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Strictly speaking, josei is not a genre. Rather, it refers to any animated/illustrated work aimed at Japanese women from ages 18-30 (or 18-40, depending on what source you're looking at). Most josei stories delve into the romance and slice-of-life genres, though you'll occasionally see fantasy, comedy and even horror.
If you exclude the manga-only works, the live-action movies/TV shows, and the yaoi (since they have overlapping demographics), you can count the number of josei anime on one hand. That's a shame, really, because many josei works are high quality. For example, you have:
10. Hachimitsu to Clover (Honey and Clover)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr 2005 – Sep 2005
Let's start this list with a classic josei piece. Honey and Clover follows Yuuta Takemoto, an art major without a clear sense of where he wants to go. Although he finds friendship with the quirky, fun-loving Shinobu Morita and the mature, no-nonsense Takumi Mayama, he doesn't really gain his footing until he meets Hagumi "Hagu" Hanamoto. Hagu's unique mix of innocence and maturity captures Takemoto's heart, and changes his worldview for the better.
Like most slice-of-life series, Honey and Clover doesn't have a discernible plot. But since the characters are well-rounded, you'll care about them when they experience rejection and heartbreak — which are recurring themes in this series. Shinobu, for example, may seem like a carefree guy on the surface, but he's actually fighting his own demons like everyone else. At the risk of spoiling this show further, I strongly suggest you watch it right this instant.
9. Pet Shop of Horrors
- Episodes: 4
- Aired: Mar 1999 – Mar 1999
"Horror" and "josei" may seem like an odd combination, but this series manages it. In this chilling tale, there's a strange pet shop in Chinatown, run by an equally strange man named Count D. He sells pets to people, who need some mystical way to make their hopes and dreams come true. But there's a catch: The pet owner must follow the terms of the sales contract to the letter — or else.
Apparently, no one is able to hold up their end of the bargain, because they invariably end up with horrible fates. This eventually catches the attention of Leon Orcot, a young homicide detective. Suspecting that Count D was behind everything, Leon begins his quest to uncover the truth behind the pet shop.
As with all good horror tales, Pet Shop of Horrors is more complex than it lets on. Sure, it has its fair share of gruesome scenes that'll make you squirm in your seat. But it also raises questions like "How far will you go for the things you want?" (Oh yeah, there's some homoerotic subtext between Count D and Leon, if you're into that sort of thing.) Overall, the show has a different take on what it means to be good, evil and human.
8. Omoide Poroporo (Only Yesterday)
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: Jul 1991
Everyone feels nostalgic about their childhood, and this Studio Ghibli film knows it. Omoide Poroporo revolves around 27-year-old Taeko Okajima, an OL (office lady) who retreats to a countryside village for her vacation. During her stay there, she helps out the farmers, reflects on her memories as a 10-year-old, and comes to terms with a budding romance.
As expected of a Ghibli work, this was a box office hit in Japan. Only Yesterday paints a tender yet realistic portrait of growing up: Taeko remembers both the good (her crush returned her feelings) and the bad (her frustration with fractions) of her days as a little girl. Although the film goes back and forth between the past and the present, the flashbacks never feel jarring. Also, GKIDS will release this movie in U.S. theaters come 2016, so watch out for it!
7. Shirokuma Café (Polar Bear Café)
- Episodes: Episodes: 50
- Aired: Aired: Apr 2012 – Mar 2013
At first glance, Shirokuma Café looks like a cutesy children's show. It has talking animals, pastel colors, and a wholesome, relaxing tone overall. Once you get into it, however, you'll realize there's more to it.
For one, it's different from most comedies that rely on randomness to work. Shirokuma fires off Japanese puns like a machine gun, while Penguin is just as proficient as a tsukkomi (straight man). As for the main character, Panda, I found him tolerable enough — though some of you may be put off by his constant whining. The voice cast includes heavyweights like Jun Fukuyama, Takahiro Sakurai, Hiroshi Kamiya, Daisuke Ono and Yuuichi Nakamura, so have fun guessing who's voicing who.
6. Kuragehime (Princess Jellyfish)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Oct 2010 – Dec 2010
In an apartment complex called Amamizukan, everyone is a geeky woman. For example, Tsukimi Kurashita knows anything and everything about jellyfish. Banba is into trains, Jiji is into old men and Mayaya is an expert on everything related to the Three Kingdoms. Even the apartment's manager, Chieko, is obsessed with Japanese clothes and Japanese dolls. They're all able to live quiet lives, because of their compliance with one condition: No guys are allowed in the Amamizukan.
Everything changed when a beautiful woman helps Tsukimi win an argument with a pet store owner. The woman follows Tsukimi to the Amamizukan, and spends the night with her. However, the next morning reveals that the "woman" is, in fact, a man named Kuranosuke Koibuchi! What will Tsukimi do if the others find out?
