Common knowledge is interesting sometimes. You hear or see something stated so much it’s easy to assume it must be true, especially when it's something that’s become ingrained into a fandom or culture. Betsy Ross made the American flag, elephants are afraid of mice, why make these things up?
Anime has its fair share of it. One of the problems that cause it is due to the nature of the terms coming from another language. On one hand, you have advertisers not looking up what things mean, and then you have that one guy who pretends to know Japanese. Thanks to that, it can cause more confusion when those who don’t know any better just accept it as fact.
This notion is where the confusion of terms like shounen and shoujo get lapped up as being genres. Partially due to confusion when these terms first crossed the pond, and and then there were people not knowing the difference between genres, and what I like to call, arbitrary labels.
People are very fickle when it comes to genres and labels, especially when it comes to distinguishing them. It’s quite common seeing people flipping the two around, where they try to tell you a genre is an arbitrary label, or when they tell you an arbitrary label is a genre. Genres are something people create to lump things into the same media format that share very similar styles and tropes. While an overall genre might make things seem very arbitrary, once you start looking into subgenres, that’s when things start getting more clear. Comedy movies may sound vague, but say you look into buddy comedies, you’ll start running into more similarities to why they’re lumped together.
Meanwhile, arbitrary labels, are exactly the way they sound, they’re labels created with seemingly arbitrary criteria. While genres are used to lump very similar things together, these labels can have things of various genres lumped together for the sole reason that they share very specific criteria, regardless of style or genre. Usually, these labels fall under such things as the method of distribution, target demographic, or country of origin. That’s why these labels can at times feel almost random, or the existence of the label almost feels pointless.
One of the reasons why these can feel pointless is due to the way the same product will change whatever meets that label’s criteria, without changing content, and then lose the label. You can have a comic start off as a webcomic series, but then it moves to solely being published in a printed format. It is no longer a webcomic because it lost its only reason for being called a webcomic. Changing something’s genre takes more effort, like taking a cyberpunk crime series, and then change it to a medieval fantasy series is a more drastic change, than say, having an indie band signing to a major label.
So where does the title of this post fit in? Well, terms like shounen and shoujo are themselves arbitrary labels created by manga industries. This means that these terms can be used to categorize a group of unrelated series to a certain label, all because they fit specific criteria, regardless of content.
These two labels fall into what the manga industry has created, as target demographics. The four most heard outside of Japan are shounen, shoujo, seinen, and josei. There’s actually a fifth one basically called kodomo. When looking up the definitions of these individual terms actually start making more sense:
Shounen – young boy
Shoujo – young girl
Seinen – young adult male
Josei – young adult female
Kodomo – little kid
So it all starts making sense when you start looking at a phrase like shounen manga, as just meaning: manga for boys. The criteria for what demographic and what makes these labels feel very arbitrary is the fact that it's entirely defined by what magazine the series was printed in. Some magazines like Weekly Shounen Jump, or Shounen Gangan make it really obvious in the names. Others like Ribbon or Nakayoshi look pretty girly and can look a bit childish, so that makes them shoujo magazines. Though some seinen magazines can look a bit more obvious, with gravure models on their covers, so it's probably not intended for little boys. Then you have the seinen magazine Manga Time Kirara, with its cover of cutesy anime girls, looks like it’ll be targeted at your kid sister, but jokes on her, it’s a seinen magazine.
Looks can be deceiving.
What caused the confusion is probably when these terms first trickled across the pond. They brought in a lot of similar series from these magazines, so people just assumed they were genres. That’s why you’ll see people call pretty much any super-powered battle manga as shounen, and really melodramatic and girly romances as shoujo. While they’re usually not necessarily wrong, especially when specific magazines specialize in certain genres, that also doesn’t mean it’s always right.
Like many labels, you see certain styles and genres kind of relegated to those labels. This is where you start seeing certain genre tropes, and labels start to intermingle, causing the confusion of those labels being seen as genres. Think of indie music or indie games, you probably have an image of what an indie band sounds like, or what an indie game is. What also doesn’t help, is the hoards of anime/manga websites also listing these demographics as genres, further feeding into the confusion.
Though like how certain indie music labels specialize in certain genres, specific manga magazines also specialize in certain genres. Shounen Jump is basically the trendsetter for battle manga, though many people also don’t realize that other genres are also in the magazine. It’s actually not unusual to see a romance in Shounen Jump, that’s how you have series like Nisekoi and Strawberry 100% in it, and see it these printed alongside Naruto and One Piece. Situations like that really throw the preconceived notion of shounen as an action genre thrown down the drain. It also doesn’t help when other magazines within the same demographic have differing styles from Shounen Jump, even within the same genres. It may seem unbelievable, but Yotsuba! and Naruto are both shounen.
Nisekoi rocking that Shonen Jump cover
Things really started getting confusing in the 2010’s when anime based on seinen magazines started to gain popularity. Thanks to many of them being slice of life comedies, you started seeing anime forums that have subforums separating genres lumping seinen together with slice of life. You can’t really classify Ghost in the Shell and K-on!, despite both being seinen, as the same genre, they’re not even close.
Due to the arbitrary nature of the magazine being the determining factor for the demographic, you start running into cases where you’ll have two very similar series, that are labeled as different demographics. Schoolgirl comedies are mostly known for being published in seinen magazines, but there’s also a fair share being published in shounen magazines (ie Azumanga Daioh basically being the bible on writing a schoolgirl comedy), and you can’t even tell them apart.
A more fun situation is when you have two very similar series, but one is labeled with the demographic, and one that doesn’t have it at all (or is just a completely different demographic). This is because these labels are from manga, so if an anime is based on a webcomic, light novel, or is just anime original, these labels don’t apply to it. That’s why you have a situation where A Certain Magical Index doesn’t have the demographic, but the spinoff series, A Certain Scientific Railgun, does. One is originally a light novel series, and the other is based on a manga.
When you start looking at the meanings of these labels, it really shows how arbitrary they are. That’s why it’s fun in any situation, where someone is trying to come up with their own distinct definition of a label to classify it as a genre, it’s just silly.
Shounen and Shoujo Aren't Genres
Just because it's shounen, doesn't mean it's all action and noisy heroes. Sometimes, you'll find the occasional schoolgirl there, too. Grungie...
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