Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Futaba-kun Change
by Jason Thompson, Oct 21st 2010
Episode XV: Futaba-kun Change!
"I feel charming
Oh so charming
It's alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real."
—"I Feel Pretty," West Side Story
How many cross-dressers got their inspiration from anime and manga? I have fond memories of a dude dressed as Rei Ayanami at FanimeCon many years ago. "So, still cross-dressing?" his friend came over and teased him. "Yep," he replied. In his voice, I wasn't sure whether I detected a note of That's 'cause I'm queer and I'm not ready to tell you yet or Please leave me alone, I just really love Evangelion or You're just jealous that you don't look this good in a blue wig. Of course the term "gender-bending" covers a wide range of behavior, and it'd take too much text for this column to debate whether it's genetics or environmental factors that lead a woman to dress up as L from Death Note or a man to dress up as Fay Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. But one of the ways that manga and anime have changed fandom is making gender play more acceptable; compared to the black-and-white gender divisions in American comics and animation, where men are men and women are women, manga and anime are overflowing with transvestites, transsexuals, shapechangers and ambiguously gendered (and usually beautiful) folk. It's a far cry from the old "Pat" Saturday Night Live skits, in which being of uncertain gender was the most unsexy thing the SNL writers could think of.
Not that that all this gender-bending manga is intended as some political statement, or even that it's progressive at all. There's hundreds of manga like Hana-Kimi and Kaze Hikaru where the main character crossdresses just for purposes of disguise, and has no desire to actually become the opposite gender. (Of course, there are other "woman in men's clothing" manga which are more arguably queer, such as the famous The Rose of Versailles.) There are tons of manga about people switching gender through some kind of magical fantasy method, but I can hardly think of any manga with real, medical transsexuals, except for The Day of Revolution, which is basically just a Boys Love manga in drag. (The plot: girlish guy transitions into a girl, and all his/her former guy friends immediately hit on him.) Very often, sex-changing and cross-dressing manga are just an exploration of a fetish (i.e. Yubisaki Milk Tea), or worse, just an excuse to peep inside the girl's locker room to see as much nudity as possible (i.e. Gacha Gacha: The Next Revolution). And of course, much of it plays on the forbidden sexiness of blurring gender boundaries, an anime/manga fetish which has found fertile soil in the U.S. (unlike, say, lolicon and incest fetishes, which Americans are still totally creeped out by).
Other sex-changing manga follow the advice of the old comedian's line, "Bisexuality instantly doubles your chances of a date on a Saturday night." The classic example is Rumiko Takahashi's martial arts/gender-bending manga Ranma ½, where the main character changes genders mostly just so every possible character in the series can have a crush on him/her. But just like the girl in Hana-Kimi never really *wants* to be a guy (and in fact, does a totally crappy job of passing as one -- if I was in that school, I would have outed her in thirty seconds), Ranma in Ranma ½ never actually *wants* to be a girl. Like the partially-transitioned-against-his-will Rando in Pretty Face, Ranma is all boy at heart. Men mack on him, but he never considers taking them up on their offer. Nor is he what you'd call a lesbian. Ranma and Rando's gender-bending basically boils down to two things: (1) male readers get to see an extra pair of breasts and (2) female readers get to see a character who looks like a girl kicking the asses of annoying men.
Futaba-kun Change! is one of those rare manga that goes the extra mile, as if Miki in Hana-Kimi started packing heat, or Ranma or Rando said "Hmm…maybe I do want to make out with this dude." Translated years ago by the now-defunct Studio Ironcat, the manga publisher with the worst logo ever, it is 8 volumes of sex-changing mayhem. The translation is sometimes sketchy ("Because of me, you exposed your private part!") and the scan quality even more so. But for sheer craziness, and love of its subject matter, it's hard to beat.
Futaba, a member of the school wrestling team, isn't the kind of guy you'd think would transform into a woman. He isn't bishonen at all; with his shirt off, he has the beefy body of an action figure; and when his comrades on the wrestling team loan him a porn magazine, he takes it straight to the school bathroom. ("Porn should be shared with friends! This will tighten the bonds of our whole wrestling team! Take this home and enjoy it! And don't stain it up!") But he's got an innocent heart deep down, and when he's alone with those forbidden pages (on a side note-- man, porn on printed paper, what an '80s artifact) he finds himself thinking of his classmate Misaki. ("Could Misaki be like this too?") Getting too excited, he passes out, and wakes up to find that has transformed into a hot girl with green hair (well, at least I'm assuming it's green from the cover artwork).
