Despite a wide spectrum of sex and gender representations in Japanese manga, serious approaches to the transsexual identity and struggle are extremely rare — so much that I can count the examples I can think of on one hand. Transsexual characters are technically bountiful, but only in very specific categories of fantasy. I’ll explain why these categories of characters don’t constitue a legitimate examination of a transsexual identity (ie, an experience that transsexuals can identify with or relate to), and then review that handful of titles that do.
For conciseness, I’ve reviewed only manga and not animé, and I have not included any underground, alternative, or non-published manga, as it falls outside of my realm of experience (see end notes/calls for contribution.)
Categories of Fantasy Transsexual Narratives
The Unwilling Supernatural Sex Change
One of the most common transsexual themes in manga involves a character who has unwillingly had their sex changed through magical means. This is either used as a plot driver, a comedic element, or both. Ranma 1/2 is probably the pinnacle of this theme, where the titular Ranma changes from boy to girl when splashed with water. These kinds of characters clearly identify with their birth sex, and will feminize or masculinize themselves grudgingly in order to survive long enough to reverse the process. These characters never identify as transsexuals (though you could argue they are in the sense that their new sex does not match the identity of their original sex, I suppose,) and so do not represent a person who is experiencing the process of transition or trans identity. Other examples include Futaba-Kun Change! and Cheeky Angel.
Another prolific theme is the girl who dresses and lives as a boy– with the very clear caveat that they never abandon their “true” identity as a female. This is not necessarily negative, though. Most recognizable from this group is Utena (Shoujo Kakumei Utena), the girl who dresses and “acts” like a boy to emulate her ideal of the Prince. However, Utena never identifies as a male. She doesn’t reject her femininity, but rather embraces the performance of the opposite gender without abandoning her sex. Lady Oscar from Rose of Versailles is the predecessor of Utena in theme and style, living life in a man’s role but never as a man. And Princess Sapphire (Ribon no Kishi) comes before even all of them. This theme avoids addressing a transsexual identity because “it’s okay, they’re really female after all.” They are interesting portraits of transvestitism, (and maybe transgenderism,) but never transsexuality.
Another widespread theme, and by far the most troublesome, is this: “A man pretending to be a woman.” This is the best umbrella I could come up with for all of these discouraging depictions– the okama (a man dressing up as a woman for entertainment or hobby, often a comedic character), the new half (or futanari, a person with male genetalia, with or without breasts who dresses like a female, and exists almost always a sexual object) and the “Trap” (just typing the term fills me with rage, this is a man who passes as a woman, and will either [a.] be depicted as sneaky and trying to “fool” men into bedding them or [b.] legitimately trying to be female but being met with scorn and derision when “caught.”)
The curious thing about this theme is, however, that these are actual Japanese identities, and that they are illegitimized as badly in real life as they are in manga. While there are Okama and New Half bars, which employ those people as hosts, they are not respected– they are relegated to entertainment or sexual service, and, many times, both. (A significantly more legitimate discourse on these identities, and the identity of gay men in Japan, can and should be read in Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan by Mark J McLelland.) Okama are visible in many anime, including Ouran High School Host Club and One Piece. New Half are sprinkled intermittently too ( Kizuna, any “futanari porn”) as well as the *shudder* Traps (Gankutsuo, Princess Princess, Fushigi Yuugi, the list is endless.) But since these characters are understood as “faking” it (whether their desire to pass as female is genuine or not) they are not granted a transsexual identity, and exist instead as entertainers, stereotypes, and threats.
To be clear, I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying the okama, etc, are not legitimate transsexual identities (they are, in real life!), but they are not depicted as legitimate transsexual identites in manga (with the exception of the listings below!)
Legitimate Transsexual Identities
Below, I’ve compiled a few review of series that deal with the transsexual identity in a realistic way. They don’t involve magic, they are respectful, and are often brutal in their honesty. Like many transgendered stories, they often lean melancholy, but above all, they are stories that transsexuals can identify with.
I.S. is about intersexed individuals. (Intersexuality is the condition of being born neither male or female, per partial or abundant genetalia/hormones.) It seems to be an education piece more than an entertainment piece, meant to show different kinds of stories (intersexed kids, adults, parents with intersexed children, as well as those who chose to “pick” a sex, and those who embrace their otherness.) The art is not particularly good, but not quite so intolerable that it cannot be read. This title is unfortunately not available in English.
Wandering Son is a hit comic (recently rendered as an animé) that follows the story of a school-age transsexual boy and girl. It is a daily life narrative merged with the anguish of growing up a transsexual child. Shimura is known for exploring topics of sexuality (usually lesbianism) and this story treads new ground, depicting the legitimacy and sadness of transsexual youth. A particularly beautiful angle of the story is that the two youths befriend an adult transsexual woman who lives a happy life with her boyfriend, painting a happy picture of something that could be. The art is solid, though those used to action comics may find the slow, shoujo-style narrative tedious. It is heart-wrenching, and the story is ongoing, so we wait with baited breath to see if happy endings are in store. This manga is being printed in English by Fantagraphic Books.
