Izumi Tsubaki is a mangaka to watch. Most western fans first heard of her thanks to the anime adaptation of her manga Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. The laugh-out-loud comedy affectionately poked fun at shoujo manga and flipped the script on anime gender roles in a way that made a strong impression. But Tsubaki’s work goes far beyond that. A look at how her manga has evolved over the years shows that she’s a master at making cutting commentary, crossing demographic lines, and poking fun at gender stereotypes.
Tsubaki originally studied to be a teacher but was inspired to be a mangaka by her sister, Yoshiki Koga, who wrote the one-shot My Magician. Tsubaki got her start at an incredibly young age, entering several manga contests in high school. She won the Young Author’s Competition in her third year and met her editor through that contest. The same year, she published her first one shot “Shrink the Distance” in Hana to Yume, a shoujo magazine.
She began her first ongoing series in Hana to Yume just six months later, all while adjusting to her life as a brand-new university student. The series, The Magic Touch, ran for nine volumes and secured an English release. It’s the story of Chiaki, an enthusiastic member of her high school’s massage research society, who wants to massage a certain boy. He tells her he will let her only on the condition that she makes him fall in love with her.
The series was very poorly received by English-speaking manga reviewers, who were put off by the odd premise and decried the abundance of shoujo clichés. Indeed, the story has several hokey elements, like the evil twin sister that torments Chiaki by cheating on tons of boys while pretending to be her. Chiaki is the archetypal heroine who nobly suffers at the hands of monstrous bullies yet never loses her cheerfulness, purity, and innocence.
However, some messy writing (and very messy art) is to be expected with a writer who is fresh out of high school. What’s interesting about the series is seeing Tsubaki start to find her voice. There are seeds of her desire to subvert and parody clichés even as she indulges in them.
For example, the evil twin sister’s schemes are comically unsuccessful and the love interest sees through them immediately, noting “you seem like the traditional evil character” the second he meets her. Similarly, the classic scenario where Chiaki gets held hostage so her love interest can get beat up ends abruptly when Chiaki uses her knowledge of pressure points to rescue both herself and him.
Reviewers decried these moments for resolving things too quickly, but I see a mangaka who was starting to figure out how to challenge expected narrative patterns, even if she hadn’t quite mastered it yet.
Tsubaki would truly show her potential with her second serialization, Oresama Teacher, which began in 2007 and is still running more than ten years later. The series follows a former delinquent, Mafuyu, who’s determined to start fresh as a “normal girl” in high school. However, a wrench gets thrown into this plan when she finds out her former childhood friend and mentor in delinquency, Takaomi Saeki, is now her teacher. She becomes part of the “public morals club” under his orders and fights troublemakers on the sly in order to clean up the school—all while trying to maintain her cover as an “ordinary” high school girl.
Oresama Teacher is wacky, funny, and refreshing. The story demonstrates Tsubaki’s comedic chops and knack for creating distinctive characters who bounce off each other well. Much of the story is built around the deliberate subversion of stereotypical shoujo narrative tropes. In an interview, Tsubaki stated “I think one of the factors that draws Oresama Teacher readers is that Mafuyu is not an ordinary shoujo heroine. She has character, she can support herself, she fights… I wanted to create a heroine opposite to what you usually see in shoujo manga.”
Mafuyu may stick out when compared to the stereotype of contemporary shoujo heroines, but Oresama Teacher’s narrative has striking similarities to some classic shoujo, most prominently the influential Sukeban Deka (Delinquent Detective). The manga stars a delinquent girl named Saki who, like Mafuyu, gets strong-armed by an authority figure into fighting for justice. Like Mafuyu, Saki is incredibly impressive in battle and generally self-reliant.
However, the tone of Sukeban Deka was a lot darker and grittier, while Oresama Teacher is much more optimistic and lighthearted. Tsubaki’s work shows respect for the innovation of classic shoujo, recalling the daring stories of the past while putting a new spin on things. Oresama Teacher shows us that the unconventional delinquent heroine not only has a place in modern shoujo manga, but that she can work well in kinder, more comical stories too.
The way Tsubaki explores gender roles in Oresama Teacher extends beyond simply presenting a delinquent action heroine. A major theme, especially early on in the manga, is the conflict between this idealized feminine image Mafuyu longs for and the reality of who she actually is. Mafuyu complains that she’s being forced into fighting and really just wants to be a “normal girl” deep down, yet she’s repeatedly shown to thrive in the bloody world of brawlers. She’s a natural leader who wins the respect and devotion of the delinquent boys she allies with and slips easily into the role of hero and protector.
A pivotal turning point in the manga is when Mafuyu realizes that while a “normal” life is fine, she feels a deeper sense of belonging among delinquents and rough-housers. She embraces her unconventional life and stops trying to fit into a narrow and limiting feminine ideal.
In addition to showing that female characters shouldn’t be limited to narrow roles, Oresama Teacher presents male characters who break free of their expected roles and enjoy traditionally feminine pursuits. The tough and buff gang boss Mafuyu befriends secretly writes cutesy letters as Mafuyu’s penpal “Strawberry Love,” enjoys cute things, and regards Mafuyu as his “prince.”
Likewise, the school’s embroidery club is made up of buff guys who at one point form a crossdressing cafe and declare their love for women’s clothing. These traits are treated as endearing rather than embarrassing, and the main characters even help with and encourage the cafe.
Unfortunately, this acceptance seems to stop when it comes to blatant queerness. Mafuyu disguises herself as a boy named Natsuo for various missions, and the earliest chapters of the manga contain gags where she’s “mistaken for gay.” There were a lot of jokes about Natsuo’s male friend getting freaked out by this.