As he is incredulously checking out his new body, he is interrupted by the return of the wrestling team, who are freaked out to see a girl in the boy's restroom. Futaba somehow escapes from his former teammates, who are impressed by his/her judo skills and vow to find the mysterious girl and get her to join the wrestling team. After awhile, he changes back into a boy. He returns home and 'experiments' with the adult magazine again, discovering that, whenever those turbulent hormones of arousal flood into his system, he transforms into a woman. When he is caught in the act by his big sister, he is initiated into the family secret: everyone in his family can change their sex. Even his father, an old man with a mustache, lives a secret double life as an actress. They welcome Futaba into the family by fixing him red beans and rice (traditionally fixed for girls in Japan on the day that they "transform into women") as his loving dad tells him, "I was the one who gave birth to you!"
A less courageous protagonist might resist the change, might try to seek some cure. But Futaba, despite numerous little freakouts, tries to roll with the punches of biology. With his sister's help, he enrolls in school as a girl as well as a boy, using the same name, Futaba-chan instead of Futaba-kun. He finds that he likes being the center of attention, shopping for underwear, and other girly stuff. When he's a guy, on the other hand, he is a burly wrestler, so it's like he gets the extreme sides of the male and female high school experience. His one worry is that Misaki, the girl he likes, won't go for him when she finds out that he is half female. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Misaki likes Futaba-kun too, but she is confused when the mysterious girl Futaba-chan shows up in class. Who is she, and why does she know so much about Futaba-kun? Futaba-chan, Futaba-kun and Misaki end up in all kinds of manga rom-com hijinks, such as the old "locked in the gym storage shed together" scene, and the old "hiding under the blankets in the school infirmary together." Then in volume 2 all the school clubs get in a competition to see which club Futaba-chan will join, and the story turns into a comedy battle manga, with sumo wrestlers , superheroes and martial artists slugging it out. Misaki joins the battle too, vowing to save her new friend Futaba-chan from the clutches of all those evil guys.
Luckily, it doesn't degenerate into a fighting manga, and soon it's back to the bedroom and the bathroom for more gender-oriented hijinks. In an interview with the defunct Animerica magazine, Hiroshi Aro admitted outright that he created Futaba-kun Change! as his version of Ranma ½ (just as Aro's boarding-house comedy Yuu & Mi was his version of Maison Ikkoku). Specifically, Aro said, he always wished that Takahashi had gone the extra mile and actually talked about the experiences of a man discovering what it was really like to be a woman. Y'know…the private stuff. This is not a particularly tasteful manga, and although the art is more funny than sexy, it is full of sex jokes and shots of women from various extreme camera angles. You can sense the tone by Futaba's family name, Shimeru, a pun on the word "shemale." Futaba-chan spends a fair amount of time trying on clothes and poking and prodding him/herself to see what happens, and there are so many suggestive 16-and-up-rated bathroom scenes, you almost want to shout at the characters "GET OUT OF THE BATHROOM" like in this educational pamphlet intended for morally upstanding teenagers. (It's always weird for me to read manga in which the characters masturbate. I mean, the readers, sure.)
The idea of having sexual turn-ons trigger Futaba's transformations, rather than some random thing like sneezing or hot water or a magic spell, is Futaba-kun Change!'s most simple and clever idea. ("I feel a transformation starting! I'm getting too excited!") It makes one question how he's ever going to have a 'normal' sex life, but luckily Futaba himself doesn't seem to mind. Instead, Futaba develops a polymorphously perverse attitude towards life, as he falls deeper in love with Misaki, but remains sorta open to the idea of other experiences. When men ask him out, he doesn't say yes, but he isn't grossed out or repulsed. ("He asked me out! I don't know what to say…but I'm a little flattered…I'm so confused!") Becoming a woman is an opportunity to feel 'vulnerable' in a good way, to blush and be emotional, to open up his heart to all those shimmering screentone patterns that you see in shojo manga. Not to mention showing off his/her body; s/he may wear gym clothes most of the time at school, but give him/her a dress and she's almost exhibitionistic. It's a male fantasy of all the good parts of being female. The negative aspects, like sexism, are generally downplayed or played for laughs; in the story's most questionable chapter, Misaki gets groped on the subway and complains to her friend, whose first question is "How did it feel? Did it feel good?" When Futaba-chan gets groped by the same subway stalker, s/he feels a combination of "embarrassment and pride," the pride part being because she's hot enough to get molested.
