We’ve had a couple posts on The Hub that talk about transgender fiction, and there’s a list of transgender titles on the YALSA wiki. Cris Beam’s I Am J is even on the list of nominees for the 2011 Teens’ Top Ten (which you can vote for between August 22 and September 16, hint hint). But what I haven’t seen mentioned as much are manga titles with transgender, genderqueer, or transvestite characters. Which is ironic, because sometimes it’s harder for me to think of a manga series that doesn’t have at least one guy dressing as a girl, or vice versa. So I thought I’d do a short list of three of the best manga I know with characters whose gender identities are far from fixed.
Let’s get one thing clear: Ranma 1/2 is absolutely not an accurate depiction of the transgender experience. It does have a variety of characters who raise questions about gender, male-female relationships, and how we choose to identify ourselves. It is also ridiculously hilarious. Ranma Saotome is the last heir to the Saotome school of martial arts, and has been arranged to marry Akane Tendo, heir to the Tendo school of martial arts, by his and Akane’s father. Except, due to an accident in a cursed pool of water in China, Ranma is only a guy about half the time: when he’s splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl, and only turns back with hot water.
Like I said, not terribly realistic. But the series does bring up issues of what people expect a “man” or a “woman” to be—Ranma him/herself is an obvious example, but Akane is teased by other characters because she isn’t ladylike enough (apparently being a kick-butt martial artist doesn’t count for anything). And, again, it’s really, really funny; in what other series can you find martial-arts figure skating?
Ouran High School Host Club
Less fantastic (no magic curses here!) but still concerned with men, women, and the space between, is Ouran High School Host Club. Poor student Haruhi is already an outcast at the ultra-rich Ouran Academy; when he’s forced to join the Host Club—where beautiful men are hired by girls to spend time, well, being beautiful for them—things only get worse. The icing on the cake, though: Haruhi turns out to be a girl.
Again, this is a humorous series, and even if magic’s not involved, it’s still not that realistic. But as with Ranma, there are some interesting ideas being discussed alongside the humor. Haruhi isn’t trying to be perceived as a boy, but because she doesn’t act “feminine” enough that’s the category she gets lumped into. The other members of the club have their own issues with identity: they all try to fulfill a particular stereotype, most of which are based not-so-subtly on manga character types (the cool one, the princely one, the incestuous twins), regardless of who or what they really want to be. Ouran reads best as a sly critique of the cliches of romance manga, and of the expectations of manga readers—after all, what does it says that the most popular host in the club, the type of guy that most girls want to spend time with, is a girl herself?
I’ll admit it, half the reason I wrote this post was to build interest in this manga, because it’s absolutely fantastic and deserves every one of the awards it will doubtless win. Shuichi Nitori and Yoshino Takatsuki are two fifth-graders in the same class who share a secret: Shuichi wishes he were a girl, and Yoshino wishes she were a boy. Together they have to navigate their families, their friends, their classmates, and the rest of the world while trying to understand themselves.
Son is obviously more serious than Ranma or Ouran—not to say there aren’t funny bits, but for the most part it’s an honest look at what Shu and Yoshino are going through. There’s no magic pool, no funny crossdressing, no easy solution to the dilemma that these two face. What I also like about the series is that its secondary characters are often just as interesting as the main pair: they’re all in fifth grade, after all, when everyone is struggling with their identities and the consequences thereof. Shu and Yoshino just get the worst of it.
The first volume comes out in the U.S. on June 5—I’ve got friends in Japan, so I’ve known about it for a while now, thanks Sean and Mako! There was a 12-episode anime adaptation that just finished, and which can be seen legally on the Crunchyroll site, but it starts about halfway into the story, which makes it confusing to watch: not only do you have to figure out who these characters are now, you also have to decipher their backstories and previous interactions with the help of flashbacks. It’s still a beautiful adaptation, though.
Like I said, these are only three manga from a very (very) long list of series with transgender, genderqueer, or transvestite characters. If you’ve got any favorite series that fit this category, mention them in the comments below!
—Ted Anderson, currently reading Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku