More About After School Nightmare

25 11 2008

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After School Nightmare is a shojo manga written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro and licensed in North America by Go! Comi.

The series is complete at ten volumes and is rated OT (older teen 16+)

Mizushiro Setona began her career drawing dōjinshi and was published for the first time as part of a dōjinsh circle in 1985. She continued to work on dōjinshi until she debut as a mangaka in 1993. [1] She has worked on nine other manga series (shojo, sports, yaoi genres) since 1998.

The translation and positive critical reception of Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and other manga for a 14+ and 16+ female audience, does seem to indicate a conceptual shift towards exciting, complex and challenging comics for young women that transcend the conventional North American genre expectations. The market for manga for young women has now become sufficiently established in North America that the medium and genre doesn’t need a reference point to the North American comic market. Manga for young women now exists so sufficiently in it’s own sphere that works like After School Nightmare can be assured of reaching their target audience. This is enabled through the inclusion of many shojo titles in bookstores and libraries and a reading public that knows where to access these works.

After School Nightmare is about a school whose students participate in a class that compels them to descend into a dream world where their most essential psychological selves are manifested. Once in the dream world the students must compete to locate a hidden key that will allow them to graduate from the dream class – but what awaits them upon graduation is shrouded in mystery.

The protagonist Mashiro Ichijo is a character who is struggling to live his life as a young man despite manifesting increasingly evident female sexual characteristics. When Mashiro is initiated into the dream class he manifests as a young woman – his hidden self.

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A possible inspiration for After School Nightmare is Chiyo Rokuhana’s 2003 Kodansha award winning josei series IS: Otoko demo Onna demo nai Sei (IS stands for InterSexual, the subtitle “neither man or woman”). The stories in the manga are fictionalized retellings of the experiences of intersexual people Rokuhana has interviewed. Another possible influence could be Takako Shimura’s Hourou Musuko (Transient Son), which also began in 2003, about two gender-ambiguous school children though this is a lighter, slice of life, narrative.

The issue of the protagonist’s sexuality aside, Mizushiro seems as influenced by European gothic fiction narratives. Mashiro is a perfect template for an unreliable narrator as instability and lack of self-awareness are integral to gothic literature’s psychologically complex themes. While well intentioned, Mashiro’s failure to master his/her feelings is damaging to the other characters on repeated occasions and in a very literal sense in the dream world where much of the story takes place.

The suspense and horror elements of the text heighten the complexity of Mashiro’s struggle with self-identity. The horror comes from the way the internal monsterousness of the dream world’s participants is manifested – again drawing on the gothic themes of the shadow self and dédoublement.

The narrative structure of After School Nightmare is takes good advantage of the potential for suspense that the serialized publication format provides but the page layouts and sequencing are also carefully designed to save surprising or frightening visuals until subsequent pages. Following moments of intimacy or intense conversation between characters Mizushiro often visually pulls back on the follow page to reveal that there is an observer participating in the scene from a distance. This cinematic, suspense building effect is used in scenes in both volume one when Mashiro sees Sou in conversation with young woman through a series of courtyard windows and later in volume three when Shinbashi sees Mashiro and Sou in an unguardedly intimate moment.

Mizushiro uses the the very minimalist and cold architecture of the school itself to emphasize mood, disjuncture and isolation. The building where the story takes place is very present in the visual language of the story but often in such a nuanced way that it’s easy to overlook.

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Mizushiro generally uses a very light and consistent line weight even in sequences that represent a lot of action. This restraint allows her to use black very effectively to give particular scenes added psychological emphasis or to quickly evoke a sense of dread. The dream scenes that depict Fujishima’s enraged dream form, tragic past and the reason for her hatred towards men are full of inky blacks that are generally absent from most other scenes.

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A seminal scene in volume three where Mashiro literally confronts a full manifestation of his feminine side takes place in a vacuum with an almost completely black ground. This atmospheric use of negative space conveys Mashiro’s isolation both from others and facets of his inner self.

After School Nightmare is so visually and textually full of symbolism that one begins to strongly suspect that the entire narrative will resolve into metaphor. Each character’s dream self manifests as visual symbol of their inner turmoil and each dream participant enters the dream wearing a series of three orbs that, shattering under duress, signal the end of the dreamer’s strength and precipitate their return to the waking world. One of the more resonant symbols is a key that must be located within the story’s dream world. Locating the key allows the finder to finally graduate from the haunting psychological landscape of the dream classroom.

