Thursday, February 24, 2011

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.

9 comments:

  1. Oh, it’s too bad that you were disappointed by the conclusion of the series, and I can definitely understand your frustration at seeing all your expectations turn to nothing or to the worse from vol. 6 and onwards (there’s nothing worse than seeing a promising premise turn into a generic or plain bad conclusion…it happened for me when I finished CMX’ Moon Child this summer, I’d bought vol. 1-4 years ago and bought the rest in a panic when I heard that DC were closing down the line…and regretted all my wasted money! I nearly cried my eyes out in disgust and horror at the distasteful turn the series took in the last 4-5 volumes….it was like watching a train wreck unfold in front of my eyes, and every time I assured myself that it couldn’t possibly get any worse another corny plot point turned up. And what a promising beginning it was; a twisted, creepy, fantastic, surrealistic loose take on the little mermaid, only for the story to suddenly change into a generic shoujo, with the usual love triangle, emotional drama, and tru luv – yeah, I could go on and on, but you get my point, I feel you, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth to see what seemed like a promising series turn bad, especially when you feel that the author could have done MUCH better)
    And before I’ll begin addressing some of your points I just want to say that I’m not writing in order to make you change your mind, rather I’m interested in finding out how our different expectations for the series – even those from before picking up the first volume – made us receive the conclusion of ASN differently (I for one loved the ending for being the sort of quirky, pleasantly twisted and surprisingly dark humored (hmm I think that “mature” would be to stretch it too far, but I appreciate that it didn’t become a Happy-Happy ending where everybody survived into the next world and where their previous experience would set a precedent for their future interactions with new as well as “old” faces. ) – ending that I like. But then again, I never read it as a horror story, but I’ll get to the expectation-part again later) I also want to say this: English isn’t my first language, and it will show in the comment, I suppose by odd grammar, impossible or illogic sentence structures, weird or confusing statements, (I’ve left out spelling mistakes because Word should’ve fixed that for me!) and more. I’ll do my best to express myself clearly but should I miss just tell me and I’ll try to explain myself in another way.

    Now to the point, After School Nightmare.

    After reading your review I felt bad for you for the reason mentioned above, but also a little puzzled because I read ASN two times in a row a few months ago and I loved it each sitting. Now I can’t say that the series was a ground breaking experience for me – especially not when I’d had the plot twist foreshadowed to me – but for me it was Just Right, it was fantastic in that nice little way that you sometime learn to see a known object in a new light and realize that yes, the universe still has some surprises left, and yes the world has yet to unveil all of its small wonderful surprises for you. That’s the best way to describe how I felt and probably still feel about ASN (haven’t read it again after those two times, because I felt that I would wear the story thin if I didn’t let it rest on the shelves for some time and fade a bit in my memory before I’d read it again).

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  2. It made me wonder why the two of us had so different opinions of ASN, and especially with the last part of the series, which I saw as a long awaited turn in the plot that gave the characters proper substance, explored the strength and the shape of their bonds with each other and Finally gave the series a stable body which I felt it desperately needed (to be honest, there was only so much of male Mashiro’s whining I’d have been able to stand if I hadn’t been expecting some kind of twist along the story – the foreshadowing thingy, I’m getting there – the only reason I kept reading past vol. 3-4(I remember him and his behavior and attitude to certain other people as being particularly loathsome in those volumes) was because I knew that somewhere along the way an interesting twist would take place and that every event up till then could be read in a completely different way. For that promised twist alone did I stand all the teenage drama and the unsatisfying world building) up till then it was mostly by a strong faith in Setona Mizushiro’s story crafting ability that I read the series without putting it aside as being another drama-mystery like shoujo story, which horror elements I could care less for (not because I think it’s lame, on the contrary, I find horror to be, well horrible, terrifying, and sleep-depriving….I dislike scary stuff because I find it…scary, and I already have a vivid imagination that can work out scary scenarios without the aid of outside stimuli) but knowing a bit about the author set me at ease, because she usually makes a quite down to earth, realistic- if not partly melodramatic approach to her characters, and makes them give off a feeling of being real, flawed, self-contradicting, self-reflecting human beings, and she tends to put her characters in the strangest plots, and I like strange plots (when they’re quirky, witty etc. not so much scary-strange).

