Yeaahhhhhh, so the lengthy I-can’t-type thing has really caused book reviews to backlog. Although actually the YA book took me so long to read that there aren’t as many as there might be, and I’ve been focusing on my backlog of manga and Kickstarter-backed graphic novels rather than reading, you know, real books since. Partly because I wanted something different, and partly because I spent money on these things, so I’m darn well gonna read them! I’m starting with the graphic novels, though, rather than the YA book. I’ll get to that one next time. But one of these manga volumes counts for Read Harder 2018 (actually, all of them could count for the same challenge), so we’ll start with that one. (Also, I actually read some of them after June ended, but I figured I’d just put them in this post, because otherwise I might not post anything about them at all, and they all fit into the theme so nicely!)
The challenge in question is number 4, “A comic written and illustrated by the same person,” and the manga I’ve chosen for that slot is…
Yes, that title says “The Bride was a Boy.” And no, it’s not about a same-sex marriage. (Last I heard, those are still illegal in Japan.) And yes, that is an accurate translation of the original Japanese title. (As far as I can tell.) This manga is a very cute memoir (of sorts) in manga form, in which the mangaka (graphic novel author, for those less otaku-ish readers) Chii explains how she was assigned the male gender at birth, but transitioned as an adult. This is a rare case where I actually did read reviews first, and I do agree with them that the tale is quite simplified and lacking in drama, because if there were any objections among Chii’s family and friends, she chose not to tell us about it. Thus while I feel their complaints of “unrealistic” are not necessarily correct (if it’s actually what happened in her case, then it by definition is realistic), but it’s definitely not representative of the typical experience of trans individuals, so far as I know. (Which is admittedly not far, but given all the reports one hears, I think it safe to say that most do not have the easy acceptance Chii found among family and friends.)
The art throughout is pretty much exactly like what you see on the cover: cute, but not terribly distinctive. And that’s fine, because I don’t think this was intended to launch a manga career for Chii. Rather, I would say that this was intended to be educational. At the end of every chapter, Chii explains a term and/or clears up a misconception about trans individuals, and I think that was the real intention of the book, to spread more accurate awareness. Some of the moments I found most interesting were the insights into what it’s like to be trans in Japan: for example, before Chii transitioned on paper, but after she was living as a woman, she would have trouble getting some official business done, because the officials on the other side of the desk would look at the paperwork for a man and say that they needed to talk to the person in question. (Which sounds really complex, but that’s because it’s hard to phrase it. It was actually only a single panel…) Or, in a less convoluted example, how reassignment surgery is necessary for trans individuals who want to get married, because of the above-mentioned ban on same-sex marriage. (Um, rather for heterosexual trans individuals. For gay or lesbian trans individuals, reassignment surgery would actually mean they couldn’t get married. I don’t think Chii really went into that, but…logically, it follows, since in Japan they can’t transition on paper without the surgery.)
So, at the end of the day, it’s a sweet and charming little book with some educational content, some laughs, and a lot of warm fuzzies.
Now, changing gears and yet staying on the same subject, I want to talk about an anime. (Yeah, I know, that’s not a book report in any way, but…well, it’s based on a manga! I just haven’t read the manga; I’ve seen the anime.)
This is the promotional image on the Crunchyroll page for the anime Hourou Musuko, which translates as “Wandering Son.” It’s really hard for me to get a bead on how to even discuss this, mostly in terms of pronouns. (Something that isn’t an issue in Japanese, because the language doesn’t have pronouns like those in English.) The protagonist of this anime is Nitori Shuichi, a boy in middle school. That’s him on the image, the one in the wine-colored dress. And here’s where my uncertainty about pronouns come in: Shuichi feels he should be a girl — that he is one, rather — but he hasn’t transitioned, and only periodically wears dresses and a long wig. So, should I be using “she” to reflect Shuichi’s self-perceived gender, or “he” to reflect the socially-perceived gender that has yet to be fully rejected in Shuichi’s behavior? I’ve been using “he” because Shuichi hasn’t actually transitioned yet, but I’m not sure if that’s right. (I welcome correction if I’m wrong.) As you’d expect from someone only in middle school, Shuichi isn’t entirely sure about a lot of other aspects of his identity, particularly his sexual identity. He has romantic interest in his best friend, Takatsuki Yoshino (the other kid in the picture above), a girl who hasn’t yet transitioned to being a boy, but he also shows interest in girls who do self-identify as female. So Shuichi doesn’t seem quite sure if his ideal self is a straight, bi or lesbian trans woman. And I think that makes him feel much more real, because how many people have themselves fully figured out at that age? (I didn’t come to understand that I’m asexual until I was 40, for cryin’ out loud!)