It is notable, however, that this gag hasn’t appeared in the manga for quite some time. Another majorly uncomfortable aspect of the manga—Takaomi making sexual remarks to his student, Mafuyu—have also largely vanished (and in fact been replaced by comments about how creepy a teacher who’s buddy-buddy with his students can be).
Whether it was because Tsubaki thought better of these jokes. simply got bored with them, or that the series’s success allowed her to push back against editorial mandates, it’s encouraging to see that Oresama Teacher has moved away from these tired, harmful tropes in the decade it’s been running.
Similar to how Tsubaki blends masculinity with femininity, her work also blends shounen elements with shoujo. Her over-the-top action scenes are reminiscent of shounen manga, to the point where she was asked in an interview if she’d be more comfortable writing shounen. She responded that she felt more comfortable working with shoujo, but liked putting her own twist on the concept of “shoujo manga.”
But her ultimate twist on shoujo wouldn’t come until her 2011 series, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. The series begins with high schooler Chiyo Sakura trying to confess her love to her classmate, the tall, dark, and silent Umetaro Nozaki. Mistaking her love confession for a confession to being a fan of his work, he reveals to her that he’s secretly the mangaka behind Let’s Fall in Love, a popular shoujo romance.
The series side-splittingly delves into the struggles of being part of the manga industry, from obnoxious editors to artistic fumbles. Obviously, Nozaki-kun is very autobiographical. Nozaki made his shoujo debut in high school, much like Tsubaki herself, and lives a “double life” as a student and mangaka, which is how Tsubaki describes her own experience in college.
There’s also lot of affectionate fun poked at Nozaki’s extremely generic shoujo series, which can easily be read as Tsubaki making fun of her own early work. That desire to drag your old work is highly relatable to any writer.
Even so, Nozaki-kun rejects the idea that shoujo—even the generic, cliché-ridden shoujo written by a high schooler—is without value. It’s acknowledged several times that Nozaki’s work is moving in its own way, that he really puts his all into it, and that it resonates with a lot of young girls. It’s even emphasized that Nozaki being the same age as his target audience makes his work more relatable… even if his characters could stand to be a little smarter.
Like Oresama Teacher, Nozaki-kun spends a lot of time reversing expected gender roles and blurring the boundaries between masculine and feminine. As AniFem’s own Dee Hogan pointed out while the anime was airing, much of the humor comes from reality challenging the preconceived notions the characters have. Real life doesn’t follow the script laid out in fiction. Boys can be sensitive heroines, and girls can be handsome flirts.
Nozaki-kun doesn’t just challenge the clichés of shoujo, though. For instance, the two drama club members Kashima and Hori are a major subversion of a trope commonly found in shounen manga. Kashima is always slacking off club duties to go flirt with girls and generally causing trouble, and the responsible Hori responds by beating up Kashima in a slapstick manner as “punishment” for this.
Part of the comedy comes from the fact that Hori is much smaller than the athletic Kashima, so the way Kashima is thrown around seems impossible. This is a very typical set-up, but there’s a key difference in Nozaki-kun’s use of it: Kashima is a girl and Hori is a boy.
Many people I’ve watched the show with were put off by Hori and Kashima’s dynamic, but they’re not bothered by the same trope when it’s a girl dishing out hurt on a guy—even though Hori and Kashima’s relationship is a lot less uncomfortable than the dynamics that inspired it. (Kashima is not afraid of Hori, nor is she miserable when being smacked around. In fact, she’s shown to have fun with it, as if it’s roughhousing.)
Ideally, slapstick should be gender neutral, but this recurring shounen trope follows deeply ingrained gender roles. By turning it on its head, Tsubaki forces her audience to question this dynamic and how gender plays into it. The viewer must examine why they feel so disconcerted by the role reversal.
Nozaki-kun also sometimes attacks clichés head-on. There’s a sequence later in the series that exemplifies the biting criticism that can hide in Nozaki-kun’s gags about modern manga, when the characters are discussing overused archetypes in manga and how writers should avoid them.
During this scene, it’s noted how common the “masculine girl who secretly wants to be feminine” story is. Mikoshiba, who’s best friends with the princely Kashima, privately panics, wondering if she actually feels this way. He’s then abruptly shown that no, Kashima is absolutely fine with being perceived as masculine. The point behind this joke comes across strongly: not all butch girls harbor the desire to be “normal,” and the stereotypes we see in narratives about butch girls are overused and often don’t reflect reality.
Speaking of transcending stereotypes, it’s important to note that despite Tsubaki’s earlier insistence that she didn’t want to work with shounen manga, Nozaki-kun is actually published in GanGan Online, a shounen magazine… in a publication titled “Shoujo Romance Web Girly.” Once again, her work blurs the lines between demographics and shows how they’re kind of meaningless. A sequence in Nozaki-kun reflects this perfectly: A group of boys sit around reading some shoujo manga, declaring it “stupid”—and then they’re still reading it hours later with tears in their eyes.
Tsubaki knows that shoujo can be anything and appeal to anyone. She’s also a fan of shounen, citing Yoshiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho as one of her influences. Her work repeatedly demonstrates that manga fans do not have to be bound by demographics or gender expectations. Hopefully, some of her readers are getting the message.
Both Oresama Teacher and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun are ongoing series, so I’m eager to see where Tsubaki will take these titles next and excited for any new work she has to offer. Tsubaki challenges genre and gender norms with flair, so I hope she can continue her journey and that her humor keeps getting sharper, her voice louder, and her meta-commentary smarter. The world of manga needs more artists like Tsubaki—artists who are willing to transcend demographics, subvert narrative expectations, and gently urge their readers to think outside the box.