The Spring 2018 Manga Guide
What's It About?At the dawn of the 20th century in France, aristocrat Claudine has almost everything he could wish for: money, a kind and beloved father, a loving if concerned mother, three supportive elder brothers, and a future filled with education and promise.
However, he cannot get many people in his life—including his mother—to recognize him as a man since he was assigned female at birth. She takes him to see a doctor, who narrates the story of this remarkable young man and the trials and tribulations he faces in his pursuit of romance. The women Claudine falls for each change him irrevocably in different ways, culminating in tragedy he can never come back from.
Is It Worth Reading?Amy McNulty
Ikeda's influence on the beautiful art style and melodrama that eventually came to define the shojo genre is evident all over this one-shot volume of manga, as is the impact her work made in largely positive LGBT representation in the genre. Still, it can be difficult to view it through a modern lens and push any problematic aspects aside. Even so, though the translation (and, presumably the original version, though with gender being less central to the Japanese language, perhaps not) continually refers to Claudine as a “she” and a “woman,” it makes the manga feel more realistic, especially considering the historical setting. I would even argue that continually-rejected suitor Rosemarie's casual and determined references to Claudine as a man and “he” at the end are more powerful because not even Claudine's doctor in the narration referred to him as such, despite his understanding of Claudine's gender dysphoria. It's also refreshing to see Claudine's father regard him as his most prized son, and though his mother is concerned, she doesn't act as much of an antagonist. Rosemarie, the young, rich woman in love with Claudine from an early age, is perhaps the closest this volume has to an antagonist, as she continually tries to interfere with Claudine's love life, thinking that freeing him up will lead him back to her, though Claudine never seems to show more than the slightest of affection for her as a friend.
The gender dynamics aside, Claudine's story feels rushed confined to a single volume, as there's hardly any time to feel him fall in love with not one, but three different women. The closest to a satisfying relationship we get on the page is his first love for the servant girl Maura, broken up by his parents because of the disparity in their ranks and the fact that, despite the family largely accepting Claudine's true nature by then, he still cannot wed a woman. His infatuation with older woman Cécilia is surface-deep and ends in a bizarre, over-the-top moment of melodrama. However, the relationship that suffers the most is his dalliance with Sirène, supposedly the greatest love of his life. They live together and Sirène returns his affections, but the reader is never given a sense of what's so special about her (Maura accepted Claudine as well) before her affections turn elsewhere, they break apart, and Claudine is left devastated and lost. The tragic ending is in line with the melodrama on the page but also feels forced because that love with Sirène was so lacking and Claudine seemed so self-assured until that moment. It's also triggering to people who suffer from depression and/or dysphoria, so readers should be aware of that and realize this manga is several decades old and may have been one of the earliest to feature a transgender person, and thus it's no surprise that it contains outdated tropes in the genre.
Little can be said about Ikeda's art that hasn't been said already. Large, beautiful eyes and fanciful attire bring life to these characters caught up in love and tragedy, and the finely detailed background art is often similar to architectural drawings. There's a reason why shojo mangaka in the decades since have emulated this kind of style—it's iconic.
Claudine is a manga that The Rose of Versailles fans can appreciate, as will most anyone eager for LGBT+ manga that focuses on gender and romance. This classic tale would really be at home on any manga reader's shelf, and though brought down by melodrama and outdated tropes, it's important, too, that genre-defining stories such as this make their way to the West uncensored, so discerning readers can form a more rounded view of what's led to this moment in time and how we can appreciate what the past did right and learn from the past's mistakes.
Riyoko Ikeda's Claudine. First, just wow. I never thought I'd get the opportunity to read this in English. This is yet another stellar entry in Seven Seas' recent wave of titles focusing on LGBT folks, following up My Solo Exchange Diary and The Bride Was a Boy. Like the former, this manga stars an undeniably trans* character. This isn't subtext, or ambiguous writing like Naoko Takeuchi's early introduction of Haruka Tenoh in Sailor Moon. The first chapter sees our protagonist taken in to a psychiatrist as the young age of eight and stating, quite forth right, that he is definitely a boy and will become a man despite the fact that his body is biologically female. This forthrightness is unique for a genre that likes to stay in the “will they or won't they” category so often. On the other hand, Claudine has its own issues. Perhaps these should be expected when approaching a story about a trans man written in 1978. For all its raw, unapologetic drama and emotion, Claudine indulges in many of the same tragic gay-panic tropes as yuri manga from that time period, and that's not going to sit will with everyone.