After School Nightmare is often cited in the very short lists of manga with transsexual characters, but the content is and isn’t about transsexuality. It is a masterful work about an intersexed student named Mashiro, who is “male on top” and “female on the bottom.” In the story, Mashiro must take a mysterious “dream class” to graduate — and in the dream class, students look not like themselves, but like their “true” spirits. Mashiro is horrified to find that he is female in his dreams, and even more horrified when the other students see him as such. Someone who has experienced transphobic agressions may find this a very difficult read. While Mashiro’s girlfriend accepts him as male, his rival, Sou, constantly badgers him to “quit pretending to be a boy,” sometimes to levels of physical assault. I almost quit reading halfway through, for all that. But it is worth reading to the end. The story is actually a fantasy about something much greater, something complex and profound, that puts it high in the realm of quality manga. And as with all of Mizushiro’s work, the art is solid. After School Nightmare is out of print, but available in English second hand (amazon, ebay), released by Go! Comi.
Genshiken is the story of a group of college otaku (anime fanatic) and their college otaku club. It is a comedy and a real story of social others. In the second installment of the manga, Genshiken Nidaime, we meet Hato-san, a girl who is later discovered to “really be” a boy. As the series is ongoing, it is still unclear what Hato’s “true” gender identity is (transsexual, transvestite, other, ) but this is a plus, because in truth, Hato hirself isn’t sure what hir true identity is. Hato is learning and exploring hir gender otherness as we watch, and the struggle is particularly interesting because hir sexual identity is mixed in with hir social identity of “fujoshi/fudanshi” (a “rotten” person, referring to someone engrossed in slash literature,) and hir sexuality (gay, straight, or other?) Hato is so many “others,” it’s distressing. So far, Hato’s story has been treated with interesting realism and tact, though there are characters, as always, that repeatedly try to “convince him” to just live as his assigned birth sex. Genshiken Nidaime is not available in English, though it’s predecessor, Genshiken, is. And the art is excellent. (Edit: Kodansha has licenced Nidaime, and we can hopefully look forward to an English translation from them.)
Double House explores the identity of an okama as a legitimate transsexual. Maho may have to work as an entertainer, but her portrait is that of a woman fighting a constant stream of micro-agressions and assertions of her illegitimacy. In this very short, three-chapter story, she finds herself with an unexpected companion named Fujiko. Fujiko is a young woman rebelling against her status, expectations, and gender, and falling in love with Maho as the woman she is, and not the object she is expected to be. Their relationship is beautiful, and in the final story, we see a portrait of another okama, one who struggles with the additional burdens of sizeism and an unfulfillable desire to have children. The art is dated, but it holds up well, subtleties in the simplified style easily portray the spectrum of sexes. This title is, very unfortunately, not available in English.
(Technically Legitimate but Unreccomendable: Sazanami Cherry by Kamiyoshi: It is about a transsexual girl, but as a manga it is just so poor, I can’t possibly suggest anyone read it. Those immune to manga/moe tropes may find it cute, but I found it extraordinarily grating.)
Other works of mention that need perspectives:
Day of Revolution by Mikiyo Tsuda: If you’ve read this title and can give a perspective on the transsexual themes, please let me know! I have not read this manga. (Edit: Please see Erica’s Okazu review of Day of Revolution.)
Moyashimon by Masayuki Ishikawa: I’ve been told that later in the manga, the protagonist’s best friend leaves and returns as a female. I’m not clear whether she is a transvestite or transsexual, though I find bothersome the fact that she presents only as a gothic lolita. If you have read this manga to the point where Kei returns as a female, and can give a perspective on the transsexual themes, please let me know!
Kashimashi! Girl Meets Girl by Satoru Akahori/Yukimaru Katsura: This one initially falls into the category of “Unwilling Magical Transsexuality,” but since I did not finish reading it, I’m not sure to what extent the protagonist embraces a transsexual identity and/or whether she experiences difficulties because of it. If anyone can weigh in on it, please do. (Edit: Commenters have suggested this may not qualify as a queer book, but again Erica from Okazu has comprehensively reviewed it.)
Also, as mentioned above, if anyone can provide perspectives on any underground, alternative, or non-published manga that deals with transsexual themes, please contact me or point us in the direction of resources about them.
As a final disclaimer, I’ve compiled this entry because I found a lack of any kind of comprehensive English-language review of transsexual identities in manga. I am no scholar in the field, but I am a transgendered manga-lover who seeks to be as informed as possible about gender representations in Japanese comics. I am aware that whole concept of a sexual identity is very different (and in fact very new, and very imported) in Japan than it is in the United States, and I seek to be considerate of that in my writing.
Please share any and all thoughts and recommendations.