“If I Was Born As A Girl…”: Transfeminine desire in Stop!! Hibari-Kun

By: Madeline Blondeau November 30, 20220 Comments
Hibari in the foreground, the rest of the cast in the background of a parking lot

Content warning: discussion of transphobia; while not discussed here, the manga as a whole includes racial stereotypes/caricatures

It was 1981. The smash-hit Urusei Yatsura dominated Weekly Shonen Sunday reader polls, while Pierrot’s popular adaptation of the interstellar sex comedy was just starting to take off on Fuji TV. The manga would eventually end in 1987 after thirty-four volumes, while the 195 episode anime would run until 1986. During this time, creator Takahashi Rumiko even found the time to pen another prolific romance manga: Maison Ikkoku.

At this time, artist Eguchi Hisashi had just wrapped up his bawdy detective comedy Hinomaru Gekijou and was on the hunt for a new concept. Living in this boom period for romantic comedy—which also included juggernauts like The Kabocha Wine and Kimagure Orange Road—Eguchi wanted to make his mark on the burgeoning genre. But the illustrator wasn’t interested in playing things safe or making a guaranteed hit. From the outset, Eguchi wanted to lampoon the genre and twist reader expectations by having the central love interest be “a boy who dressed as a girl.”

“As I was putting all my energy into drawing Hibari-Kun to be as cute as possible,” Eguch saidi to French program Toco Toco in 2017, “the story would become more and more twisted. There weren’t that many manga like this at the time.”

Hibari sitting with an electric guitar

In a cafe, he drafted the first storyboard for what would become Stop!! Hibari-kun—its title a pun on Hisashi Sekiya’s hot-blooded boys’ sports series, Stop! Nii-Chan.

Stop!! Hibari-kun, at first blush, boasts a fairly conventional set-up for a screwball romantic comedy. After the death of his mother, Kosaku is sent to live with Ozora Ibari, a loud-mouthed, sleazy yakuza with four daughters. No sooner does the young man arrive, however, than he falls head over heels for Hibari: the playful and exuberant third daughter of the Ozora family. Hibari, bright blonde and full of tomboy energy, sticks out in comparison to her more reserved sisters. It’s fair to say Eguchi draws Hibari with more attention and care to detail than he does the other female characters, between her ultra-trendy threads and her numerous pin-up splash pages.

This is, however, part of Eguchi’s aforementioned practical joke. In the first chapter, as Kosaku finds himself instantly smitten with Hibari, Ibari shocks the protagonist by introducing the blonde girl as his “son”. Confused, Kosaku becomes gradually more horrified when he realizes that Hibari isn’t what he thought she was. Assigned male at birth, Hibari presents as a woman despite her father’s protests—pitching up her voice, stuffing her shirt, and attending school in girls’ uniform. Kosaku is repulsed, but Hibari already has her sights on him and isn’t going to let him go that easily.

Hibari hooks her arm around Koasku's neck

Stop!! Hibari-kun treads plenty of expected ground when it comes to teenage romantic comedy because, at its core, the narrative is cut from the same striped cloth as Urusei Yatsura. A boy is faced with a strong-willed girl, but resists her feelings for some convenient narrative reason. Said boy tries his best to not fall for the girl, as an eccentric supporting cast cause mischief and lay down narrative contrivances. Over time, the boy comes to love the girl despite himself, and has to hide how much he actually does like her.

However, Hibari isn’t an alien in a bikini or a widowed landlady—she’s a trans teenager. This narrative impetus alone queers a story structure that, contemporaneously, was used more for male wish fulfillment and less for transgressive portrayals of queer youth. Other shounen romantic comedies of the day asked young men if they could accept falling in love with girls that were a little off the beaten path. For example, Mitsuru Miura’s The Kabocha Wine used height and weight differences to construct comedic misunderstandings to the same effect. In other words, “could you love your girlfriend if she was really big?”

But the central question in Hibari-kun—“could you love a trans girl?”—is a bit heavier. Kosaku’s journey towards accepting and loving Hibari is a journey most of the world is still on today. The protagonist is forced to not only reckon with Hibari’s birth gender, but to overcome it if he wants to be true to his feelings. Those feelings happen fairly early, too. By the third or fourth episode, and in the first few chapters of the manga, audiences are already presented with the ample internal conflict Kosaku has over his attraction to Hibari. This is presented as legitimate conflict versus shame, as he continually rationalizes his attraction and tries to move past the “hurdle” of Hibari being trans.

