After School Nightmare, Volume 5

After School Nightmare, Volume 5Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617473
Released: October 2007
Original release: 2006

After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro is a manga series that I honestly find disconcerting, so much so that even though I also find it compelling, I could never bring myself to read past the first few volumes until recently. The manga is a dark and intense psychological drama dealing with issues of abuse, gender, and personal identity. Despite being a series that is quite obviously fantasy-horror, some of the themes actually hit fairly close to home for me. Mizushiro has skillfully crafted a chilling setting and ominous atmosphere for After School Nightmare in which to explore both nightmares and reality. The ten-volume series was published in English by the now defunct Go! Comi and so is sadly out-of-print, but it seems to still be fairly easy to find. After School Nightmare, Volume 5 was first published in Japan in 2006 while the English translation was released in 2007. The series reaches its halfway point with this volume, but the intensity of the drama and psychological horror shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.

After having let his feelings be pulled one way and then another, Mashiro has made his decision: In order to live as a man he has rejected Sou and his aggressive advances in favor of his girlfriend Kureha. Mashiro tells himself that it’s because Kureha is the one who needs him the most, never considering that Sou might need him, too. Ultimately though, Mashiro’s decision is a selfish one and not nearly as gallant as he would like to believe or portray. Although he has been living as a boy for most of his life, he is still incredibly insecure in his gender identity, mostly due to the fact that his body has both male and female characteristics. By dating Kureha and by becoming her self-proclaimed guardian and protector, Mashiro hopes to unequivocally establish his masculinity for himself and for others, something he doesn’t believe would be possible if he recognized having feelings for another guy. But even though Mashiro has made his decision, he still has lingering doubts.

After School Nightmare, Volume 5, page 52Many of the characters in After School Nightmare are broken, damaged, or incomplete individuals who are attempting to put the pieces of their lives together to form, or reform, some sort of whole. That is part of the purpose of the titular after school nightmare—a special class that, through shared dreams, forces them to confront their greatest fears and in the process reveal them to the other students as they all try to determine who they really are as people. It can actually be quite painful and heart-wrenching to witness the events unfold both within the nightmares and outside of them; truly terrible and horrifying things occur that strongly influence the characters’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being. At this point in the series Mashiro’s personal struggles and torments are the ones about which the most is known, but After School Nightmare, Volume 5 begins to reveal more about Sou’s tragedies which previously had largely only been hinted at.

From the beginning of After School Nightmare, Sou has been shown to be one of the strongest and most assertive characters in the series which is why seeing him in such a vulnerable state in the fifth volume is especially distressing. Sou is an unlikeable person in many ways—among other things showing a shocking lack of respect for Mashiro, the person he supposedly loves—but I can’t help but feel some empathy for him as he is caught up in multiple extremely unhealthy and manipulative relationships. And he’s not always the one doing the manipulating; his relationship with his sister and the control she seem to have over him is particularly troubling. Mashiro’s rejection hits Sou hard, too, certainly much harder than either of them really expected. At first Sou reacts in anger, but ultimately he tries to lives in forced denial of his feelings. Considering how the rest of After School Nightmare has progressed so far, I don’t anticipate that this method of coping will turn out well for any of the people involved.

After School Nightmare, Volume 4

After School Nightmare, Volume 4Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617336
Released: July 2007
Original release: 2006

Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare is a ten-volume manga series, an intense psychological drama that explores issues of gender identity and sexuality in a fantastical sort of way. The manga incorporates elements of horror and is an effectively disconcerting work. Up until now, I had only ever read the first three volumes of After School Nightmare. Those volumes, initially borrowed from the library, left a significant impression on me and I immediately sought out a complete set of the entire series for my own. (Fortunately, though out-of-print in English, After School Nightmare is still relatively easy to find.) But while I found the start of the series to be compelling, years passed before I was able to gather the courage to read more of the manga. After School Nightmare, Volume 4 was first published in Japan in 2006 while Go! Comi released the English-language edition in 2007.

