Let’s get something out of the way: I’m about to talk about some problematic stuff. Some of it is pornographic and graphically violent. So I’m flagging you all with this content warning. I’m going to be talking about issues with gender dysphoria, rape, and sexual harassment.
Also, given the topic features characters who change their gender presentation throughout the story, I’ll be referring to each character as how they originally presented, unless they self-identify otherwise in the story after their transformation. This article also contains NSFW images.
All right? Let’s go.
Transsexual fiction or fantasy (or TSF as it’s commonly known in Japan) is a genre of stories featuring the transformation of the main character from one sex to another, usually through coercion or by accident. And while there are plenty of examples of genderbending in manga, such as through crossdressing in Ouran High School Host Club or Yubisaki Milk Tea, the crux of a TSF story relies on the biological change of the body.
Whether it be through a curse, like in Rumiko Takahashi’s classic Ranma 1/2, or a strange disease, like in Eroe’s popular Seitenkango, the story revolves around a biological change of the main character’s sex organs. And while the transformation sets the scene for the genre, much of the actual story is normally centered on the messy aftermath.
The protagonist must adapt to their new body. Usually, they try their best to hide it or, failing that, attempt to fit in as best as they can by adhering to established gender norms. The story shares some similarity to the gender dysphoria felt by a transgender person. Just as a trans person might feel about their own bodies (dysphoria is a very common but not universal experience), TSF stories present the protagonist with a body they feel uncomfortable with and explore their reaction to it following their transformation.
In Ranma 1/2, this takes on the form of a long-running mission where Ranma (along with all the other Jusenkyo cursed cohorts) must seek a cure for the curse. For others, like Kyou in Seitenkango, they must hide their body and maintain a semblance of normalcy until the “woman syndrome” passes out of their system.
Unfortunately, most of these stories often stray off-course from that journey seeking normalcy. Whereas Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 might be considered one of the most popular and well known TSF stories, perhaps what is more quintessential within the genre are pornographic stories featuring boys getting turned into girls and then finding out how “great” sex is for girls in these sorts of stories.
And here is where the fetish often gets a little ugly. When many of the transformed men previously presented as cis male (men assigned male at birth) and heterosexual, the last thing they might reasonably entertain is sucking a dick. Often times the plot device used to propel a normal cis het dude into becoming a nymphomaniac is through rape. And the stories further argue that these transformed people, while initially portrayed as sexually abused, may have secretly or subconsciously desired it.
In Ruuen Roga’s Fall of the Knight Captain series, Gilliam, cis male captain of the royal guard, chooses to transform into a woman to serve as a body double for Princess Sheila. Despite starting the story off secure in his place as a man, Gilliam quickly falls prey to lust after the other knights rape him in a “training” session. The story excuses the rape, citing that Gilliam had allowed it because of the sexual desire he felt within his new cis female body.
This is a particularly transphobic and rape-apologist perspective wherein raping a man who becomes a woman is okay, given the victim had enjoyed or had possibly even sought this in the first place. And while there is a bittersweet subplot about unrequited love and honorable sacrifice, the focus of Gilliam’s story, for the reader, is on her becoming a woman dedicated to the male gaze. The story even goes as far as to spell out that Gilliam’s decision to remain a woman is because of her own carnal desires.
Moby: “Don’t drown yourself with the pleasures of a woman’s body, and hold fast to your desire to be a man,” was it? Do you think you can still return?
Gilliam: As long as none of you tease me, or else… ❤
And while the bulk of TSF stories are pornographic and aimed at adult readers, the issue itself is not isolated to the NSFW realm either. In a less explicit form, stories in shonen or seinen comics are also rife with sexually charged themes and gags, such as in Akira Sugito’s Boku Girl.
Though classified as seinen, Boku Girl often puts the protagonist Mizuki in sexually dubious situations as the series’ primary source of humor. The story follows the Trickster God Loki transforming Mizuki, the cutest tough boy in school, into a girl to make him confront some unresolved issues with masculinity and femininity.
In what is perhaps one of the most sexually explicit moments of the series, Mizuki’s best friend Takeru takes advantage of an inebriated Mizuki and gets to third base before the situation is brought to a halt by the deus ex machina. Later in the series, when Mizuki’s secret becomes common knowledge to his fellow classmates, the manga shifts to pressure Mizuki to assume gender roles because of his body. He is moved into the girl’s dormitory and forced to wear a girl’s school uniform. The reasoning behind this is simply because “he’s now a girl.”