    But when rereading the review I noticed the sentence “That's where the horror and mystery meet a shojo plot that has the additional twist of adding gender identity to the mix.” And I realized that I Never Ever not even for one minute Thought of ASN as a horror story, now how could that be? To answer that I must turn to the ASN manga movable feast, and in particular to an introductory piece by David Welsh (link: http://precur.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/mmf-after-school-nightmare/) that made me want to read ASN which out from this general review presents the series as a…how should I put it…as a mature, dark, cynical take on life in your teenage years, with a few mysterious twists here and there (what is the purpose of those after school classes, who’s the mysterious ?evil/dubious? nurse, why are only certain students allowed to enter an enclosed mental playground where the strongest can torment the weaker ones, does this mysterious little world expand outside of school area or does it has its limit, what is graduation why don’t the student have a past(hmm, possibly a plot hole, since it seems that Mashiro’s the only one who doesn’t have a past?? Or perhaps not, because his/their personal struggle lie(s) in future events/decisions, in contrast to Kureha and Sou + some other students whose personal struggle is to come to term with their past in order to develop as human beings)??????)
    [Quote DW/]1) In a lot of manga aimed at an adolescent audience, the characters’ objectives are sunny and straightforward. Do your best! Be true to yourself! Learn! Grow! Befriend! Love!... the bottom line is basically the pursuit of happiness. What makes a book like Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare (Go! Comi) so alluring is that it’s about THE AVERSION OF UNHAPPINESS. The objectives here are just as straightforward, but they’re bleaker and probably more honest. Keep your secrets. Hide your flaws. Try not to hurt anyone more than you can avoid, but a teen’s got to do what a teen’s got to do.

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  3. 2) Mashiro’s ambiguous gender allows Kureha to return his feelings; he’s not entirely male, so he’s not the object of terror she finds most men to be. But are Mashiro’s feelings sincere, or is he just role-playing, trying to meet ingrained expectations? That’s a question you could ask of any of the principle characters. Mizushiro gets terrific mileage out of the question, spinning the love triangle over most of the ten-volume series. Mashiro, Kureha and Sou are all trying to reconcile their respective damage, and to varying degrees they do that by modulating to meet the expectations of others. But Mizushiro doesn’t romanticize that; secrecy and denial are the obstacles to THE CHARACTERS’ FORWARD MOTION towards whatever graduation entails. THEY HAVE TO ACCEPT WHAT THEY DON’T LIKE OR WHAT THEY FEAR ABOUT THEMSELVES. They have to stop caring how others see them.

    3) Mizushiro is playing with allegories throughout the series, but she doesn’t shy away from brutality. Even with ten volumes at her disposal, Mizushiro finds room for so much. In addition to the emotional and metaphysical violence, there’s a lot of tenderness here. Not much sentiment, but that’s welcome. All she needs are THREE MESSED-UP PEOPLE trying to survive.
    [\Quote DW]
    I’ve sampled some quotes from his review (which I think you should take at look at by the way, it offers you a different angle on the series, and sets up a different set of expectations) and changed what I felt were the most important tidbits into all-caps. And that is, I suspect, where my different angle on the series comes from. I read it as an educational spiritual/personal growth journey for the characters (ugh, a direct translation from my own language doesn’t sounds right) the word is one my country got from Germany and they call it Bildungsreise (Bildung= what well brought off people/aristocrats/intellectuals ought to have in the 17-19th century have = good behavior, a vast cultural knowledge, ability to reflect upon oneself and the world etc. in short, a learned approach to the world and to oneself that which an individual from the better social layers ought to have in the good old days. Reise=travel/journey) I’m not sure what the precise English equivalent of the term would be since the word has so many meanings connected to it, but think of something like a grand tour + cultural tourism + spiritual growth/ enlightenment + personal growth/maturity + educational growth and all that mixed into one word, and you nurture all this growth by travelling around the outer and your inner landscape, and the idea is that you’ve by the end of it has reached some kind of zen and have learnt to utilize your personality.
    And that’s how I read the series, as a dark, twisted take on the whole growing up theme and how difficult a bildungsreise could be for the students of ASN’s world. And to be honest when coming from that angle, the creepy, horrific scenes from the after school classes seems like just a metaphorical aspect of the inner journey that the chosen students have to go through. In that light part of the excitements I’ve may have had about those scenes just weren’t there, as I turned the pages I it was a feeling of puzzlement that drove me to read on, because I wanted to know what those after classes meant (remember, I read them as metaphorical in my first sitting, on my second sitting I read them as just as real as the events that happened outside of the classes) and in those moments my vague puzzlement for the series as a whole and my lack of connection to the characters would under different circumstances have made me put the series aside (my rule when it comes to manga is normally that they have to grab my attention within 4-5 chapters)

