Manga-ka: Aya Kanno
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Teen (13+)
Released: February 2009
Synopsis: “Asuka Masamune is a guy who loves girly things – sewing, knitting, making cute stuffed animals and reading shojo comics. But in a world where boys are expected to act manly, Asuka must hide his beloved hobbies and play the part of a masculine jock instead. Ryo Miyakozuka, on the other handm is a girl who can’t sew or bake a cake to save her life. Asuka finds himself drawn to Ryo, but she likes only the manliest of men! Can Asuka ever show his true self to anyone, much less to the girl he’s falling for?”
Otomen is a book that I had to pick up after reading so many good things about it. It feels like forever since I’ve sat down for a true, honest-to-goodness shoujo manga and I was really starting to miss it. Until reading it, all I knew was that it was about a manly man who was actually a girly man, and it comes with high recommendations. With some favourable memories of Aya Kanno’s Blank Slate, and an uncertainty of how this more comedic sounding plot would be handled, I jumped into Otomen curious and finished this first volume in love.
Otomen is the story of a young man who works everyday to mask his inner skills and passions. After his father left their family years ago to live life as a woman, Asuka’s mother is horrified to realize that her son also has a strong feminine side, preferring cute things and shoujo manga over anything stereotypically manly. Afraid of letting others see his girly side and wifely talents, Asuka is known at his school as a man among men, while he diligently conceals his true self.
Asuka is one of the most instantly likeable main characters I’ve read about in a long while. He’s kind, considerate and undeniably cute as he enthusiastically flips through the latest shoujo manga or falls in love at first sight. It’s also very easy to become sympathetic to his predicament. After all, who hasn’t held an inner part of themselves away from the public eye? This battle of self also couldn’t be played out in any better setting than a high school where these personal conflicts reign supreme on any teenage populous.
What I really enjoyed most about this book would have to be how near-perfectly it dealt with gender stereotypes, in a way that was lighthearted and fun, and most impressively, in a way I never found offensive. I’m reading a story about a really girly guy and then on the flipside, a not-so-girly girl, and though their reversed stereotypes are played upon, they’re never shoved in readers’ faces so much as to be obnoxious. Sure the female lead, Ryo, can’t cook or clean, but the characters don’t focus on this as a gender-defining feature, nor is the notion that her lacking skills in these areas make her any less of a young woman or that it’s wrong to be as she is.
It was generally the same with Asuka, who though repeatedly having his hobbies referred to as feminine by nature, he isn’t ever really stamped with the label of ‘being’ female (short of being basis for a female character), and not once (do I recall) is there mention that any of his femininity would make him gay either. Score several points for the manga-ka for playing on stereotypes without falling victim to them.
The art is just as likeable as well. Where in Blank Slate everything was more dank and dreary, here Aya Kanno has definitely channeled her inner shoujo-artist with all the trimmings. Characters are all wonderfully expressive and rendered with the genre-standard thinner lines and tidy details. Asuka in particular has an interesting design that caters to his personality, clearly a man but with little eyelash-lined eyes that are easily given some extra sparkle when the often-adorable need arises. While not a series that breaks any visual boundaries, the book still garners a lot of its charm from the strength of its artwork.
And said artwork combined with easily likeable characters, some cheery comedy and a great take on both gender and shoujo manga stereotypes, allows Otomen to make a very strong start. The whole thing read smoother than the whipped dressing of Asuka-baked cakes, and I enjoyed every page of it from start to finish. The only thing wrong with a book like this is the fear that future volumes will have trouble living up to their predecessor’s charms. But as if that’s ever been a deterrent before. Volume one of Otomen is a definite recommendation!