Hourou Musuko is what’s known as a “slice of life” anime, following Shuichi and a few other students at his school as they go about their daily lives. Unlike most of the “slice of life” anime I’ve seen, it’s quiet, subdued, and you feel like these could be real kids. (Most of the “slice of life” anime I’ve seen have been more in the “zany comedy” neck of the woods…) The show never telegraphs what’s going on in the heads of the characters — though Shuichi’s reasons for doing things are usually spelled out fairly well, as the lead — and although you can often figure out, or at least speculate, what motivates the other major characters, you’re never completely certain, as you wouldn’t be with real people. For example, there’s a scene in the first episode when Shuichi’s sister says something so horrible to him that if it had been a movie and not the first episode of a television show, I would honestly have been afraid he would kill himself over it. It was that bad, and his reaction to it was that powerful. But it’s not that she hates him, and in later episodes she is sometimes tolerant and even sweet to him. The other students in Shuichi’s class are the same way: you can’t always guess how they’re going to react to something, but afterwards you see how it all fits together with their earlier behavior, and you get a better idea of who they really are. And none of the students you get to know well are typical; there’s something that makes them each unique, and most of the ones we get to know well either are aware of being LGBTQ+ in some way, or are displaying signs that they probably are, even if they haven’t figured themselves out yet. (Before anyone thinks there is something exceptionally unusual about Shuichi’s school, it should be noted that the characters we spend the most time with are only a handful of students out of a fairly large class.)
Overall, it’s a very subtle, very genuine-feeling look into the complicated lives of today’s youth in their early/mid- teens. (The pace is definitely not fast, however. Don’t expect a thrill ride.)
And, even though it’s the one I read most recently — and yet the oldest of the lot — we’re switching back to manga for
The title you might have trouble reading because of that script font is Claudine, the name of the lead. The mangaka, Ikeda Riyoko, is that shaper of modern manga and anime responsible for the classic The Rose of Versailles. (Which I shamefacedly must admit I still haven’t finished watching. I went into it knowing how it ends (who didn’t, though? Marie Antoinette is one of the major characters!) and then I got to the episode where Oscar weirdly decided that she was in love with a man who wasn’t Andre, and even wore a dress for him, and I was just like “What is the matter with you, woman?!” and had to set it aside for a while and then kind of forgot to go back. *cough* I’d been enjoying it up until then, though.) It should not, therefore, surprise you to learn that Claudine was first published in Japan in 1978. So, yes, they didn’t translate this until it was forty years old!
Why the 40 year delay, you might wonder. (Or you might not, given the context in which I’m discussing it…) Translating it right away was not going to happen, of course; manga was not being brought over to the US in the late ’70s, so far as I know. (Then again, how would I know? I was only three years old in 1978.) Let me answer the question in a slightly round-about fashion. The Rose of Versailles, for those who don’t know, is the story of Oscar Francois, the youngest daughter of a French noble who was so tired of having daughters that he named his last child while still in the womb, and didn’t change it to a girl’s name even after she wasn’t a boy. And she lived up to having a man’s name, dressing as a boy, learning to ride and fight like a man, and even joining the royal guards (by special royal dispensation), where she was made bodyguard to the Dauphine-to-be as soon as she left Austria. Although Oscar dresses as a man, she doesn’t self-identify as one (though everyone routinely mistakes her for one at first glance, and one woman fell for her so hard as to literally commit suicide) and her servant/friend/military-right-hand-man Andre Grandier is, of course, passionately in love with her. So, it didn’t just shape shoujo melodrama for decades to come, but inspired both shoujo-ai/yuri and shounen-ai/yaoi, even though it doesn’t technically fall into either of those categories. And if you have ever seen a zany comedy anime, you have probably seen Ikeda’s art style mimicked at some point or other, because it’s just that iconic.
