Otomen Volume 1
Asuka is a manly boy — kendo (swordfighting) champion, judo and karate expert — who secretly loves “the fluffy, the sparkling, the cute, the sweet. Cooking, sewing, love stories.” He needs to keep his stereotypically feminine interests secret in order to protect his image.
The idea of a lead character who has to hide his true feelings is symbolic. It’s something a lot of teen readers can relate to, at a time when their outer projection is often at odds with how they feel inside. His fixation on self-control makes him human; the harder he tries to hide, the more powerful the identification and sympathy.
Asuka falls in love at first sight with the outgoing Ryo, who’s incapable of doing the girly things he’s so good at. In addition to being afraid of her response, being in love makes him want to indulge his inner self, a permission he won’t allow himself.
Now, I was already interested, just based on these characters, but where Otomen really got intriguing is with the introduction of Juta. At first, it seems like he’s going to be a rival for Ryo’s affections, a real threat since he’s not afraid to be totally himself. He’s also known as a player, so Asuka is motivated to be with Ryo in part to protect her from being hurt by Juta.
Soon, the three wind up bonding over Asuka’s yummy bento lunches. (Food so often is a carrier for love.) As he says, “I didn’t know cooking for someone you like could be this fun.” And who doesn’t love a guy who cooks?
But the real secret is that everyone reads the hot shojo manga Love Chick. Which is written by Juta, under a female pen-name, based on his observations of Asuka and Ryo. Only Asuka is written as the heroine of the book. It’s another example of role reversal, of people acting as other than they’re thought to be. It also provides a fascinating level of commentary, as Juta wants to help the two get together not just because they’re friends, but also to help his story along.
The art by Aya Kanno is well-suited to the story, emotional and atmospheric. A particular favorite moment of mine was one small panel where Asuka is soaking in a tub, thinking about his feelings for Ryo. He looks so relaxed yet bashful. The sequence where the two first hold hands is also impressive, all the more so for being silent fragments of images
The core conflict is universal: Asuka doesn’t want to lie about who he is to the girl he likes, but she says she wants someone masculine. Does he dare risk her rejection of his real self, or should he keep pretending to be someone else to be with her?
The thing that’s most worth recommending about this series, though, is that, for all the gender role switching, I never get the feeling that the characters are wrong for being non-typical. Some stories with similar premises want to reiterate how women and men should act, restricting their roles to the standard. Here, it seems ok that Asuka and Ryo aren’t “normal”, because they suit each other perfectly well.
It’s also interesting to note that the strong rules about what boys “should” be come from the parents, an older generation, not his peers. You can’t have love without acceptance, and the younger characters are more understanding of difference.