In today’s manga landscape, shoujo works often get a somewhat poor reputation. Countless reverse-harem works or cliché romance tales hit the shelves each year, and while there are certain releases worth reading (Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty being a personal favorite), the genre can feel stale, past its prime. There seems to be something missing, a spark that’s fizzled out. Then again, how can you compete with the shoujo releases of yesteryear? How do you rival perfection?
The shoujo genre reigned supreme during the 1990s. Though female-aimed works had first appeared as early as 1910, there was a massive cultural shift as we entered this legendary period of creation. Suddenly, female characters were less concerned with romance and subservience, instead of chasing after their own self-fulfillment. Women were suddenly portrayed as heroes themselves, capable of doing battle to protect the things important to them. The bonds of friendship were painted as more vital than the bonds between men and women.
We’ve chosen 11 series from the 1990s that exemplify this massive change in perception. For those reading them for the first time: enjoy. For those returning from many years away: revel in the nostalgia.
1. Red River by Chie Shinohara
A young girl, Yuri Suzuki, finds herself mysteriously transported to the capital of the Hittite Empire, Hattusa, for the purpose of becoming a human sacrifice. Her blood will ensure that the son of an evil queen will take the throne, but she isn’t going down without a fight.
Red River is the story of Yuri’s escape, her curious ancient past, and her eventual love story. Filled with plenty of action and set in a unique world, it’s a unique shoujo series that will snag you from the first chapter.
You can pick up all 28 harrowing volumes of Red River (both physically and digitally) from Viz.
2. Marmalade Boy by Wataru Yoshizumi
Parents getting a divorce is hard enough… but parents getting divorced to swap partners with a couple they met on vacation in Hawaii? That’s rough. High-school sophomore Miki has to deal with this reality, but not alone; meeting the ‘other couple,’ she also meets their teen son Yuu. Over time, their relationship deepens, and their interactions with other characters play a massive role in their growth as a couple.
Since its release in Ribon Magazine in 1992, Marmalade Boy has been a massive hit, spawning an anime series, a dating sim, and a number of light novels. For fans of romantic comedies, this can’t be missed.
Originally, the series was published in English by Tokyopop. As you’d imagine, it has gone out of print, but plenty of volumes are still available on Amazon (worth it, even if they may be a little worn).
3. RG Veda by CLAMP
CLAMP will come up in this list multiple times for obvious reasons… but RG Veda, the group’s first manga series, is often left out of the popular shoujo manga discussion. The story itself is made memorable by its utilization of real Vedic mythology, while the artwork is extremely detailed and consistently extravagant, even by CLAMP’s high standards. The child of the Guardian God, Ashura, is a gentle soul, until a deadly alter-ego is revealed. Throughout the series, a beautiful cast of characters attempt to save Ashura, and defeat the God of Thunder to save the planet.
Thanks to Dark Horse, you can pick up the entire series in three gorgeous Omnibus volumes, available either physically or digitally on Amazon.
4. Kodomo no Omocha by Miho Obana
Yes, the staff here at OTAQUEST will sing Kodocha’s praises all day, and for good reason. Running in Ribon Magazine for a large part of the 90s, the series follows Sana, a peppy young child actress who, upon beginning her student career in a new school, finds herself determined to stop the class troublemaker Akito from causing chaos in the classroom. As the series progresses, we learn more about Akito’s troubled past, and follow Sana’s difficult relationship with the spotlight.
Kodocha won the Kodansha Manga Award for best shoujo series in 1998 and is known to this day for its quick comedy and quirky take on your typical coming-of-age tale.
Sadly, the manga is now out of print, and we’re left with some used copies available on Amazon. (With Discotek picking up the anime series for re-release, maybe the manga will get a similar treatment sooner rather than later.)
5. Mars by Fuyumi Soryo
Mars is a shoujo romance series that doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Kira Aso, a deeply troubled teen artist, meets Rei Kashino, a boisterous playboy hiding his own dark secrets beneath his extroverted exterior. Dealing with sexual harassment and suicide, their blossoming love is a story of healing and personal growth, inspiring a Japanese TV Drama and film adaptation years after the series finished. It’s been called the perfect soap opera, with each character carefully crafted with an incredible amount of emotional depth.
Though the original Tokyopop release is out of print, you can pick up the entire series digitally on Kodansha Comics.
