Manga review: The Bride Was a Boy

Follow up on my manga review, here I talk about The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii, who tells us how she managed to find a boyfriend and marry him after she was raised as a boy. All the while explaining what a gender transition is.

As mentioned in my previous article, I will be dedicating a full page on The Bride Was a Boy, a Japanese comic book about a transgender woman, Chii (the author) who is finally getting married, despite all the obstacles that she had to overcome to make it possible. Obviously, being a transgender woman, I deeply relate to the author, even though I live in a country where such barriers don’t exist. We’ll get to that in a moment.

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At first, I was surprised by the title. “The Bride was a Boy” seemed like a weird way to make people understand that transgender women are women and where not actually boys, and I was genuinely scared that it would just make fun of us. But the author clears that up in the very first page: “The Bride was a Boy” is an oversimplification or, as she says “I was a boy, or at least, I looked like one”, and goes on to describe how her life unfolded from growing up as a boy in the eyes of society.

It is a personal account, and like any other personal account (see my review of First Year Out, by Sabrina Symington), the experience differs greatly from person to person. Chii makes a good case of pointing that out. Which is where her manga isn’t just a nice and funny account of a person’s life,

IT IS A PUBLIC SERVICE!

And I don’t mean it lightly. It’s very rare to read an author who wants to be as inclusive and comprehensive as it can, going beyond their own experience. To go into this, we need to look at the structure of the book. The story is divided in 9 chapters, each talking about a significant period in her life. Some overlap (hormone therapy and legal gender change, for example), but overall, it’s mostly chronological. And where this work isn’t just a life story and becomes actually educational, it’s in the fact that between every chapter, Chii explains a transition step or a an issue that can’t put into images because they are quite complex and she wants to make sure it is well understood by anyone who read it.

And it’s very accurate. Where the comic strips tell her life, the educational texts go into a lot of educational details (1), that are still explained in such a simple way anyone will understand, including, and especially, children. She also acknowledge where she lacks the knowledge to explain further, especially when something differs between countries. The most obvious example is the legal name change. She explains how it’s done in Japan, but she can’t possibly tell how other countries deal with it, since there is no two countries that share the same laws and regulations on the matter. But she explains all the important notions necessary to understand the situation for trans people, and she even cites scientific sources at the end of the book.

Finally, I should talk a bit about the art and the tone in itself, because not only it is a great romance in a super cute style,

IT’S ALSO SUPER FUNNY!

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The back cover cracked me up. That’s totally the kind of cute humour the story is full of.

It’s super refreshing. It is a love story that ends well about a transgender woman who gets married with her quirky and funny boyfriend who never at any point doubted she was a woman. Let me say that again.

IT’S A STORY ABOUT A TRANSGENDER WOMAN WHO LIVES A HAPPY LIFE.

And we need that. We need stories where it’s not just about being harassed, assaulted or killed, but where it is possible to actually be happy when and after transitioning. That we can have the same things than any other people, that it’s normal, and that no one comes to take it from us because they don’t like the idea of us.

So, I think you understand now that I totally recommend this book. Read it, give it to your friends and family, because it’s really a comic book for everyone. No question about it. Why are you even still here?

 

(1) She even go as far as talking about the DSM and the difference between Gender Identity Disorder and Gender Dysphoria, and why now GD is preferred by the scientific society but Japan still uses GID. She also points out that any information regarding medical regulation and laws on gender change are true in 2016 when the book is released but may change later.

Quick review of queer mangas

Review of two book: Claudine, a 1978 manga about a transgender man facing bullying; and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, the true account of a young homosexual woman who had to face depression and social expectations.

After I saw a post on twitter about Claudine, a Japanese comic book about a transgender man that was supposedly very good (for its time), I set out to buy it, and added in my shopping cart a couple of other mangas dealing with LGBT issues: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, and The Bride Was a Boy.

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So here are the reviews in the reading order.

