Of the over 300 manga titles I’ve read so far, there’s one thing I’ve noticed: I am hard-pressed to find a well-written, likable female lead character. By that, I mean someone who is smart, strong-willed, independent, and most of all, unapologetic for being any of these three things.
Unfortunately, most of the heroines are reduced to weepy, insecure, stalkerish characters whose primary motivation in life is to catch their love interest’s eye. (Yes, even some of the characters *I* like are guilty of this.)
That’s why I’m thankful I came across these manga heroines that break the shoujo/josei mold. These women prove that being in the romance genre doesn’t mean they can’t be in equal footing as their male counterparts, or that they can’t chase after their own ambitions and hopes.
Spoilers abound in the How She Breaks the Mold section, so please tread carefully!
10 Strong and Smart Females in Manga
Li Chang Ge – Song of the Long March
Her Story: Li Chang Ge is the intelligent princess of the Tang dynasty who is forced to conceal her gender and name in order to survive and avenge her fallen family. (You’ll hear this plot a lot as the list goes on, but each girl executes her plan and experiences growth character differently)
How She Breaks the Mold: In her young age of 14, she assumes a command position in a province, becomes a “little strategist” for the enemy (earning the respect, and eventually, the love of its ruler), and then later breaks away to find her family’s roots. Her wisdom definitely exceeds her age, whether she is winning military campaigns by virtue of her tactics, or appeasing the enemy by her surrender in order for her constituents to be spared (yet still amazingly retaining her dignity in the act).
Chang Ge is refreshingly candid about her not having a gender-based identity. She dresses up as a man not because she wants to, but because she understands that in a patriarchal society, it makes it easier for her to move and enact her plans. On the other end of the spectrum, she happily takes up sewing because she feels it brings her closer to understanding her estranged mother. In the end, she sees gender expressions as mere tools for her to experience life, instead of an end-all, be-all summary of her persona.
Fujioka Haruhi – Ouran High School Host Club
Her Story: Fujioka Haruhi is a poor girl studying on a scholarship in a school for the rich. After breaking an expensive vase, Haruhi is recruited by the Ouran High School Host Club as a male host in order to pay back for the broken valuable.
How She Breaks the Mold: Despite sticking out like a sore thumb in the luxurious playground that is Ouran, Haruhi NEVER thought less of herself. She never hid things about her simple life: her father having an unconventional occupation, her love for tuna, or her need to do part-time jobs when most students in her class went on vacations abroad. She didn’t treat the revered Ouran high school hosts any differently from how she would treat her “commoner” friends– she scolded them if she needed to, or played the straight man when everyone else was (as usual) too caught up in their crazy antics.
She didn’t see her gender as a limiter for things she should do, especially when it’s about helping out other people (to the dismay of her reverse harem, most notably Tamaki). And unlike most manga female leads, Haruhi entered high school with the purpose of studying and getting a good job, rather than finding a boyfriend. The latter would have been an easier path for her to alleviate their financial situation, considering that nearly all her potential love interests are “rich bastards” as she puts it rather eloquently. But not being that type of the person IS the reason Haruhi landed in this list. 😉
Yona – Akatsuki no Yona
Her Story: Princess Yona’s life turns upside down when her father gets mercilessly killed by her beloved cousin in order to usurp the throne. Her bodyguard and childhood friend escapes with her, and from there, she tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered world, with the help of the four legendary dragons at her service.
How She Breaks the Mold: What makes Yona’s story particularly interesting is the fact that she changes through the course of the series. She starts out as one of the typical shallow shoujo leads– singularly focused on netting the man of her dreams and going against her father for disapproving her choice. After her father’s murder, she doesn’t instantly become the tough and strong-willed Yona we know– every chapter is a witness to her gradual personality change, influenced by the people she meet and the hardships she had to go through.
It’s easy for her to fall into the “damsel in distress” hole, especially when she has a powerful and loyal bodyguard who is secretly head over heels in love with her. But she holds out on her own– she learns to use a weapon so she doesn’t have to be a burden to the people around her, despite it meaning she had to go against the dearest wish for her of her pacifist father. Later on, her weapon for defense becomes the finishing attack against a powerful villain who hurt and enslaved women.
(Let me reiterate that: it wasn’t her mythical dragons or her insanely OP bodyguard who finishes off the Big Baddie– it was her and her bow + arrow, from a distance that not even the most skillful male archers would attempt. Yep, she’s a badass.)
Finally, it’s a masterful stroke for the mangaka to appoint her as the reincarnation of the originally male King Hiryuu. It shows that gender is but a minor detail in the greater scheme of things: her compassion, courage, and devotion to the people she wanted to protect are more important aspects of who she is anyway.
Aki – Joou no Hana
Her Story: Despite her “inferior” gender and lineage, Aki outshines the deemed male heir to the throne that her father decides to exile her to her mother’s kingdom. This coincides with her mother’s death, which Aki thinks is masterminded by the jealous queen consort. Aided by her childhood friend, she vows to go back to the palace against all odds to restore her mother’s honor and seek retribution against the people who wanted her to fall.
