The 4 Best '90s Shoujo Manga
The Return of '90s Shoujo
Ever since I started reading manga in middle school, I have been drawn to shoujo, or manga marketed towards girls, and '90s shoujo in particular. Perhaps it's my love of magical girls, my nostalgia as a mid-'90s kid, or my tendency to read manga in used bookstores, but there's always been something about this period in shoujo that I've especially loved. Even though these stories weren't part of my childhood, it still felt like they were somehow. I still love the newer shoujos, but rereading the retro ones gives me a sense of "home" that goes beyond nostalgia.
Apparently, many people feel the same way I do, both inside and outside of Japan. After the successful remake of Fruits Basket, there's been a rush to adapt '90s shoujo titles like never before. This article covers some of my favorites from this era, from magical girl stories to romances to swords-and-sorcery pieces.
1. Sailor Moon
Sailor Moon is generally seen as the '90s girl anime, from its fashions to its magical girl storyline. But its manga is not quite as well-known—while many are aware that it started as a manga, the anime achieved much greater heights. That, however, doesn't mean the Sailor Moon manga isn't worth reading.
As someone who entered Sailor Moon through the manga, it's always meant a little more to me in this format. While both are certainly great, many of Naoko Takeuchi's ideas and plot points were modified from manga to anime, and it's interesting to see her original creative vision for the story. Some of these are simply things that needed to be ironed out for adaptation, such as the manga's faster pace, but others bring beloved characters into a completely different light. For instance, Rei/Sailor Mars is serious and stoic rather than boy-crazy, and Hotaru/Sailor Saturn is actually part cyborg in the manga. (I swear I'm not making the second one up.) For anyone who wants to see an old favorite reimagined without a remake, the Sailor Moon manga is an absolute must-read.
2. Magic Knight Rayearth
The manga team CLAMP hit their stride in the '90s with titles such as Cardcaptor Sakura, RG Veda, and Tokyo Babylon. While all of these are amazing works in their own right (though Cardcaptor Sakura worked far better as an anime), I've specifically chosen to highlight Magic Knight Rayearth because it genuinely feels like a series that could explode in the 2020s. It hits many of the same boxes that popular anime do now—it's a darker magical girl story set in another world (much like an isekai) with a video game-like setup.
In six short volumes, CLAMP tells the story of three strangers—Hikaru, Fuu, and Umi—who all find themselves transported to the fantasy world of Cephiro. Their mission is right out of an RPG—fight the monsters plaguing the land, save the kidnapped princess, and bond with magical beasts to enhance your power. (The magical beasts are giant robots in this case, but their purpose is basically the same.)
However, near the middle of the manga, a devastating twist falls into place that makes the girls question everything they're doing on Cephiro. If you go into Rayearth as blind as possible (and you absolutely should), you'll find a genuinely thought-provoking deconstruction of common swords-and-sorcery plots that'll keep you from seeing an RPG the same way ever again.
3. Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne/Phantom Thief Jeanne
Okay, I swear this is the last magical girl manga on this list, but Arina Tanemura deserves a serious shoutout. If you're into "angst with a happy ending," she's definitely an artist worth checking out, as all of her works are serious tear-jerkers with equally serious payoff. While her masterpiece, Full Moon wo Sagashite, wasn't published until the early '00s, Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne (or Phantom Thief Jeanne in the States) is an excellent introduction to her work.
I'll admit that the plot sounds pretty weird at first glance—Maron, a girl who loves rhythmic gymnastics, is actually the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, who exorcises demon-possessed paintings. Since the paintings disappear after being exorcised, her magical girl identity Jeanne is frequently accused of being a thief. However, this mix of the magical girl and heist genres works surprisingly well, especially when Maron finds herself competing with fellow phantom thief Sinbad. To add icing to the cake, Maron herself is a complex and resilient character who faces both literal and metaphorical demons since her parents abandoned her from a young age. This series is so much more than just the '90s camp it appears to be, and I highly recommend it.
It's almost impossible to talk about '90s girl culture without talking about fashion. Japan, much like America, had its own '90s fashion subculture known as gyaru (or "gal" in English), and while you may have never come across a gyaru in real life, you'd probably recognize them in anime. Many stories portray them as Japanese equivalents of valley girls or mallrats, but Gals fully embraces and explores this culture.
Gals follows three gyaru—Aya, Miyu, and Ran—as they navigate school and hang out in their favorite Shibuya shopping district. This district has recently become ridden with crime, but these three shopaholics aren't about to take that lying down. This is really a story where the characters make the manga, as all go beyond their stereotype. Miyu is an ex-delinquent trying to stay on the right side of the law, Aya is a stressed honors student who uses fashion to blow off steam, and Ran is a hot-headed policeman's daughter with a strong sense of justice. (And yes, she will kick you to the curb in her platform sandals if she catches you making trouble in her shopping turf. It probably goes without saying that she's my favorite character in this manga.)
Gals is a perfect example of how a story can be empowering while still embracing femininity. It covers a surprising amount of issues facing teenage girls, from prostitution to internalized misogyny. If you ever wished shows like Bratz were a little more serious and a little less shallow, Gals delivers all the fun with none of the stereotypes.