Then, midway through the series, Futaba-kun Change! takes an even stranger turn. Misaki receives a blood transfusion from Futaba, and she starts transforming into a man. She is bewildered and shocked, and afraid that Futaba-kun won't like her. But soon the two of them discover each other's secrets, and they admit their love, becoming a match made in heaven. Misaki even starts to find herself attracted to the female Futaba. ("When Futaba-kun changes, he's even sexier than a real girl.") As is typical for a work produced for and by presumably straight men, although lesbianism is portrayed as sexy, male homosexuality is played more for laughs, in the character of Mr. Sabuyama, Futaba's homeroom teacher, a stereotypical women-hating homosexual. ("I am a friend to all the bright young males here! What I like is steamy male relationships!") But regardless of the cheesy stereotypes and trivialization of sexual harassment, the overall message of the manga is that, when it comes to love, it's all good, gender and sexual orientation be damned.
Hiroshi Aro, a former assistant to venerable comedy mangaka Osamu Akimoto (Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kôen-mae Hashutsujo), is known by his fans for two seemingly contradictory traits. One is his wackiness. Futaba-kun Change! is crawling with weird stuff, crazy facial expressions, and nonsensical characters. Futaba's wrestling team classmates are all freaks, as are the entire school faculty: the school principal is a superhero; the P.E. teacher is an ex-mercenary who uses land mines in a folk dancing exercise; and the school doctors are twin mad scientists, one good and one evil. Nothing ever happens without characters' eyes bulging out of their heads and engaging in extreme physical comedy violence; in the first volume, in order to find the mysterious girl in school, Futaba's wrestling teammates tie a rope around him and hang him off the roof to peep into the classes through the windows, but the rope slips and he crashes through the window and rolls through the school in a spray of glass. It is a silly manga, and at times, when a giant carnivorous plant is fighting a giant bio-boosted muscle suit and busting the school apart, it seems like the gender-bending might get lost in the confusion.
But luckily, Aro's other defining trait is that his manga always have good endings. Rumiko Takahashi ended Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½ without resolving their romantic triangles, but Aro's characters struggle and fumble their way into an actual relationship. Futaba and Misaki confess their love for one another and start going out, as Futaba drifts away from wrestling towards a lucrative career as an actress. When (in a typical shojo manga plot) the script calls for Futaba-chan the actress to kiss a guy, she and Misaki kiss and kiss and kiss so neither of them will be jealous, and then Futaba-chan surprises everyone by kissing her male costar in a passionate "I'm on top" embrace instead of a wimpy receiving kiss. Giant plants and wrestling tournaments aside, this kind of cute, sweet story arc is the best that Futaba-kun Change! has to offer. And yet it also delivers the crazy; in the final volume, an alien spaceship lands and Futaba discovers that he and his whole family are actually aliens. Earth welcomes the aliens and a new golden age of hermaphroditism begins.
I've been using terms like queer, transvestite, crossdresser and transsexual pretty loosely in this article, so let me be clear: Futaba-kun Change! is a sci-fi wrestling comedy manga about hermaphrodites in love. I often wonder what actual transsexuals or gender-queer people think about these sort of manga and anime. Of course, some of them probably think of them as insulting; I'm thinking of the many trans folk who were outraged by Erika Moen's IMHO totally inoffensive diary webcomic in which she said "Trans men are hot". But for some manga and anime fans, fantasy gender play can lead to real lifestyle changes: I've known fans who have fully transitioned, and I've known fans who have flirted with crossdressing and similar behaviors then eventually settled down into a gender-normative life (whether straight or gay). And for others, exoticizing in a 'positive' way can be a tentative first step away from prejudice, like white anime fans who start out as shameless weeaboo Japanophiles and eventually end up simply seeing Japanese people as, well, humans. Futaba-kun Change!, like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, is silly and trashy but basically queer-positive, expressing the view that transsexuals are freaky space aliens, but more importantly they're AWESOME. That outlook may not do much for most real trans people, but for others starved for any portrayal of people outside of the binary two genders, manga may play a—pardon the pun—transitional role.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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