TCAF! It happened! I’m not dead! All three are cause for celebration. As is the fact that I was able to find my way back to my own personality after an intense week of interpreting. Day after day of speaking for someone else tends to bring about an identity crisis in me. I have all these conversations with so many people, but I am not actually a participant in any of them; I’m just a voice. I always find this middle ground between two languages and two people to be such a strange place, especially given that the conversations I assist literally pass right through me. I generally have no recollection of anything anyone said. I’m too busy talking for everyone in the room to spend any energy on remembering what anyone said.
Which is why I’m glad I got to spend some time outside the interpreting context with TCAF guest and Otomen author Aya Kanno. At dinners, parties, a trip to Niagara, all the many extra-festivular events we took part in, I got the chance to have a tiny bit of self and hear her considered ideas on her work and gender and her growth as an artist, on top of the usual casual conversation you might expect to have at such extra-festivular events. One particularly interesting discussion we fell into was in relation to translation and the usage of words. I’m translating her latest work Requiem of the Rose King (which I will not be discussing here, given the obvious conflict of interest, but it is pretty amazeballs and I would totally recommend it if only for the adorable boar), and it was the first time she had had the chance to talk with a translator of her work (and my second time being able to talk with the author of a work I translated) (est em, in case you’re wondering). So we spent our time in the green room before panels talking about words and Shakespeare and the nuances of translation.
But after working on Requiem and reading Otomen, in addition to her other work, I can’t say I’m in the least bit surprised at seeing in person how carefully she considers her work and her choices. I read a few volumes of Otomen when it first started up, but lost track of it in the many other series I follow, so when Kanno accepted our invitation to come to TCAF, I picked up my dusty volumes of the series and dove back into it (in addition to starting from scratch with the English translation, which is pretty decent. High fives to VIZ for that one!). I can see how I lost track of it. Although the first volumes are fun and interesting, they tend to settle into that episodic style that hits so many long-running manga. And however well done a villain-of-the-week story might be done, there are just too many other books with real story arcs that I am more interested in devoting my time too. But Otomen finds solid footing around book four, as if Kanno finally felt certain that it wouldn’t be cancelled before she’d gotten to tell the story she really wanted to tell, and she constructs that story with an overall large arc that takes the reader all the way to the end of the series.
Otomen means a man who is into girly things. And main character Asuka is obviously a perfect fit for that title. He loves sewing and cooking and shojo manga and anything cute. But his father left him and his mother when he was little with, according to his mother, the parting words “I’ve always wanted to be a woman.” So his mother fears that Asuka will grow up womanly and insists her son be a man among men, so Asuka is forced from a young age to keep his true interests to himself. He devotes himself to kendo and manly samurai meditations. But then in high school, he meets Ryo, a new transfer student who steals his heart. She’s entirely unfeminine and completely okay with that. Gradually, spending time with her and his best friend/meddlesome busybody/secret shojo manga artist Juta, Asuka learns to accept his otomen heart.
The overall tone of the series is light, campy, silly. With each volume, things get progressively more over the top: What appears in volume one to be a new take on a high school romance is by volume two tackling ridiculous shojo manga caricatures and tropes in the form of Asuka’s would-be princess fiancee and Ryo as the knight in shining armor. There is a “Commitee for Traditional Japanese Gender Roles”, ringer teachers brought in to make sure everyone fulfills the gender role they are assigned, a bear attack, a heated “ideal woman” contest, a variety of other otomen in love with flowers and hair and make-up, and so much other ridiculousness. This silly surface can obscure the deeper nature of the series, the fact that Kanno has some serious things to say about gender roles in modern Japan.
Everyone in Otomen is just trying to figure out how to be who they really are and still live in a society that places so much importance on adhering to defined gender roles. The only villains in the series are those characters who actively work to enforce those social gender roles. But even those villains are redeemed when the truth comes out about why they feel compelled to enforce those roles: they’ve been hurt in the past, they’re not comfortable with their own desires. And all the conflict of the eighteen volumes of this series comes from characters denying their true selves and what they really want for the sake of conforming to gender norms. Asuka is constantly asking himself what it means to be a man, and over the course of the series, he finds that he is happiest when he is with his friends and not denying his otomen urges.
I love love love the over-the-top ridiculousness of this series and would recommend it for that alone. Kanno understands shojo tropes, and she has such fun picking them apart here. (There is a glee reminiscent of Nozaki-kun.) But I also love that she is so intelligently and effortlessly questioning gender norms and offering up alternative versions of a healthy masculinity. I think Otomen succeeds because of that lighthearted tone it brings to a rather serious discussion. Even people who don’t spend a large part of their waking hours thinking about constructions and performance of gender are bound to pause and think about those very things, consciously or not, after reading Otomen.
Talking with Kanno during her visit for TCAF, she stressed how the idea for the series came out of the fact that she saw this kind of man interested in more typically feminine pursuits all around her, but it was considered embarrassing to be a man who enjoyed anything remotely feminine. And she noticed that no one was talking about this, no one was really interrogating these gender ideas in manga. So she stepped up. And it kind of made her a manga star? Which says to me that people want to have these conversations. But maybe we don’t want to have them all academic style. It’s okay to play with gender roles, and thanks to Otomen and Kanno, we have eighteen books of lighthearted romping to do it in.