January 3, 2010

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After School Nightmare Volume 1

Written by Setona Mizushiro
Illustrated by Setona Mizushiro
Go! Comi

It's kinda strange that I'd read two books with similar concepts so close to one another. Like Click, which I hated, this manga focuses on a boy who has to deal with the fact that he's really a girl.

The similarities end there, however, as Mizushiro takes the book in an entirely different direction, focusing on the idea of identity while giving the book a hint of horror, making for a compelling and complex read.

High School student Ichijo Mashiro has a secret only he knows--he's effectively a hermaphrodite, only the split is top and bottom. He's finally reached the age where this secret can't be kept much longer, but he's doing his best, dropping out of physical activities and staying to himself.

That all changes the day he's escorted by a school nurse to an area of the facility he's never seen before. It's time for his graduation training, she explains. The preparation? Entering a shared nightmare world where the darkest secrets of the participants are revealed to all involved. Soon Mashiro's shame is exposed to select classmates, including one he wishes to avoid.

The only way out of this nightmare is to find the key to solving the psychological problem that got you there in the first place. But only one can do so at a time, and so the nightmare world becomes a cutthroat game where dying only wakes you up--but the mental scars remain. Worse, despite requirements to the contrary, the issues from the basement resurface in the normal classroom world, leading to ever more complex relationships between the students.

How can Mashiro free himself from his dilemma when he can't even face the reality of his own body? And what of the other classmates that Mashiro recognizes from the dreams? Will their desires trump his? Can he be trapped in this nightmare world forever?

Those are just some of the questions that Mizushiro brings up in the first volume, giving all sorts of reasons for a reader to be hooked into wanting to read more. Some might be interested in the mystery of the dream world. Others might want to see how the tried and true love triangle that's set up in this volume.

Personally, it's the nature of perceived identity that really hooked me. I want to see how Mashiro reconciles his desire to be a man with the fact that he cannot, truly, be one. I will admit it was bit offputting at first that he feels being a girl is weak, but placing it in context, if you were raised a boy with all the stereotypes that come with it, how would you feel? Getting over this mental block will, I think, unlock the key to getting out of the nightmares.

But it won't be easy. Mashiro will get no help from Sou, who seems to revel in torturing him. Learning that Mashiro has bigger problems only makes matters worse. The nurse involved in administering the class offers no pointers, and is perfectly cast as a cipher that will offer no solution to the problems for Mashiro and the others in the nightmare.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the puzzle is Kureha. She's in the nightmare, too, but seems to welcome the companionship of Mashiro, drawing them closer together in both planes. Will this help or hurt our protagonist? I can't tell yet, but I want to know the answer. That's another strong storytelling element from Mizushiro--all of the mysteries are placed here in the first volume, but instead of feeling overcrowded with plot points, the mix seems just right for the reader.

Artistically, Mizushiro is quite adept at portraying the normal turned on its ear by the nightmares endured by the children in the special class. I particularly liked a scene involving a character hiding in a closet. I was able to feel the terror of the people involved just by looking at the page. She is also good at making sure you can tell each main character apart, which I appreciate. (I realize I say this often in my review of a book's art, but I can't stand it when I have to keep flipping to tell who is who.) Obviously, due to the subject nature, there are gay scenes as well, but Mizushiro does not try to sensationalize them. Lastly, her students-as-monsters character designs are pretty cool. They get the point across without being too gory.

Any potential reader should be aware that this is a very mature shojo title. There are quite a few sexual themes and references, not all of them consensual. However, they are not gratuitous--Mizushiro uses them to advance the story, not to get a reaction out of the reader.

After School Nightmare is exactly the type of manga I am really enjoying reading right now. It's intelligent, makes the reader think, and provides strong characters that I am interested in following from volume to volume. If you want a more mature shojo read, definitely check this book out. I think you'll be glad you did.