Hibari and Kosaku having a stare-down in their pajamas

It’s this conflict that makes some of the rougher parts of Hibari-kun easier to swallow. Being made when it was, discussions and jokes over Hibari’s gender are a bit of a nightmare under modern scrutiny. Hibari is routinely referred to with masculine pronouns, with the only exceptions being when she’s out and about on the town. Jokes about how much of a tomboy she is are plentiful, and there are more than a few gags built around Kosaku’s disgust at being attracted to a “man”. By most accounts, it’s far from a sensitive portrayal of transitioning and trans youth struggle.

Even so, Eguchi’s narrative never feels inherently cruel, and always argues in favor of Hibari’s gender expression. In the second episode, Hibari’s father recruits the help of a grizzled yakuza tough to beat some manhood into Hibari through rigorous masculinity training. Hibari, of course, continues to fail the tests and refuses to behave in a more perceivably masculine way. After some heated exchanges, the training comes to blows. This is framed as a comedic martial arts bout—not dissimilar to something audiences would later see in Ranma ½—in which Hibari triumphs over the mentor and disposes of him in a passing garbage truck. Hibari’s drive to be a woman, ultimately, bests the regressive and insulting conversion therapy forced upon her.

Hibari looks intent, Kosaku nervous

Hibari is an indomitable character, likely due to Eguchi’s Stop! Nii-chan influence. The young girl is presented as a natural athlete and unbeatable martial artist, often for comedic effect. While the underlying joke is, of course, that she’s stronger than a girl “should” be, that strength is never brought into question or undermined by the narrative. Because of her shounen protagonist “plot armor,” as it were, Hibari can overcome any challenge to smack down potential suitors and outsmart her nosy classmates. She enjoys even more autonomy than her female Weekly Jump contemporaries in series like Cat’s Eye and Dr. Slump. The jewel thieves of the former fit into a more traditional “femme fatale” role, while the latter stars a robotic toddler. Hibari, by contrast, wins fights, breaks hearts, and takes lead roles in school plays. She’s the quintessential hot-blooded shounen lead—the type Jump readers were already accustomed to, and would grow more so as franchises like Captain Tsubasa took off in tandem.

Aiding this accidental good representation is the love triangle at the center of Stop!! Hibari-kun. Kosaku joins the school boxing team to avoid Hibari’s advances, but this backfires. He finds himself squaring off against Makoto—a brash boy with his heart set on Hibari—and the pretty, responsible Rie. Kosaku falls for Rie, despite Hibari’s best attempts, as Makoto pursues the trans teen himself. Being a love triangle in a shounen manga, however, it’s clear from the start where things are heading.

Kosaku blushes at Hibari sleeping on his shoulder

Much of that is due to the affectionate, playful banter between the two leads. Furuya Toru brings a bewildered, bashful boyishness to Kosaku—earnest to a fault and easily embarrassed. Meanwhile, Majima Satomi’s Hibari is a peppy ray of sunshine, full of energy and never afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. Chemistry between the two performers is electric, which makes sense, considering both Furuya and Majima met and began dating on Hibari-kun. By 1985, both leads were married, with Majima retiring from the industry shortly after. Listening to the show now, it’s charming to watch the couple play off each other, and build up the chemistry that would bring them closer in a few short years.

Indeed, most of Kosaku’s romantic development is not directed at Rie, but instead at his own inner turmoil over Hibari. Early on, we understand Kosaku’s attraction to Hibari is not only real, but something that seems to ever intensify. As he tries to take things with Rie further, he grows jealous as Makoto attempts to woo Hibari away from him. Then he catches himself: “why am I jealous over a boy?” That question is the fulcrum on which Hibari-kun balances. Will Kosaku overlook his prejudices and succumb to Hibari’s charms, or will his desire to be “normal” win out in the end?

Readers never got an answer to that question. Despite its popularity in Jump and decent success with the Toei adaptation, Stop!! Hibari-kun was canceled by 1983, just over two years into its run. This wasn’t due to any social pressure or a lack of popularity, but something predictable for a Shueisha manga: labor issues. Eguchi was a perfectionist, especially when it came to Hibari-kun, taking frequent hiatuses and refusing to use white-out for errors. In an interview from a 2005 reprint of the manga, Eguchi and Jump editor Nishimura Shigeo had a contentious relationship that primarily stemmed from the artist’s glacial pace.

