Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Moon Child

by Jason Thompson, Oct 3rd 2013

Episode CLIX: Moon Child

shotacon (noun): a Japanese slang portmanteau of the phrase "Shotarô Complex," it describes an adult's attraction to young boys. The gender-reversed version of "Lolita Complex."

Moon Child is a shojo science fiction version of—and sequel to—The Little Mermaid. It'sfull of handsome men and weird sci-fi imagery, and although it doesn't have a lot of sex or nudity, it's much kinkier than the scene in the Disney version when she's walking around on the beach with no pants. CMX translated the entire 13-volume series, which originally ran in Japan from 1989 to 1993. I promise this is the last time (for awhile) I'll review a 1980s shojo manga set in New York.

Art Gile is a 22-year-old dancer trying to make a living in New York City, recovering from a bad phase that set back his dancing career. He likes to take in stray cats and birds, and one day, when he's driving, he narrowly avoids running over a little boy in a suit. The boy has amnesia, and since he doesn't seem to have anywhere else to go, Art takes him in. (He has to talk to the authorities first, so there's at least a nod to realism.) "Jimmy" (as Art names him) is a carefree young thing who loves chocolate cake, hamburgers and party poppers, although his suit and tie is always immaculate. Jimmy quickly becomes attached to Art; as one character puts it, he seems to imprint on him like a newborn chick. When he's not wandering the city with a youthful sense of wonder like a better-dressed Yotsuba&!, Jimmy mostly hangs out around the apartment, cooking for Art, waiting for him to get home, asking him how his day went.

Lest you think this immediately turns into a Boy's Love scenario, Art is still pining away for his ex, Holly. (He says her name in his sleep.) Sadly, Holly is, there's no other way to put it, a total bitch, who toys with Art's affections and keeps crossing his path since they're both in the same career. ("I actually like being envied. The more I'm envied, the more I bathe in a feeling of superiority.") Jimmy, for his part, actually tries to help set Art up with Holly at first, because he just wants Art to be happy. Until the spirits start appearing and the objects start floating off the shelves, and Jimmy starts to remember who he really is.

The first surprise: Jimmy has psychic powers. He can use telekinesis, and wherever he goes, supernatural phenomena follows: visions of ghostly monsters, like lizard-creatures and giant fish floating through the New York streets. In addition to monsters, Jimmy and Art find themselves stalked by two creepy twins, who look just like older versions of Jimmy. From the twins, Jimmy learns the second surprise: he isn't human. He is a "mermaid," one of a race of aliens who swim through space, like salmon, always returning to the same planet to spawn. Every few hundred years, they come back to Earth to seek a mate before traveling out into the sea of stars once again.

Shonach is another mermaid. Having last been on Earth 600 years ago, he's disappointed to find it's gone through the Industrial Era and become polluted and crowded since his last visit. He meets up with the other mermaids, who meet in secret like members of a religious cult, or perhaps more like a speed-dating meetup. But this time, there is alarming news: "grandma," the oldest mermaid and the only one with prophetic powers, has foretold that a terrible disaster will befall the planet Earth unless Shonach mates with the mermaid named "Benjamin." (Reiko Shimizu is apparently unaware or doesn't care that this is a boy's name, but anyway.) "Benjamin" is the daughter of Seira, the mermaid who fell in love with a human in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. In Moon Child, like in Andersen's original, things ended badly for the couple, and their daughter "Benjamin," a half-human, half-mermaid, was raised in secret on the dark side of the moon. The future of both humans and mermaids seems to depend on her finding the right mate, but no one knows where "Benjamin", and her two twin sisters, are.

The reader doesn't know, either, until the night when Jimmy suddenly transforms from a little boy into a beautiful adult woman. Yes: Jimmy is Benjamin! Jimmy is so shocked, s/he runs naked out of Art's apartment, like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. Her/his twin sisters/brothers, Seth and Teruto, tell him/her the truth: they and Jimmy are hermaphrodites, like clownfish, who become female when it is time to mate. Furthermore, only one of the three of them can be female at a time: till then, the others will remain in the form of genderless pseudo-boys. Jimmy doesn't want any of it. "I don't want to become a beautiful woman! I'll stay like I am, and live with Art!" If that wasn't bad enough, like the original Little Mermaid, Jimmy is mute in his/her woman-form, so he can't tell Art his secret even if he wanted to.

