After School Nightmare, Volumes 1–9
written by Setona Mizushiro
Boy meets girl. Boy meets boy. Boy is pursued by both and struggles to choose between them.
Anyone who’s read a girls’ manga in the past few years can recognize the standard plot—play musical chairs with the genders, and you’ve got almost every romantic manga. After School Nightmare, in tone, depth, and style, stands above the crowd, though by twisting all of romance’s conventions, this tale is not for the teens who want a swoony romance like Miwa Ueda’s Papillon, but instead for those readers who like the grittier romances with a dangerous undercurrent, like Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate or Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, and enjoy the questions raised in Carol Plum Ucci’s What Happened to Lani Garver?
Our lead, Ichijou, is physically a boy and a girl, or as he thinks of it, a girl on bottom and a boy on top. Choosing the girl, fragile Kureha, means choosing to be the boy he was raised to be, with all the power, respect, and familiarity that implies, even if it means Ichijou must bury his blossoming feminine side. Choosing the boy, the fiery Sou, is far riskier and means a drastic change, a loss of status, and embracing a part of himself he barely understands.
Many manga play with gender swapping and characters of both or neither gender, but they also handily sidestep any actual psychological or emotional questions about gender identity. Girls may dress as boys, or boys turn into girls, but however they push boundaries, like any good Shakespearean comedy, everyone ends up back in their original gender with their heterosexual romantic match. When differently gendered characters appear, from drag queens to transgender people, they are comic relief and sidekicks, never the main character in a drama. After School Nightmare successfully, and dramatically, pulls all of the gender shenanigans out to the front of the story, gives them real emotional weight, and then rips them apart.
Mizushiro’s way to embody these crossroads—boy to girl, honesty to lies, dreams to reality—is evocative and enveloping. Each student’s psychology and fears are faced in the collective dreamscape as they attend a special after-school program. Upon entering the dream, the goal is to gain the key, as in a video game, to win and graduate. What graduation means is a mystery, except that each student who graduates confronts their fears, escapes from both the class and the school, and their existence is wiped from everyone else’s memories. Each student is represented in the dream as what they fear the most, and these self-portraits are chilling: a girl with gaping wounds where her face and heart should be, a paper giraffe too flimsy to survive long, or an apparently endless stretch of arm, jointed with many elbows and coiled like a snake. Ichijou appears as himself, but in a girl’s uniform, while Sou may or may not be the vicious Black Knight, hidden behind layers of armor. By throwing her characters into a dream, Mizushiro plays to her strengths of illuminating complex psychology through her art, both fluid and precise in expression and gesture. Her dreams feel like true dreams, flipping from moment to moment and setting to setting and somehow making sense, and she is deft at editing her panels and point of view to make the sequences clear even as they unsettle.
Any reader who was lucky enough to read Mizushiro’s earlier work, especially the complex school bombing tale X-Day, knows that she does not let her characters remain uncomplicated. Ichijou is a mass of emotional and psychological issues, and both suitors have their own demons to wrestle. The romantic triangle here is far from steady, with each point not really knowing him or herself enough to trust anyone else. The reader ends up curious about not only who ends up together but how they find themselves in the struggle. Kureha, who begins as a fractured, abused young woman who uses a sunny face to hide her horrific past, develops into the most stable, facing her demons and setting out on her own path. Each graduating student has their own story folded into the narrative, their vignettes showing the many ways they heal or self-destruct, and even side characters are rarely one note.
Even in these odd circumstances, these teens do in fact act like teenagers. Ichijou and Sou are both easily swayed by outside influences, whether it be the gossip of classmates or the conniving whispers of an influential sibling. Their romance stutters and starts, alternately as uncertain and as hurtful as they are. Hormones and curiosity drive characters toward sex, but sex doesn’t cure or damn them. Sou’s quick shifts from focused persuasion to potential rapist are disturbing but not out of place, and unlike other romances, his force is not perceived as romantic. Past traumas, from bullying to incest to sexual abuse, are forced to the surface by the nightmare, and Mizushiro uses the darkness to undercut the melodrama.
After School Nightmare asks all its questions head on and does not suggest easy answers. Add to that the suspense of students disappearing after graduation, the threats of the dreamscape seeping into the real world, and the lingering uncertainty of knowing what is real and what is dream, and you’ve got a gripping puzzle box of a story. With only one volume left, many questions have been answered along the way: Kureha seems to have found purpose and stability, and the elusive Black Knight has finally been identified. Just when it seems Ichijou has finally chosen, however, the whole game is changed by a dramatic revelation that turns everything on its head once again. Everyone may finally have a handle on what they need—but whether they can have it remains to be seen.-- Robin Brenner