From the back cover:
You have just awakened to find your darkest secret revealed to a group of people who would do anything to destroy you: your classmates! That’s what happens to Ichijo Mashiro, whose elite school education turns into the most horrifying experience of his life when he’s enlisted to participate in an after-hours class. The only way for Mashiro to graduate is to enter into a nightmare world where his body and soul will be at the mercy of his worst enemies. Can Mashiro keep the lifelong secret that he is not truly a “he” nor entirely a “she”—or will he finally be “outted” in the most humiliating way possible?
Mashiro Ichijo (also confusingly referred to on the back cover as Ichijo Mashiro) is first-year high school student with a big secret—although the top half of his body is male, his lower half is female. For some reason, despite concrete evidence that Mashiro possesses ovaries, he was raised as a boy and is trying hard to maintain that identity. Mashiro has never discussed his body with anyone, but one day he’s approached by a school nurse he’s never seen before. She not only knows all about his secret, but assigns him to a special after-school class that involves entering a dream with five other classmates. If he succeeds in completing an unknown task, he’ll graduate from the school. It’s all very strange and immediately made me think of Revolutionary Girl Utena.
The identities of the other students in the dream are not immediately known to Mashiro, but he’s able to figure some of them out in the course of this volume. The other students’ appearances change while in the dream, as they take on forms that symbolize their real heart. His cute classmate Kureha, for example, takes the form of her five-year-old self on the day she was sexually assaulted by a strange man. Others are more bizarre—one girl has neither face nor heart, another student is a bundle of arms and hands—but Mashiro himself doesn’t change much, beyond wearing a girl’s uniform, because he thinks that his own body is already the most distorted thing of all.
The students are tasked with finding a key, and often inflict injury upon each other while in search of same. Mashiro decides that he will protect man-hating Kureha and help her graduate, since the dream experience is so traumatic for her that she doesn’t even attempt to play the game. While he’s trying hard to fulfill this manly role, his insecurities still run deep, and he’s convinced that the reason he couldn’t stop the black knight (later revealed to be antagonistic classmate, Sou, who is inexplicably obsessed with Mashiro) from slicing up his uniform and revealing his body is that he’s really a girl. Mashiro equates being a girl with weakness, which makes me wonder if that’s what he’s been placed in this class to overcome.
Although the dream sequences are fascinating, the truly compelling part of this story so far is Mashiro’s desperation to be something he’s not sure he is. He begins a relationship with Kureha, but right before their first kiss, panicked thoughts of “I’m about to kiss another girl!” flit through his mind. Kissing her is something he should do, he convinces himself, but when Sou later inflicts a kiss upon him, Mashiro is torn once more. Mashiro clearly feels something for both of the others—a need to protect Kureha and a grudging interest in cruelly enigmatic Sou—but each option symbolizes a particular gender identity, and Mashiro is presently as incapable of choosing between them as he is of definitively seizing an identity for himself.
This dramatic and captivating first volume serves as an excellent introduction into the series, and I’m eager to read more.
Although I am tardy, this review is part of September’s Manga Moveable Feast. To read what others have to say about After School Nightmare, check out this post at A Case Suitable For Treatment.