Mashiro is conflicted and confused, no longer certain of who he is as a person and struggling to determine just that. The special class that he must complete in order to graduate isn’t doing anything to ease his personal turmoil. In fact, it’s forcing him to confront his insecurities and fears. But the class is also making him stronger, encouraging him to face his feelings head on both inside the shared dreams of the class and outside of them. This also means facing Sou and his relentless advances without running away. While Mashiro is becoming more confident, he is also opening himself up to Sou’s aggressiveness and influence. Matters become even more complicated when their classmate Shinbashi witnesses them sharing a kiss. Shinbashi is in love with Mashiro’s girlfriend Kureha and cares for her more deeply than her boyfriend seems to. After seeing Sou and Mashiro together, Shinbashi mistakenly assumes Mashiro’s indecisiveness in his relationship with Kureha is due to his sexual orientation, never guessing that Mashiro’s true struggle is with his gender identity.

After School Nightmare, Volume 4, page 47Shinbashi has been an increasingly important character in After School Nightmare ever since he was introduced in the second volume, but the role he plays in the fourth volume is absolutely crucial. At this point in the series it doesn’t seem as though any of the characters will get a happy ending, and Shinbashi is no exception. While he may not be dealing with the repercussions of extreme physical, emotional, and mental abuse like those experienced by his fellow classmates, his story is still a tragic one. Shinbashi has become a friend and confidante of sorts to both Mashiro, who ought to be something more like a rival, and Kureha, despite her fear and hatred of men. It’s heartbreaking to see that because Kureha’s aversion is so severe, she and Shinbashi can only communicate through their cell phones; she can’t even stand to be in the same room with him. And while by nature Shinbashi is passive, he loves Kureha completely and would do anything for her, even to the point of self-destruction.

A large part of After School Nightmare is focused on Mashiro’s search for self identity and how that identity is effected by the people around him and influenced by their relationships with him. Mashiro’s friendship with Shinbashi is a rather peculiar one that, oddly enough, somehow works. Where Shinbashi is self-sacrificing to a fault, Mashiro is incredibly self-centered, so concerned with and tangled up in his own problems that he often forgets to take into consideration how his actions may hurt others. An interesting thing about After School Nightmare is that while very few of the characters are easily likeable, I still find that I can empathize with them and can even identify with some of their plights. After School Nightmare continues to be an unsettling work with an intense and ominous atmosphere—I wouldn’t hesitate at all to describe it as a type of quiet, psychological horror—but there are occasional glimmers of hope that at least some of the characters will be able to overcome their troubles and fears.

After School Nightmare, Volume 3

After School Nightmare, Volume 3Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617244
Released: April 2007
Original release: 2005

After School Nightmare is a ten-volume manga series created by Setona Mizushiro which has prominent psychological elements and an unsettling atmosphere. The series is currently out-of-print in English, but fortunately most of the volumes are still relatively easy to find. I initially read the first few volumes of After School Nightmare after borrowing them from my local library and made a point to collect the entire series based on the impression left on me by the early part of the manga alone. However, I never actually read any further than the third volume, in part because I found the series to be so effectively disconcerting (which I don’t necessarily consider to be a bad thing, especially for what could be considered a horror manga) and because some of the themes in the series are pretty hard-hitting and true-to-life, even if they are explored in a fantastic way. After School Nightmare, Volume 3 was originally published in Japan in 2005. The sadly now defunct Go! Comi released the English-language edition of the volume in 2007.

Every Thursday, Mashiro and a small group of other students attend a special class after school required for their graduation. In it they enter one another’s dreams, taking on forms representative of their true selves and forced to face the darkness that resides in their hearts. Many of these forms are so unlike the students’ appearances in their waking lives that it’s often impossible to know for certain who is who. At least that was true before Itsuki Shinonome joined the class. The youngest student at the school and a genius with an incredible intellect, he is prepared to leverage that privileged information in any way that he can in order to leave high school behind as quickly as possible. Knowing that Mashiro is desperate to uncover the identity of the student who takes on the form of the Black Knight in the dreams, Itsuki makes him a deal. In return for Mashiro helping and protecting him, as well as closely following his orders, Itsuki will reveal the name of the student who is the Black Knight, but only after he is able to complete the class.