As much of a man as Claudine's psychiatrist argues his patient to be, Claudine himself is never able to gain acceptance from his peers, lovers, or even his creator. His story is like many tragic yuri works from the time period, falling in suit with Shiroi Heya no Futari, where the only possible ending to a queer romance is one of utmost tragedy. Claudine identifying male doesn't change that the manga's narrative presentation is very much yuri. The content itself, while historically important, may not jive with readers looking for nuanced, empathetic representation. Claudine is misgendered throughout most of the book, possibly only openly accepted his psychiatrist and father. His lovers see him as a masculine woman and that's how his love live is treated: as a scandalous affair between two women.
The drama twists themselves, while clever, are soap opera fare. They happen mostly as a driving a force to push Claudine to the brink and justify his heart-wrenching ending. I can't fault Ikeda's beautiful artwork, especially during the story's most dramatic scenes, but this still isn't a story I'd recommend to anyone with sensitivity to trans* issues. It's a historically important piece of representative media, but it feels too wantonly dark. Claudine's fate was likely originally imagined as a shocking ending that left the reader with a yearning in their heart. Today, it feels like Claudine's ending is vulgarly reveling in an all too common statistic for real trans* people. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a product of Japan in 1978.
So this puts me in a difficult place, because I do think individuals should read Claudine for the precedents it set, even if its other aspects have not aged so well. It's a beautifully illustrated bit of romantic drama. But when engaged with outside of the time of its initial publication, Claudine doesn't quite hold up.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Claudine is the closest Riyoko Ikeda manga to The Rose of Versailles that Seven Seas could license, because on the surface, the 1978 title does look like Ikeda's more famous series of 1972. Once you read it, however, you can see that “on the surface” is the only way the two stories resemble each other – yes, both involve people born female in France who present as male to the outside world, but where Oscar is just that – presenting – Claudine is in fact a transgender man.
For a manga in 1978 to tackle this subject is impressive in and of itself, because there's not a lot of authors in 2018 who are trying, much less in a thoughtful way. Given the publication date, there are some outdated terms and unfortunate attitudes, but Claudine's story is still one that holds up despite them, sadly in some of the most tragic ways. Only one person truly sees Claudine for who he is, his childhood friend Rosemarie; everyone else thinks that he's either a confused woman, a girl with serious daddy issues, or (gasp) a lesbian. In the case of the third woman Claudine falls in love with, we get the impression that Sirène is experimenting with lesbianism until she meets a “real” man, and it is this particular betrayal that feels like the worst. Claudine was nothing but open with Sirène about who he was and what his body was, and Sirène appeared to accept him. This stands in contrast with Cécilia, the older woman he fell in love with, who was just using Claudine, and even with Maura, his first love who was really too innocent to know much about anything. Sirène fully knew what she was doing, and perhaps even suspected the consequences of her betrayal of Claudine, allowing her to live up to the promise of her given name.
The story takes place in the early twentieth century, basically the 1920s and 30s, judging by most of the costumes. (There are few rogue outfits from the late 70s that are a little jarring.) This choice is interesting because of the boyette styles of the period, when it was fashionable (or at least faddish) for women to dress as men. (Olive Byrne, one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman, was a boyette in college.) This may be part of the reason Ikeda chose to use the early 20th century as the setting for Claudine. Also a factor could be the narrator – a psychiatrist Claudine's mother takes him to when he begins to insist that he's a boy. Psychiatry as a field was certainly taking off during this time, allowing for the doctor's final statements about Claudine being unquestionably transgender to feel more “official.”
It's a shame that this is only one volume, because it's hard to appreciate the full scope of the story. Claudine's twenty-five years of life go by in just over one hundred pages, and though we can understand the tragedy and feel it as if it were someone we personally know, it doesn't have the impact of Ikeda's longer works. That's the only reason this is a 4 rather than a 5 – because even though the story takes place, as the narrator tells us, a long time ago, it's also one that's still happening today, even if it shouldn't be.
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