IS (Volumes 2–8): Chiyo Rokuhana

Given the way Volume 1 is broken up into two totally separate stories, I was expecting the series to continue in that way, offering up a variety of stories of people in the intersex spectrum (I borrowed that from the autism spectrum. I have no idea if people in the know are referring to an intersex spectrum, but it fits so maybe they should consider it), but the series from Volume 2 on deals with only one person, namely Haru Hoshino. Well, it focuses on Haru, but of course, it deals with everyone around Haru as well, which is part of what makes the series work, in fact. Not that Haru is boring, but seeing the various perspectives in Haru’s life definitely gives the series more depth than it would otherwise have.

So Haru’s parents are excited about their little bundle of joy and almost psychotically happy. Seriously. The mother, Yoko, she’s not even human. Especially as the series continues. Part of this, I’m sure, is that she tries hard to show her optimistic face to Haru and keep any doubts to herself, and she does display weakness and moments of uncertainty and sadness to other characters or when she thinks Haru’s not around. But for the most part, she’s relentlessly cheerful, her pretty face stretched into a delighted grin in almost every panel. And even though I know I sound irritated by this, I actually find her unwavering optimism sort of charming. She really believes that love can change the world. I’m always amazed and delighted when I come across people like this, whether they’re real or fictional. 

Anyway, she comes from a sad home, bitter divorce between her parents, lots of fighting, and she is determined not to be like that. She is focused on creating a happy home with her hubbie, Taro the pastry chef. And they clearly are happy. And they have a baby. And they’re happy about that. And then the doctors tell them that the baby they just had is not a boy and it’s not a girl. Which is when they learn the word “intersexual” and they have to make some tough choices. After many tears and much teeth gnashing, they decide to raise Haru as neither a boy nor a girl, but rather let the child decide what gender s/he is, despite the opposition of the doctors involved. But Yoko is firm that if they lie about this to their child, then they can never build a relationship of trust with Haru. Which yeah, duh.

Despite their best intentions, they are forced to make some sex/gender-related choices before Haru hits pre-school, choices that haunt Yoko well into the later parts of the series. The couple decides to have more children because, as Yoko insists, they can’t protect Haru on their own, and they end up with a brood of four: Haru, Natsu, Aki and Fuyu (which, if you’re not a Japanese speaker, are the names of the four seasons: Spring, summer, autumn and winter). It’s pretty clear early on that Haru identifies more as a boy, an inclination his family is fine with, but one the outside world definitely has problems with.

Book Two ends with Haru about to head off to high school, which is where the series lingers. By the end of Book 8, Haru is just approaching the end of his first year of high school. But this is a good place for the series to linger because it’s in adolescence when the whole intersex thing becomes a serious issue. Your body starts changing during puberty no matter what gender or not you are, and it turns out that if you’re born in between the two sexes, in addition to the more obvious signifiers like the appearance of your junk, you’re also prone to insufficient hormone excretion. Which can cause a whole schwack of problems and in Haru’s case, this includes severe exhaustion, so he has to give up the soccer he’s loved since childhood because his body just can’t handle it. Doctors insist that he needs to have hormone therapy, but because he is listed on his family register (more important than your birth certificate in Japan) as a woman, they insist that the therapy be with female hormones. But Haru identifies as male, even though he wants to identify as female because he has met the greatest guy and they are totes in love.

Rokuhana does such a great job of portraying someone who honestly vacillates between the two sexes and tries to find his place in one of them. Haru identifies as a boy for the most part, but also relates only too well to his female side. The story doesn’t shy away from these ambiguities in favour of a more black and white version of things, something that happens more often than I’d like when the conversation turns to gender and sexual identity. And for contrast, Rokuhana introduces the reader to other intersex people through an intersex support group, including the extremely sympathetic Miwako whose life has basically been the opposite of Haru’s and who provides an interesting contrast to Haru’s rather charmed life.

As in the first volume, the art throughout is pretty standard shojo (which is not to denigrate standard shojo), but I have to admit that some scenes are just perfect tableaus, especially a few with Haru and his first love, both with adorable blushes coloring their cheeks. Rokuhana has a knack for putting characters in the right positions for some striking and meaningful panels. But still, it’s not the art that keeps me reading, it’s the compelling and completely relatable nature of the story itself. I have teared up on more than one occasion while reading, even given the total over-the-top dramatics that take place from time to time. There is just such a naturalness to the characters (even eternally sunny Yoko) that makes it so easy to become emotionally involved with them.

That said, my fingers are crossed that Haru gets out of high school soon. Because you know, I want to see how this openly intersex person navigates the world outside of school, on his own and away from his amazingly supportive family. Because yes, I am invested. I need to know that Haru turns out okay. I want Haru to turn out okay.

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