Hibari holding up polka dotted panties

By the end of the series, Eguchi was frustrated. His request to submit chapters every other week had been denied by Nishimura, and his exhaustion only continued to grow. At his wits’ end, he turned in an incomplete draft of the last chapter and fled to a hotel. Eguchi locked himself in his room for a day, until Nishmura personally contacted and gave him the news that the series was over.

“Drawing weekly isn’t something humans can do,” Eguchi told a talk show in 2016. “It’s impossible… in the end, [the publisher] told me ‘We don’t need you anymore’.”

Nishimura told Eguchi, point blank, that he couldn’t deal with working together on a weekly basis anymore. Eguchi backed away from the series, and Jump—unable to find an artist to pick it up—left Hibarikun to end on a cliffhanger. The artist would eventually finalize the incomplete final chapter for an anthology in 2009, but outside of that, nothing new has come out of Hibari-kun since.

Hibari staring at an unsure, blushing Kosaku

Despite its short run in print and on television, Stop!! Hibari-kun has enjoyed lasting popularity. It’s been reprinted five times over four decades, and Toei’s adaptation was given a complete DVD release in 2014. Eguchi himself has also enjoyed a successful career as a prolific pop artist and graphic designer. Yet Hibari continues to cast a long shadow, as the artist continues to give interviews and discuss the series to this day. It’s through these later talks with Eguchi that some of the true intent of the series has become clear—intent that might not have come through in the 1980s.

Eguchi himself has been very forthcoming about his own gender ideations. In 2017, he admitted that drawing Hibari to be as attractive and fashionable as possible is not so much a silly gag as it is personal projection.

“It’s really my frustrations of not being born a girl that drives my drawings,” the artist confessed during the Toco Toco interview in 2017. “But women are just so attractive. I’ll never be able to catch up.”

close-up of Hibari with a floral background

Eguchi also stated in the same interview that he modeled Hibari on the sort of person he wished he’d been born as.

“The ideal girl for me is the one I would have wanted to become if I was born as a girl. It’s not the girl I would dream to date.”

This transfeminine yearning at the heart of Hibari’s design reframes Stop!! Hibari-kun to a degree. While it’s undeniable that the series’ understanding of gender is firmly rooted in hegemonic sex and gender politics of the 1980s, an undercurrent of sweetness is what makes it still palatable today. That sweetness is most apparent when it comes to Hibari’s casual disregard of gender. She consistently refuses to understand why she can’t be treated the way she wants—why it’s so wrong for her to strive for femininity.

Koasku holds Hibari's arm up in victory

If we’re to read Hibari as an analog for Eguchi, it’s easy to see these moments of bewilderment as the author asking the same questions to himself. Why can’t he just dress how he wants? Why can’t he be called something different? Why can’t his desire to be born female manifest into a tangible reality? In this context, this line of questioning in the series feels less funny, and more bittersweet. True, we may not ever know just how much of Eguchi’s own internal thoughts on gender expression are reflected in Hibari. But it’s hard to deny, based on the artist’s own comments, that he is working through some complex thoughts on his own gender identity.

By consequence, Stop!! Hibari-kun remains mostly a delight under modern scrutiny. Dated gags and pronoun usage aside, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a super-tough, super-cute transfemme centered in a romantic comedy. Because Eguchi put so much of himself into Hibari, she never feels like a love interest for Kosaku, or bound to a more reductive role. This is her story— Kosaku’s just starring in it. Through Eguchi making a femme persona for himself to explore and play with gender, the artist created a more resilient and fleshed-out trans character than we often even get today.

Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication to add a content warning for racial caricature present in the manga, in cast readers decide to seek it out.

About the Author : Madeline Blondeau

Madeline Blondeau is a journalist, author, and the hostess of Rocketto Punchi Podcast (available on iTunes and Spotify.) A graduate of Guilford College, her work can be found at Anime News Network, Gayming Mag, Screen Queens, CGM, TheGamer, and many others. She's currently seeking publishers for her third novel, and trying to suck less at guitar. You can find her often vitriolic, but always well-meaning rambles on Twitter @vhsvvitch.

Read more articles from Madeline Blondeau

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