The unique plot isn't the only selling point of this anime. You'll bust your belly laughing at the girls' quirks and antics as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). At the same time, Kuragehime is a heartwarming story about being yourself, in a society that pressures you to be like everyone else. Granted, the anime could've ended on a more satisfying note, but this doesn't detract much from its overall quality.
5. Paradise Kiss
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Aired: Oct 2005 – Dec 2005
Despite the premise, you don't have to watch/like "Project Runway" or "America's Next Top Model" to appreciate this show. If you want an earnest story about following your dreams, Paradise Kiss should be on your "Must-Watch" list.
At the show's center is Yukari Hayasaka, a high school girl who's uncertain about her future. She winds up with a fledgling clothier group called Paradise Kiss — comprised of the fashionable Isabella, the rocker Arashi, the cute Miwako and the magnetic George. With these friends, Yukari discovers more about herself, and falls in love with George along the way.
Everyone in this show is unusual and relatable at the same time. This makes it easy to root for them, despite the fact that they live and breathe the mystical world of fashion. The animators also displayed a mind-blowing attention to detail (just check out those clothes!), and somehow managed to get Franz Ferdinand to sing an ending song called "Do You Want To." Considering all the effort put into Paradise Kiss, is it any wonder it's one of the most well-known anime series?
4. Sakamichi no Apollon (Kids on the Slope)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Apr 2012 – Jun 2012
This anime is set in the summer of 1966, when Kaoru Nishimi transfers to Sasebo on Kyushu Island. Because he constantly moves from one place to another, Kaoru has a hard time making friends, and becomes a withdrawn, introverted kid as a result. But when a local boy, Sentarou Kawabuki, befriends him and introduces him to jazz music, Kaoru learns more about love, friendship and personal identity.
If there's one word that sums up this anime, it's "unforgettable." The show will take you on a rollercoaster ride of laughs, tears and heartfelt moments. All the characters receive development: Kaoru gets out of his shell, Sentarou deals with his scars and Ritsuko learns to move on. And, as you've probably heard a million times before, you'll listen to the jazz music from this show long after you're done with it.
3. Usagi Drop
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Jul 2011 – Sep 2011
While attending his grandfather's funeral, 30-year-old Daikichi Kawachi notices a strange little girl flitting about the house. For some reason, the rest of the relatives ignore her, so Daikichi investigates. He discovers that the girl's name is Rin Kaga, and that she's his grandfather's child out of wedlock.
Realizing that no one else wants to care for Rin, Daikichi takes her away, and resolves to raise her on his own. The problem is, he's a bachelor, so he has zero experience with child care. Fortunately, Rin is mature for her age, and they become closer throughout the series.
This is probably one of the most diabetes-inducing shows I've ever watched. Through Rin, Daikichi learns to be a more responsible adult, while Rin just grows more and more adorable with each episode. It was also fun to watch their interactions with the Nitanis, who were heavily hinted as their future love interests. Hopefully, if this show gets a second season, the animators will develop those relationships a little more. (Yes, I've read the manga, and… Well, let's just say I'm in denial about the events in the second half.)
2. Nodame Cantabile
- Episodes: 23
- Aired: Jan 2007 – Jun 2007
Shinichi Chiaki has it all: Good looks, a flair for piano-playing, and a lofty ambition to make music with the best-of-the-best of Europe. Unfortunately, his fear of flying, coupled with his perfectionist tendencies, don't make him the most pleasant person to be around. So when fellow university student Noda "Nodame" Megumi — a sloppy, aimless girl who's a skillful pianist in her own right — falls in love with Chiaki, all hell breaks loose.
On the surface, Nodame Cantabile seems like a typical romance story: Chiaki and Nodame meet, fight, love and try to achieve their ambitions all at the same time. However, the show avoids being cliché by centering the conflict around the couple's internal struggles, rather than third-party love interests. Of course, the classical music is arguably the highlight of this show — with many viewers signing up for lessons because of it!
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Oct 2011 – Mar 2012
Chihayafuru is unusual in that it's both a sports and josei anime. And not just any sports, mind you: The show's about karuta, a card game that requires extensive knowledge of Japanese poetry and syllabary. Fortunately, you don't have to be a karuta expert to enjoy Chihayafuru.
At its core, this anime is about passion. Chihaya Ayase, the main character, didn't have any real ambition, until a boy named Arata Wataya introduces her to the aforementioned card game. Ever since, she's wanted to become the world's best karuta player.
Of course, it won't be easy for her. The other karuta players have their own reasons for succeeding too: Some play because they're naturally good at it; others play because of the challenge the game offers. Some play to win; others enjoy the game as it goes along —regardless of the end result. With this diverse cast of characters, you're bound to find at least one person to root for.
As you can see, many josei stories are character-driven. They treat otherwise mundane topics — like love, growing up, and finding yourself — with so much care and thoughtfulness, it's hard not to be engaged with them. If you're still unsure about what "josei" means, you can read our "What is Josei" article, or drop your questions/recommendations into the comments below!