With all that said, Claudine goes much further than The Rose of Versailles. The narration is from a psychiatrist (or psychologist) in Paris, sometime in the first half of the 20th century, reminiscing on the life of Claudine de Montesse, who was first brought to him as a patient at just 10 years old…because at eight years old, Claudine had self-identified as a boy. It’s not clear exactly when the action of the manga is taking place, but I’d say the finale is probably before the outbreak of World War I, since it’s never mentioned. (But I don’t know how much weight we should put on details of timing; I don’t think exactly when it was taking place was a high priority in Ikeda’s thought process on this one.)
For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to do something for Claudine that the manga itself never does: I’m going to use the proper pronouns for him.
Claudine is very much a proper gentleman, but not so proper that he’s overly concerned by the social standing of the women he falls in love with. His case is an odd one when viewed from the modern perspective where society is starting to accept and understand trans individuals: he dresses and acts like a man, views himself as a man, but never changes his name to “Claude” and when he goes off to college, he doesn’t tell his new acquaintances that he’s a man or try to live as one. Looking at it in context of Europe at the time it’s set…honestly, I guarantee there are cases more or less exactly like Claudine’s, but I know there are also cases of trans men born in Claudine’s situation who simply moved to a new city (or even country) where they weren’t known, changed their name and never admitted to anyone that they were not biologically male. Though the story provides several incidents that could “explain” why Claudine self-identified as a man, they’re not accepted as explanations by Claudine himself, and actually wouldn’t explain it even if being trans was something that could be (or even needed to be) “explained” in those kinds of terms.
The fact that a manga like this with a trans lead was written in 1978 is frankly astonishing, especially given that Japan is a bit behind the curve on LGBTQ+ issues. (Though certain people in this country are trying to push us back to the freakin’ Middle Ages, but that’s not something I should go into detail about.) Of course, there are down sides to this amazing manga. Like a lot of LGBTQ+ stories written before the 21st century, it has a tragic ending. (And that’s not much of a spoiler, because the narrator’s tone quickly makes you assume something terrible happened, not to mention that the back of the book describes it as “heart-wrenching.”) Unfortunately, it’s a very believable one. Melodramatic, but people in love (regardless of gender or sexual orientation) can be very melodramatic in real life.
It’s not a feel-good read, but the art is gorgeous, and the characters who weave their way in and out of Claudine’s story feel like they lead full lives off the page (well, some of them do), which is very impressive in such a remarkably short volume. It’s a pity it’s not longer, because I think Claudine’s story could have easily filled several regular-size volumes of manga without feeling padded, while this is a single, very thin volume. And if Ikeda hadn’t been writing it back in 1978, it probably would have been several volumes long. But I doubt 1978’s manga market was willing to support such a revolutionary story over a long period of time.
This one, btw, could also qualify for Read Harder 2018 challege number 3, “A classic of genre fiction,” as manga hasn’t been around as long, so it doesn’t have to be as old to count as “classic.” I’m not counting it for that challenge (I’m reading some H.G. Wells for that), but I think it would qualify.
So, from a landmark manga of incredible depth, complexity and beauty, let’s move to another landmark manga which lacks pretty much all of those qualities.
What you see above are the covers of the first six volumes of the manga Gravitation, one of the first really major shounen-ai/yaoi titles to be brought to the US. When I picked them up used at the local anime store, I thought the manga was only six volumes long. I’m still not sure if I want to track down the other six, or just say “to heck with it!”
Which isn’t to say that it’s bad, per se. I mean, I was enjoying reading it. But the characters are pretty one dimensional, they all look pretty much the same (I frequently said “wait, who is that?” sometimes in cases when the person in question was the hero’s best friend/bandmate, who’s been in the story from the very first chapter), and the plot is running at full tilt with no indication that the mangaka had any idea where she was actually going with it. This is not the highly polished work of art that Claudine was, but it’s not really trying to be, either.
