By Riyoko Ikeda. Originally released in Japan as by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Margaret. Currently licensed by Fairbell. Released in North America by Seven Seas. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting the first Riyoko Ikeda manga to come out in North America to either be Rose of Versailles or nothing whatsoever – leaving aside the age of the works, the rumor was that there were a lot of difficulties licensing Ikeda’s works. But Versailles is still being worked on, and no one’s rushing to pick up Oniisama E (though maybe if this does well…). And so we have Claudine, a short manga (not only is it one volume, but that volume is half the size of the average) about the title character, a beautiful young man in a female-assigned body who has to deal with misgendering, misunderstandings, love, and betrayal. It would be a pretty forward-looking story for our current time, but for 1977 it’s pretty stunning. It ends much as you might expect (all signs point to tragedy from the very beginning), but the storytelling and art are absolutely stunning – your heart will ache even as your finger keep flicking the pages.
One of the things I liked best about the title is how well the relationships are sketched out in the minimal number of pages we have. Claudine’s loving and happy relationship with their father, their strict and worried mother who taken them to see a (surprisingly sympathetic) psychologist, and their ongoing antagonistic headbutting with Rosemarie, who starts off as a girl with a huge crush on Claudine and gradually develops into the only one who can really see Claudine – all the while never quite losing the air of ‘villain’ she has around her. I kept thinking of Nanami Kiryuu, honestly, and I am pretty sure the Utena creators were familiar with this work. As for Claudine, well, they’re a young 70s shoujo hero, which is to say tortured, overdramatic, and of the opinion that every single crisis is the worst thing ever. And of course there are love interests who see them as a girl, or are below the proper station, etcetera.
The art is, as I said before, another highlight. I was very amused at the occasional comedic shots of Claudine boggling at the shenanigans of Maura, the clumsy maid who is Claudine’s first love. But there’s also lovely set pieces of seeing the pained expressions of Claudine, Rosemarie, Sirene… the translation is excellent, but there’s always the sense that this is a story told primarily through the visual medium, rather than in text. The fire in the middle of the book may be my favorite moment. Most of all you feel the passion that Claudine has, which is either rebuffed or removed from them again and again. You get the sense that, unlike the longer Rose of Versailles, this is a story that could only have been told in a very compact way, burning Claudine’s bright light in a mere hundred pages.
To sum up: even if you aren’t interested in old-school shoujo manga, or LGBTQ titles, or Riyoko Ikeda, you should STILL get this, because it’s a great story that I think people will get something out of.