chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)
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Mashiro Ichijo has a big problem for any teenaged boy, let alone one attending boarding school: his body is female below the waist and male above it. Things get even stranger for him when he's told he must attend a special class in the school's basement infirmary after normal school hours each day. For one thing, he didn't know the school had a basement. For another, the class consists of lying down and dreaming.

The vividly strange dream world plays out like a surrealistic video game. Each teen involved takes a special form that relates to his or her traumas and anxieties - and it quickly becomes clear that these are some messed up kids. Meanwhile, back in the waking world, Mashiro begins a romance-tinged friendship with a cute girl named Kureha Fujishima, and is himself stalked by the school Lothario, handsome Sou Mizuhashi, who is completely unconvinced by Mashiro's insistence that he's a boy, not a girl. Other schoolmates turn up as dreamers, and the dream world becomes more and more important - and threatening. What happens to the dreamers who find the key that allows them to "graduate"? Why are they almost instantly forgotten by their classmates?

It's to mangaka Mizushiro's credit that the sillier aspects of this series never bothered me for more than a few seconds while I was reading this. The emotional realism of the story is compelling, and I'm looking forward to finding out more about how Mashiro, Kureha, and Sou deal with their rather serious issues.

 

After School Nightmare, vols. 1-8 (review)

It's uncanny how quickly my initial reaction of "half boy and half girl - this is so stupid!" faded. Mashiro's issues can be read metaphorically - I've begun to think of him as a gay teenaged boy. (Although his lower half really does seem to be female: in vol. 8, he gets intimate with Sou, who clearly knows what he's doing and isn't finding anything he doesn't know how to handle.) But the issues of accepting and integrating the two aspects of himself are much more important than his body, and that's what's playing out in the dream world.

There are layers upon layers of symbolism here, and some questions remain to be answered. Sou's sinister older sister Ai, who shows up in the dream world as a creepy loli-Goth moppet, says that Mashiro is right, that the armored knight in the dream world is Sou - but that doesn't explain why the handsome captain of the kendo club - a kind boy with a father and mother who are pressuring him to take over the family business - sees an identical suit of armor outside his father's board room on a home visit. And I don't think we've yet found out which student manifests in the dream world as a collection of grabby hands at the end of ever-growing, infinitely flexible tentacles. And what's the deal with the black crescent moon that some of the students see outside at critical points in their lives? What actually happens to the students who "graduate"? And what will happen to Kureha, who seems to have found her inner strength at last, but refuses to graduate because Mashiro hasn't yet?

It's all very strange and involving.

 

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