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  4. BUT, since I’d had read DW’s review on ASN and felt that he hinted strongly toward twist in regards to their graduation [Q-DW\battle his classmates for a mysterious key that leads to an even more mysterious graduation. + towards whatever graduation entails/Q-DW] I read the whole series in almost one sitting(scanlations, yes I know they’re evil and all that, but that’s another discussion) and had to buy it afterwards and reread it when I had collected the whole series.
    And what a difference there is in the dialogue when you reread the series, Sou’s flat, direct “real-world” personality suddenly makes a lot of sense (at first I had him pinned down as a guy with a lot of anger issues and problems with his masculinity, which I couldn’t make sense of when he later is so understanding about Mashiro’s constant outbursts and temper tantrums) the head of the kendo club suddenly seems slightly more sinister, and that dream sequence where the giraffe speaks to the elongated hand seem like a stroke of genius!!(At last for me, I was sure that the hand was Sou, and that made him seem like a lonesome, miserable kid, but gave him, in my eyes, a more consistent personality than if he were to be the black knight)

    But back to some of the points you raised. I’ll start with the setting: Student life vs. After school classes. You mentioned that the shift in focus from the classes to student life was the bad turn in your eyes. And when reading the series as a horror mystery set in a shoujo world the shift of focus really is for the worse, because all the horror stuff happens within the dream sequences, what happens outside of them is just the usual mystery solving that has to take place when characters are allowed a break from horrific events, to calm down and reflect upon them, and there’s a sudden focus on the characters, their life in school, interactions, and past events, and the world of ASN is expanded a bit (though never explained) and that’s not what you’d want to happen for an otherwise interesting horror+mystery story in progress, in fact the sudden lack of the many after school classes undermines all that tension that they built up and that’s a problem for the story suddenly becomes a mundane (mystery) shoujo (still dream sequences, but they’ve lost the impact because their importance have been minimized).
    As I mentioned earlier, for me the story started to pick up pace and deliver some long awaited character development around vol. 5-6, I had yearned to learn the characters motivations for their dream selves – mainly because I never saw the dream sequences as real, in the sense that what took place in them should have an effect in the “real” world. Coming at the series from an angle where I expected a cynical, characters-development focused shoujo, with plenty of mysterious twists I felt that the after school classes scenes dominated too much in the first few volumes, mainly because I was so focused on close reading for small comments that indicated character development that I couldn’t read the dream sequences “straight,” I kept trying to analyze and interpret the sequences to such a degree that I came to dislike Mashiro’s superficial of dealing with the afterschool classes. The way he blamed “real” world students for the actions they carried out in the dream sequences and the way his judgment of them became heavily influenced by the outer appearance of their dream selves was irritating for me because I had dismissed the value of the after school classes to that of metaphorical meaning, a ghost of what happened in the “real” world.

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  5. In other words, the real story took place in the “real” world, from that point of view the after school classes were mysterious, creepy, strange and twisted, but the real action took place in the real world, it took me a while to figure out that the “Bildung-journey” took place in both worlds, and that the after school classes forced the students to face their personal obstacle in order to expand their horizons and be able to grow (I wouldn’t say mature, Kureha matures in my eyes, while character’s such as Suo and Mashiro grow but still have a lot to learn) and with the focus removed from those mysterious classes there was much more space to explore the “real” world, the students, social interactions and so on. And that focus allowed me to sympathize much more with the students, they felt solid to me because I suddenly cared, truly cared about their issues(I still disliked Mashiro though, but I do realize that their personal obstacle in particular was a schizophrenic one), and suddenly the afterschool classes gained another value in my eyes, they became a battleground for personal development, and in that dreamlike world you could monitor the students’ inner progress because their dream sequence selves reflected their present inner state of mind.
    And that’s my thoughts on how the different set of expectations and approaches of 1) Horror, mystery in a shoujo-world and 2) “Bildungs”-novel, mystery in shoujo-world when reading After School Nightmare made us have a completely different reading experience of ASN, especially the later part of the series, that in my eyes redeemed the slow (not uninteresting, just not well elaborated) beginning, but that in your eyes probably destroyed all the built up mystery and tension from the first part of the series.
    ----Break---
    Let’s see, it’s getting late, and this became much longer than I’d planned, I have a bad habit of rambling on too long, sigh. I’ll continue on to comment on the parts below the spoiler warning tomorrow (and hopefully that will be shorter).

