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Shûzô Oshimi: “I always wondered what to keep about one’s masculinity”

At school, the very introverted Yohei is in love with Yui but he does not dare open his heart to her.

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Shûzô Oshimi: “I always wondered what to keep about one’s masculinity”

At school, the very introverted Yohei is in love with Yui but he does not dare open his heart to her. For her part, Yui is in love with the handsome Kei but he suddenly moves out of the area. Three years later, in high school, when Yohei finds himself in the same class as Yui, he promises himself to try his luck. It’s then that Kei reappears, in the guise of a very cute girl: “I stopped being a boy but I don’t want to become a girl.” Yohei is therefore torn between his physical attraction to Kei and his deep feelings for Yui...

The first volume of Welcome Back, Alice, released on January 10, 2024 by Pika, features the “alter ego” of its author, Shûzô Oshimi, who has also been uncomfortable with his sexual urges since adolescence. This highly personal approach questions the notion of masculinity as well as gender identity and expression in our societies, via the non-binary character of Kei. What is a boy and what is a girl? The mangaka already raised this question with In the Intimacy of Marie (available from Akata), whose hero woke up in the body of the one he loved.

A brilliant illustrator of psychological suffering, a specialist in the irruption of the strange and the horror into the banality of everyday life, Shûzô Oshimi won the prestigious prize for best series at the Angoulême Comics Festival last year with Blood Ties (available from Ki-oon), a particularly chilling title about a toxic mother-son relationship.

Also read: Shin’ichi Sakamoto: “I’m trying to change our outlook on the role of women in society”

LE FIGARO. - Could you tell us the genesis of the Welcome Back project, Alice?

Shûzô OSHIMI. - I had my own afflictions, which I have been thinking about for several years now. These include my feelings of inadequacy, my desires and frustrations when it comes to sexual satisfaction, my lack of confidence as a man, and my desire to be a woman. I wanted to explore these themes within the framework of a shônen manga pre-publication magazine (the target may well be teenagers, the readers are in reality mainly in their twenties and thirties) and, while depicting a manga of erotic romance of this type of magazine, I tried to deconstruct these subjects from the inside.

In the epilogue of the first volume, you say “fear sex” and state the ambition to “better understand” the sexual desire of men. In what way did the production of this manga – whose publication in Japan ended last summer – shed light on these questions? Can we talk about therapeutic exercise in your case?

In writing this story, I wanted to break down my own “discomfort” to better study it. But I don't know if we can say that this exercise cured me. In truth, far from becoming easier, this manga was increasingly difficult for me to draw. In the story, Kei talks about "stopping being a man", which is also my wish, but I always wondered how much to stop, or what to keep from his masculinity while passing this cap. Perhaps, rather than arriving at a clear answer, the most important thing for me was to continue thinking about this question in this way.

When we read Happiness, Blood Ties or Welcome Back, Alice, we sense a deep interest in the dark aspects of humanity. How do you explain it, when you say “fear violence”?

I consider myself both perpetrator and victim. I would be more reassured if I were one or the other 100%, but I don't think anyone can achieve that. Despite everything, I think that if I draw these stories, it is to end them on a note of hope.

Your mangas often take place in a school environment. What memories do you have from your years at school, particularly in terms of friendly and romantic relationships? How do these memories inform your manga?

It was between the ages of 10 and 20 that I discovered and cultivated the themes that I have discussed so far, and which are important to me. My parents introduced me to, among other things, the poems of Baudelaire and the paintings of Odilon Redon. When I was in middle school, a girl I liked introduced me to Junji Itô's horror manga. We were both in charge of the class newspaper (a newspaper posted on the wall reporting school events, etc.) and we had done a special edition without permission on Junji Itô. For this I had copied a large illustration of a woman covered in blood, and I was reprimanded for it.

Manga depicting transidentity tend to revolve around self-acceptance, tolerance, fulfillment… Here, Kei seems to have no problem with his new identity; In fact, he is the one who makes others uncomfortable. How did you build this character? Wasn't it dangerous to feature this scary and sexually dominant trans teenager, when this community is often the victim of discrimination?

Kei appears as a character who seems to have "no problem" with this identity. But in reality, it's just an appearance. My intention is not to present him as a realistic transgender character. At first glance, that may be the impression it gives. But I hope that by reading the rest, you will gradually understand what he embodies.

First of all, you should know that the first part of this series is a kind of parody. In the 80s a manga was published called Stop!! Hibari-kun!. It is the story of a pretty young girl, who is actually a boy, and who seduces the main character of the story while showing a strong independent character. Welcome back, Alice is based on this storyline. In essence, “Hibari-kun” embodies both the sexual fantasies of boys and what they wish to become. In the same way, Kei can be said to represent both a “fantasy” and an “aspiration”. This work is in a sense an attempt at dialogue with these two notions.

Have you done any specific research on transidentity?

For the reasons I mentioned earlier, I have avoided any connections between this story and the actual experiences of transgender people. I have not carried out any research, apart from my internal questions. The only work that has guided me on a spiritual level is A Frigid Man by the philosopher Masahiro Morioka. In this book, Mr. Morioka, a heterosexual man, digs to the very roots of his own sexuality and offers a gripping analysis of a sexuality that one would be inclined to scorn. This book gave me a lot of courage.

Yôhei is attracted to Kei, which troubles him deeply. Did you also want to question the heteronormativity of society?

Rather than raising societal questions, I wanted above all to escape normative consciousness myself. Although I wanted to let go of my sexual desire, I suffered from not being able to get rid of this male desire and the fact that my physique was reduced to my penis. Yohei is, so to speak, my alter ego.

I am a heterosexual man born and living in Japan, and I am considered part of the majority in this country. However, I am unable to integrate into this majority society, and I am also unable to join a minority. As my feeling of disagreement is unique and I do not find it in others, all I have to do is create my own work.

What meaning does this manga drawn by a Japanese find in France, and is it different from the one it has in Japan? This is something that interests me as well.

Welcome Back, Alice deals head-on with the sexuality of middle and high school students, crudely evoking masturbation and adolescent fantasies. What should worry the editorial board of Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine or, later, the parents of your readers? Did you self-censor or were you censored at times?

We have never received any complaints from readers or instructions from authorities. The magazine's standards contained rules regarding representation (for example, not depicting genitals), and so I followed them. However, I feel like I was allowed to draw relatively freely.

Generally speaking, how was the work perceived by your readers? What feedback – positive or negative – stood out to you?

The most common comment is that Kei is cute. It is, so to speak, purely visual. Entering the second half of the story, I think readers were able to make the connection with the suffering of the author that I am. We have also received positive feedback from transgender people. The phrase “stop being a man” elicited more positive reactions from female readers. Some men also said they shared the same inner conflicts.

Are you already working on a new series?

Last January, the pre-publication of my new manga, titled Chi-chan, began. This is a short series, and more precisely the prequel to the film Doku Musume, in which I participated as a character designer. The story is my invention. I hope the audience of the film will also read this manga. After that, I'm thinking of doing another long-form series, but I don't know yet what it will be or when it will be released.

Thanks to Manon Debienne for the Japanese-French translation.

Welcome Back, Alice, volume 1, by Shûzô Oshimi, translated by Thibaud Desbief, Pika, 7.95 euros per volume.

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