Claudine, by Ryoko Ikeda:

Claudine is by far the weakest of the three. I was expecting a very powerful art work about trans issues, but instead, I got shallow characters, empty plot and a poor understanding of the subject. Now, it was made in 1978, and it is probably the reflection of the stereotypes of that time, but there are points in this book that make it really not interesting as a story.

And the biggest problem is the main character. He has no other definition than being transgender. We don’t know anything about him. The story is told from the accounts of his psychiatrist who, you’d think would talk about more things than just his struggle with gender identity. But we never know a single thing about Claudine but that she is from a rich family. I think it kills the story entirely, because it is impossible to relate to a character who’s just an empty shell. And the psychiatrist, who is ultimately the voice of the author, kills the whole open-mindedness by saying a very transphobic “Even a true man couldn’t love a woman so utterly” (1).

Then, the plot revolves almost uniquely around a girl who is in love with Claudine and sets out to sabotage every single relationship he (Claudine) has with other girls. And the whole story is like that. Claudine is rather passive. Things happen to her, it’s all about how people react to her, but not much how she reacts. She is like the MacGuffin of her own story.

I can’t really talk about the art form, because I am not used to the manga style, but I was surprised that Claudine was drawn in a very different style than the other characters. Maybe the author wanted him to stand out from the crowd, but for me, it just reinforces the MacGuffin effect, his shallowness, that he is not human, as opposed to all the other characters.

Finally, although there are some good ideas, the book, even by the 70’s standards, this story lacks character development, which was a real turn off to me. I couldn’t see a real person in Claudine, and it was a huge drawback in my opinion.

 

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Nagata Kabi:

This book is a breath of fresh air. It’s powerful, moving and relatable. It’s not a graphic novel. It’s more like an illustrated essay. Every strip is narrated by the author, who tells her own story. A story of feeling like an outcast, because she doesn’t see herself in the expectations of others. And still she tries to meet these expectations, which drives her to be even more miserable, and not knowing why.

It is a powerful tale of getting to know yourself and the cause of your sickness, instead of finding ways to ignore it or inflicting physical pain to oneself to know why it hurts. It touched so close to home on so many occasion, I wanted to cry during most of the book. It’s quite surely a good read to anyone who faced depression and had a hard time recognising the cause, or to people who never had such an experience but would like to understand how oppressing and terrifying this situation is.

It is well crafted; although it’s a real story, the author makes the effort of giving it a pace and a structure, and every act offers to show a real change in her mindset and relationship with her illness (2) until she understands the cause and ultimately gets better by living the life that suits her, instead of trying to get her parents approval on everything (3). Her illustrations are really doing a good work of explaining how her depression worked and how she was feeling most of the time. I think that even someone who’s never had depression and doesn’t understand the concept can have a pretty good idea at how it must feel for people who are afflicted.

And of course, it’s also a story of a lesbian woman in a country that is still very conservative on sexuality, and who ultimately tries to be herself despite social barriers. Just read it people.

 

The Bride Was a Boy, by Chii:

I have a lot to say about this one, so here is a page dedicated to this review.

 

(1) Let’s hope it’s a translation mistake, which is totally possible, seeing how disastrous the translation is. Full of typos, grammar errors, inconsistencies, I had to read some lines several times to make sure I understood.

(2) I shouldn’t have to explain that, but in case anyone misinterpret what I wrote: her illness is not her homosexuality, obviously. It’s the depression that comes from the inability to recognise that she is homosexual and trying to fit into societal expectations.

(3) Yes, I’m spoiling the end, but that was that or killing herself. So since she is writing this book, we can only assume it’s not really a surprise. The whole point of the story is to see how she navigates her depression and heals.

The importance of image; or why I don’t watch English-speaking videos with subtitles

Why I think dialogues in films are not as important as people may want to believe. Cinema is mainly a visual media, let’s focus more on the image and what it can tell.

When I was living in Vancouver, my flatmate was watching about everything with subtitles, even though everything he was watching was in English, which is his mother tongue. He mainly did that because of a combination of problems: the annoyingly poorly balanced sound tracks in movies (speech too low vs sound effects too loud) and the fact that our house was next to a very busy road. In the end, it was pretty much impossible to understand a film without subtitles, and I had to do it too, although I really don’t like it.