After School Nightmare, Volume 3, page 130Over the last few volumes of After School Nightmare Mashiro has become increasingly obsessed with the identity of the Black Knight, and with good reason. He was assaulted by the Black Knight within the dreams and suspects that the knight may be the same person as Sou, another student who has been very forceful about his feelings for Mashiro. Mashiro wants to confirm whether or not his suspicion is correct, but he hasn’t really completely thought through what he will do with that information once he knows the truth or fully considered exactly how having that knowledge will change him. Already Mashiro finds himself thinking more and more about Sou—the thin line between hate and love becoming blurred to an even greater extent—and this has had major impacts on Mashiro’s other relationships, particularly on the one with his girlfriend Kureha. Something that Mizushiro has done especially well in After School Nightmare is capture the complexities and turmoil of interpersonal relationships and how they affect one another.

Through the genre of dark, psychological fantasy, After School Nightmare touches upon issues related to identity, gender, and sexuality. Although all three can be closely intertwined, gender specifically is frequently at the forefront of Mashiro’s mind since his body has both male and female characteristics. He is so concerned about being seen as a man by others that he immediately rejects anything feminine about himself, blaming that side of him for all of his weaknesses instead of taking full responsibility for his actions and feelings. But as Itsuki points out, girls have to deal with plenty of challenges and unfair situations every day of their lives; simply existing within society requires and demands incredible strength from them. Mashiro’s attitude towards gender roles in the first two volumes of After School Nightmare was very traditional, so I’m glad to see his rigid assumptions and beliefs being shaken up a bit. Of course, this will force him to completely reevaluate who he is as a person, which will be a difficult and perhaps even traumatic process, especially as he was already struggling with establishing and accepting his own identity.

After School Nightmare, Volume 2

After School Nightmare, Volume 2Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617176
Released: December 2006
Original release: 2005

The second volume of Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, a disconcerting shoujo manga series with dark psychological elements, was originally released in Japan in 2005. The English-language translation was published by Go! Comi in 2007. The entire ten-volume series is now out-of-print in English, but happily the individual manga can still be found relatively easily. I had initially read the first few volumes of After School Nightmare by borrowing them from a library before deciding to track down a set of my own. However, I never got around to reading the entire manga until now because, although the beginning of the series immediately captured my attention, the manga was honestly discomforting. The first volume introduces a surreal setting in which dreams can be just as terrifying and damaging as the realities from which the characters would like to escape. After School Nightmare is a manga that is both fantastically strange and oddly compelling.

Conflicted and confused over his gender due to having a body that is neither entirely male nor female, Mashiro has tried to keep his physical condition hidden from others by living his life as a boy, but now that closely kept secret is out. Every Thursday after school, he and a handful of other students participate in a special class required for their graduation. During the class they literally share a dream, or rather a nightmare, together. In the process their true selves are revealed to the other students, and so a few of Mashiro’s classmates have found out about his body. Within the dreams, Mashiro has fallen victim to the cruel Black Knight, another student whose identity he is unsure of but who he suspects may be Sou. In waking reality, Sou has forcibly kissed Mashiro, insisting that he is a girl and even going so far as to declare his love for him. It is not a situation that Mashiro is comfortable with and if he can get up the courage he intends to confront Sou, whether it be in the nightmare or outside of it.

After School Nightmare, Volume 2, page 56Frankly, Sou is a jerk. He may be earnest in his feelings for Mashiro, and he’s at least started to try to reign in his aggressiveness, but he has yet to show Mashiro any sort of respect. I can’t like the guy because of the way he treats Mashiro, however I do still have some sympathy for him. Sou, like all of the other students in the special class, suffers greatly from emotional abuse and trauma. Still, that does not excuse his behavior towards Mashiro. Even so, he is positioned as one of Mashiro’s two potential romantic interests in After School Nightmare, the other being Kureha. Although she has made an exception and is currently dating Mashiro, she hates and despises men. Mashiro and Kureha generally get along, but their relationship isn’t as healthy as it could be, mostly but not entirely due to Mashiro’s continued insecurities over his gender. He seems to believe that his identity is defined and determined by the person he is intimate with. Because he’s desperate to be seen as a man, this calls into question whether or not he’s actually in love with Kureha, or if he’s simply dating her as a way to prove his masculinity.