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It’s probably obvious in the way I’ve written about After School Nightmare that I haven’t finished reading the series. Initially I found some of the themes and the way they were emphasized a bit off-putting. Subsequent reading has revealed that, while the story has remained entertaining, there is a lot happening in the text and an early judgement would inevitably be an inaccurate one. When I look back at my earlier comments on volume 1 I feel a bit of chagrined at how flippant I sound but I’m glad that I chose to write about a manga that’s so interesting and surprising.

The characters are really starting to become engaging – perhaps I’m being seduced by the complex and brooding gothic ambience (or am I really just thinking of Sou when I say that?). I really like Mashiro and I’m eager to find out how the situation resolves for this interesting and sympathetic character.

I also had an opportunity to be politely corrected in my description of Mashiro as transgender. Looking back, I have to agree that there is textual evidence that Mashiro is intersexual. This lead to research (not only to make sure I properly knew what it means to be intersexual) into other manga that have intersexual characters. I’ve mentioned two already but there are a few others (Nabari no Ou? I have to follow up on that…). Needless to say, I’m learning a lot.

Mizuhiro, Setona (w,i) and Christine Schilling (translation). After School Nightmare v1(Oct. 2006), English ed., Go! Comi. ISBN-10: 1933617160

Images: Color panel, cover art for After School Nightmare v3, panels from After School Nightmare v1

[1] Go! Comi (2008). Creator Bio. Go! Comi. Retrieved on 2008-11-11.





After School Nightmare v.1

21 10 2008

I’m going to leave behind strict adherence to josei series to write about After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro which, while it’s considered shojo, gets a 16+ rating (OT) from its publisher Go! Comi.

I read v.1 of After School Nighmare this weekend and it got me thinking about GLBTQ narratives and characters in manga. There are actually a lot of examples to consider which is part of what makes me so grateful for the success of manga in North America. I’m generally happy with any stories about gender ambiguity and non-hetero relationships, particularly for younger readers, but I found some of the themes in this manga a little challenging to negotiate. After School Nightmare is about a transsexual hero/heroine struggling to reconcile themselves with the duality of their gender identification and is recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association so I was expecting something relatively nuanced. Well…

I’m left with the impression that Mashiro Ichijo is completely female physically but there are a few confusing references to being male from the “waist up” and about his/her tall, lean physique being qualitatively masculine. It’s a bit vexing that such conventional ideas of male-female physical attributes are being adhered to despite this, ostensibly, being a story about gender ambiguity.

The true basis for Ichijo’s affinity for the masculine side of his/her persona and body is still a mystery but its hard to fault that decision within the context of the series because being female is framed consistently negatively. (In Ichijo’s case the disconnect between physical and psychological gender is not innate but is continually being examined intellectually.) The story starts with a very literal invocation of what Simone De Beauvoir described as the feminine quandary of being a “leaky vessel”. There are repeated references to the female body and mind being weak, a textual norm reenforced by Ichijo’s interpretation of his/her loss of a recent kendo match as a result of feminine physical deficiency. (One panel in particular really communicates the significance that clutching the bamboo kendo blade has for Ichijo.) I can acknowledge that a lot of these references and even the lost kendo match, specifically, have a greater narrative significance but I still have a bit of trouble getting past all the negative language around being female in a series that’s written for young women.

As old-school gothic horror I think After School Nightmare is a success but for me to have hoped that it would convey anything complex or even positive about gender roles or the transgender experience was a bit optimistic. Mostly the series focuses on the potential sexy outcomes of the creepy attention directed at Ichijo by deeply disturbed and unlikable characters of both genders. Will poor, confused Ichijo ends up with the sociopath misogynist or the sociopath misandrist and will he/she manage to escape from this manga’s take on hentai tentacles?

Perhaps as the story develops some of the themes around gender will coalesce into something a bit more complex and subtle but I’m not anticipating anything more then weird teenage misery-titillation. Not that I have anything against weird teenage misery-titillation.

Despite my reservations about some of the subtext I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that literature for teens needs to be prescriptive. This isn’t the complex gender-ambiguity text I might have hoped for but it has lots of – potentially enjoyable – psychologically convoluted, symbolist-prevy, non sequitur plot elements.

One might prefer a gothic-baroque visual extravaganza a la Vampire Knight or Godchild to Mizushiro’s delicate line work and minimally rendered settings but it’s interesting to see a lighter aesthetic touch applied to this kind of story.

This series seems to be quite popular at my public library (which is where I got the copy I read – yay, thanks public library!) with lots of requests placed on the more recent volumes.