After School Nightmare
by Setona Mizushiro
Rated OT for Older Teens (16+)
After School Nightmare is a coming-of-age manga that plays with your head, but in a good way.
Ichijo Mashiro is male from the waist up but female from the waist down. He has lived all his life as a boy, but as the book opens, his first period has just arrived. As he starts to deal with this new development, the school nurse appears and tells him he will have to take a special class in order to graduate. It’s a course in nightmares: He and his fellow students participate in shared dreams in which they appear in grotesque forms that reflect their hidden selves.
In the dreams, Ichijo’s classmates are figures straight out of a Surrealist painting: a girl with big holes where her face and heart should be, an empty suit of armor, a long, snaking arm with a grasping hand on the end. Unfortunately, these are stock characters with predictable backstories, and in the first volume, nobody makes much progress in the dreams. Watching Ichijo try to reconcile his dream experiences with waking reality is what makes this book interesting: Several of his classmates now know his deepest, most horrifying secret, and he knows theirs, but they still have to show up in class as if nothing happened. This being manga, an uneven love triangle is the result. And there are hints dropped along the way that someone is manipulating things behind the scenes.
After School Nightmare deals with gender issues in a more sophisticated way than most manga. Ichijo isn’t just dressing as a boy to get onto the tennis team; he really believes that men are stronger and more independent than women, and that’s how he wants to be. Yet he can’t escape from his body: In his dreams, he’s wearing a skirt. He begins to develop a romantic relationship with a classmate, Kureha Fujishima, who has a deep trauma of her own that causes her to hate men. On the surface their relationship looks like typical shoujo-manga stuff, but obviously it’s not. Ichijo wants to fall in love with Kureha, and he protects her in the dreams, because it makes him feel like a man. The other main character is the cold, standoffish Sou, who will sleep with any girl but commit to none. The love-hate relationship between Sou and Ichijo is one of the more intriguing narrative threads in this book.
Mizushiro’s style is clean and fairly realistic, which makes the dream sequences that much more plausible. In fact, one of the really enjoyable aspects of this manga is Mitzuhiro’s ability to evoke the sensation of being in a dream. The strange logic of the story builds out from reality, so things are just a little bit off. In one of the opening sequences, Ichijo is talking to the nurse when a necklace appears on his neck, signifying that he has slipped into a dream. It’s so subtle, even he doesn’t notice. The dreamers follow specific rules that have a hallucinatory sort of logic to them, and everything about the setup is just a few ticks off from everyday life.
Good production is a given with Go!Comi titles, and the cover and inner color pages of this book are beautiful, with soft focus illustrations in pastel tones. The paper and print quality are disappointing, though: The paper is coarse and grayish, some of the fine lines get lost, and the darker tones are muddy. Fortunately, Mizushiro’s art is clean enough that it still looks good. The book opens with six pages of color plates that show off the characters and lead into the story. Extras include a page of translator’s notes, information about the manga-ka, and the obligatory page on honorifics.
After School Nightmare has a convincingly dreamlike quality that sets it apart from other manga. With elements of horror, romance, and psychological drama, it doesn’t quite fit in any genre but is an intriguing choice for the reader who likes to go beyond the surface.
This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher.