I am an unabashed fan of anime and manga, but unfortunately I don’t have time to get deeply involved in more than a few series at a time. Lately I’ve gotten into a new manga called UQ Holder, by Ken Akamatsu, creator of Love Hina and Mahou Sensei Negima (the prequel to UQ Holder). I haven’t read Akamatsu’s previous works, but I started this one because my favorite scanlation group had picked it up, and I trust their judgment. And boy am I glad I did, because it is slowly taking the place of Naruto in my heart as a source for my weekly action shounen fix (believe me, that is high praise). I was drawn to it because its first chapter featured a strong female character and a lot of excitement. Later, the introduction of a gender-ambiguous character made me think the series could be trying to do something super interesting with gender, and I was hooked for good. That’s not to say it is perfect in its representation of gender, however. Beware of spoilers in my summary and analysis below.
UQ Holder is the tale of Touta Konoe, an immortal boy living in the 2080s who teams up with a gang of other immortals called UQ Holder, based just outside of Tokyo. The immortals within the organization are of all types: vampires, demons, cat-girls, those cursed with immortality, those surgically altered to heal quickly, and more. Regardless of what type of immortal they are, none of them can be killed except through extraordinary measures. There are other fantasy elements as well: Touta has found a sword that can magically alter gravity, and people can learn to use magic either by training their chi or by buying and using “magic apps.” The series is new enough that the main plot does not seem to have been revealed yet, but so far Touta and his UQ Holder friends have been the fearless defenders of poor and oppressed slum-dwellers.
The first new immortal friend Touta makes is Kuroumaru Tokisaka, who’s from a clan that actually hunts down immortals, but for reasons that have not yet been adequately explained, his clan modified his body to make him immortal. And then, apparently because he has, as they call it, a “cursed body”, they banished him from returning to the clan unless he kills the vampire Yukihime (whom readers of Negima may recognize as Evangeline A. K. McDowell). Kuroumaru quickly despairs of ever being strong enough to kill her—she is, after all, the leader of UQ Holder, and thus presumably one of the most powerful immortals alive—and decides to turn his back on the clan that treated him so cruelly, befriend Touta, and join UQ Holder himself.
What makes Kuroumaru so interesting (and thus my favorite character so far) is that, on first glance, everyone assumes he’s a girl. In and of itself, boys who appear feminine are not very unusual for manga, but very quickly you start to suspect that Kuroumaru is hiding something. Firstly, he always denies being a girl, but never comes right out and says that he’s a boy (though he prefers male pronouns, which is why I’m using them). He gets flustered every time the subject comes up. He goes to great pains to keep his body covered (which, in a story by a mangaka known for fanservice, is quite unusual). And when his teammate Karin walks in on him without his clothes, he appears undeniably female and yet continues to insist that he’s not a girl.
Finally the truth is revealed when Karin accuses him of having a crush on Touta and confronts him about his gender. Kuroumaru confesses that members of his clan of “demi-humans” have the unusual attribute of being born sexless. They don’t begin exhibiting sex traits until they reach maturity and have a coming-of-age ceremony at the age of sixteen. Most interestingly, however, they get to choose their gender at this ceremony, and if they don’t choose, they naturally settle into one or the other. This brings up interesting implications about what a life without gender might be like, and about how the essential core of our true selves is not predetermined by the genitalia we happen to be born with or by cultural expectations and pressures bound up with gender.
But all the good this situation could potentially bring about seems to be undone in this very same confrontation with Karin. She draws her weapons on him and attacks him (she’s been training Touta and Kuroumaru, so this isn’t that strange), demanding to know whether he will choose to be male or female. She says she would “appreciate it” if he would choose to be female so he could be with Touta, since, she claims, Kuroumaru likes him anyway. It’s unclear why Karin would prefer this outcome, but already her statement is problematic, because it implies that Kuroumaru couldn’t be with Touta if he were male. We don’t even know yet what Touta’s preferences are. He has so far shown no romantic interest in anyone. Karin is making a pretty hefty assumption.
