Allow Us To Explain
Are you interested in reading manga, but don’t know where to start? Are you an avid comics fan looking to bulk up you feminist-friendly reading list?
Much like anime, good, feminist manga is often difficult to find, especially when you’re relying on reading titles that are legally licensed in the United States. It’s often a very thin line that separates manga that pokes fun at sexist tropes, and manga that regularly utilizes sexism to advance its plot, and even if you can find that rare-as-a-unicorn story, there’s no guarantee the story will be compelling and worth $10 a pop. But don't worry: we're here to help.
Here’s a list of 10 manga that I think are worth a read -- there’s a good mix of historical drama, action/adventure, romance, and just plain silliness, and the best part is that they’re all pretty feminist-friendly. Plus, they’re all legally translated and available on Amazon, and probably your local bookstore.
What are you waiting for, let me show you manga you should throw your money at!
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind follows princess Nausicaä as she seeks to bring peace to a war-torn nations and balance to a devastated earth. Nausicaä is not your average princess story -- she is forced to make difficult, world-altering decisions knowing that her choices could impact the fate of the entire planet she resides on.
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a meditation on militarism, technological advancement, and conflict, all through the lens of a woman leader. Yes, it is riveting and adventurous, but also deeply philosophical and engaging. If you’re interested in big questions explored through an adventure story led by a brave princess, read this manga immediately, and don’t be surprised if, after you finish, you flip the book around and start reading it again -- it is that good.
Angelic Layer - CLAMP
Angelic Layer follows seventh grader Misaki Suzuhara as she navigates childhood, being separated from her mom, and being a superstar at Angelic Layer, a game in which players mentally control dolls on a field known as a layer. Angelic Layer is good, clean fun, it features a strong girl protagonist, and it’s written by CLAMP, an all-women manga-ka collective. While, unfortunately, I think some of CLAMP’s recent works include a bit too much “damsel-in-distress” for my taste (I’m looking at you, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles) they are quite famous for featuring capable female characters and believable queer relationships, both of which are sorely missed in both manga culture, and the world at large.
The Rose of Versailles - Riyoko Ikeda
Rose of Versailles is one of the quintessential queer-ish shojo manga -- set in France shortly before and after the French Revolution, the story follows Oscar François de Jarjayes, a woman raised as a man to become her father’s successor as the ruler of the Palace Guard, as she protects Marie Antoinette and slowly becomes cognizant of the plight of the poor in revolutionary France. This manga is often read as a queer text on two levels: one, Rosalie Lamorlière, who studies under Oscar, is often read as bisexual, as her admiration of Oscar often approaches romance. Two, when Oscar falls in love with her best friend André Grandier, her queer gender presentation arguably queers their heterosexual relationship.
Rose presents readers not only with a queer subtext field day, it also features a uniquely gendered lady making her mark, for better or worse, on history. If you’re interested in reading one of the most influential manga ever, don’t miss this one.
Edit: As commenters have pointed out, this one isn't readily available in the US. Oops!
Princess Knight - Osamu Tezuka
Princess Knight follows Princess Sapphire, a young woman who, upon being given a boy’s heart by an angel, is forced to masquerade as a man to inherit her father’s throne, a role forced upon her at birth. Right before Sapphire is crowned the new king, a rival duke reveals her true gender, and she is forced to enter a power struggle with him, one with dire consequences for the people under her rule.
Osamu Tezuka’s epic adventure tale was revolutionary for its time -- it debuted in 1953 after all, not exactly a woman-friendly era in the world. Yet somehow, Princess Knight manages to be refreshing even by modern standards -- Sapphire is strong, smart, resourceful, brave, and she can even juggle a blossoming relationship with Franz Charming, all while saving her kingdom. Tezuka’s comic suggests that some women, or at least certain queerly gendered manga princesses, can have it all to an extent.
Azumanga Daioh - Kiyohiko Azuma
Azumanga Daioh is the perfect entry point for people new to manga -- the story is written in short panels, there are so many characters that you’re bound to relate to someone, and it actually manages to address difficult topics while still being light-hearted. Basically, it follows a group of girls as they juggle high school, friendship, crushes, and growing up. There are brainy girls, sporty girls, silly girls, and adult women who do and do not have their shit together -- Azumanga excels as a slice of life story that, while sometimes borders on surreal, always lands near and dear to readers’ hearts.
