Saturday, April 17, 2010

After School Nightmare (manga, vol. 9) by Setona Mizushiro

....

Once again, everything I thought I knew about what was going on in this series turns out to be wrong. This is one of those volumes that really needs to be read to be believed. Wow.

Synopsis:

Mashiro can't stop thinking about how Kurosaki, the upperclassman he admired so much, told him that he hates him. Meanwhile, in the dream class, Kurosaki is cowering away from the black knight, who has just killed the gossiping parasite girl. The black knight kills Kurosaki and Kureha. When the black knight finds Mashiro, Mashiro discovers that the black knight is not Sou, as he has always assumed, but rather Kurosaki. In the dream class, the black knight manages to fight back, brutally, against the people in his life who have made him act like something he isn't. Finally, there's only Mashiro left. Mashiro comes to the conclusion that all the different Kurosakis he's seen are all really just different sides of the same person and that being able to see this about Kurosaki means that he/she (Mashiro has the body of a girl in the dream class) must really love Kurosaki. Kurosaki's response is to rip open Mashiro's chest with his bear hands and rip out the key. After he finds the key (in a scene rather reminiscent of a rape scene), he gently kisses Mashiro on the lips, takes the key, and graduates. Mashiro wakes up with his special teacher looking down on him, telling him "good job," but all he can think, with tears in his eyes, is that he really needs to see Sou.

The first thing he does when he sees Sou is ask him why he lied about being the knight (apparently, he remembers this part of the dream, even though he probably no longer remembers Kurosaki). Sou explains that it was a convenient way for him to test Mashiro and see how ready Mashiro was to get involved with him. Sou explains part of his past. Although his sister was one of the most important people in the world to him, when they were children he believed that she abandoned him in favor of a puppy. Feeling rejected, he went off on his own and was awakened by his sister - the opposite of his sister. Rather than wearing a white dress, his new sister wore a black dress and promised never to leave him. No one else but Sou could see his new sister, and Sou chose to be with her rather than his real family, his real sister.

Sou assumed that one day he would grow out of his new sister, but he never seemed to, so he began searching for someone who loved him more than she did, so that he could leave her behind. Mashiro is shocked. Suddenly, a comment from Kureha about a blank note that upset Sou so much makes sense. Sou tells him that his sister Ai is right there in the room with them, even though Mashiro can't see her. Suddenly, Sou claims it was all a joke and leaves. Later, Mashiro sees a dog outside of school and stops to pet and hug it. Unfortunately, he is seen by Sou, who, in his mind, compares this scene to the time he believed his sister abandoned him for a puppy.

It turns out that Sou's sister Ai is really, really pissed. Sou skipped the dream class because he knew that Ai would try to kill Mashiro. Now, in the waking world, Ai pushes Sou off the dorm roof (to punish him for trying to protect Mashiro?). Mashiro is distraught when he goes to visit Sou and is upset with Ai, but Sou doesn't blame Ai for anything, admitting that his problems are a result of his own weaknesses. Mashiro tells Sou that he wants to talk to Ai at the next dream class. Although Sou knows that Ai may hurt Mashiro (there's a really creepy image of a silhoutte of Ai watching Sou and Mashiro through the window, a silhouette that only Sou can see), he has to be there - he can't miss another dream class, since he's already missed two. Mashiro kisses Sou goodnight, and I guess it's a date.

In the dream class, Mashiro is almost immediately stopped by what looks to be the black knight, even though the black knight has graduated. Kureha stops the imposter and tells Mashiro to go and find Sou. This new black knight turns out to be someone in the kendo club, who I guess must have looked up to Kurosaki's strength too.

Mashiro comes across Ai, who allows him to see what she says is Sou's true dream form, the sick, collapsed child he was when this new Ai first found and saved him so long ago. Ai believes she has won, but Mashiro calls for Sou, and the teddy bear Ai holds, that stands for her love for Sou, begins falling apart. Suddenly the scene changes to a broken, forked bridge. At one side of the fork, chained to a pole, is Ai. At the other, also chained to a pole, is Mashiro. The bridge is crumbling, and Sou must choose which one he will save.

Mashiro is crushed when Sou goes to Ai instead of him, and one of his beads breaks. Ai believes Sou has chosen to stay with her, but Sou's next words, "I take full responsibility," make her realize that Sou choosing her doesn't mean what she thinks it means. Sou hugs Ai to him and jumps off the crumbling bridge with her, so that he can hold her under the water and finally be free of her, free to find out for himself if someone really loves him.

In the waking world (I'm pretty sure it's the waking world), Sou finds out that his real sister Ai has died, apparently around the same time he killed the fake Ai in the dream class. At the funeral, Sou decides to forgive his mother for all the time she has spent concentrating on her career instead of her children, and he admits to himself that his sister probably never abandoned him, but was rather just being a child that he expected too much from at the time.

Meanwhile, Mashiro, who had passed out in the dream world under the weight of all that rejection, wakes up to discover that he has apparently fallen asleep in class in the waking world - except that this may not be the waking world. Sou is laughing, Kureha and Sou interact in little ways that indicate that they may be a couple, Kureha and Sou don't seem to know him like they used to, as though all the dream class stuff never happened, and, most amazingly of all, Mashiro is a girl, wearing a girl's uniform and addressed by classmates as a girl (Mashiro-san, rather than Mashiro-kun). What's going on?

