Alexandria is a shojo manga fan who's always up for a good dose of fictional drama.
Do You Have a Guilty Pleasure Manga?
Summer is a time for guilty pleasures of all sorts, from junk food to reality TV. There's a reason why certain books are considered "beach reads"--as the temperature gets warmer, we find ourselves wanting to indulge in stories that leave us just as breathless as the humid summer wind. However, while many people talk about guilty pleasure reads this time of year, I'd like to examine them from a different lens--that of shoujo (girls') manga.
In past articles, I've highlighted some of the best of this genre, but like many people, I don't always seek out the best quality stories. Manga can be every bit as much of a guilty pleasure as any media, and while the series on this list might not be among the legends of the genre, I have a soft spot for just how addicting and fun they can be. I've sorted each series into a typical TV or book genre so you can find out which one will be guaranteed to suck you in!
Peach Girl (High School Drama)
If you're the type of person who compulsively watches CW dramas, Peach Girl is for you. One of the most popular shoujo manga of the '90s, Peach Girl follows Momo, a high school outcast who's always being backstabbed by her frenemy, Sae. As one of the most popular girls in school, few people suspect Sae's treachery as she pins her acts on Momo and attempts to steal her boyfriend. However, when Momo meets Kairi, one of the few guys who can see past Sae's facade, she starts to take Sae head-on, with mixed results.
What I love about Peach Girl is how it takes traditional teen drama tropes--the love triangle, the mean girl, the girl rumored to sleep with everyone--and turns them on their head. Much of the conflict here comes from a Japanese cultural divide, as light-skinned Sae is automatically seen as more pure and innocent than tanned Momo, who is often seen as a delinquent due to stereotypes about girls with tans. For a silly teen drama, it has a surprising amount to say about biases while still being every bit as addictive as its companions in the genre. (Plus, mangaka Miwa Ueda excels at designing excellent '90s-style clothes for all the characters, especially Momo.)
Don't be fooled by its sugary-sweet covers--Arisa is less of a story about the bond between twins and more of a suspense piece about herd mentality. Tsubasa and Arisa are twin sisters who live with separate parents, but still connect through letters and visits. Tsubasa, the hothead of the two, has always envied her student council president sister, so the two decide to switch identities for a day to see how the other lives. However, while Arisa's school seems perfect on the surface, a string of attempted suicides caused by a mysterious figure known as "the King" hints at something much darker, and when her twin falls victim to this, Tsubasa is determined to continue the Arisa charade and discover the truth.
While its artist, Natsumi Ando, is known for titles like Kitchen Princess and Zodiac P.I., Arisa pulls no punches in its depiction of a cultish high school class. All students have an app on their phones that allow them to contact this mysterious "King," who grants a random student's wish every Friday. It quickly goes from a "be careful what you wish for" story to one where any student who fails to believe in the King or follow their will receives immediate consequences. While much of the story centers around Tsubasa's quest to find the King (who may or may not be male, as the word is gender-neutral in Japanese), equal spotlight is given to the characters caught up in the King's scheme and the psychological issues that drive them into the King's hands.
Fushigi Yuugi (Historical Fantasy)
Have you ever read a story so good, it feels like it's practically sucking you in? Fushigi Yuugi is all about a book known as The Universe of the Four Gods that can do just that--literally! Our main characters Miaka and Yui come across this book in their local library during a study break and instantly find themselves transported to a fantasy version of ancient China. While Yui is able to leave the book's world, Miaka finds herself recruited to be the Priestess of Suzaku, a holy figure tasked with finding seven legendary warriors in order to summon a god and restore balance to her kingdom. However, rival land Seiryu is also out to find their priestess so they can conquer Suzaku and eventually the world.
Fushigi Yuugi has several things working against it--a main character that can be hard to like at times, problematic depictions of gender, and about as much sex and violence as your average prestige fantasy show. Yet somehow, veteran artist Yu Watase makes it all work in a story about the power of stories and the thin line between fantasy and reality. Miaka's romance arc, in which she falls in love with one of the story's characters, brings genuinely interesting (and, for many readers, relatable) questions about loving an imaginary person. The ensemble cast is also top-notch, and you'll find yourself even feeling for the enemy Seiryu warriors (one of them, a former prostitute named Soi who was rescued by the villainous general, is actually my favorite from this whole series). Plus, as an aspiring librarian and author, I can't help but think about how fascinating it would be to have a magical book like The Universe of the Four Gods in the real world.
Skip Beat (Showbiz Drama)
Skip Beat is a bit of an odd one for me--while I'd say that it has the best writing of all the manga in this article, hands down, it's also the sort of thing I'd recommend for anyone going through a rough breakup. In this ongoing series, the heroine Kyoko discovers that her longtime love, Sho, is only using her to get ahead in show business, and sees her as a faithful fan at most. Rather than doing what many shojo protagonists do, Kyoko swears revenge against Sho and vows to become an even bigger star than him.
The term "wish fulfillment" is mainly used to insult a story, but Skip Beat uses it as its greatest strength. Who hasn't wanted to get back at an ex who froze them out? Sure, Kyoko does it in a much more dramatic manner than most (begging an agency to take her on as an actress in training), but her justifiable anger makes her one of the most relatable shoujo protagonists. Skip Beat both legitimizes her feelings and nails in the fact that a successful actress can never completely close herself off from love. I also appreciate that, while Sho is an idol, Kyoko goes in a different direction and favors method acting to singing, the direction many authors would've gone with this plot. For people who like Birds of Prey-like stories where strong women gain independence and break free from their past love affairs, Skip Beat is a must read.