Azumanga is certainly not without its problematic bits: especially regarding the light treatment of Mr. Kimura, a sexually inappropriate teacher, so I’m slapping a big trigger warning on this series. But on the whole, I think the series endeavors to cast him in a negative light, and perhaps even satirize creeps in general, all the while focusing the story on a cast of fun, adorable characters.
Emma - Kaoru Mori
Why should you read Emma? Well, for starters, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more fantastic, feminist character than Emma’s titular character. In Emma, Kaori Mori explores classism, power, and privilege in 19th century London through the lens of the burgeoning relationship between Emma, a maidservant, and William, a member of the wealthy merchant class. Within the constraints of her historical situation, Emma pursues the life she wants on her own terms, a huge feat. Furthermore, feminist themes aside, the art is absolutely stunning and the story is shockingly detailed -- Mori went so far as to hire a historical consultant to assure its accuracy. Now that’s an artist dedicated to her craft!
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories - Moto Hagio
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is a collection of Moto Hagio’s work, so for the purposes of this blurb that will hopefully convince you to go buy it, I’ll focus on the story Hanshin: Half God. Upon an initial reading, Hanshin appears to be a simplistic story about a pair of conjoined twins who do not share nutrients evenly, resulting in one twin being frail and shriveled, while the other twin is doll-like and beautiful. Due to their imminent death, a doctor proposes cutting them apart, which will inevitably mean the death of the beautiful twin, who also happens to be developmentally disabled. The frail twin survives, and eventually becomes just as beautiful as her sister, though she is distraught and haunted by the thought of her deceased sibling.
Looking at this story through the lens of feminist analysis, however, yields a very different result: is Hanshin about betrayal of siblings, or about betrayal of the self? Is Hanshin about the denigration of femininity, or the way in which femininity and beauty drains the life force from women? Hagio is not only a storyteller, she is undoubtedly a feminist author, using her manga to explore gender, power, and women’s issues. If extended metaphors in manga as an avenue to explore philosophical questions is as appealing to you as it is to me, please, don’t hesitate to pick up this anthology.
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers - Fumi Yoshinaga
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is a breakthrough feminist sci-fi/historical drama set in 18th century Japan in the aftermath of a plague that wipes out nearly all men, transforming the world into a matriarchal society. The story centers around the “Ōoku,” or harem of unproductive men kept by the Tokugawa shogunate.
Fumi Yoshinaga’s alternate history of Japan a rich, historicized exploration of gender, a comic that essentially turns sexism in on itself in order to reveal everyday truths about gendered power and oppression. If you’re a fan of feminist speculative fiction, Y: The Last Man, or just Japanese history in general, check this series out.
Joan - Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
With Joan, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko steps outside the realm of Gundam and into the realm of historical fiction. Joan follows a young girl alive during the historical Hundred Years’ War, who, when visited by the spirit of Joan of Arc is set upon a journey to aid the king of France. The historical detail grounds a story that is ultimately about faith, featuring a woman who ignites change within a petty and corrupt bureaucracy.
Before you rush out to the book story in search of this beauty, I have to drop a trigger warning: there are two attempted rapes that are depicted in the comic, and while both are historically accurate, the perpetrators never receive punishment, which is perhaps purposefully unsettling to readers. However, I tend to see these moments as part of the work’s larger attempt to address gender, violence and the historical situation of women.
Sailor Moon - Naoko Takeuchi
I debated excluding Sailor Moon from this on the basis of it arguably being one of the most popular series ever already, but I decided to keep it on here for a few reasons. While I’m sure everyone and their mother has watched the anime series, I don’t think the manga was as widely circulated in the states, which is pretty unfortunate considering how great it is. Additionally, there’s probably a special place in feminism hell for people who fail to mention Sailor Moon as an example of feminist manga. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole re-release thing that everyone is freaking out about, myself included.
So let’s dig right in then -- what makes Sailor Moon so great, and why should you read it? Naoko Takeuchi’s timeless tale is essentially about a whole bunch of different types of women -- young women, queer women,ditzy women, quiet women -- who get handed a huge amount of world-altering power and can totally handle it. That sounds reductionist, because it is, but that’s what made the Sailor Moon anime and manga so damn influential for young girls. It told us that we didn’t need to wait for a dude to save us, we could save our boyfriends, or our girlfriends, and most importantly we could handle ourselves.
If that doesn’t make this manga a priority for feminist first-time manga readers, I don’t know what would.
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