Art as Discovery, Art as Hope: Kamatani Yuhki, x-gender and asexual mangaka

By: Karleen May 16, 20180 Comments
The leads of Nabari no Ou on a train

Editor’s Note: Kamatani’s work frequently features characters whose gender identity is ambiguous or open to reader interpretation. This article will refer to these characters using the gender-neutral “they” throughout.

SPOILERS: Discussion of character arcs in Nabari no Ou, Shounen Note, Busshi no Busshin, and Shimanami Tasogare.

Kamatani Yuhki is best known for their heartfelt ninja shounen manga Nabari no Ou and its anime adaptation, but has a larger body of work ranging from historical Buddhist sculpture to contemporary LGBT issues. Their manga often look at people in transitional periods, brought to life with exquisite artwork and rich visual metaphor. They also confront identity and marginalization in their work, as informed by their life as an x-gender (nonbinary) and asexual person. In a world where the oppressed often can’t tell their own stories, Kamatani’s manga are a must-read.

Work-in-progress drawing for Shounen Note.

Kamatani was born in 1983 in Hiroshima, which would later serve as the setting for some of their manga. In an interview with Buzzfeed Japan, they said that from a young age they were hurt by the ways they were perceived as and treated like a woman, such as having to wear a skirt for school uniforms. Then their mind was opened through boys choir and manga by Moto Hagio, which they felt transcended gender as a category, and came to think “it doesn’t have to be either.” Hagio’s work, which made an impact exploring gender and sexuality in 1970s shoujo manga, would go on to be one of Kamatani’s biggest artistic influences.

At 17 years old, Kamatani made their professional debut in the July 2000 issue of Monthly G Fantasy with “Hanaya,” an award-winning one-shot manga about a society that discriminates against humans who transform into animal-like beings. Although it does not represent a real world group, the story uses the allegory of half-breed humans to argue that marginalized people deserve respect and consideration.

“Hanaya” includes some of the recurring themes of their manga: identity, adolescence, evanescence, acceptance, and guidance. Kamatani explained in an interview for their later manga Shounen Note that they aim to show their readers that “it’s only natural to fail to understand yourself” and that others can be there for you. They went on to publish more one-shots for Monthly G Fantasy, which were collected in the anthology Liberamente in 2005.

“Hanaya” in Liberamente.

After years of one-shots, Kamatani broke into serialized manga in 2004 with Nabari no Ou, a story about a middle schooler named Miharu who enters a secret society of modern ninja after he discovers he harnesses a monumental power. It ran until 2010 and was collected into 14 volumes (all available in English). It was adapted into an anime in 2008 by J.C. Staff, though it ends differently since the manga was incomplete at the time of production.

Reflecting on their creative process, Kamatani said: “Shortly after starting Nabari no Ou, there was a moment when I had the opportunity to discover myself. A moment of ‘this is the way I am and this is what I want to draw.’ That was when I felt that my works became truly mine.” Indeed, Nabari no Ou hits its stride early on and the art develops into the style Kamatani uses today: elegant, tender, lifelike, and prone to metaphor.

Miharu and Yoite in Nabari no Ou.

Nabari no Ou is just as much the story of Yoite, a member of the ninja organization who aims to use Miharu’s power for revolution. Yoite asks Miharu to “make it so I never existed,” as Yoite’s body is decaying from the effects of a forbidden technique.

Yoite, who was born intersex and couldn’t find a place in the gender binary, escapes an abusive home and finds support from Miharu, caretaker Yukimi, and mother-figure Hanabusa. Nabari no Ou ultimately decides “Yoite is Yoite,” tapping into a theme across Kamatani’s manga that one can find security in oneself even if others can’t classify or comprehend this.

Yoite in Nabari no Ou.

Kamatani’s next work was Shounen Note, which ran in Morning Two from 2010 to 2014, about a boy named Yutaka who sings in a group for the first time in his middle school choir. Yutaka is a beautiful singer, but his soprano voice will soon deepen during puberty.

Using Yutaka and Vladimir, a celebrity boy soprano desperate to retain his voice, the manga asks what defines a person when things they considered integral to their identity end up beyond their control. Like Kamatani themself at the beginning of creating Nabari no Ou, the characters come to discover themselves.

