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.