This is a common trope within the TSF genre. Much of the discomfort characters endure comes from having to “act the part” of their new bodies. In a “biology dictates reality” setting, being turned into a girl enables heterosexual men to desire other men. In a modern-day setting, schools swiftly re-enroll transformed students as the opposite sex, and girls will inevitably wear skirts or dresses because that’s what’s expected of them. The message, if anything, might reflect Japan’s rigidity with regard to gender roles.
Japan is a country that lags behind in gender equality and LGBT rights. Whereas several districts and cities have recently affirmed same-sex marriage in Japan, New York-based Human Rights Watch recently noted that bullying of LGBT students in Japan is at an “epidemic” level. For transgender people in Japan, gender reassignment surgery is required and they must be unmarried and without children to legally transition. A recent report also revealed that foster care services often cited difficulty in accommodating LGBT children, because many caretakers felt—at best—uneducated in how to offer support to those children.
LGBT people are regarded as an “other” within Japanese society. They are people who are classified as “sexual minorities” and not necessarily a part of the fabric of every day life. For many writing within the TSF genre, queer perspectives on gender fluidity aren’t often top of mind and the society depicted in these works show a world where transgender people do not exist or, even if they do, transformed people aren’t considered to be a part of that spectrum.
In my readings, I’ve only come across one noteworthy exception to the rule in a short comic by Sakujiro where a school girl turns into a boy in a world where transformation is an incurable but clinical reality. While she begins to go to school as a male, she expresses a matter-of-fact comment on her future plans.
Author’s Note: This article was written before the full series, Saki and Mika, was released, and was based on a four-page version. The full series de-emphasizes that aspect of hormones and surgery, but instead grounds Mika’s story in how she wanted to be a man. The full series has a few lines on Mika’s decision not to return to being a woman. No specifics are mentioned, but she essentially tells her parents she would like to live as a man and they support her decision fully. The author fleshed out the story to give a motive to why Mika wished to not only stay a man but to become one in the first place because of her wish to sexually please her best friend Saki.
Saki: So, what are you going to do? You going to be a guy?
Mika: No way! I’m getting surgery.
Mika: I have to go through a bunch of tests this week, but I should be able to start hormones next week.
The exchange framed Mika’s transformation and sense of dysphoria as a trans experience. While only half a page in length, this exchange was noteworthy compared to many other slice-of-life high school TSF stories where the transformed often resign themselves to live as the opposite gender without ever expressing the possibility of transitioning back to their original gender identity.
Typically, sex and gender are hardwired to each other in TSF stories. The concept is taken to the extreme in the one-shot story, “He Said, ‘I Am a Girl’” by Takako Shimura, where everyone on earth is transformed at once. The story focuses on Tsukasa, a young boy (now a girl) who wakes up from a coma two months after everyone transforms. While shocking at first, Tsukasa quickly embraces her new reality (the story hints she may have been trans to begin with) as she observes the world around her.
Tsukasa: “You look good in a sailor uniform, Tetsuo.”
Tetsuo: “Huh, really? I didn’t want to do it at first, but now it’s like crossdressing and it’s pretty fun, you know? I bet you’d get into it if you wore one. I hate to admit it, but you’re way cuter than most of us.”
Tsukasa: “Everyone seems to have taken it in stride.”
Tetsuo: “Oh sure. At first everyone felt awkward, but it all comes down to getting used to it. It can’t be helped if we turned into girls, right?”
If anything, a worldwide epidemic of gender dysphoria might loosen the rigidity of gender roles and the definition of femininity and masculinity, yet Shimura depicts a world where everyone works or fails to embrace gender roles no matter how alien or weird it now may be. There is no queer middle ground that says, “I came to school in a skirt all my life, why stop now?”
The world could be so much more queer when people worldwide realize adhering to gender norms seems silly or alien, yet based on the arbitrary ideal of what men and women are, “He Said, ‘I am a Girl’” features an entire world trying to enforce gender norms even after everybody on Earth was divorced from their societally taught norms.
Yet the situation is a familiar fantasy for someone who is trans. Shimura reuses “He Said I am a Girl” by incorporating it into Wandering Son, a transgender girl’s coming-of-age story. In Wandering Son, Shimura depicts a dysphoric Shuu as the author of “He Said, ‘I am a Girl,’” which she creates for a middle school play for the school festival.
TSF stories, indeed, can be a trans fantasy or an ideal. While the concept of dysphoria is often written off after characters realize there is an enticing factor about being the other sex (even if it’s just about how good sex feels), as reading this from a trans perspective, wouldn’t it be great to be able to assume a chosen gender role without having society pushing back? Indeed, if anything, the way most TSF stories go, perhaps many of the people who transform are indeed actually trans or queer, even if not explicitly referred as such.