And that's when Jimmy meets Shonach, who unlike Art, is totally aware of Jimmy's dual nature…and who falls in love with Jimmy, male and female, at first sight. Thus begins a love triangle between Shonach, Art and two versions of Jimmy, male and female (although the male and female sides are the same person in all but appearance). The image of two grown men obsessing over a twelve-year-old boy is certainly fanservice for shota fans, and oddly reminds me of the various guest stars competing for Chris Kattan's affections in the Mango sketches on Saturday Night Live. Most of the human characters in the manga think it's pretty skeevy too. (Holly: "Did you get interested in little boys while I was gone?") To be fair to Art, he's not especially into little boys; it's the sexy naked woman he saw running out of his apartment that really gets him interested. And yet, as one character ponders, "Why are there so many obstacles to Benjamin's love? Perhaps he's being tested to see if Art will love Benjamin just as he is…a child." Or: "Maybe you can only see her as a cute little girl. But to me, she's a woman. In your heart, you've decided she's only a child, that's why you can't see how beautiful she is."

This, based on your tastes, totally delicious and/or totally inappropriate romance is at the core of Moon Child, one of the greatest oldschool shojo sci-fi manga. Reiko Shimizu, the creator, specializes in science fiction. Her storytelling is great, and her art is amazing; the New York skylines look crisp and realistic, the characters are appropriately bishi, and the spirit-monsters look scary and weird. She's even good with the characters' body language, from Art's dramatic ballet poses to the more subtle feat of capturing a character's personality in their posture. (Such as with Rita, the shy 6'3" governess who becomes a major character in the second half of the series.) Apparently a glutton for detail, she fills the extra pages between the chapters by drawing the characters in elaborate costumes from the 18th century and before.

Moon Child isn't technically shota (tho' it's shota-servicey enough that I'm not ashamed of starting this article with a quote about it) since Jimmy is technically a boyish-looking girl, or an androgyne, not a boy. The closest analogue to Jimmy's situation may be They Were Eleven, which also involves a race of aliens who switch gender as they grow up, although it doesn't involve the same "now I have breasts/now I don't/now I do" ageplay. There's other differences, too. Frol in They Were Eleven wants to grow up to become a man (in Frol's mind: macho, masculine) so s/he can avoid the sexist roles society prescribes for women. But Jimmy/Benjamin in Moon Child doesn't want to grow up at all; s/he wants to remain in an immature, presexual state, which merely happens to look boylike. At one point Noera, a female mermaid who loves Shonach, gets angry with Jimmy for dithering: "You're a coward! You could be a wonderful woman…yet you still spend all your time acting like a know-nothing, helpless child!" Both manga are metaphors for growing up and accepting one's (sexual) identity as an adult, but the different characters (and authors, of course) make for a very different feel.

Love (both romantic and fraternal) is the core of Moon Child, but there's more at stake than broken hearts. Seth and Teruto, the creepy twins, have mixed feelings of love and hate for their brother/sister, since they themselves (like second and third children unable to claim the eldest child's inheritance) cannot become 'women' unless Jimmy is dead. ("Having been born into this world, I have no intention of passing away my life as Benjamin's 'spare.'") To save Seth from dying of a disease, Teruto makes a deal with an alien creature, the analogue to the Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid, who promises to heal Seth if Teruto will commit a terrible deed. Soon, the world is careening towards doom, with the Book of Revelations, volcanic eruptions, pollution and the Chernobyl disaster all forming part of the tapestry of impending destruction. The introduction of a new batch of characters in volume 5 also keeps things interesting.

Moon Child is so great, I wish someone would translate Shimizu's Kaguyahime (her longest series at 27 volumes) or Himitsu - Top Secret (her current ongoing series, and her only one made into an anime series…but even the anime hasn't been translated as far as I can tell). One of the only flaws of Moon Child is in the art: "grandma," the leader of the mermaids, is drawn as a grotesque caricature of an African women with a neck ring and enormous lips and eyes. Since "grandma" is a good guy and since Shimizu draws other African-American characters realistically, presumably she drew her this way as a one-off artistic choice rather than reflecting any personal prejudice, but it's still something potential readers should be aware of. Despite the outdated visual stereotypes, this series may be even better than Please Save My Earth in how it balances science fiction ideas, romance and drama. Plus, it's much yaoi-er than Please Save My Earth.


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