See, a few years ago, I had this talk with a friend who couldn’t watch an English-speaking film without subtitle, not because he couldn’t understand English well (he was pretty good at it actually), but because he couldn’t accept to watch a film and not understand 100% of dialogues. I understand his point, but I sadly think it’s a way too common belief that speech is more important than image in movie.

For my part, I started watching English-speaking films without subtitles in the early 2000’s. Back then, it was about improving my English listening skills. If I wasn’t reading, I was more focused on the speech, and therefore more akin to understand what actors were saying and get used to the language. Long story short, it really helped a lot (1). But as I got better at understanding English, well, there was no point in putting back subtitles anymore.

And I remembered what my Mom was saying about her never watching movies with subtitles. She doesn’t watch film in English, she watches the French-dubbed versions. But she made a very good point at not reading subtitle: “I can’t focus on both the image and the subtitles”. And I think that’s the whole point.

Now, my Mom is not a cinephile. She just enjoys a movie every now and then. But it’s true for everyone. Cinema is mainly a visual media. For years, films could even tell a story without a single line of dialogue, because there wasn’t sound on it yet. So filmmakers used a lot of visual cues to convey various plots and emotions, because it wasn’t possible to break the film pace every five seconds with dialogue screens.

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So now, we have countless ways to tell a story visually but still, a lot of people don’t realise it. If it’s not in dialogue, it’s like it’s not explained at all. That’s pretty much why fool-proofed movies tend to over-explain the plot in dialogues even though everything is quite always obvious in context. Just look at how hardly-audible dialogues in Interstellar were perceived by a large part of the audience. Another great example is when Mel Gibson wanted to screen The Passion without subtitles, which would have been a great idea, since the audience most likely to go watch the film already knew the story and how it ends (spoiler: Jesus dies on a cross). But of course, this didn’t happen, because the film would have completely flopped at the box office.

People take for granted that every single bit of dialogue must be understandable, when image and sound design are equally or more important to understand the film. When I see movies that try to be visually clever, instead of using trendy shots, get trashed because they are too contemplative/hardly understandable/pretentious/boring (check the appropriate answer for your case), it really explains why there are much less films like that anymore, and also why I don’t watch that many films anymore. (2)

When you focus too much on dialogues, and therefore on subtitles, it’s the same amount of attention you don’t give to image and sound (4), and so you lose way more information than you think you get by being overly attentive to dialogues. I always feel that when I tell people I don’t watch films with subtitles, they think I’m being pretentious. I’m not. I maybe understand give or take 90% of dialogues in any given film (even in French-speaking films, there are always mumbled or covered lines that are hardly understandable), but I just enjoy and understand the movies better if I’m not distracted by subtitles. Once I even watched a movie in a language I didn’t know at all and I understood the plot.

Of course I wouldn’t recommend to watch an entire movie without subtitle if you don’t understand the language, especially the ones that have really well-crafted dialogues (Tarantino’s films, for example, are enjoyable because of dialogues). But if you understand at least 60% (rule of thumb here), I feel like it’s worth giving it a shot.

So, I hate to admit, but turns out my Mom was right all along.

 

(1) In the same way, watching Japanese animation with English subtitles has helped my English-reading skills a lot. If you want to learn some language, these are actually very good exercises to consolidate your knowledge. But you need some level of proficiency first.

(2) And still, in the end, they are the films that get to be remembered and studied in schools.

(3) And don’t get me started on multitasking. There is no such thing. It’s actually task switching. And in case of subtitles, you have to move your gaze to the text, so you can’t in any way watch the image and the subtitles at the same time, especially in theatre (we can talk about the 2° field of view for accurate vision later).

(4) Obviously I don’t recommend it. I was just curious about a particular film and couldn’t find the subtitles. I lost a lot of information in the process, but I still enjoyed watching the film.