Mizuki in Boku Girl is a good example. While he focuses on adapting to life in a cis female body and finding a way to turn back into a guy, his character development reveals he’s lived a life denying himself of anything feminine. His transformation gives him an opportunity to explore wearing cute dresses and even eating parfaits without feeling shame. Despite the perverted characters and sexual situations rife in the series, Mizuki develops into a stable and well-rounded person by embracing both masculine and feminine qualities by the end of the series.
Gilliam also comes to terms with her gender identity and place within the order of the knights. Forbidden from ever romantically standing by Princess Sheila’s side as a man, Gilliam consciously became the princess’ body double as her own way to stand alongside her. She says at the end, “Sheila, I haven’t forgotten my promise to you from when we were little … even as a woman—no, especially now that I have become a woman, I can protect you nobly.”
One issue to also point out through all these stories, however, is that heteronormativity is often assumed and tied to the physical body. This is not true across the entire TSF genre, but in the same way that the transformations are written through a cis lens, the sexuality of the various characters are also assumed to be heterosexual. Mizuki’s body towards the end of Boku Girl transforms constantly based on who he is with and what his feelings are for them. Gilliam, despite loving the princess, decides to hook-up with Vice-Captain Moby, her best friend and rival among the knights.
Even in Sakujiro’s aforementioned short comic where Mika expressed she would undergo gender reassignment surgery, she eventually decides to remain a man and stay with Saki. Mika says in an inner monologue on the final page of the comic: “Come to think of it, Saki looks like she really enjoys sucking my cock. If I hadn’t met her, if I hadn’t become a man, if I were still a woman… I wonder if I, too, would have been lovingly sucking a guy I like off like this. It wouldn’t be impossible. It’s not like I was a lesbian or anything. But, I guess that doesn’t really matter anymore.”
But even despite the heteronormativity, the humiliation, and the pain transformed people may face, the transformation in TSF stories undercut some messy elements of socializing into the world as trans.
In Satoru Akahori’s “Kashimashi,” Hazumu is given the best possible opportunity to restart her life as a woman. Fatally struck by a spaceship, the aliens resurrect her perfectly, save her genitals. As it says in the above manga panel: “He—rather—she is a complete woman now. There is nothing more we can do to fix this.” The alien ship broadcasts to the entire world, “Hazumu is a girl now, deal with it,” and she goes on to lead a rather fulfilling and wonderful life as one. That is something trans people would kill for.
In reality, one’s transition is not handed out through a divine act. A trans person must, aside from coming to terms with their gender identity themselves, often tell and convince others. They must tell a therapist, their family, their friends, their work. They often have to spell it out and sometimes even argue about who they are to the world around them.
TSF stories are not particularly marketed as LGBT comics. It is also hard to tell if authors are queer themselves, since Japanese creators often shy away from talking about their personal lives. However, they do attract trans readers, especially trans women, because the stories present the impossible fantasy of attaining a cis woman’s body. The experiences characters endure are also familiar for trans readers, such as the first time Mizuki looks at a dress in a store window and envisions himself wearing it. Or perhaps there’s that question of “what if I hadn’t transitioned?” as Mika asked herself at the end of the short comic.
Even on sexual fronts, stories present a “what if” world where a trans person could enjoy sex with a partner in the body they’ve always wanted. Eroe’s Seitenkango is marketed as a “sweet, true-love, TSF story” between two friends. Kyou, the transformed protagonist, explores with his best friend Souji the joys of a woman’s body by constantly fooling around. The “friends with benefits” scenario slowly shifts into romantic love as the two friends spend more intimate time together. Kyou, a former meathead street brawler, eventually embraces being a woman and permanently becomes one after “falling in love with a man.”
But make no mistake that the pornographic or fetishized aspects of this genre do feature a problematic representation to dysphoria, especially when many of these stories conflate gender identity with sexual preference and kink in a cishet context. Just because a man might turn into a woman doesn’t mean they’re automatically attracted to men. Not to mention the genre generally omits asexuality or any other queer identity of gender or sexuality. And while it might be a welcome fantasy for some, the situations or concepts many of these stories contain—especially of rape—can be just as horrific or disgusting to others.
These stories, however, can entertain a series of questions. Wouldn’t it be nice to one day wake up with the body you always wanted? What if you could wake up in a world where people accepted your gender without batting an eye. What if people respected and loved you for who you are? As problematic as they can be, sometimes there are themes that resonate with trans folk in TSF stories. In a mediascape where trans narratives are far and few between, this can be something people can latch on to.
All included translations are by the author.