Shimura Takako, a well-established manga artist recognized for her LGBT focus, continues her gender-bender series with sensitive honesty. That said, don’t let the sweet, fuzzy cover fool you: Shimura knows well that protecting her two wide-eyed protagonists from their less-than-understanding peers will become less and less possible as they continue toward adulthood. The series translator and manga scholar Matt Thorn never shies away from the disturbing, sexually-charged name-calling – so at odds with the seemingly innocent faces of these not-yet teens – that seems all too ubiquitous in every school. The discordant contrast of Shimura’s winsome visuals against the sharp growing pains of her tweenagers imbues her series with urgent solemnity.
Inseparable as they were in volume 1 and volume 2, best friends Nitori Shuichi – a boy who wants to be a girl – and his best friend Takatsuki Yoshino – a girl who wants to be a boy – spend most of this latest volume apart. As 6th graders, they’re not quite little kids anymore, but they’re hardly ready to navigate the adult world, in spite of their quickly changing bodies.
Shuichi gets dragged to a modeling audition by his older sister Maho, who demands that the siblings be seen and accepted only as a pair. When the call comes about their dual selection, Maho nonchalantly asks their momentarily surprised mother, “Which Shu did they take? The boy version or the girl version?” That night, Shuichi’s overexcited dreams result in a first-ever reaction he doesn’t understand. He seeks out the school nurse the next morning, but is too shy to ask in front of his classmate Chiba who seems to be a regular fixture in the sick room for unspeakable reasons of her own. In his unsure, dazed state, he can’t object when Maho sends him out on an awkward date with the boy she herself both adores and abhors.
When Shu is finally able to process this whirlwind of activity, he does so by writing in the “exchange diary” he shares with Yoshino. “You wrote so much today,” she exclaims at first glance, just before two rough boys grab the notebook and too soon, all of Shuichi and Yoshino’s secrets are laid bare. Nasty names are bandied about, with comments about their “freaky hobby.”
Yoshino withdraws. She refuses to even look at Shuichi: “… if he hangs around with me, he’ll just be teased even more,” she reasons. Meanwhile, Shuichi meets a bespectacled boy named Ariga Makoto (makoto means ‘truth, sincerity’), who proves to be the truth-sayer who knows how to be an honest friend. Meanwhile, Yoshino turns to their adult transgendered mentor-of-sorts, Yuki-san, whose casually aggressive physicality (“Oh, no. Was I in male mode?”) initially frightens Yoshino, but Yuki’s sincere apologies followed by her own childhood stories turn out to be just the empowerment (“Live the way you want to live!”) Yoshino needs.
With new relationships, unfamiliar emotions, tough questions, and certainly no easy answers, Shuichi and Yoshino must navigate through challenging times as individuals, and what each means to the other. Ever the voice of wisdom-beyond-his-years, Mako-chan laconically notes, “Life is so complicated.” Amen to that.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Published: 2012 (United States)