Manga-ka: Aya Kanno
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Older Teen (13+)
Release Date: May 2011
Synopsis: “A potion at school causes all the guys to act manly and all the girls to act feminine! Suddenly, Asuka loses interest in all the girly hobbies he loves, and Ryo is working at a bakery?! Can anything break the spell they’re under and turn them back to normal?”
Otomen isn’t a series known for its restraint. The series has never shied away from off-the-wall characters and contrived situations, but for the most part they all stayed believable (if more than a little extreme). While the series has always existed in a world of cartoonish hyper reality, it never relied on anything supernatural to move the plot forward. So when a major plot point in the book revolved around a potion (seriously, a potion?) I was just about ready to give up on this series. But something surprising happened as I kept reading. Kanno take this bizarre situation and uses it to really get at the heart of the series, going deeper into its themes than it ever has before.
But before we get to the crazy potion portion of this volume, the book has to tie up some loose plot threads from the previous instalment. Ms. Moematsu (or ‘O-Tan’ as her fan club likes to call her) is an incredibly girlie teacher at Asuka’s school. Determined to prove that girly-girls always get the guy, she tries to use her feminine charms to lure Asuka away from Ryo. Her plan fails when she realizes that her feminine charms have nothing on Asuka’s. While this story arc wasn’t bad, it’s one we’ve seen before in the series. Also, O-tan’s revelation at the end doesn’t seem to have any lasting effect as she goes back to being how she was before.
Which brings us to the part of the book where things start to get weird. One of the teachers at Asuka’s school is a mad scientist looking to test out his new invention: a potion that turns man manly and girls girly. An assembly is called and all the students are made to drink some tea and watch a film. When it’s all over, the male half of the student body have become macho, manly-men, while the girls all love cute things and cooking.
The only person left unaffected by this is Kitora, Asuka’s friend who is obsessed with flowers and gardening. Since he arrives late to the assembly, he doesn’t drink the tea and doesn’t undergo any change. When he realizes that his friends have all done a complete 180 personality wise, it’s up to Kitora to return everyone back to normal.
At first I was prepared to hate this story arc because of how silly it seemed (once again, really, a potion?) but the manga-ka takes it to some very interesting places. Instead of playing it for laughs, the manga actually squeezes some poignant moments out of the idea (well, as poignant as Otomen can get, anyway). It’s actually unsettling to see the characters forsake the things that they love, such as cooking or martial arts or drawing shogo manga in order to better conform to gender stereotypes. When Kitora tries to confront them on how much they’ve changed, they’re only reply is to say that they’re just acting the way boys and girls are supposed to act. While the storyline basically just re-states the main theme of the series for the 1000th time (Don’t worry about being masculine or feminine, just be yourself) it does so in a way that really drives the point home. This story arc also made me like Kitora for the first time, since it gave him something to do besides moon over flowers.
The volume ends by introducing a new story arc. Asuka and friends go on a school field trip to a mock samurai village, where all of the guys must act like samurai and the girls like geishas. While it all seems like it’s in good fun at first, it seems the school faculty has a hidden reason for making the students take part.
Otomen is extremely silly. If Ranma ½ was a modern shojo manga, it would probably be something like this. Just when I think that the series has gotten too much for me, the manga-ka always comes up with something to make me stick around. Plus, the art is just gorgeous (and oh-so cute). If you like shojo comedy and can suspend your disbelief, this series is worth checking out.