But it gets worse. Kuroumaru responds, and I quote, “No, I want to be a man. If possible, I want us to be kindred spirits—friends! I want to be a man worthy to stand as Touta’s equal!” Whoa there. What is he saying? Because it sure sounds to me like he’s saying he can’t be Touta’s equal unless he’s a man! And it also sounds like he thinks being Touta’s girlfriend would be somehow lesser than being his friend. I sure hope that’s not the case. Last time I checked, it was best for your significant other to also be your best friend.
Karin, though female herself, and a badass one at that, who has single-handedly taken out two enemies so far, never calls Kuroumaru out on this. Instead, she praises him for his swordsmanship, yet says his heart isn’t in it, which is why Touta snubbed his training and accepted the training of a stranger. “You have no inner strength,” she says. “Touta Konoe is drawn to men with strong inner cores. You will never be Touta Konoe’s friend.” Okay. This sounds like a legitimate criticism you could make about anybody. And we already know Karin is almost never nice. But then, as she deals her parting blow to Kuroumaru and sends him sailing through the air, she says, casually, “I recommend you choose femininity. I’m sure you would make a lovely girl.” That this was meant to be an insult, that this was meant to imply that girls can’t have inner strength and can’t be friends with boys, is reinforced by the way these words mockingly echo in Kuroumaru’s head in the next few chapters. His insecurity goes so far that he actually asks Touta to confirm that they’re friends. After Karin’s declaration, it’s no wonder if Kuroumaru continues to think that a girl would never be strong enough or worthy enough to be Touta’s friend. After all, according to Karin, a girl can only be “lovely” (another translation uses the word “cute”), and that’s all Kuroumaru is apparently good for. Since she thinks he’ll never be Touta’s friend, he might as well just settle for being his girlfriend!
Besides taking these appalling views of women rather personally, I also feel insulted because it seems as if the mangaka is making a jab at Touta/Kuroumaru shippers (like me) with this development. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know you shippers are out there! And how dare you?! Don’t you see how degrading it would be for them to be together? No, they’re going to be two manly-man, no-homo friends, dammit!”
Kuroumaru is left in a no-win situation. Karin could very well be trying to shame him into greater strength, but it could backfire. He could decide to “settle” for being a weak female who will never live up to Touta’s strength, and confirm Karin’s insults. Even worse, though, his character arc could consist solely of his striving to become “worthy” of being male, and he could choose to be a man and thus confirm Karin’s implication that only men can be strong… and friends with other men.
Akamatsu could still salvage this story, though. I’m hoping to get some explanation for Karin’s behavior, though so far I can’t think of one. As for Kuroumaru, the best case scenario I can think of is actually a distinct possibility. All the other immortals we’ve encountered in the series are frozen at the age at which they became immortal. Yukihime is a loli who takes pills to appear like an adult woman. Touta is fourteen but still looks no older than the day Yukihime turned him into a vampire to save his life at twelve. And so on. It’s possible Kuroumaru will never reach the age of sixteen. He may remain sexless for the rest of his immortal life. This may be what his relatives meant when they said he had a “cursed body,” and he might not even be aware this will happen to him (if he were, he probably would have mentioned it to Karin).
If he comes to terms with this, and realizes it’s okay to be neither male nor female, that it’s okay to have aspects of both, that he can still choose who he wants to be, and that it’s possible to be loved even without gender, then this would be an utter demolishment of gender norms and a real validation for severely underrepresented genderqueer people trying to abolish gender binaries everywhere. So I will continue to hold out hope.
All in all, the fantastical/dystopian premise of UQ Holder remains interesting to me, and despite the roadblocks mentioned above, the very existence of Kuroumaru implies Akamatsu wants to open a conversation about gender which has the potential to proceed in a positive direction. That’s what I’m most interested to see. I hope you’ll join me in following this great new series! You can read UQ Holder at Crunchyroll.