Commentary:

The bit where Kurosaki rips open Mashiro's chest to get to the key is drawn and laid out a bit like a rape scene. What Kurosaki is actually doing isn't shown clearly, so the reader sees the sound effects ("thrust," "shove"), Kurosaki straddling Mashiro's body, and the sounds (Mashiro crying out in pain, and the wet sounds as Kurosaki digs around in his/her chest cavity). At the end, after he finds the key, Kurosaki gently kisses Mashiro and graduates. It's hard to watch, especially since it's clear from Kurosaki's expression that he feels nothing, while Mashiro feels pain - both physical and emotional, as the man he/she respects and thinks he/she loves rejects him/her again.

Kurosaki has graduated (into an ice cold bastard??), Sou took what I imagine was probably a huge step towards graduation, and Kureha could probably graduate at any time. The only one left, of the main characters, is Mashiro, who, despite Kureha's comment that he (that they both) have come a long way, seems hardly any different than he was when the series first started. He keeps looking for someone to love, and crumbling when he gets rejected. What he really wants is some kind of ideal person he can gravitate towards - a Kurosaki who, though not the perfect person he imagined, is at least someone who has that perfect person inside him, or a Sou that he can save from Ai and who would love him as completely as he once loved Ai. Basically, Mashiro kind of sucks. Grow, Mashiro, and become less of an idiot!

I'm proud of Sou for finally choosing to get beyond Ai. Holy crap, Ai was never real! This is like finding out that Bruce Willis is dead in The Sixth Sense (sorry if I ruined it for you, but the movie's been out for a while, so I figure it's fair game). What does it say about Sou that the sister he made up like some kind of imaginary friend is also his lover? Was there some kind of pent-up lust for his sister that could only come out when he made up a new one, or was Ai really a separate being, and this is how she chose to act and make Sou her own?

Another shocker - the black knight wasn't Sou?? Again, holy crap! The only indication I had that that was so was the previous volume, in which suits of armor were all around Kurosaki. It was so common to see Ai with the black knight that I had just figured that they were Sou and Ai, not Kurosaki and Ai with Sou inside. Nothing had prepared me for the possibility that Kurosaki could have multiple presences in the dream class. Now I kind of feel like I need to reread the earlier volumes in order to look at how Ai and the black knight interacted, so that I can see what's really going on and not what I think is going on. I suppose I'll have to see if I can get all the volumes of this series on the cheap sometime.

Extras:

There are a few author side panels, in which Setona Mizushiro talks about some of the early plans for this series, including a few drawings of characters and character personality descriptions.

My read-alikes and watch-alikes aren't anything new - if you've seen my posts for previous volumes in this series, you've already seen what's in this list.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Loveless (anime TV series); Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga - 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. Those who'd like another story with mystery, twisted relationships, and emotionally damaged characters might enjoy this title.
  • 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 something else that's often strange, sometimes a little dark, and has a tendency to deal with characters who have secrets and personal issues they have to overcome might want to try this series.
  • The Sandman (graphic novel series) by Neil Gaiman - The first book is the series is called Preludes and Nocturnes. This series focuses mainly on Morpheus, the Sandman, a dark figure who watches over dreams and makes sure they stay separate from reality. Despite this, several of the stories in this series involve the blending of reality and dreams. Morpheus' various siblings make the occasional appearance, and they're fascinating as well. Those who'd like another character-focused series that deals with dreams might enjoy this title. The series often takes a look at aspects of human characters' lives and personalities and how these intersect and blend with their lives in the dreaming world.
  • Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - 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. Several of the characters in this series have secrets, hidden selves, and insecurities that may appeal to some fans of After School Nightmare. This title is most like After School Nightmare when it's at its darkest, but it does have a tendency to be lighter in tone than Mizushiro's series.
  • King of Thorn (manga) by Yuji Iwahara - A mysterious disease called Medusa is sweeping the world, slowly turning those afflicted with it into stone and shattering them into bits. A group of people with Medusa are chosen to be cryogenically frozen while scientists attempt to find a cure. Among them are Kasumi, a girl who had to leave her twin behind in order to join this group, Marco, a dangerous-looking man with secrets, a child, and others. The group is awakened too soon and find the island they're on to be overrun by thorny vegetation and monsters. They try to figure out what went wrong, where all the scientists are, and how to get off the island before Medusa claims their lives. They begin to discover each others' pasts and secrets and have to deal with their own dark sides. Those who'd like another somewhat dark story with plenty of weird happenings might enjoy this series.
  • Paranoia Agent (anime TV series) - A mysterious kid with a bent golden bat has been going around attacking people. Two detectives are investigating, so that they can stop this kid, dubbed Lil' Slugger. Lil' Slugger's actions sometimes reveal the (often strange) secrets and private lives of his victims. Those who'd like another weird and possibly paranormal mystery that is heavily character-focused may enjoy this series.

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