The shared dreams in After School Nightmare are a way of forcing the students to face and work through the darkness that exists within their hearts and psyches. In theory, those nightmares are supposedly intended to be kept separate from reality, but the two worlds do have an effect on each other. The distorted forms the students take within the dreams can be terrifying, but what really makes them so disturbing are the troubling truths and dark pasts that they reveal. The pain, suffering, and hatred that is readily visible in the nightmares still exists and is present in their waking lives. Usually hidden, suppressed, or otherwise concealed, the prejudices that the students carry within them occasionally erupt violently. The skills and maturity needed to deal with these emotional, psychological, and physical disturbances are at least in part being developed within the dreams. In After School Nightmare, Volume 2, Mashiro begins to learn the importance and power of mental strength and fortitude, but both he and his classmates all still have room to learn and grow.

After School Nightmare, Volume 1

After School Nightmare, Volume 1Creator: Setona Mizushiro
U.S. publisher: Go! Comi
ISBN: 9781933617169
Released: September 2006
Original release: 2004

After School Nightmare is a ten-volume manga series by Setona Mizushiro. I first came across the series while working my way through one of my local library’s manga collection which, at the time, was largely shelved alphabetically by title. So, it didn’t take me too long to encounter After School Nightmare. I borrowed and read the first few volumes and on the strength of those alone decided to track down and purchase the entire series which had sadly gone out of print. The manga’s dark, horror-tinged psychological drama and its themes exploring gender and sexuality immediately appealed to me; the series had the potential to be both disconcerting and compelling. After School Nightmare, Volume 1 was originally published in Japan in 2004. The English-language edition of the volume was released in 2006 by the now defunct Go! Comi. After School Nightmare has generally been critically well-received in English, even earning an Eisner Award nomination for Best U.S. Edition of International Material among other honors.

Mashiro Ichijo is an androgynously attractive and well-liked you man, but he’s hiding a secret from his classmates—his body is neither entirely male nor entirely female. This has brought Mashiro some challenges in his life and as a result of his physical condition he struggles with his personal identity and gender. Just how much he struggles is made abundantly clear when Mashiro is requested to join a special after-school class which must be completed in order for him to graduate. In it the students must literally live out their nightmares where they are forced to face their darkest fears and bear witness to one another’s deepest secrets. What’s more is that they aren’t there to offer comfort or support. Instead, circumstances encourage them to strike out against their fellow classmates. And even though what happens in the nightmares isn’t to carry over into the real world, sharing such an intimate experience can’t help but change the young people and how they see one another.

The circumstances surrounding the after-school classes are peculiar. Only the students invited to attend seem to be aware of it. The stairs leading down to the infirmary where the class is held in a basement that shouldn’t exist disappears and reappears depending on the day. The teacher in charge isn’t known by the school’s other faculty. Students who “graduate” quietly go missing and are forgotten. All of these things and more add to the foreboding atmosphere of After School Nightmare and the feeling that something just isn’t quite right about what is going on. The shared nightmares themselves are also ominously disconcerting. The imagery is frightening—a girl whose face and heart are gaping holes, disembodied hands and arms, a cruel knight in black armor—but in the end the students’ psychological torment and distress may be even more troubling and gut-wrenching. The nightmares simply reveal the darkness and confusion that they already carry within themselves.

In the dreams, the students take on their true forms, representative of the issues, abuse, and trauma that they are dealing with. Many of them appear so distorted in the nightmares that its difficult to know their identities in the waking world. That’s not the case for Mashiro who looks exactly the same except that, to his horror, he sometimes is wearing the girls’ skirted school uniform in the dreams. This makes him easily identifiable and a target in the real world. He catches the attention of Kureha Fujishima, a young woman who is afraid of men but feels comfortable around Mashiro after learning his secret. And then there’s Sou Mizuhashi who has a reputation for being a playboy and womanizer but who also seems to have taken an intense interest in Mashiro. Though somewhat conflicted over these developments in his relationships with his classmates, Mashiro largely welcomes the attention from Kureha and is understandably uncomfortable with Sou’s aggressive advances towards him. As the first volume of After School Nightmare shows, reality can be just as terrifying if not more so than any nightmare.