The Heian period was a period of intense artistic creation in Japanese history. Like the Italian Renaissance or the Chinese Tang period; the cycle of life quality for the well-to-do hit a high and with it came the leisure and drive to create. So much of what we in the West consider “Japanese” culture flourished in that period. Mostly everyone is familiar with Murasaki Shikibu’s famous serial, the Tale of Genji. Fewer people are familiar with the ambiguously comedic/tragic/erotic Torikaebaya, which would probably translate to something like “If only they could switch.” You may recall this story from the 4th season of Maria-sama ga Miteru, in which the Yamayurikai’s school festival play is chosen around Yuki and Yumi’s uncanny resemblance.
When it was announced that veteran manga artist Saitou Chiho, the creator of the Revolutionary Girl Utena manga, would be working on a manga adaptation of the Torikaebaya (とりかえ・ばや), I was downright ecstatic. Saitou-sensei has repeatedly shown interest in trans* characters and this manga deals not with one character or two who merely switch clothes, but who are entirely suited to the gender expectations of the opposite sex.
The story follows two siblings with the same father and two different mothers, born on the same day. The daughter is active, lively, good at sports, rhetoric and other masculine pursuits. The son is retired, shy, good at music and other feminine skills. Circumstances conspire to allow them to switch clothes – and lives.
I have not read the original in either translation or Japanese and before I even read the manga, I realized that my only encounter with the Torikaebaya was as a comedy, when the Lillian and Hanadera Student Councils had some fun with it. But, I wondered, was it actually a comedy…or a tragedy? As it turns out, we don’t actually know the answer to that. It has been interpreted as comedy, tragedy, social commentary and erotic romp by varying critics in varying ages. That actually made me more interested in it than before! We don’t know what this story is, how cool is that?
Saitou-sensei has specifically set out to treat this story as a story of transexuality. This is stated plainly on the cover and the relationship between gender roles and one’s sex is explored within. The daughter, Sarasoju is painfully aware that she really is not suited to be a girl, and her brother Suiren, likewise, really would do so much better as a girl. They switch clothes and roles and as far as I am in the first volume, their father is complicit in this, having just introduced his “son” to the Emperor.
I have not finished Volume 1, but I know that Sarasoju will play her part as a male well, but that that will not stop her from falling in love with a man, or having intimate relations with him. Her pregnancy is a major part of the original story. But she will also be married to a woman, and in one of the two versions of the tale (known as the Ima Torikaebaya Monogatari), both she and her brother end the tale in functional homosexual relationships.
I’m frequently asked for recommendations on trans* manga, and I usually don’t have much to offer, as trans folks are not well represented. This book will be going on my short recommendation list.
Art – 9 Gorgeous, but how could it not be? Saitou Chiho-sensei doing Heian period. Duh~
Story – 8 I’m intrigued, fearful, hopeful all at once
Characters – 8 Not bad, actually. Dad’s not a bad dude, and Sara and Suiren are sympathizable
Service – 4 Nudity, not nakedness
LGBTQ – 4 We meet them just as their self-identity is forming.
Overall – 9
Saitou Chiho-sensei’s version of the Torikaebaya may well become my go-to version of this Heian classic. Here’s hoping!
If you are interested in a garbled version of the story and a mixed bag of scholarship, here’s the Wiki entry on the Torikaebaya. It’s rather less helpful than I had hoped.