Working on this film that I have been lucky enough to work on, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who identify as “josou” lately. And that has made me take a closer look at this word and just what it means exactly. The most basic of definitions is “a man dressing in women’s clothing,” but of course, the basic definition never completely covers the way a word is actually used out in the wild. So yes, josou is a man dressing as a woman, but what kind of man? What kind of woman? Are you gay if you are josou? Are you trans? Are you somewhere in the middle? Are you just a dude who likes to wear a skirt sometimes? I like the neutrality of the word “josou”, the non-sexual specificity of it. I like that it has an equally non-sexually specific counterpart, “dansou”, for those ladies of various identities who would like to look more dudely sometimes, or maybe all the time.
You can be josou and also a totally straight guy who lives in the straight world just fine, like Kiri, one of the protagonists of 13 Gatsu no Yurei. He is just a guy who wears a suit during the day to his totally regular company job, but he likes to dress up like a girl and go hang out around town on his days off. And it turns out he has a twin Neri, who is a super tomboy. She would just buy her clothes in the men’s department if they only carried her size. Her friends and the people around her are always urging her to be more feminine, commenting on how cute she’d look in a skirt. But she is having none of it.
And then she meets Suou on a group date, and he is exactly her type. She wants him to think she is his type too, but she has been down this road before. The guys she likes always like the cute, girly-girls. But when she is reunited with Kiri after a few years of estrangement, she realizes the situation is a little different from what she was imagining. The obi for this one really says it all: Girl X Boy X Josou Boy, a love triangle.
13 Gatsu is one of those manga that I wanted to like more than I actually did. It has so many things I like! Men and women questioning gender and gender roles, clean lines, awkward romance. But it sort of throws salt on all that. Kiri is josou because of a needless past trauma, as if the only reason a man would choose to dress as a woman is because of some horrible incident in his childhood. The story would actually work better if he was just into dressing as a girl as a hobby, no traumatic secret moment necessary. The possibility of being outed to his workaday world would carry more weight if that was the major concern when he went out dressed as a girl, and a scene where Neri saves the day would have so much more impact if there wasn’t a deeper, unresolvable trauma precipitating the whole josou thing.
And Neri is tomboyish, wanting to buy men’s clothes and just ditch the whole girl thing, but she still worries about makeup and her hair to an unrealistic degree, given her supposed lack of interest in being girly. And then (spoiler alert) she actually goes and buys a skirt because she is into a dude. Plus, Suou is quick to protect his heterosexuality. He might be attracted to Kiri, but only when Kiri is dressed as a woman. When he’s dressed as his regular boy self, the magic vanishes.
It’s just so boring. Guy definitely is not into guys, no way. He only likes girls. For sure. Childhood trauma makes grown man act out in weird ways, but he is totes not gay, no way. Girl meets guy and changes who she is. Girliness descends on her like a miracle. We have all read this story a gajillion times. I wanted to read the story where girl meets guy and he changes who he is. Or they both stay who they are and figure that shit out. Or guy realizes he is actually totes into guys. Or they all realize they’re asexual and decide to just be friends.
Art-wise, this is a lovely book. Clean lines, lots of tone, a cross between your standard josei fare and maybe something more alternative. It skews minimalist with a lot of panels with empty backgrounds. Takano’s not afraid to play with angles to increase a sense of unease in readers, which works really well for one dream sequence in particular. The chapter frontispieces are lovely studies of the main characters and their relationships to each other. There is talent here. But.
Given that the first book in this series only just came out recently, we won’t be seeing the resolution of this tale anytime soon. And maybe Takano pulls everything together in a neatly unexpected way at the end of the story. But as it stands now, 13 Gatsu had the potential to be so much more interesting than it is. The groundwork is all there, but Takano takes it off the carefully laid rails into the usual josei comics territory. I’m sure Neri will get together with Suou in the end, and it will all work out. Or maybe they’ll get their hearts broken and learn a valuable lesson. But they’re still acting out the gender roles handed down by the society around them either way. And that’s just so boring.