How She Breaks the Mold: The plot reminds me of the Korean epic drama, Jewel in the Palace. Palace intrigues, villainous women, the unbreakable heroine, a loyal love interest who supports her, the death of a mother figure… no wonder I was so eager to read the series!
Even when she does fall in love with a man, she does not fall into pieces when his life is placed in jeopardy. She launches into action and uses all her wits and combat skills to orchestrate her plan (which spanned multiple kingdoms) to try and save him. And despite suffering from huge setbacks and heartbreak, Aki never loses sight of her goal. She acknowledges that she should not count on others to save her, even if she knows that her bodyguard has committed his whole life to make sure she stays safe at all costs.
Naedoko Kanoko – Koi dano Ai dano
Her Story: Naedoko Kanoko is a loner who prefers to stay in the background and jot down observations of her classmates on her notebook. When she gets invited to the Newspaper Club along with her friend (who happens to like her secretly but isn’t shy to demonstrate his feelings), she gets dragged right in the middle of a power struggle among the student organizations in her school.
How She Breaks the Mold: I can never sing this girl enough praises! Naedoko may not have her own kingdom to protect like the other princesses in this list, but she certainly has the mentality of a fierce queen! In the school domain ruled by “kings” (the student council, newspaper club, computer club, and broadcasting club are all led by men), this previously low-profile observer manages to trump all these leaders (even winning the affection of two of these kings) with her schemes and on-point reading of situations and relationship dynamics.
She’s genre-savvy, as shown by her comical but accurate remarks on her classmates every start of the chapter, but she’s still human, as shown by the few instances she lost her cool when men became too candid with her about their feelings for her. Yet unlike typical shoujo leads, she is aware that it is wrong to string people around, especially when they care for her to such extent. She aspires to be as honest to them as she can, which is a refreshing take for a genre known to extend story arcs via ridiculous, overblown misunderstandings simply because characters are too scared to communicate frankly with each other.
Lizzie Newton – Lady Detective
Her Story: Lizzie Newton is an English noble lady engaged to a lawyer appointed by her father. However, she is also a writer of mystery stories, which entail her solving real-life cases, too. Together with her fiance, she sets out to solve mysteries during the height of the strict Victorian era.
How She Breaks the Mold: Whether you’re a contemporary of Ada Lovelace or Malala Yousafzai, one thing’s for sure: it’s tough to be a woman, more so a smart woman. Lizzie knows this, and instead of passively going with the society’s flow, she instead insists to do what she wanted to do in life. With the cooperation of her fiance (who has accepted his role as errand boy for Lizzie as well as the mandatory male figurehead to satisfy the misogynists who look down on his fiancee), she utilizes her sharp logic and knowledge in chemistry in order to solve cases. Along the way, she also champions other brilliant women, such as the aforementioned Lady Lovelace, and masterfully navigates the ridiculous social minefield of being a lady in the Victorian period.
Leticia L’Cruselle – Okobore Hime to Entaku no Kishi
Her Story: At a young age of 17, Princess Leticia is thrust into the limelight as the future queen of Sommesvele in order to prevent the kingdom from breaking into two factions (each led by her brothers). As a “Leftover Princess”, she must build her own circle of 12 knights from the remaining unsworn ones before her coronation comes.
How She Breaks the Mold: As a leftover princess who has to gather the proverbial scraps from the table, Leticia must contend with expectations from everyone– the royalty, knights, commoners, and the previous kings who she gets to talk to (impressively, as equals in every sense) through her subconscious. But she uses her good judgment of character, composure, and intelligence in order to slowly but surely build her own band of supporters. She best unleashes her wits in the light novels, which can be read here.
Hibino Mizuki – Ouroboros: Keisatsu wo Sabaku Haware ni Ari
Her Story: The only child of a high-ranking police official and graduate of an elite school, Hibino Mizuki should be cruising to the top brass… if she were a man. But in the male-dominated police force, she has to struggle against incompetent, coward, corrupt, and sleazy men in order to do her job. Her primary and sole constant source of support is her partner, Ikuo Ryuzaki, who seems to harbor his own secrets that he cannot share with her.
How She Breaks the Mold: First of all, she’s bloody competent at her job. Initially characterized as a by-the-numbers type of officer, Hibino shows her true mettle and skills in the Rear Salon arc, which focused on female victims of trafficking. While nearly falling prey in the end, she still has the last laugh, as she’s the only one to figure out the true culprit behind the crime.
Hibino fiercely believes in relying in her own abilities, and shuns her connection to her high-ranking father. She can also stand up for herself in the face of harassment and is so committed to her work that she eventually earns the respect of other officers in the department.
Kou Shuurei – Saiunkoku Monogatari
Her Story: Despite being the only child of the head of one of the most powerful clans in the country, Shuurei grew up poor due to her father’s generosity to the needy and his low income. Their family’s poverty trained her to become adept at housework, as well as instilled admirable work ethic in her. These led her to be hired as an emperor’s concubine in order to set his ways straight. But her brains, guts, and compassion eventually leads her to a bolder path: to become the first female government official in the country.
