For the past few years, there’s been this bubbling undercurrent of fascination with the “otokonoko” in Japan. I think it’s always been hanging around the edges of BL, lurking in the background, but has been getting a little more mainstream currency thanks to artists like Hideyoshico and Fumiko Fumi. It also helps that the art magazine Eureka did a special otokonoko issue a couple years back, bringing the boys who dress as girls more into the public eye. These days, you can go to specialized otokonoko bars and cafés or even transform into one yourself with the help of specialized shops. Naturally, most of this action is where the action usually is, in Tokyo, but you can still see otokonoko on TV across the country, and even outside the capital, you can find places that welcome joso along with the larger LGBTQ community.
The TV appearances and things are easy to dismiss in a way because it’s sort of a specialty of Japan (and so many other places) to take the “novel” and hold it up to the spotlight while ignoring the actual reality of that lived experience in Japanese society (think Matsuko Deluxe vs the general trans experience or Naomi Watanabe vs an average fat girl or Hard Gay vs actual gay life). So of course, with the increasing awareness of otokonoko, a spot opened up at the talent table for wide show appearances, and stepping up to fill that seat was Kaoru Oshima. Originally an actor in gay porn, Oshima started living the otokonoko life, dressing and presenting as a woman full-time, and became the first otokonoko actress in the world of Japanese porn. Eventually, he left the world of porn to become a full-time writer and TV personality.
All of this is detailed in Otoknoko Doshi, as we follow Oshima through the trials of daily life, learn what exactly drew him to joso, the tricks to looking hot in different kinds of women’s clothing in a male body, and eventually to meeting and falling in love with fellow otokonoko Michelle and their relationship from then on. As Oshima himself notes, it was only natural that he approach noted otokonoko aficionado Fumi Fumiko to work on this book together, given that his life is basically like something out of a Fumi manga. Fumi settles, wisely, on the yon-koma format, which keeps the whole thing on the light and airy side, even when the content takes on a slightly darker or uncomfortable flavor. So Oshima’s struggles with public washrooms take on a sort of silly, fun feel, although I doubt it feels so silly or fun in the moment. But Fumi doesn’t restrict herself to the yon-koma format; she opens up into panelled pages whenever the story gets more emotional or tries to reach a bit deeper to show a more nuanced reality, allowing Michelle and Oshima to really breathe and come to life on the page.
Some of the episodes in the rocky road of their relationship are honestly unbelievable—like when Michelle comes out to her mother at an onabe bar when she tries to help her mother understand that her little sister is actually a trans man—but Oshima notes in the long afterword that every word of it is true. But he is quick to note that it is a truth of omission. He left a key figure in their relationship out of the manga because at the time of writing the manga, that figure’s involvement was not public, and Oshima was reluctant to involve him. And this is where things got weird for me. It feels as though there are two books in one: the manga and the afterword. The manga is for the most part sweetness and light, the silly and deep love between two otokonoko. The afterword presents a darker side of this relationship that sounds downright abusive at times. If you’re triggered by that sort of thing, I’d recommend skipping the afterword entirely.
But the manga itself is definitely worth reading if only for the (mostly) honest presentation of the possibilities of lived identity and the questions Oshima raises about gender and its performance in the world. Oshima dresses and lives as a woman, but firmly identifies as a man and has never wanted to become a woman or felt that he was actually a woman. (Hence my usage of “he/him” here.) Meanwhile, Michelle appears to identify as a woman and uses the feminine “watashi” in contrast to Oshima’s masculine “boku. She even starts hormone therapy while the two are dating. Since the book is from Oshima’s perspective, it’s hard to say for certain how Michelle identifies, but at the very least, her otokonoko is not the same as Oshima’s.
The closest we get to seeing the world through Michelle’s eyes are flashback pages scattered throughout that show us her parents’ bitter divorce, her subsequent move to Japan with her mother, her struggle with going to school and not understanding a word of Japanese, right up until she finds Oshima’s video Boku, Josoko and starts thinking seriously about joso and becoming a porn actress. Still, we never see the current situation through Michelle’s eyes, a fact which only really becomes relevant in the afterword where things get weird and maybe kind of mean.
It turns out that the two actually broke up earlier this year after the book came out, and that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. (Again, see the afterword.) The book does still exist as a document of their relationship, but more than that, as a document of an alternative way of living in this world. And it’s drawn by Fumiko Fumi, so you know it’s cute as hell and subversively sexy.