Shojo manga's relationship to gender performance can sometimes be kind of fraught, but this series strives to be a little more understanding. Does it work out?
OTOMEN, by Aya Kanno. First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2009.
Asuka Matsumune is a high school boy with a lot of traditionally feminine interests. He's good at sewing and knitting, he's a great baker, and he loves shojo manga. Alas, to appease his paranoid mother he has to play the part of a cool, manly, kendo-playing boy. He ends up catching the eye of Ryo Miyakozuka, the daughter of a kendo master who fails at every attempt she makes at being traditionally feminine and declares that she could only love a truly masculine man. Asuka adores her, but can he ever reveal his true self to her?
I can't blame anyone for feeling worried after reading that plot summary. We've seen similar premises before where the protagonist's inability to perform the stereotypical behaviors and actions of their gender is treated as a problem to be fixed as well as a source of comedy. Thankfully, Otomen is a little more sensitive than that. It's not all that revolutionary - hell, if anything it reminded me a bit of Nozaki-kun - but this first volume more than serves as a solid introduction.
The romance between Asuka and Ryo is sweet (if rather unremarkable). Ryo isn't really bothered by Asuka's so-called "girly" interests because she likes him as he is and his skills come in handy more than once. Meanwhile, Asuka is sincerely impressed by Ryo's physical strength and fiery personality. The real source of their anxieties are their terrible parents. Ryo's dad is just a ridiculous macho man who tries to force his daughter into the same mold because he knows no other perspective. Meanwhile, Asuka's mom is just the worst. Asuka's dad divorced her after coming out as gay and she internalized that trauma to the point that she has a nigh-pathological strain of homophobia. At all times she's paranoid that her son will turn out the same, unaware that all she's doing is making her son feel worse about himself. This is played like comedy, but I imagine a lot of modern readers will read it as either something to despise or pity.
The most unexpected element here is Juta Tachibana. He's a teammate of Asuka's who learns about his secret hobbies and quickly become Asuka's confidante. He basically designates himself as Asuka's wingman (as he encourages Asuka's pursuit of Ryo at every turn), but he's not doing it for purely altruistic reasons. He too has a secret feminine interest: he's a professional shojo mangaka and Juta actively uses Asuka as inspiration for his heroine. Asuka is unaware of this, although Juta's manga is easily his favorite. I presume he was just going to be another point on the inevitable love triangle, but instead his inclusion allows Kanno to deliver a bit of meta commentary along with a welcome bit of levity and surprise.
Aya Kanno's art is nothing special, but it's drawn with a level of confidence that conveys a certain degree of experience. There's something about the solid blacks of the shading and the shape of the characters' eyes that gives them a sense of dimension. It also serves as a good contrast to the excerpts we see of Juta's manga, which is wispy and delicate. The downside is that Kanno can't be really bothered about backgrounds beyond the odd screentone. Even then, she uses them with a little more reserve than your average shojo artist.
This series is published by Viz. This series is complete in Japan with 18 volumes available. All 18 were released and are currently in print.
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