Last week's offering was horrifying, but this week let's look at something a bit more subtle, and much more disturbing...
AFTERSCHOOL NIGHTMARE (Hokago Hokenshitsu), by Setona Mizushiro. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2006.
PLOT: Mashiro Ichijo is a handsome young man, who would be quite popular were he not so aloof with others. He's also hiding a major secret - he is intersexed, and worse still, he is starting to menstruate. It's a secret he desperately tries to hide, which leads to him losing his temper at the slightest hint of his being anything but masculine. One day he is pulled aside by a school nurse who says she is holding a special class for select students, one that according to her is necessary to graduate. Mashiro soon learns that this "class" is in fact some sort of dreamworld, a place where the avatars of the sleeping students, visual representations of their deepest issues and secrets. These avatars interact with and attack one another while trying to break the trio of beads everyone wears to force them out of the dreamscape. Mashiro soon discovers that one of the other students in the "class" is Kurema Fujishima, a pretty popular girl who hides a terrible trauma from her childhood and a hatred of men. They bond over their shared secrets, but Mashiro is afraid that there may be other members of the nurse's class in their class...in particular, that Sou, an bully from the kendo club with a fondness for picking on Mashiro may know his secret as well.
STORY: I'm not sure what I was expecting when I first picked this manga up, but I'm very pleased and intrigued with the dark, complex pyschological drama that I got.
I could argue that hermaphroditism doesn't work in the real world as it does here. Mashiro describes himself as being a boy on top and a girl on the bottom, and hermaphroditism doesn't quite present itself so cleanly, but frankly that's nitpicking. I could also argue that the issues that the children of the "class" are hiding all tend towards the melodramatic, but honestly I didn't care, because the characters deal with these issues in such interesting ways.
The conflict Mashiro has with himself and with how he perceives genders is fascinating all on its own. It's also surprisingly sweet to see how he and Kurema bond with one another, and we get strong hints that Sou's bullying may come from his own suppressed sexual issues. Watching all these psychologically broken people confront their issues both inside and outside of the dream world is damn good drama, and Mizushiro's writing handles it and the characters masterfully. The story never loses itself in angst, and it always keeps an undercurrent of mystery flowing, be it in the form of the identity of the other students of the "class" or the very nature of the "class" and the nurse itself.
The dreamworld conflicts are handled well themselves, as action pieces onto themselves. Surprisingly there's not a lot of surreal imagery in this dreamscape - most of what is there is saved for the kids' avatars. Mashiro's is probably the most mundane (being just him in a skirt), but in this world he is attacked by such things as a black knight in armor, a girl with a hole in her face and heart, or a disembodied creeping arm. These sequences do capture the suddenness of change within the dream, as the backgrounds can shift with a thought or end with just a change of panel, leaving Mashiro just as jarred and unnerved as the reader.
Afterschool Nightmare is a compelling drama where teenage drama is only a front for the deeper, darker issues lurking within the minds of a select few kids, issues that they must confront and fight if they are to survive.
ART: The character designs, like much of the artwork in general, is typical of shoujo, but it's rather appropriate. Here, the androgyny of the character designs is rather appropriate - after all, our lead himself is androgynous. The characters are rather delicately rendered and there's a lot of subtlety in their expressions, which is good because they all have a lot to express (or repress, as it were). The backgrounds are nothing remarkable and the composition is rather standard in its look. There's sadly not as much to talk about when it comes to Mizushiro's art as there is about her writing. There's plenty of skill but not a lot of artistic flair. Luckily, the story is more than strong enough to compensate for that.
PRESENTATION: There are a half-dozen color pages in the front, all rendered in soft pleasing tones. They are a combination of splash pages as well as the first two pages of the manga proper, where the use of color is very appropriate for the story. There are also translator's notes and an author's note in the back.
This series deserves far better than its current obscurity. This is a dark, complex story that left me wanting to dive deeper into the pysches of these poor unfortunate souls.
This series was published in the USA by Go!Comi. All 10 volumes were released, and all are now out of print.
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