The cast of Shounen Note.

Thankfully, Shounen Note complicates its cisnormative premise that a boy becomes a man as his voice deepens with the characters of Minoru and Mito. Minoru was once a boy soprano like their younger brother Yutaka but no longer sings, and as an adult speaks in “onee kotoba” (speech used by queer men and transgender women) and wears skirts.

Mito, a member of the school choir assigned female at birth, desires a deeper voice and becomes uncomfortable when singled out as a girl by having to wear a flower. It’s possible Kamatani’s past discomfort with skirts informs Mito’s experience, and their vision of people assisting each other definitely brings Minoru to Mito.

While Shounen Note was in serialization, Kamatani came out as x-gender and asexual on Twitter in May of 2012. The timing was apt given that Shounen Note celebrates youth choir and characters in the vein of ’70s shoujo manga, which formed Kamatani’s understanding of gender. X-Gender is a nonbinary transgender identity in Japan that means neither male nor female, or both. In Japan, asexual means feeling neither sexual nor romantic desire for others. Kamatani’s Twitter profile now includes “toX” for x-gender without disclosing gender assigned at birth and “aseku” for asexual.

Mito and Minoru in Shounen Note.

After Shounen Note, Kamatani returned to fantasy and magical beings, this time in tenth century Japan, with their series Busshi no Busshin in Gangan Online. It follows the Buddhist sculptor apprentice Sou, who fuses his body with the Kannon bodhisattva Myoujou in order to save both their lives from the god Mizuchi.

The series is ongoing, as Sou and Myoujou journey and meet new characters. Kamatani extensively researches Buddhism to create this manga and, although Kannon is a traditionally feminine figure, Myoujou appears as a young boy.

Kamatani said they believed “within a few years, there will be new works of all kinds (serious, fantastical, realistic…) in which the [LGBT] community will be represented.” Kamatani’s manga exemplify that trend, and their explorations of gender and sexuality have helped paved the way for more creators to do the same.

Myoujou on Busshi no Busshin volume two.

While Busshi no Busshin was in serialization, Kamatani also began Shimanami Tasogare in 2015, which explores the guests of an LGBT-friendly lounge in Onomichi, Hiroshima. It began serialization in Hibana, then moved online to Ura Sunday when the magazine was discontinued in 2017.

Protagonist Tasuku discovers the lounge through its eccentric owner Dareka-san (Anonymous), who comes across Tasuku as he’s about to commit suicide. Tasuku begins the story afraid to admit he’s gay, but comes to embrace his identity after meeting the gay, lesbian, transgender, asexual, and questioning members of his community. They experience multiple forms of marginalization—discrimination, stereotyping, misgendering, slurs, microaggressions—and often clash with each other, but still find solace at the lounge.

Tasuku and Anonymous in Shimanami Tasogare.

All of the characters are brought together by Anonymous, who is asexual like Kamatani. Anonymous is one of Kamatani’s many androgynous characters (alongside Minoru and Myoujou); they say they are whatever gender someone else thinks they are.

Anonymous acts as something of a mirror for the other characters rather than a direct mentor, listening to their confessions and troubles with no promise of feedback. The characters become more aware of themselves through Anonymous and the lounge, similar to how a mangaka delves into the lives of their characters.

As their characters guide each other, Kamatani reaches out to their readers as well. With their lived experience as x-gender and asexual informing their manga, and collaborating with others like the LGBT organization Trois Couleurs for experiences not their own, they can open others’ minds to concepts beyond heteronormativity and cisnormativity just like Moto Hagio did for them.

Display for Shimanami Tasogare at Tokyo Rainbow Pride.

After the 2016 United States presidential election, Kamatani decided to make Shimanami Tasogare a story where Tasuku gains peace of mind. They went on to say in an interview with Quarterly S that they hope the conclusion will save Tasuku, readers, and even themself in the face of a darkening society.

Kamatani has come a long way in over a decade of manga, from “Hanaya” to Shimanami Tasogare, in their explorations of identity and marginalization. In that same Quarterly S interview, they said they can now view and integrate their experiences with gender and sexuality objectively instead of subjectively. While Shimanami Tasogare recently concluded, Kamatani will surely go on to create more art that gives people hope.

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