This month marks the 15th anniversary of the dark fantasy romance manga, Black Bird by Kanoko Sakurakoji. Most shojo readers are familiar with complicated high school love triangles, such as Boys Over Flowers, and young characters transforming into magical girls, like in Sailor Moon. But Black Bird pushed the boundaries of shojo, showcasing more serious female adolescent issues relating to relationships and growing up.
The story centers on the relationship between a teenage girl named Misao Harada and her childhood friend Kyou Usui, who happens to be the leader of the Tengu clan. Misao can see supernatural beings and on her 16th birthday, demons viciously attack her, but Kyou saves her.
Misao soon learns she is the “Bride of Prophecy” who holds immense power. Demons want to consume her blood or marry her because she is said to bring prosperity to a demon clan. Kyou vows to protect Misao from other demons, and they eventually fall in love. Black Bird may sound like your typical supernatural romance, but its 2006 publication proved vital in increasing the popularity of shojo manga globally.
Misao is depicted as docile at first, but while she lives in Kyou’s household, she learns to adapt and assert herself into a patriarchal system. Kyou was initially overprotective as well, but soon after, Misao learns to speak up for herself and her needs within their relationship -- especially when she gets pregnant with Kyou’s child. Black Bird doesn’t shy away from real relationship issues as its story explores mature themes like sex, abortion and marital values.
Aside from romance, Black Bird also introduces Japanese folklore to international readers. The manga was published at a time when supernatural romances were trending in mainstream pop culture media. Western female audiences became fans of vampires and werewolf love stories such as Twilight and Teen Wolf, which led to an opportunity for the exposure of supernatural anime tales as well. Black Bird appealed to western fans by introducing a mysterious and sensual male protagonist, Kyou, who is similar to Edward Cullen of Twilight. Kyou showcases his caring and protective side toward Misao by fighting against other demons that seek her blood. Yet there are moments when he also expresses his flirtatious sex appeal to Misao, which favorably caters to female readers’ desire for fan service.
The Black Bird manga introduces readers to a supernatural entity from Japanese folk religion: the tengu, an anthropomorphized bird-like creature with a long beak and avian wings. Kyou and his clansmen look mostly human, but they still retain the black wings and use long-beaked masks to represent the tengu. Even though Black Bird doesn’t go in-depth about the tengu lore, the manga does well in sparking readers’ curiosity about Japanese folklore. Many dark fantasy shojo romances tell tales about nine-tailed foxes, while the tengu is often cast as a supporting character. However, Black Bird positions the tengu as the main mythical creature, showing readers there’s more to Japanese folklore than the classic fox.
Black Bird gained widespread success both in Japan and overseas. It won the 54th Shogakukan Manga Award in the shojo category and was the sixth best-selling manga series in the US for 2011. More importantly, it pushed the boundaries for shojo, paving a path for other supernatural romances, like Kamisama Kiss and Kakuriyo: Bed & Breakfast for Spirits, leaving an indelible mark on the genre for years after.