Thursday, February 24, 2011

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Series Review: After School Nightmare

Written by Setona Mizushiro
Illustrated by Setona Mizushiro
Go Comi

Wow. I feel like I have a bit of reviewer egg on my face over this one. After singing its praises during the Manga Movable Feast when I was at volume six, I find myself finishing this series and feeling horrendously disappointed and embarrassed that I recommended it to others. What a difference a few volumes can make!

For reference, here's my original series review, at just past the halfway point. I talked about how this was a horror manga with a good mystery, with solid artwork and interesting characters. The trouble I had is that all of the things that made After School Nightmare so interesting across the first half of the comic start to unravel as we progress, until the final volume ends with a "you're kidding me" ending that generates not so much questions about what happened so much as the worst question a manga can present to the reader: What was the point?

Let's back up a bit before going into why this series ended with a whimper instead of a bang. The main premise is that Mashiro, a half-man, half woman, is starting to change in ways that will prevent him from continuing to pretend to be a boy, his preferred gender identity. This is made worse when Sou, a classmate, starts to show romantic affection for him. As if that's not bad enough, there's a special class in the school that reveals your deepest fears that you must fight your way out of in order to graduate.

That's where the horror and mystery meet a shojo plot that has the additional twist of adding gender identity to the mix. While some were offended by the main character's rejection of his femininity, I maintained that we were not to trust this rejection, and that Mizushiro was planning to show that Mashiro had to accept himself/herself for who he/she really is before he could end this frightening situation.

I really liked the fact that the manga was headed in this direction, as we don't often get positive depictions of gender issues. Most characters are vividly gay or straight, even if it takes some help from those around them to realize it. Not so in this case--Mashiro isn't dealing with whether or not he loves men or women (it's clear he likes both). The question is whether he is really male or female, a far more delicate issue. I liked that Mashiro wrestled with the issue on just about every page, and honestly, I was happy with the resolution on this score. It affirmed that each person must come to their own conclusion, and that only when they've made peace with their choice can they be happy. If you look closely, you can ever seen that Mizushiro has drawn Mashiro's choice even before he/she makes their final decision. That's a great bit of storytelling.

Unfortunately, it's about the only thing that's good about the last half of this manga series. As we progress through Mashiro's mind and his tricky relationships with Sou and Kureha, the nightmare class takes on less and less importance and we're in a more traditional shojo manga world. This is mistake number one. I liked After School Nightmare because it had a different focal setting, and taking that focal setting away began the process of the story running off the rails. It also means that the art, once a strong point of the manga, also tails off in quality. Mizushiro's pencils are quite good, but when she's drawing classrooms and bedrooms instead of nightmare visions of classrooms and bedrooms, it's harder for her to show off her talents.

The biggest sin, however, was in Mizushiro's choice of endings for this series. It's definitely a "gotcha" ending, which I only tolerate in short fiction or television. This is roughly 2,000 pages of comics. That is not short fiction. The ending needs to flow from the story, not be introduced at the end. Mizushiro did not play fair with the reader at all.

I'll give a bit of room for spoiler space here, just in case you do decide to read the series.

Hey!

Don't read this!

Because if you do read this!

Then you'll know the ending!

Last chance!

Okay, have it your way!

Rob's thoughts on the ending are next!

I'm not even sure this ending makes sense. Are we to assume that somewhere souls live as teenagers angsting their way through life and having horrible visions of what their eventual lives will be like until they decide it's okay to live in such a crappy world, at which point the gods of the universe let them be born?

I mean, this is a story with lying, deceitful teens who frequently force sexual actions, sometimes with members of their own family. There are parents who ignore their children (at best) and berate them (at worst). The only way out is to apparently be cool with all of the above, fighting back or ignoring it so that you can go through a stylized birth canal.

Just what is Mizushiro trying to tell her readers? That life is rotten, and it's rotten even before we go onto the world's stage, and it's all because we're conditioned to it? If she's not saying that, then what was the point of the prior nine volumes? To show that Mashiro has one hell of an imagination, and woe to his family, because he's one dark soul who is bound for sorrow?

I just don't get it. None of the conclusions I can come up with are satisfying, and how this story made to Eisner level is beyond me. (Maybe they went forward with the nomination before finishing, just as I gave it praise before I had read the dreaded volume ten?) After finishing After School Nightmare, I just felt cheated. Creators should take care to make sure that they are giving the reader good reason to follow along for 2,000 pages. To do otherwise, is absolutely unfair. But then again, that is apparently the view Mizushiro has of the world anyway.

After School Nightmare is a cautionary tale for me. I'm going to stop plugging manga and other comics before I finish the series. I was burned on this one, and I don't plan on that happening again soon. I withdraw my recommendation of this series, and take back my suggestion to seek out older volumes. The payoff in the end, no matter how good the setup was, just isn't worth it.