So, the plot of this one, as described on the back of the first volume, is roughly as follows: Shindo Shuichi, high school senior and frontman of an amateur band, drops a sheet of his lyrics in the park one night, and they’re picked up by the handsome-but-aloof Yuki Eiri, who takes one look at them and pronounces them utter garbage. After this encounter, Shuichi becomes obsessed with Yuki, entering into his gravitational field (hence the title), circling ever closer in his obsession.
Now, my understanding had been that Yuki was part of a competing band, and that as their bands played against each other over and over again, they grew closer and closer together until they became romantically entangled. That could not be further from the case. (Though it does come very close to describing something else I’ll be reviewing below…)
The actual case is that Yuki Eiri is a novelist who writes romance novels aimed at teenage girls/women in their twenties, and Shuichi basically hunts him down to demand an apology, which prompts more insults. When Shuichi is fuming about that later, his best friend/bandmate tells him to just let it go, and says something about “it’s not like you’re in love with him or something” which somehow prompts Shuichi to realize that he is, in fact, in love with Yuki. Even though he’s not gay. (Or he never was before, anyway.) Before the first volume is over, they’re already sleeping together, even though they both insist that they’re straight. (I think, given that they’re sleeping together, they have to realistically be considered bisexual, but…hey, I’m not the one who wrote it.)
It goes all over the place from there. Shuichi’s band getting a big break, competition against other bands, risks of discovery, and (of course!) basic romantic melodrama. Throughout all of this, Shuichi is a crybaby, a moron, and rattles back and forth between melodrama, manic happiness, hysterical tears, and extreme passion like a pinball on speed. (If you’ve seen or read Sailor Moon, imagine Usagi magnified about ten times, and that’s Shuichi in a nutshell.) Yuki, on the other hand, has only one setting: sullen. He’s even sullen about having sex. (Uh, what?) Volume 6 introduced a new character who seemed to be a bit of a sadist, or maybe even a proto-yandere, which might lead to interesting places, but I’m still not sure it’s worth hunting down the other six volumes. (And I can’t just hunt down the anime, because according to Wikipedia, it only covers volumes 1-7.)
The main thing I wanted to say about this is that it’s a weird mix. On the one hand, Shuichi is very much the distillation of the problem that plagues a lot of yaoi (and shounen-ai, but less so there): as the passive partner in the relationship (the uke in yaoi terminology), he is presented with many feminine/feminizing mannerisms. On the other hand, he isn’t the typical feminine uke: most of the female characters are tougher and more mature than he is, and pretty much every other character in the manga (including Yuki) considers him a freak, so he’s certainly not embodying the usual “a passive gay man is a girl in a male body” that is such a problem not only in yaoi/shounen-ai fiction, but also some fanfiction written by non-Japanese women. I think what perplexes me most about it is that I’m not quite sure what the goal was here. If it was just to write a funny manga about the “wacky” lead singer in a band falling for a grumpy and withdrawn writer, what was the point of them both being men? It’s not as though the people around them react realistically when they learn about their relationship. If the romance between two attractive men was supposed to be titillating to the (almost entirely) female target audience, then why make Shuichi behave like such a weirdo? He spends more time in SD “I’m being an idiot” mode than in standard “see, I’m a good-looking guy, too” mode. I knew it wasn’t going to be proper representation in any way, but I still find myself baffled as I try to suss out exactly what it really is.
