The Heaven’s Design Team manga follows God’s R&D Department as they take requests from on high (literally) to populate the earth with new animals. Similar to Cells at Work!, it’s an edutainment series that balances comical interactions between coworkers with mini-lessons about some of the world’s most unique, clever, or just plain terrifying critters.
As the kid who devoured Zoobooks and the adult who’d rather visit a new city’s aquarium than its art museum, the series sounded like my jam, but it wasn’t exactly waving its arms and shouting “I’ll make great AniFem content!” either. Which was part of what made it such a pleasant surprise. I may have come for the neat animal facts, but I stayed for the charming cast breezily ignoring gender norms.
The series clears a few low bars right off the bat, as Heaven’s titular design team stars a relatively gender-balanced cast of five men and four women. Some of the women do have rather cleavage-heavy outfits, but the framing is by-and-large tasteful and mercifully void of any creepy leering from the characters themselves.
While the team all have distinct personalities and varying dynamics, they first-and-foremost respect each other as people and coworkers. There’s actually no mention of gender among the cast—no annoying “you’re a boy/girl, so…” essentialism—which goes a long way toward giving the story a pleasantly gender-neutral atmosphere.
From this inoffensive groundwork, it would have been easy for Heaven’s Design Team to be a nice edutainment series that didn’t do anything off-putting but didn’t do anything noteworthy, either. It could have taken the easy way out and slotted its characters into gender-normative roles (the way Cells at Work largely did) and still been a fun little read.
After all, it isn’t a series about gender issues, or even modern society. To use the parlance of the internet’s most annoying randos, there was no “reason” it needed to do anything else.
Yet Heaven’s Design Team isn’t satisfied with the bare minimum. It not only creates an atmosphere of relative equality, but also divvies up traditionally “feminine” and “masculine” character traits across its cast.
Sometimes this is in little details, like Saturn, the older male designer, prizing “beauty” above functionality; or the female liaison Ueda calmly picking up a runaway insect while her male coworker Shimoda flees from it. Sometimes it’s about flipping the script on expected careers by depicting Mars, the team engineer, as a practical-minded, beer-slinging woman. And other times it’s built into a character’s entire personality, as with Pluto and Neptune.
Pluto is a diminutive young woman in ribbons and frills dedicated to designing the most horrifying and stomach-churning creations the animal world has to offer—or, as she calls them, “the cutest ones.” She casually and joyfully talks about genitalia and bodily functions, much to newcomer (and soft boy) Shimoda’s horror.
On the other side of these flipped expectations stands Neptune, the tallest and bulkiest of the male designers. He’s also a big ol’ teddy bear who spends most of his time creating harmless herbivores and animals people generally think of as “cute.” (Half his job is figuring out ways for his cuddly critters to defend themselves against his more macabre teammates’ creations.)
Pluto and Neptune are often depicted as polar opposites. When they work together, they create the koala; when they work as rivals, they create the giant squid and the blue whale, respectively. And while it’s never directly stated by anyone in the story, their creations are as sharply contrasted as their appearances: the burly guy who loves cute and soft things, and the cute girl who can’t get enough of vomit and dicks.
It’s always valuable (and, for me at least, delightful) when manga feature gender-nonconforming (GNC) cis characters, but it also isn’t exactly novel at this point, either. The popular Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun has earned praise for this same thing, and shoujo series from Princess Knight to Ouran High School Host Club have been playing with gendered expectations for decades.
I adore many of these titles and have certainly interpreted some of their characters as subtextually trans or genderqueer. Still, they tend to stop just shy of canonical representation, an issue that’s begun to weigh on me in recent years.
Gender presentation and gender identity are like roommates: they might live in the same house and split a few bills, but they still file their own taxes. To truly help normalize gender variance, our fiction needs to explicitly depict both.
In a surprising and delightful turn, Heaven’s Design Team takes that extra and important step with the addition of Venus. She’s a designer specializing in birds who also happens to be a trans woman.
I say “happens to be” because it’s never mentioned by the cast and is largely incidental to the story. It’s made explicit solely through visuals and context clues: pronouns (she/her) and terms of endearment (“Ven-chan”) combined with femme-coded outfits and non-exaggerated but noticeable physical features that nod to her being AMAB.
She’s also a fully realized individual with the same blend of femme- and masc-coded characteristics as much of the rest of the cast. While some of her personality traits lean into “onee-san” stereotypes—she’s into fashion, afraid of bugs, and a bit prone to dramatics—she’s also blunt, competitive, and often serves as a mentor or confidante to newbie Shimoda. The two frequently function as the audience surrogates, in fact, reacting to the shenanigans around them.
Most importantly, the series and cast treat her like a member of the team without othering her or using her gender as the butt of a joke. When the gang goes to a hot springs, Venus shares the women’s bath with the other girls as a matter of course. Her rivalry with Mercury mirrors the rivalry between Neptune and Pluto, and her creations are given the same respect (or skepticism) as everyone else’s.
Even when Venus (incorrectly) thinks she’s been poisoned and laments not dying in a “more strapping pair of arms,” no one bats an eye or treats this as “creepy” the way they might (and have) in other series. Venus has her quirks (this is a comedy, after all), but they’re her quirks, not broad generalizations meant to mock an entire community.
Heaven’s Design Team is not about trans issues and doesn’t try to be. It just does what every other series should already be doing: including gender-diverse characters and treating them like people instead of punchlines.
As all this may suggest, the main reason Heaven’s Design Team never directly addresses gender is because it exists in a world where such prejudices don’t seem to exist. This makes it an enjoyable bit of escapism, allowing its audience to spend time in the kind of accepting workplace many of us may not have in the real world.
Casual inclusivity is more than “just” escapism, though. It also implicitly asks its readers: “Why would I need to remark upon this in the first place?” By presenting a gender-diverse cast (who have been literally chosen by God) as no big thing, Heaven’s Design Team quietly challenges common prejudices and helps to normalize gender variance.
There’s an exhausting, persistent idea that a story needs a “reason” to include characters from marginalized communities—that it must address contemporary cultural concerns and prejudices (often as depressingly as possible) in order to justify the presence of those voices. And while these stories are necessary and important, they shouldn’t be the only stories that we can see ourselves in.
Sometimes a creator wants to write a silly, educational workplace comedy about the animal kingdom. Sometimes a reader wants to chuckle at a group of designers trying to make the pegasus happen (sorry, it’s not happening). And that’s totally fine. But who says those designers have to fit the same cisnormative patterns that characters have for ages?
The representation in Heaven’s Design Team is by no means perfect nor all-encompassing, but it still serves as a valuable example for other series to emulate. Its “reason” for including GNC and trans characters is simply “because they exist in the world.”
Marginalized folks don’t need a reason to exist, and neither do the fictional characters that reflect our experiences. The more creators who remember that and write accordingly, the more it helps normalize diversity both in fiction and out of it, and the better off we’ll all be.