Tuesday, January 7, 2014

YALSA top ten 2008: After School Nightmare

After School Nightmare (Volumes 1-5)
Written and illustrated by Setona Mizushiro.
Published by Go! Comi (Volume 1, 2006; Volumes 2-5, 2007)

When I read a comic (or a book, or watch a TV show, etc.) and I really have problems with it I tend to go and read reviews to see if other people had similar problems or if they could justify their experience in a way that made sense to me. (I also do this with media I really enjoy, except then I read reviews of people who hated whatever I liked.) However, when the opinion I have is not only not reflected in any other review I can find, but not even mentioned, I guess I feel as though I'm not reading the comic "right". That's really the case with After School Nightmare: I have multiple problems with it, but nobody else even talks about what I think are sorta serious issues. Now, this is a ten volume series, and the first five were all listed (as one item) on the top ten list, but I only read the first book. (The copy I borrowed was also missing a page at the beginning, that was actually kind of important, but I read it online.)

First of all I admit, and this is going to come up multiple times as I read the comics on these YALSA lists, that I am not a teenage girl and, in fact, have never been one. Thus, shojo comics (Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls) are not something I enjoy very often. I haven't read that much, but other than like Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth (both of which I read back in the '90s), I'm not sure if I've actually enjoyed any shojo comics at all. So why is this? I mean, I've read and enjoyed the Baby-sitters Club graphic novel that Raina Telegemeier did, so I'm clearly not _that_ averse to comics aimed at young females (though there are lots of western ones that I also don't care for), but clearly something about these titles hasn't clicked with me. However, even saying something like that is unfair, as shojo isn't a genre, and the titles published under that title can be anything from sports to science fiction. But of the ones I've read, the overly dramatic characters and focus on absurd "romances" have left me cold.

After School Nightmare is set in a bizarre school where students have to attend a "class" where they are put to sleep and must reveal their true selves/darkest secrets to other students. In order to graduate they have to find a "key" which is hidden inside the body of another student. This is kind of weird, though I'd be more okay with it if there wasn't so much non-consent involved. The mysterious "nurse" who tells the main character that they have to do this doesn't tell them what it is they have to do or what's going to happen beforehand (or even afterwards!), instead they just drug them with some weird type of tea, and another student eventually explains what this "class" is about. After the main character has unwillingly entered a dream world where students get to repeatedly relive horrible experiences like sexual and physical assault.

But that's not even my real problem with this comic, and we'll get to that in a second after I give a brief plot overview. The main character Ichijo Mashiro's "upper half is male" and their "lower half is female", and a major element of the plot is them trying to come to terms with their own gender identity. This is fine, good even! Teenagers frequently struggle with elements of sexual orientation and gender identity (amongst other aspects of their personal identities), and providing media about that probably helps them understand that they're not alone in how they feel.

However, my problem with this comic is the way the nurse, who is basically the only adult/person in a position of power/supposed role model in the entire comic, acts. Upon meeting Ichijo this character says "I know everything about you. After all, I am your teacher". When Ichijo says "I'm a guy" the nurse says "No, you're merely wear a man's clothing and hope to be believed". Similarly, other characters repeatedly say that Ichijo's "true self" is female, because that's how they show up in the dreams (whereas other students appear as a suit of armour, a person with huge holes were their face and chests are, a disembodied arm, and so forth). It just seems super transphobic to me to have almost everyone refuse to accept this character as the gender they identify as, but nobody else discussing the comic seems to have ever mentioned this, so maybe I'm just reading it wrong.

Thankfully, it isn't all like that. One of the characters (a love interest) actually says "I prefer you being a boy". There's a reasonable story to be told in characters trying to figure out if they're gay or not when they don't identify with their physical gender, and it seems as though later volumes of the series discuss that more. But those aspects didn't really click with me until I read reviews of the series, and then reread this volume (and geeze guys, I just reread a comic I disliked in order to properly say why I disliked it.).

Ignoring any positive or negative thoughts regarding the plot of the book, I found the romance aspects of this incredibly boring. Like there are pages of dialogue that I cannot believe I read as they are just so banal. This is clearly my personal opinion and I'm not saying that _this_ part of the comic is bad, just that it's not something that I generally enjoy, and based solely on that (but also for other reasons) I won't be seeking out any more of this title.

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