How She Breaks the Mold: Let’s put it this way: female government officials came to be simply because Shuurei’s existence proved it was possible to do so without damning the country. That she went on the be the third highest scorer in the exam is just an icing in the cake.
She could have taken the path of least resistance and married the smitten emperor, then fought for her cause in the shadows. But she was determined to rely on her own power, and thus she had to deal with the rottenly unfair treatment of her by men less competent than her. And in the end, all these experiences made her the awesome, pioneering woman she is.
Lastly, I love how so passionate Shuurei was about her work. Despite having met the love of her life at age 16, she opted to dedicate fourteen years of her life to serving the people, thereby proving that women are not just baby-making machines. That the emperor never took another wife even after she passed away speaks volumes about how special Kou Shuurei is.
Here’s one of my favorite GIRL POWER! moments from the series.
Mogami Kyouko – Skip Beat!
Her Story: Kyouko left everything behind to support her childhood friend in showbiz, only to be betrayed by him in the end. Rather than be disheartened, she vows to enter the showbiz industry, too, in order to defeat him. Upon learning more about the acting craft though, she slowly falls in love with the industry itself.
How She Breaks the Mold: Upon being betrayed in the manner Kyouko was in the story, it would have been understandable if her spirit would have been utterly broken at that point. But instead of backing down, she decided to struggle and beat her betrayer in his own game. The path towards defeating a star like Sho is terribly difficult, but she is so determined and focused that she ends up overcoming the obstacles on her way, as well as winning the respect and affection of established figures in the industry, such as Ren.
And unlike other shoujo leads who end up oscillating between their old flames and current love interests, Kyouko has enough self-respect to cut and cut cleanly from whatever relationship she and Shu shared before, despite the latter’s deliberate attempts to goad her back into submission to him.
Tenten – Naruto
Her Story: Tenten is a weapons expert and long-distance offense specialist in Team Gai. She looks up to Tsunade as her idol. (Dammit, Kishimoto. If you have given us more background to work with here…)
How She Breaks the Mold: While not necessarily belonging to the romance genre, Tenten is often shown interacting with male characters. All throughout, she is shown being treated with mutual respect, even by ordinarily proud males like Hyuuga Neji. And unlike the other female ninjas of her age, she is motivated not by the desire to be liked by guys, but to become like her role model, Tsunade (who is one of the three legendary ninjas of the village).
She also believes in the equality of gender, as shown by the quote above, which she made after hearing a mocking comment on Sakura and Ino’s Chuunin exam match.
- Nakaba – Reimei no Arcana
Nakaba sacrifices everything–even marrying a person who had been cruel to her in the past later in the story– in order to fulfill her duties in protecting her constituents without excessive bloodshed. Her strong will and independence also manages to transform her initially hateful husband (different guy from above) into an ally who genuinely loves her and the country.
- Anna Katsuragi – Purikyuu
A former ballerina who had to quit after a critical injury, Anna never loses her spunk and belief in herself. She turns to archery, even if it means working her way back to the top from square one. She may come off as arrogant, but she shows sportsmanship and humility, as shown in one scene when she returns humbly to her team the next day after losing a bet in front of everyone.
- Shirayuki – Akagami no Shirayuki-hime
I liked her independent character, especially at the start of the series. I’ll forever remember her for the clever way she attempted to escape from the castle prison through her knowledge of herbs. Romance eventually overshadowed her girl power moments, but she can still show her trademark grit and toughness in some situations.
- Colette – Colette wa Shinu Koto ni Shita
A female doctor who stands up to the god of death himself? I’m done.
- Alicia Licen – Shinigamihime no Saikon
One of the most delightful shoujo heroines I’ve ever read. Practically nothing fazes this good ole sensible Alicia– not Gothic houses, not the death of a husband, and not even a haughty maid’s threat of sharing the bed with her second husband. Yet she manages to win everyone, especially her second husband, with her calm-headed ways, kindness, and pragmatic take on things.
- Sunako Nakahara – Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge
Sunako considers attractive people her enemies, except for her aunt who has taken care of her as if she’s her own child. Heck, she considers anatomical models her BFFs! But as she interacts with her housemates (particularly Kyohei) more and more, she begins to see them for something beyond their looks. Kyohei even becomes her playmate / sparring mate / rival, while they both tiptoe around the possibility of them being in love with each other.
- Nonomura Hana – Takane to Hana
I am not crazy about couples with huge age gaps, but this story handles it particularly well– all thanks to an entertaining and mature female lead. Interestingly, the power play dynamics brought by age difference is subverted in this series. She reduces the arrogant 26-year-old CEO into a juvenile guy who can really only laugh and throw tantrums whenever he’s with her. She’s also not above throwing barbs at him for pursuing someone as young as her, or for pointing out the stupidity of his antics and words.
Do you know other awesome female manga / manhwa / manhua leads who should be in this mold-breaking list? Let me know in the comments!