Otomen, by Aya Kanno
2009, VIZ Media LLC
Otomen isn’t yaoi, but it does deal with some of my favorite themes, pretty boys and gender fuck. You can’t go wrong with that, right?
Yes, well, you obviously could. Not with this series, though. I’ve read the first two volumes (both out in 2009, with the third coming in August), and I find it charming and kind of clever. I love Aya Kanno’s art (I already wrote about her Blank Slate series) – something about her sharp noses and tired-looking eyes just sends me. And the pretty boys? Are pretty.
The gender fuck, then? I almost need a flow chart. The main character, Asuka, is a tall, cool, good-looking upperclassman who’s not just captain of the kendo team but the best in the country, as well as having a first-degree black belt in judo and a second-degree black belt in karate. His dark, painful secret is that inside, he’s Hello Kitty wearing a glittery tiara and a lavender unicorn t-shirt. He sews stupidly cute little animals and things. He knits scarves with bunnies on them. He creates outlandishly elaborate and adorable bentos for lunch every single day. And he lives for Love Chick, a shojo manga series. No one can know! It doesn’t matter that he can kick anyone’s ass (and often does). If people knew his shameful subtext, he’d be ruined! Ruined! (Note: There are spoilers ahead, but this part is all revealed in the first few pages.)
Asuka’s trauma is his parents’ fault, of course. His father left the family to become a woman, and his mother spent the rest of Asuka’s childhood trying to make sure her son wouldn’t follow in her ex’s mincing, high-heeled footsteps. To make his manipulative and borderline psychotic mother happy, Asuka must be utterly masculine, stoic, unromantic, and unexcited by stuffed pandas (and, for reasons that escape me, uninterested in sweets – by God, what a price to pay for filial devotion!).
Asuka has to hide who he is from everyone. He isn’t gay, mind you. In fact, that’s sort of his problem. He’s met a girl, Ryo, and fallen head over heels for her. And when you love someone – you make lacy crafts and fill your room with kawaii accessories! If you’re an ottomen, that is – a straight man who loves girly things and romance. (Wikipedia tells me Otomen is a multilingual pun, and that “otome” means “young lady.” “Men” means “men.”) (And by the way, if you need more pink and sparkle in your life, check out the official Web site for the series.)
Another main character, Juta, initially seems like he’s just going to play the experienced playboy sidekick part. He’s interested in Ryo, too. Or is he? Maybe he’s interested in Asuka? Turns out skirt-chaser Juta is secretly the famous shojo managa artist for Love Chick! Which he’s basing on Asuka and Ryo! Except he’s reversed them and made Asuka a girl in the managa, and Ryo a boy.
Ryo doesn’t get as much stage time as Asuka or Juta (at all), but she’s feisty and loyal and likeable, if somewhat lacking in explication as a character. She’s pretty, but – oh, you see it coming, don’t you? Kind of manly. She can’t sew or cook or make cute stuffed animals, and she isn’t interested. She’s also apparently clueless about relationships. Juta keeps trying to bring Asuka and Ryo closer (to advance the plot of his manga series), and it keeps not happening because of Asuka’s painful over-thinking of everything and Ryo’s complete obliviousness. The implication is that Ryo is like this because her mother died when she was young, and she was raised by her laughably manly father. She’s shown on the back of Volume 2 holding a cake she’s tried to make; it looks like a berry bush magically transmuted into the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and then melted in the afternoon sun.
(Spoilers ho!) There’s the setup. And wackiness ensues! Mild, soothing, cute wackiness. Kanno worries at the gender stereotypes like a mouthful of loose teeth, and Juta’s constant gaze feels palpable on Asuka’s skin. (All his manipulation is basically carried out through Asuka – I guess it would be creepy if he were stalking the girl.) In the second volume, Asuka gets entangled with a very girlie girl – who manipulates him and threatens to blackmail him and drugs him and kidnaps him. Ryo rides on a white horse to rescue him (literally).
So, let us recap briefly: Cute!!! I bought in because of the manga covers, which say it all, really. Otomen is an adorable exploration of pretty boys exploring their femininity. (In a perfectly safe, heterosexual context, of course. ) It’s sweet and fluffy, and the hero fights a bull. If you need more than that, you’re harder to please than I am.