    Sonnes

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  6. Ok, the brief afterword:
    Spoiler warning!
    The ending of ASN is, depending on the angle of reading, either successful in the way it wraps up a lot of loose ends (Sou’s past and trial overcome, Kureha’s trial overcome etc.) and prepares the reader to see the mystery that is graduation (by this point there’s been plenty of glimpses into our world that have hinted toward the nature of graduation) or it a complete letdown because all the horror and tension of the first part of the series lose some if not all of its significance in light of the “soft” ending.
    But is that really all there’s to the story? A downer ending or a pleasant ending where all the social conflicts are resolved? I’m not sure, especially because the story does have plenty of unsatisfying loose ends no matter how you read it (the world outside of the school makes the least sense, are the adult in it not allowed to graduate?? are they forever doomed to be stuck in the limbo that is the world before birth?), But, if you read the afterword by Setona Mizushiro and Christine Schilling they offer a more simple genre-less approach to the manga or an approach less restricted by certain generic expectations: first there’s Schilling who points out that there exist an underlying idea/symbolism behind ASN, that of a child’s game Kagome Kagome, which foreshadows the dark twist on the process of birth, and secondly there’s Mizushiro who talks about her intentions in regards to the story: to create a miniature garden(ASN universe) where the concept of birth(Graduation) is explored in a strange, quirky, and entertaining way, and rooted deeply in the shoujo tradition (whatever that may be) and to be honest that seems to be exactly what the series managed to do, it explores a mundane concept as birth in a new and interesting way, by creating a little protected garden where the individuals who have been conceived in the real world are given a period (I guess about 9month in our world time, though it may be a lifetime for the students) to develop and prepare for real life, a sort of semi-life that is a ghost of what could take place in their future lives. And since life’s full of troubles and obstacles that one must learn to overcome or live with, they’re each given a chance to overcome obstacles (a sort of trial) before they graduate. Mashiro’s trial is their gender, since it seems that only one of them where intended to survive (no matter if the fire had happened or not) and for that they didn’t need a past, Kureha, Sou and most of the other student are given a past (event) that they have to overcome (i.e. their parents, the society exist for their sake. When a child is conceived in the real world a pair of parents/friends are conjured in the pre-world just for them)

    And that is a way of looking of ASN that I believe is worth a nomination, because it gives a possible, entertaining answer to what an infant’s subconscious is doing in those long nine months (I’ve always imagined that it must be a pretty boring wait, so why not spend their time on some brain activity that prepares them for what is to come) and to be honest there’s an immense amount of entertainment to be gained out of the last part of the series, because Mizushiro have a nice grip on how a bunch of teenagers in a protected environment behave around each other, the angst, the selfishness, the drama, the slow maturing process, the slow realization that life is more than just you, the emotional insight, the cruelty (I’ve still have a hard time understanding why Mashiro tells the black knight that she really loved him after all, but maybe I’ll understand it next time I reread the series) and much more.

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  7. And then there’s the series’ bittersweet life lesson that an end is just another beginning, that goodbyes don’t necessary last forever, that to gain something you’ll lose something and vice versa, that taking responsibility and being able to make decisions is a part of growing up, and that death is just another important aspect of life.

    But that’s life, and you can’t be lucky every time you pick up a story. And some stories just won’t suit your tastes. To your last line, “The payoff in the end, no matter how good the setup was, just isn't worth it,” I wrote this looooong comment in order to see how different approaches to a series resulted in different conclusions and your last line support that presumption. Because “The Setup” and the “Pre-expectations” influence strongly how a reader reacts on the outcome of the story, which forces me to ask you, since I’m tired of presuming and guessing and have become rather curious. What were your expectations of ASN before you began reading the series? And did they change as you progressed through the story? What ending did you wish for? And precisely where did you pin the series’ genre before you read it, while you read it and after you’ve finished it? What payoff were you waiting for, and did you adjust those expectations for payoffs as the focus shifted from the after school classes to the characters and the student life?

    Sonnes

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  8. WOW LONG REPLY.

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  9. Cripes, that's longer than the freakin' review itself.

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