Just like any other demographic, shojo manga and anime titles are designed with their specific target audience in mind — in this case, primarily Japanese teenage girls and young women. It therefore frequently focuses on genres and tropes typically associated with its biggest market — most notably, drama and romance — from well-known and beloved classics such as The Rose of Versailles and Sailor Moon to more contemporary works including Kimi ni Todoke, Ouran High School Host Club and Yona of the Dawn.
Despite many shojo manga and anime being major crowd-pleasers, they can also have their downsides. For example, although some works can feature complex characters and sophisticated relationship dynamics, others may come across as overly simplistic or lacking in subtlety. Moreover, some shojo titles are guilty of depicting emotional and sexual abuse between partners as romantic, or of downplaying power imbalances that occur between partners with significant age or experience gaps. In that sense, the below popular shojo franchises all have something in common beyond just their core demographic.
Boys Over Flowers (1996-97)
Tsukushi Makino comes from a humble middle-class background but attends the prestigious Eitoku Academy, whose students are all wealthy and have high social status. In particular, four young men from Japan’s richest families, known as the Flower Four or F4 — Doumyouji Tsukasa, Hanazawa Rui, Mimasaka Akira and Nishikado Sojirou — rule the school. When Tsukishi inadvertently gets on their bad side, they harass and bully her relentlessly in an attempt to make her drop out. However, she is equally as determined to fight back, and eventually, strong romantic feelings form between her and Doumyouji.
Also known as Hana yori Dango, the Boys Over Flowers manga was serialized in the shojo magazine Margaret from 1992-2008 and is listed as being one of the best-selling manga series of all time, selling well over 60 million copies. Unfortunately, both it and its anime adaption are riddled with problematic storytelling and romance tropes, such as Tsukimi’s love interest slapping, drugging, insulting and publicly humiliating her — all of which are seen as either in the best interests of Tsukimi or as Doumyouji simply trying to be “nice” and not knowing quite how to go about it. Needless to say, their relationship is far from healthy despite Boys Over Flowers being presented as a romantic comedy.
Aspiring singer Shuichi Shindou aims to become Japan’s next hit together with his band, Bad Luck. However, with studio deadlines looming and Shuichi struggling to complete his lyrics, things aren’t looking great. When the lyrics he’s working on are blown away by the wind one night, they are picked up by a handsome man who describes them as garbage. Both angered and intrigued by this stranger, Shuichi soon discovers he is the famous romance novelist Yuki Eiri — and over time, their feelings for one another transform from mutual annoyance into something far more intense.
Viewed as something of a “gateway” boys’ love/yaoi series for people dipping their feet into the subgenre, the Gravitation manga, initially published in shojo magazine Kimi to Boku from 1996-2002, did especially well in North America. However, neither it nor its 2000-2001 anime adaptation holds up well today. Yuki is constantly verbally abusive and controlling, with much of his “prickly” and “brooding” behavior excused because of his traumatic past. He very rarely expresses himself to Shuichi in a positive way, and for his part, Shuichi is often afraid to openly express himself for fear of making Yuki angry. Meanwhile, their sexual relationship falls into the stereotypical seme/uke power dynamic, setting each of the pair clear dominant/submissive roles in the bedroom and fetishizing queer romance for the whims of the audience.
Fruits Basket (2001 and 2019-21)
Orphaned high school student Honda Tohru finds herself living in a tent in the woods when her grandfather’s home is being renovated. When her tent is buried beneath a landslide and her situation is discovered by Sohma Yuki, the “prince” of her school, and his cousin Shigure, they invite her to stay with them instead. However, Tohru soon uncovers a secret: Yuki and the other Sohmas each transform into one of the animals of the zodiac if they are hugged by someone of the opposite sex. Now, the kindhearted yet determined Tohru is resolved to break this curse — as well as release them from the hold that the head of the Sohma family, the mysterious Akito, seems to have on them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Fruits Basket is one of the most popular manga and anime franchises of all time, both in Japan and the U.S. Its original 1998-2006 manga, published in Hana to Yume, has sold millions of copies worldwide, and its two anime adaptations both gained mainstream popularity. Nonetheless, the characters and relationship dynamics leave much to be desired. Tohru is desperately eager to please and does all the housework, exemplifying her as the perfect stereotypically feminine love interest. Conversely, Yuki is self-absorbed while Kyo is hot-headed to the point of violence, and even the older Shigure is explicitly manipulative. None of this seems conducive to a healthy living situation or relationships, yet everyone still gains their apparent happily-ever-after with relatively few questions asked.
Vampire Knight (2008)
While apparent opposites, the lively Yuuki Cross and brusque Zero Kiryuu are close friends and members of the Cross Academy disciplinary committee. Their role: to ensure order between the Day and Night Class when the two student groups make their daily switch. What the Day Class is unaware of is that the Night Class consists solely of vampires, led by Kaname Kuran, who saved Yuuki from a vampire attack 10 years ago. Her feelings for him are complicated, but not so Zero’s, who passionately hates all vampires and does not believe the two races can ever live together peacefully. Unbeknownst to him, a secret from his past threatens to destroy the peace not only of the academy but everything the characters hold dear.
When it comes to shojo vampire romance, Vampire Knight is often foremost in people’s minds. Initially serialized in LaLa from 2004-2013, the 2008 anime adaptation is poorly paced and melodramatic to the point of unintentional comedy. However, both versions of the story feature Twilight-esque levels of creepiness that the narrative attempts to pass off as darkly sexy. Yuuki is constantly portrayed as being so overcome with emotion whenever vampires — all of whom are depicted as unimaginably beautiful — are involved that she is essentially useless at her job. Worse, the love triangle between her, the manipulative Kaname and the woe-is-me Zero is hollow at best and downright disturbing at worst thanks to its explicitly incestuous themes, sexual assault and child grooming.
Wolf Girl and Black Prince (2014)
Peer pressure has prompted high school student Shinohara Erika to lie about her romantic exploits, claiming she has a boyfriend. When her clique asks to see a picture of this mystery man, she snaps a photo of a random stranger who turns out to be none other than Sata Kyouya, the most popular boy in their school. Realizing she has no choice but to explain herself to Kyouya to keep up the charade, Erika discovers that he is far from the kindhearted and respectful person he presents to the world. He agrees to pretend to be her boyfriend — but only if she becomes his pet “wolf girl” in exchange. Even so, the two begin developing feelings for one another, making them question everything they thought they knew.
Originally serialized in Bessatsu Margaret from 2011-2016 and adapted into an anime series in 2014, Wolf Girl and Black Prince (Ookami Shoujo to Kuro Ouji) is proof that not all problematic romance tropes disappear with time. Erika’s relationship with Kyouya is initially based purely on her lies to impress her so-called friends and his resulting blackmail. Although their fake relationship eventually evolves into a real one, his behavior never improves throughout the story, with him constantly belittling and criticizing her and at one point, even snapping her phone in half for daring to talk to another man. Their relationship is the very definition of toxic, with Kyouya’s actions and very character not only being viewed as romantic but also glorified as appropriately masculine, protective and yes, “loving.”