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Learning the Lingo

By Janet Houck     August 23, 2006

Fruits Basket Manga
© Furuba
Hello all. Same webpage, same column name.

It has occurred to me that it's rather hard to get into the nitty-gritty of anime and manga if you don't know what all these little Japanese words that otaku toss around actually mean. Thus, this column is dedicated to you, the casual viewer who has seen an episode here and there, who likes cute girls (and/or boys) dressed up in costumes, and who wouldn't mind learning what "ka-why!!!" being shrieked by girls at conventions and anime club meetings really means.

Let's start with the basics. Anime and manga is generally categorized by its intended audience, which may or may not be the actual people viewing it. Shoujo means "girl," and as you can guess, its intended audience is young and teenage girls. Likewise, shounen applies to boys. Note the "u" in the words; we only see shojo/shonen in the titles of SHOJO BEAT and SHONEN BEAT, monthly manga anthology magazines from VIZ Media (available at your local grocery store and other fine locations). Apologies to people who prefer to spell those words missing a vowel. "Shojo" denotes more of a virgin than a girl anyway.

When you think of shoujo, think of titles like FRUITS BASKET or YAMI NO MATSUEI (err, make that DESCENDENTS OF DARKNESS), or the majority of CLAMP's works. See the wide variety of theoretical "girly" material? Shounen is a lot easier to pick out of the line-up, with RUROUNI KENSHIN, INU YASHA and the ever-present DRAGONBALL Z.

...Okay, so maybe the boys' category is just as confusing as the girls. My advice? Just disregard gender categorization and try out a title if the description catches your eye. These labels indicate more of what magazine they were originally published in than its true readership anyway.

A subgenre that we've seen a lot of in the US is maho shoujo ("magical girl"), and its lesser brother, maho shounen. This is where you'll find SAILOR MOON, CARDCAPTOR SAKURA and OJAMAJO DOREMI. The basic premise is that an ordinary girl finds some mystical item that allows her to transform into a superhero with nifty powers and defeat evil. DNANGEL is an example of maho shounen, but it doesn't follow the formula as strictly as the titles above.

There is another level of titles for older people, (I'll get to the tentacles... just wait a moment...) josei for college-aged women and up, and seinen for teenage boys and up. The majority of harem comedies (one guy + many girls who like him + stuck together in an unusual situation = comedy) fall under seinen (see AH! MY GODDESS), but we also see a lot of subgenres under seinen, such as historical romances (VICTORIAN ROMANCE EMMA). Although seinen works are very common, josei is still a relatively rare, but growing market in both the US and Japan. Titles include PARADISE KISS, NANA, FAKE, KIZUNA, and my personal current favorite, HONEY AND CLOVER.

Now to the definitions you probably already know... (You always learn the bad words in a foreign language first!)

Ecchi, "perverted sexuality" (it comes from the "H" sound of hentai) is exactly what you saw that one night at 9 PM on the cable TV channel. It's not as bad as hentai, with only mild sexual humor and lots of fan service (shots of girls panties, implied accidental female nude scenes... we've all seen AMERICAN PIE and the like). No sex acts are included! LOVE HINA falls under this category, as well as a lot of other harem comedies. See how these categories cross over? Ecchi is for the teenage-plus male audience (seinen). Sadly, we ladies must just accept this perverse injustice and dream of a male harem comedy, someday.

What you saw at 3 AM, that one time you were bored on Kazaa, or that "weird Japanese tape" your friend brought over when you were sixteen... that was hentai. In America and most of the world, "perverted" refers to pornographic anime or erotica. In Japan, they use poruno or ero for such material. Hentai covers pretty much everything possible in pornography... and more. Due to artistic license and strict Japanese obscenity laws, male genitalia often turns into cones of light (lightsabers!) or tentacles, depending on the genre. I'd list some titles, but I'd rather allow you to explore this area on your own.

Shoujo-ai ("girl love") refers to romance between two girls with a lot of emotions, touching and kissing, but that's where the physical intimacy ends. Yuri picks up from that point, and takes it onwards and upwards. Only naturally, shounen-ai ("boy love") and yaoi refers to the same actions and feelings, only with the boys. Yaoi and shounen-ai are vocally popular among most fangirls; oddly enough, yuri hasn't taken off as much as you'd think in the US. I think this is because this is the only area where girls can express loving a taboo without the fear of being seen as "perverted" or "weird"; boys already have the entirety of hentai to enjoy.

Most love stories feature pretty and elegant characters with long, flowing hair. These are bishoujo and bishounen ("beautiful girl/boy"), the characters that invoke the ever present sighs of "KA-WHY". (Actual word: kawaii: "cute." Seldom pronounced correctly (ka-wa-i-i) by fangirls. Hopefully, Japanese classes will stop the verbal slaughter.) If a character looks cute, yet unearthly graceful, it is probably a bishie. Needless to say, bishies of both sexes are very popular and numerous. You can find them online at most fanart websites.

I would be slacking if I didn't include two genres that I'm not a fan of, but many people are. Mecha is MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, in all of its incarnations. Mecha is NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, GATCHAMAN (sort of a mecha/sentai mix...), and MACROSS. If it's got giant robots manned by pilots (usually teenagers), fighting other robots/angels, it's mecha. Super Sentai ("fighting team") involves superhero teams that fight supervillains, usually made up of four or five people. (No, I don't know why that number either. Maybe it's a Beatles or rock 'n roll group thing.) Think KAMEN RIDER or a Japanese version of MIGHTY MORPHIN' POWER RANGERS. I never really got the appeal of either subgenre beyond my childhood years, so I hope you'll forgive me for choosing to direct my attention elsewhere.

I'm not even going to try to tackle the concept of moe in this column, so don't even tempt me. Some things are better left for future exploration.

For more information on the titles above, visit resource websites, such as anidb, and the encyclopedia at Anime News Network. Remember, anime is a lot more than just cartoons for kids or tentacles! Next week, we start to delve deeper into what's on American otaku TVs!


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