Ichijo Mashiro isn't exactly a boy or a girl - he looks like a boy and was raised as one, but then he gets his first period at the beginning of this volume. Ichijo is determined to be seen as a man, but he can't help but have doubts about himself. Things get worse when a mysterious woman at his elite school tells him that there is a special class he must finish in order to graduate. In this special class, students fight each other in dreams in an attempt to find a key. Each student also has a specific task they must complete - Ichijo's task involves his gender, but, beyond that, he doesn't know what he must do.
During the dreams, each student looks the way he or she really is inside, and all their private issues are revealed. Ichijo is, unfortunately for him, one of the few students who looks almost the same in the dreams as he does in real life - the only difference is that he's wearing a girl's uniform, making his secret clear for all the other students in the special class to see. There are also five other students, most of whom have their identities revealed in this volume. During the special class, one student looks like a knight, another like a girl with a hole where her face should be, another like an enraged girl in a raincoat who hates all men, another like long, tangled arms, and another like a like a girl in an elaborate dress (I think maybe Lolita style clothing?).
Ichijo is almost immediately befriended by one of the girls in the class, Kureha (she's the girl in the raincoat) - of course, this is after she tries to kill him, believing him to be a man. For Kureha, Ichijo is the perfect man, someone who looks male but isn't really. Her interest in Ichijo angers another student in the special class, who had always been interested in Ichijo but hadn't been comfortable with that interest until he discovered that Ichijo might be considered female.
This is a very strange manga, but very interesting, and I'm looking forward to reading more volumes. Ichijo's gender confusion is fascinating, and I'm sure it will be put to the test even more as the series progresses. I wonder if Mizushiro will have Ichijo finally choose and feel completely comfortable with a single gender by the end of the series, or if Ichijo will somehow find a way to be comfortable being both genders at once? If Mizushiro has Ichijo choose a gender, this volume makes it seem as though, despite Ichijo's determination to be male, Ichijo involuntarily thinks of himself as more female.
I also enjoyed the psychological aspect of this series. Although several of the characters do physically battle it out during the special class, the focus of this series is not on their battles, but rather on their personal mental and emotional issues. Ichijo must deal with his gender confusion, Kureha must deal with her feelings about men and the rape she endured as a child, and another girl must deal with the results of her constant attempts to be whatever pleases others. I can only guess what issues the other students must work through - I'm sure it'll be fun to find out.
There's also an element of mystery, since Mizushiro doesn't reveal the identities of a couple of the special class students. I don't know if either of those students have already made an appearance outside of the special class dreams, but I enjoy believing that they have and trying to guess which students they might be.
Not surprisingly for a series that includes a character with such complicated gender issues, this series is pretty frank about sex. Ichijo thinks about it a bit, possibly because he believes that having sex with a girl would make him seem more like a boy. Kureha would be the only candidate for this, since she knows his secret and has made it clear that she thinks he's the perfect guy for her, but I wonder how she'd feel if things got as far as sex. Then there's Sou Mizuhashi, the handsome, emotionally-closed slacker who's been called the slut of Ichijo's school - Sou will have sex with just about anyone who asks him. In fact, Ichijo accidentally walks in on one such scene (it's obvious what they're doing, even though nothing shows - this is not a manga for kids or young teens, but neither can it be considered a pornographic manga). In addition to all that, Ichijo's male admirer is very persistent and is convinced that Ichijo will admit that he's a girl if he/she kisses and has sex with a real guy - very messed up stuff.
This isn't for everyone, but if you don't mind complex gender and sexual issues and want a good, mysterious psychological story, you might want to pick this manga up. This particular volume includes a few extras: a paragraph of writing by Mizushiro about this manga, an explanation of Japanese honorifics, a page of translator's notes, and six beautiful color pages.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- The Cell (live action movie) - A psychotherapist uses a revolutionary new technology to help patients by exploring their dreams. She enters the dreams of a comatose serial killer in an attempt to save his latest victim before she dies. Those who'd like another dark story in which someone's psyche is explored through dreams might like this movie.
- Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda - Yukino is a vain and greedy (albeit likable) girl who has spent years making herself seem like a perfect, elegant, and humble student, just so that she can be praised and loved by others. One day, Arima, a boy she views as a rival, sees beneath her mask and uses this knowledge to blackmail her into helping him out with his tremendous volume of work. Arima appears to be the real deal, a good-looking, perfect, and humble student, but he has his own secrets, some of which are far darker than Yukino's. As Yukino spends more time with him, she begins to fall in love with him and wants to help him deal with the darker parts of himself. Those who'd like another manga series dealing with school life and the masks people wear might like this series. Overall, this is a much more light-hearted series than After School Nightmare (although, admittedly, I've only read one volume of After School Nightmare - it might lighten up later on, but I doubt it), but it does have its fair share of darker moments.
- Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga; Loveless (anime TV series) - Twelve-year-old Ritsuka's life isn't very normal - his older brother died not too long ago, his mother is physically abusive, and a strange 19-year-old man named Soubi has shown up, claiming to have known his brother. Soubi says he is Ritsuka's Fighter, while Ritsuka is a Sacrifice. Ritsuka slowly comes to understand what this means, as he learns to battle other Fighter-Sacrifice pairs who may be able to lead him to knowledge about his brother's death. Although, as far as I know, none of the characters ever have sex "on screen," this manga, like After School Nightmare, manages to deal with sex and sexuality fairly openly - characters all have cat ears until they lose their virginity, and the relationships between Fighters and Sacrifices tend to be emotionally intense. The relationship between Soubi and Ritsuka is very complex and, while interesting, may make some readers uncomfortable. Those who'd like another manga series intended for older teens or adults might like this series. Like After School Nightmare, the characters and their relationships are very complex and often dark series (although there are occasional flashes of humor to lighten things up). Like Ichijo, Ritsuka spends a lot of time confused and emotionally anguished. While the anime TV series is cheaper, those who can afford it should try to get the manga. The anime is beautiful and follows the manga pretty closely, but it ends well before the manga does, and therefore doesn't actually resolve or explain much of anything. I own both (at least, as much of the manga as has been published so far in the US) and consider it worth it.
- Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP - Watanuki is a high school student who is plagued by the ability to see spirits. One day, he meets a woman named Yuuko who can help rid him of this ability. Anybody who receives her help must pay a fair price in return, so Watanuki becomes her cook, housekeeper, and errand boy for an undetermined amount of time. Until he has worked enough to earn her help, Watanuki will continue to have to deal with his abilities, which often come in handy when Yuuko gives him special errands to run. This series includes lots of mini-stories, as Yuuko deals with clients who need her special skills and knowledge. Sometimes things turn out well for the clients, and sometimes things end badly, and, due to these experiences, Watanuki gradually grows and changes. Those who'd like another sometimes spooky, often weird manga series with high school students as main characters might like this series. As with After School Nightmare, some parts of the series can get a bit dark and involve a lot of emotional anguish.