These days, shoujo heroines falling in love with gods/yokai/etc. are all the rage. I think it's time to look back at the series that most recently popularized the idea.
KAMISAMA KISS (Kamisama Hajimemashita), by Juliette Suzuki. First published in 2008 and first published in North America in 2010.
Nanami Momozono is an extraordinarily unlucky girl. She's barely getting along as things are, but after her father runs off to escape gambling debts she finds herself alone, homeless, and penniless. A kindly old man takes pity on her, offering her a place to stay and a kiss on the forehead. Nanami couldn't have known that the old man was a stray Shinto god and that his offer was in fact a transfer of his powers and temple to her. Now Nanami is responsible for fulfilling the prayers of strangers along with a fox familiar who is as handsome as he is grumpy and who resents the new management.
Despite the divine angle, Kamisama Kiss isn't anything new as far as shoujo goes. We've seen girls become gods as well as girls falling for handsome gods/yokai/demons/etc. Still, there's something to be said for the sincere charm and effort that helps to elevate this version just a little bit above the rest.
Nanami may seem like your standard shoujo heroine at first glance but she proves to have a bit more of a temper than we usually see. She's under a lot of pressure after all, between losing her home and becoming a minor goddess in one day. She's written with enough spunk to keep her from constantly fretting or submitting to her familiar Tomoe's temper tantrums. As for Tomoe, he's so much of a tsundere that initially it's kind of off-putting. Like most tsunderes, he turns out to have a gooey emotional center. In this case, his pissiness with Nanami stems from him regarding the old man like a father. Thankfully, he doesn't linger on this too long.
Surprise, surprise - these two are our main couple-to-be. God knows that Suzuki isn't all that subtle about it early on, as Nanami's first step towards godhood is sealing Tomoe's pact as a familiar with a kiss. She lightens up on the ship-teasing as the volume goes on, but Tomoe never completely loses his tsundere edge and threatens to eat anyone who crosses him or threatens Nanami. Still, I found the learning-to-be-a-god portions of the book more compelling than the romantic ones.
With stories like this, the charm is frequently found in how the mangaka adapts traditional Shinto beliefs and spirits to their needs. When done well, this can bring about a sense of whimsy along with a little cultural or historical depth. We don't see too many other yokai other than Tomoe right away and what few we do see has been both heavily anthromorphosized and beautified. The closest they get to their traditional forms is a catfish spirit who wants to be reunited with the boy she loves, which ends in a rather charming manner. That's pretty much what saves this series - not its originality, not the compelling character, but the effortless charm that Suzuki imbues it all with.
Suzuki clearly knows her audience. Her art style and character designs are not all that complex overall, but she saves it for where it counts...namely, with Tomoe and the other spirit bishies. The difference is most notable when Nanami and Tomoe are in the same frame together. It's not stark enough that a casual reader would notice, but if you've seen enough shoujo art you can pick up in the disparity in detail beween the two. Maybe it was just a matter of Suzuki preferring to draw Tomoe's old-fashioned kimonos over Nanami's modern wardrobe.
I didn't find Kamisama Kiss as divine as the premise, but there's enough here to charm if not quite enough to stand out, especially in the sea of imitators that followed in its wake.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 25 volumes available. 23 volumes have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available digitally.