Back in July, I finished my series of posts on Aya Kanno’s shoujo manga Otomen. Or, I thought I did. Now that the series has reached its conclusion, I have some thoughts on the final volume. If you recall, my previous issues with Otomen could be boiled down to the not-so groundbreaking dismantling of gender roles, the inner workings of Asuka’s abuse, and how LGBTQ+ issues were handled among the characters. And as much as my little shoujo-adoring heart loved the happy-sappy, undeniably predictable marriage ending, the question remains: were any of these problems elaborated on or improved? I’m sorry to say that they weren’t. Not to the extent I would have hoped for.
Spoilers for all of Otomen below.
To recap briefly, Asuka has been hiding his life as an otomen: a guy who likes stereotypically girly things, but has more recently become comfortable with it thanks to his friends and his girlfriend Ryo, a girl who enjoys stereotypically masculine things. Unfortunately his overbearing and emotionally manipulative mother Kiyomi wants nothing more to stop Asuka from embracing his otomen way of life and have him turn into the epitome of masculinity as defined by traditional gender roles.
As the final volume focused so pointedly on Asuka, it left little in the way of exploration of gender roles. However, we did get one panel of Professor Moematsu gushing about Ryo’s masculinity, which honestly is more than I was expecting. And while the small acknowledgment was unexpected, it was completely buried by the response to all the male characters. In the first half of this final volume, Asuka has been forced by his mother, Kiyomi, to repress his otomen ways and give his graduation speech on how his school has made him the ultimate man. Concurrently, his friends have been threatened by Kiyomi that if they so much as speak to Asuka, then their shameful otomen hobbies will be released to the world. In a typical anime friend fashion, each of these friends end up exposing their secrets themselves at the very end, taking the power away from Kiyomi and releasing Asuka from his burden. Yet, since Ryo was never threatened by Kiyomi’s strict belief in gender roles—made more odd due to Ryo’s status as Asuka’s “prince”—she doesn’t get to share in the same sort of relief or catharsis as the otomen. It’s true that Ryo never hid who she was, but it would have been nice to get some reassurance for her outside of the guy who is madly in love with her. Hell, even during the wedding later in the volume it would have been nice to see a Moematsu who finally learned to be comfortable with her tomboyish hobbies and found someone who appreciated her for them, but we don’t even get that.
On the LGBTQ+ front, almost none of the plot threads from earlier were tied up in any way. Asuka’s dad Hiromi, who left Asuka and Kiyomi because he wanted to live as a woman, spends the entire manga as Asuka’s father, in no uncertain terms. What I mean by that is he continues presenting as a man, taking on all the stereotypical masculinity that comes with being a father, and is never uncomfortable with this. Granted, during this time he is dealing with Asuka who has temporary amnesia (I’ll get to that) and may have felt that it was better to make things less confusing on his son, who has reverted to his childhood memories. Luckily, during the wedding we do get to see Hiromi’s dreams come true: he finally gets to live his life as a woman. Rather, he gets to present as a woman.
Here is where I don’t get what Kanno was going for. Despite saying he wanted to live as a woman and now presenting as a woman, there’s no change in anything else. Asuka still calls him “dad”—and Hiromi’s okay with that—and Kiyomi only goes so far as to say he’s “not manly at all.” But… the entire manga was about men being able to enjoy girly things while still being men. So in the end, I’m not sure if Hiromi is trans and is, slowly, but surely, getting to live the life he wants to live, or if he just wants to present as a woman while still living as a man. Furthermore, anything having to do with Juta, who despite his playboy status and his romantic heart is still single at the end, or Mr. Amakashi (Hiromi’s friend who might have been dating him), is completely dropped. It’s as though Kanno wants to lend her support to the LGBTQ+ cause, but stops just short of any meaningful representation.
Lastly, and the thing I had the least amount of hope for, was how Kiyomi’s abuse of Asuka was handled. I said before that I thought the series would end with Hiromi saving Asuka from his mother, and her coming to terms with otomen as a whole. I was only half right. After Kiyomi’s fake illness is revealed to Asuka, she feels backed into a corner—literally. Unfortunately she’s on a stage, so when she physically backs up, she falls off. However, since he’s still devoted to his mother, Asuka protects her by shielding her fall with his own body, causing him to gain temporary amnesia. Asuka remembers none of Kiyomi’s abuse and lives as though his father and mother are still together. During this time, Kiyomi has a revelation about how shitty she was being and admits the whole ordeal is her fault. Which it is. Were she less paranoid about her son leaving her simply because he enjoys stereotypically girly things, she wouldn’t have reinforced her strong beliefs in the gender binary being the only way to “save” him and Japanese society as a whole. She was her own greatest downfall.
However, instead of seeing her past actions through this lens and having to earn back Hiromi and Asuka’s trust (in addition to the trust of the people she blackmailed) she is immediately absolved of all guilt. No one holds her responsible for what she did and the audience is just supposed to take her sudden change of heart and understanding of her actions as the end of her character arc. It’s so disingenuous to have the “villain” of your series go from trying to destroy everything the protagonist worked towards to regretting their actions without any work towards redemption. A few sad words is not enough to erase the pain she caused, and I do honestly believe this arc would have been a lot more fulfilling if Kiyomi had had any sort of struggle whatsoever.
She could have struggled with breaking out of the gender binary—because that is hard—or with rebuilding the relationship she used to have with her son. Literally anything would have been better than sweeping the damage she caused, in addition to her own potential character development, under the rug.
I love Otomen, I really do. And I believe that the series, despite its adherence to the typical shoujo formula, brings up some really good points about how society interacts with people who don’t live by traditional gender roles, and how, in turn, those people react to a society that can so deeply injure their sense of self-worth. However, there are so many things that left me disappointed. Issues that Kanno should have resolved just weren’t, either because Kanno lacked the time, the knowledge, or just didn’t care enough to do so. In the end, no matter how shoujo your comic is, you can’t hide the impact of these problems behind a wedding veil.