to remember that a good story is always a good story!