6. Fushigi Yuugi by Yuu Watase
Fushigi Yuugi isn’t your average shoujo fantasy. Since chapter one debuted in 1991, it’s spawned an anime series, three OVAs, thirteen light novels, numerous stage plays, musicals, and two video game releases. A massive multimedia franchise which never seems to disappear, the story follows two middle school students, Miaka and Yui, transported in exquisite isekai fashion to ancient China via a mysterious book at the library. Miaka is tasked with bringing together Suzaku’s seven Celestial Warriors, though she didn’t expect to fall in love with one.
This hallmark of shoujo fantasy is available in its entirety from VIZ.
7. Basara by Yumi Tamura
At first glance, Basara doesn’t seem like a shoujo series at all. Set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, 15-year-old Sarasa takes the name of her murdered twin brother Tatara in order to lead the survivors of her village toward a war with the evil Golden Emperor, to end his tyrannical rule.
Adapted into several stage plays and a 1998 anime series, Basara has lived on due to its extensive and well-loved cast of characters, and the undeniable strength and selflessness Sarasa shows in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. It’s the perfect series for when a little courage is needed.
All 27 action-packed volumes are currently available from VIZ.
8. Hana Yori Dango by Yoko Kamio
Talk about a worldwide phenomenon: Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) has been adapted into live-action series in Japan, South Korea, China, AND Thailand. Something about the story is just too good to pass up: when Tsukushi Makino, a girl from a middle-class family, finds herself at a prestigious upper-class school, she’s instantly ostracized. The school itself is ‘run’ by four very wealthy and attractive boys, known as the Flower Four. Even though Tsukushi is the odd-one-out, she has no trouble calling out their bad behavior, and from that, a new dynamic forms, and the love story begins.
Every iteration of the shoujo classic Hana Yori Dango is available from VIZ (though we’re the biggest fans of the original series.)
9. Magic Knight Rayearth by CLAMP
Finally, we wade into magical girl territory. Cycling back to CLAMP, the de facto queens of 90s shoujo aesthetic, Magic Knight Rayearth brought something unexpected to the table: a magical girl isekai fantasy epic mixed with mecha. Three eighth-grade girls find themselves in a land called Cephiro, and must make their way back to Tokyo by rescuing the Princess Emeraude.
The series is easy to step into, as the three heroines (Hikaru, Umi and Fuu) each have their own very distinct and relatable personalities, none of whom are weak-willed. How can you not want to follow their journey? (Did I mention the mecha?)
The manga series is available digitally from Kodansha Comics, though you can still find the limited-edition box set on Amazon if you’d like it on your shelf.
10. Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP
You can’t mention one CLAMP magical girl classic without the other. Despite both the original anime and manga series ending over two decades ago, shoujo powerhouse Cardcaptor Sakura merch collabs continue to pop up and fans’ fervor hasn’t seemed to die down. Two films were released, video games, a slew of artbooks; there have been exhibitions in Japan, video games, themed cafes, everything you can think of!
The pastel art and loveable characters make this a no-brainer, and joining Sakura on her quest to collect magical cards brings us back to our after-school days. Who didn’t want to be a Cardcaptor?
Kodansha Comics has blessed us all by releasing a collector’s edition of the manga series, both digitally and in print!
11. Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
Naoko Takeuchi’s magnum opus doesn’t need an introduction. It would be sacrilege to place anything else in the top spot after what Sailor Moon has done for pop culture over the past thirty years. The premise is simple enough: a collection of magical girls fight to destroy evil. Yet the depth of the story as it progresses is the reason why so many people still treasure it today; it is the reason why it still sits on our bookshelves, why new releases continue, and why we can’t get its characters or soundtracks out of our head as the years tick by.
Selling over 35 million copies worldwide, there’s no denying that Sailor Moon is the quintessential shoujo success story. Everyone, regardless of gender, should give it a read. If you’ve only seen the anime series, you don’t have the full story. There’s still more to explore.
Print editions are available from Kodansha Comics, and can also be easily procured from Amazon.
Are you a diehard fan of any of the shoujo series listed above? Did we forget your favorite piece of shoujo history? Do you just want to rant about your favorite Sailor Scout, or complain about Kodocha being underrated? We want to hear from you! Head over to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and let us know your thoughts. We’re friendly, promise.
Tons of OTAQUEST readers and staff are also always available to chat on our Discord! Come hang out with a community of passionate fans, and help us grow. See you there!