Okay, since I teased it already, let’s change gears dramatically, and take a hop across the Pacific Ocean for…
This is one of those Kickstarter-backed graphic novels I mentioned. (I keep on backing them, even though it takes me a long time to get around to reading them…but no, I’m not going to start reviewing all of them. Just some of them.) Band vs Band Comix is the collected edition of a webcomic by Kathleen Jacques. (The webcomic version is here.) Sadly, this is one of the ones I backed before I broke my iPad, so I backed for the .pdf version instead of the physical, which meant I was trying to read it on my phone, which was really hard to do. *cough* Anyway, the plot here is similar to what I thought the plot of Gravitation was: two rival bands, the sugary Candy Hearts and the goth Sourballs, are always running into each other, playing against each other in competitions, etc. The lead singers, Honey Hart and Turpentine, slowly draw closer as the story continues, and the audience sees that they’re made for each other long before they do. (Isn’t that always the way?) It’s got a lot of LGBTQ+ representation–lesbian (obviously), gay, bi, and trans, just among the primary cast–and it’s both sweet and really funny. A lot of the art has a very retro feel (’50s and early ’60s for the Candy Hearts, and more of an ’80s feel for the Sourballs) and it does really unusual things with the color that bring out the slight surreality of the setting. The only complaint I can think of (aside from how hard it is to read on a phone, lol) is that the setting is so utopian that it makes the real world seem even worse than it actually is: despite the mid-century aesthetics on display, the only homophobia I can think of anywhere in both volumes combined is in some flashbacks to one character’s childhood. (Maybe I’ve just forgotten, but I think that was really the only example.) I’m not saying I think they ought to encounter hate (outside of the understandable distaste engendered by Turpentine’s behavior (like stealing other bands’ awards, for example)), just that its so paradisaical that when you stop reading and step back into reality you’re like “oh, right…all that horrible stuff still exists…”
Okay, actually, I do have a different, much bigger complaint: based on the Kickstarter page, it took four years to accumulate the material in Volume 2. That puts Volume 3 a long way off! (I mean, okay, yeah, I could just read it online as each page goes up, but…) At least there should be another Kickstarter to reprint Volume 1, though, so hopefully I can snag physical copies of both volumes then…
And back across the Pacific for one last manga, also with a very retro visual style…
If anyone reading this is as familiar with anime as I am, they’re probably having loads of early Takahashi Rumiko flashbacks looking at that cover art. And that is absolutely what the art is like: I could easily imagine Ranma running past this school in training (or Ryoga wandering into the building, lost as usual). I honestly spent most of the manga assuming that the art style was a conscious decision to show that it was taking place in the late ’80s/early ’90s, especially when someone talked about “running out of film,” but then later on someone else was using a digital camera, so I guess it’s actually supposed to be modern after all. (Cell phones are referenced once, but never appear.)
Anyway, chronological setting aside, Go For It, Nakamura! is about as far removed from Gravitation as you can get, despite a few similarities in the starting place. Okay, actually, there’s really only the one similarity. And it’s not that similar.
Let me start over.
Nakamura Okuto, our hapless hero, is an introverted student who’s head-over-heels in love with his classmate, Hirose Aiki, one of the most outgoing and popular boys in the class. Nakamura already knew he was gay before he met Hirose, but he’s never been involved with anyone, and is not out to anyone. He wants desperately to actually meet Hirose (yes, they’ve never even spoken when the manga starts), but is terrified of screwing up and making the object of his affection hate him.
A lot of the gags are the kind of thing you might have seen in straight romantic comedy manga/anime, most of them with little to no change from their straight counterparts. What sets Go For It, Nakamura! apart in this, however, is the fact that Hirose, apart from a pretty, mildly feminine face, is in no way feminized; his behavior is typically masculine. Likewise, there’s nothing feminine about Nakamura (aside from his attempts to get dating tips from shounen-ai manga), so what we have here is a romcom between two teenage boys who actually act like teenage boys. (Well, the manga definition of acting like teenage boys.) Also, a lot of the ways Nakamura screws up are new takes on classic potential gaffes. (Like, how many romcom leads can you think of who are so into octopi that they have a pet octopus in their bedroom?)
From the mangaka’s afterword pages, it seems that this was being used as a page-filler in a manga magazine when it didn’t quite fill its usual length. That being the case, though the story does progress from chapter to chapter, each one is also designed to be a stopping place of sorts, which prevents any massive dramatic events, but also means that there could conceivably be another volume someday. (Or not. I don’t know.)
Whew! That was ridiculously long! (And I’ve been working on it on-and-off for like ten days….in part because I’ve been dedicating most of my writing time to Camp NaNo, of course…)
Future book reviews will be the usual “one book per post” format, naturally. (In addition to that YA book, I’ve almost finished the classic of genre fiction, too.) And I plan to have a “future of this blog” post soon, as I’ve come to a decision I want to share, and had an idea I wanted to toss out there.