Before Pokémon in Toys-R-Us and Naruto in Wal-Mart, before manga was all about selling stuff to 14-year-olds, there was a time when anime and manga were all about sexual degeneracy.
Of course, America is just as infested as Japan is with weird pornography, impreg fanfic and “secret baby” romance novels. But what manga does have, which American publishers shy away from, is a willingness to deal with kinky themes in stories intended for a teenage audience. And occasionally, as is the case with the best magical realism and fantasy, the world of fanservice cooks up an idea so bizarre and yet so true, you can’t forget it. Never mind all the “she looks 12 years old, but she’s actually 25" love interest girls in men’s romantic comedy manga, and the “I’ve been waiting all my life to protect you and be your boyfriend” love interests in girls’ manga. Here are some manga which bring something original to the bedside table.
1. Futaba-kun Change
Titillating manga about gender-switching characters are a dime a dozen, but most of them are really heteronormative as hell. Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2, for example, the macho main character hates the “curse” of transforming into the opposite sex, and in a typical shojo crossdressing manga (like Hisaya Nakajo’s Hana-Kimi), pretending to be a man is just a sort of rite of passage, an obstacle that the character has to get through in order to find true love or “real” womanhood. A shining exception to the rule is Hiroshi Aro’s Futaba-kun Change, a manga which could have been written by Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien.
In Futaba-kun Change, the hero, Futaba, discovers that he turns into a woman when sexually aroused. It gets wilder: his whole family are actually hermaphrodites, his “mother” is his manly mustachioed dad, and in the end we discover that the hermaphrodites are actually advanced alien life forms from another planet who come out of the closet and usher humanity into a new age of acceptance.
But it’s the fact that Futaba changes when aroused, not when water is splashed on him or some other nonsense explanation (and there is plenty of nonsense in this silly manga), that makes the series so joyfully homonormative; it’s like saying that, whatever he looks like outside of bed, when the pants are off he’s a woman.
When you’re a neurotic virgin, no gulf between others seems as important as whether they’ve had sex or not. Sometimes it feels like there’s a giant red sign blinking on and off above your head, saying “VIRGIN.” Yun Kouga’s manga Loveless isn’t strictly about virginity; it’s an emo mystery/action manga where people wear chains linking them to a “partner” and pair up for magical battles. But the innocence and nervousness of the 12-year-old main character, Ritsuka, is reflected by an aspect of his character design: he has cat ears and a tail, like every other virgin in his world. This one little detail not only validates the otherwise throw-the-book-across-the-room catboy character designs, it instantly tells us something important about every character we meet. Who has had sex? Who hasn’t? Just look for the cat ears! This sure would have been useful in high school.
Forget Steve Carell’s sweet 40-year-old virgin, finding true love and bland social approval after four decades of chastity and lead-miniature-painting. In the love comedy DT-Matic (“DT” stands for dôtei, “virgin”) by Takumi Ishikawa, keeping your virginity till the age of 30 doesn’t just make you a ripe target for sex-based socialization…it grants you magic powers! It’s the ultimate dream of everyone who ever fantasized that, by not getting laid, they were “saving it” for a place in heaven, Buddhahood or the free time to draw a really great webcomic.
But in keeping with its boob-filled pages, DT-Matic isn’t entirely about the mortification of the flesh: the magic-users recharge their magical powers by jerking off! And if they ever actually have real sex, they lose their powers forever! As the cover text says, “Do you believe in the power of magic?” The “if you make it to 30 without having sex, you’ll get magic powers” is an in-joke among otaku.
4. Revolutionary Girl Utena (and other women with swords)
Sword-and-sheath imagery has had sexual connotations for as long as there have been swords. Few people who have read or watched CLAMP’s X (or Chiho Saito’s Revolutionary Girl Utena, which borrowed the idea) can forget the scenes when a vulnerable female character arches her back in strange ecstasy, a weird light starts glowing, and…bam, a character pulls a sword out of her body!
X and Utena differ in one important aspect: in X getting the sword from the girl is an act of violation, a sort of reverse rape, but in Utena, the borrowed instrument jumps willingly and pleasurably into the hands of the woman’s chosen, the fairly obviously queer swordswoman Utena Tenjou. (Repeat after me: A dildo does not represent a penis.)
The sword symbolism ties Utena back to the grandmother of all women-in-girls’-clothing manga, Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles. For readers who don’t want to be anyone’s sheath, there’s Toya, the main character of Yuu Watase’s Ceres: Celestial Legend. Not only is Toya capable of generating a stiletto-like dagger from the flesh of his body (the length is fine, but the girth…meh), he’s eventually revealed to be an artificial human, a sort of projection created by the heroine’s subconscious powers. In other words, Toya, the love interest, really is too good to be real. At least he doesn’t need batteries.
5. Midori Days
This one isn’t really insightful, it’s just sick. Gloriously sick. In Kazurou Inoue’s Midori Days, badass high school student Seiji has a crush on his shy classmate, Midori. One day, Midori falls into a coma, and our hero wakes up to find…Midori’s miniaturized upper body growing out of the stump of his arm, like in Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo”! She has her own consciousness, too, and it turns out that she had a crush on him too and wished “to be close to him,” and you get what you wish for.
Neither of them are too comfortable with the arrangement, but soon they learn to live together, except that…Seiji is a healthy teenage boy…how is he supposed to masturbate when one of his arms is a teenage girl? Several chapters of this episodic comedy hinge on Seiji trying to wait for Midori to fall asleep so that he can use his other hand to masturbate to porn videos, and who could forget the scene when Midori gets shot with a glue gun and struggles with the mass of sticky substance? Oh, and this ran in a magazine for 14-year-olds!
“Invisible Manga” columnist Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide, manga editor of Otaku USA magazine, and the editor of numerous manga series. His graphic novel King of RPGs came out in January from Del Rey Manga.
Update, 4:17 p.m., May 5, 2020: This post has been updated to remove broken video embeds.