IS (Volume 1): Chiyo Rokuhana

The last time I was in Japan, I asked at three different manga shops for this series and not one of them had it. Which is surprising to me, considering that it was made into a TV dorama and these were six- and seven-story buildings filled with manga. So I’m assuming that I had the particularly bad luck of running across several particularly hapless shop clerks.

Fortunately, when my lady friends were preparing to come to Canada to get married this summer, they asked me what manga I wanted them to bring. I didn’t want to fill their suitcases with manga for me, so I kept my evil urges in check and said that it would be lovely if they would be so kind as to bring me the new est em books (two). But they pushed and asked if I wasn’t interested in anything else. So I politely deferred the question and asked what they recommended. And their response was IS, the manga I had searched for in vain only months earlier! Clearly, it was meant to be. 

So one marriage and seventeen books on my shelf later. I had been wanting to read this series without actually knowing much about it. I came across it reading some of Yukari Fujimoto’s amazing discussions of feminism and manga, and made a note that it was something I should read. I thought it was something in the Boys’ Love vein, since Fujimoto tends to focus on this particular variety of manga (and you should read her for some amazing insights into the genre), but with the books actually in hand, I could see that the series was much more than that. Otoko demo onna demo nai sei: Not a Man, Not a Woman, that’s the subtitle. When I read that, I suddenly understood that the IS of the title stands for “intersexual”.

Volume One deals with two cases, Hiromi and Ryoma. Hiromi was raised as a girl, but the “sex” area on her birth certificate was left blank. When she hits puberty, she starts developing male characteristics. It’s only her meeting Dai as a young adult that allows her to accept her body and her intersex nature. She then makes it her mission to educate the world about the fact that gender is not so binary as most people would like to believe. Ryoma considers himself a boy until he starts developing breasts in adolescence and comes to terms with his intersexuality, deciding that he would rather be on the woman side of the equation. And like Hiromi, he ends up an advocate for intersex people.

The stories are fairly similar in that they converge on the same point: how to navigate the world when you are not male and not female, but somewhere in that grey area in between. And the book does a remarkable job of separating biological sex and gender identity, considering that this sort of thing is barely visible in Japanese society. I mean, gay rights are barely visible, so the idea that a person could be something other than man or woman and that is all right is pretty revolutionary.

At heart, IS is a shojo manga. The art, the tropes, the stylistic bits, they’re classic shojo (or girls’ manga). Lots of over-dramatic teary scenes, sudden outbursts, confessions ripped out followed by the character fleeing the scene. And there’s really nothing to tie me to this story art-wise. (Not that shojo art is bad, just that it’s often standard and predictable, so that the story takes the main stage rather than the lines on the page.) But I have to admit I was moved more than once because of how Rokuhana deals with this rather sensitive topic. Her portrayals of Hiromi and Ryoma are nuanced and sympathetic. She shows us not only how they come to accept themselves for who they are, but how they come to be proud of who they are and how they negotiate walking a middle sex path when the world around them is so sharply divided into man or woman. And so much of this is during adolescence, so you don’t have to be intersex to relate to their worries, their anxiety about their bodies. In many ways, it’s what so many of us go through, but taken to an extreme.

One line in particular killed me. Ryoma is telling his best friend that he is intersex, and cries out, “男と女、どうして生きかたは二つしかないのかな?” (Why are there just two ways of living: man or woman?) And yeah, it sounds cheesy, but it just rang so true while reading it. Because really, why are we so invested in this binary system when so many people don’t fit in it (one in two thousand according to IS)?

Rokuhana has clearly done her research and the first story in particular can be a recitation of facts, but those facts are not well known and are worth reading, so I can’t hold that against her. In the afterword, she discusses how she came to the topic and the resources she used while writing. She enlisted the help of more than one intersex person to make the book accurate, and it’s clear that she really cares about this issue, even if at first she just thought it would be an interesting manga to write.

I’d love to see this series translated into English, because I don’t think this is a topic that’s really been touched on in comics here and it would really fit nicely with recent releases like Wandering Son. And even though it relies sometimes too heavily on shojo tropes, it made me want to read Volume Two. So manga-ka mission accomplished!

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