Last weekend was my seventh year attending Kumoricon, but my first year there as a panelist with Intro to the Works of Yuhki Kamatani. I plan to bring this panel to future conventions with modifications and possibly a different title, but for now here is a blog post version of my script. Keep in mind this lacks the slideshow, delivery, and discussion time of the full panel.
Yuhki Kamatani combines lovely artwork and progressive story in exploring adolescence, such as their best known manga Nabari no Ou. Their latest manga looks at LGBTQ identity, informed by their experience as nonbinary and asexual. Since this is an “introduction,” spoilers will be avoided. Some developments and reveals will be discussed, but nothing that would ruin your experience if you want to read them for yourself.
We’ll begin with looking at Yuhki Kamatani as a person and creator, which adds a lot to understanding and appreciating their manga. Kamatani is currently working as a full time mangaka with two ongoing series. They were born on June 22nd in 1983 in Hiroshima, where they still live. Their favorite things include birds (especially crows), Japanese, retro, the surreal, the Kingdom of Bhutan, Ireland, Russia, the sound of wet frogs, ruins, fossils, earth sciences, and black coffee. Almost all of these find their ways into Kamatani’s manga somehow. Kamatani made their professional debut with the one shot “Hanaya” in 2000 at just 18 years old, then serialized Nabari no Ou from 2004 on. In 2012 they came out as x-gender and asexual on Twitter with a tweet that said “I don’t want to deceive. I’m x-gender and asexual, a sexual minority. That’s the kind of person I am.” (My Japanese isn’t good enough to understand the first part of the tweet.) So if you ever see Kamatani referred to as a woman, that is incorrect.
You may be wondering what I mean by x-gender and asexual. First we need to go through Trans 101 to understand. A transgender person is one who identities as a gender besides the one assigned at birth. By the way, a cisgender person is one who identities as the gender assigned at birth.
An x-gender person is a transgender person who identifies as neither singularly a man nor a woman. The specifics of this experience depend on the individual person. The X represents the indistinct and the undefined, like when you solve for X in a math equation. X-gender is a term used exclusively in Japan. It was coined in the late 1990s among LGBTQ people in Kansai, then awareness and use of x-gender as an identity spread in the mid-2000s on the Internet. In English, x-gender can be described as a nonbinary gender identity, meaning it does not fall under the binary of man or woman.
In Japan, not unlike the United States, binary transition is the common transgender narrative. FTM and MTF, short for female to male and male to female, are common terms in Japan. Being trans is also particularly medicalized in Japan, meaning it is seen as a condition treated through medical means like hormone replacement and surgery. X-gender people tend to describe themselves as FTX and MTX, though a transition to the concept of X doesn’t neatly fit into the established medical binary transition model. Kamatani calls themself simply “tX” in their Twitter profile which avoids disclosing the gender they were assigned at birth.
Kamatani is also asexual. If you’re familiar with this term in English, you’ll find that it has a slightly different meaning in Japan. Asexuality gained awareness in English- and Japanese-speaking communities in the mid-2000s through the Internet. In Japan it was presumably a loanword from English, but came to have its own meaning. English words meaning something different in Japan is nothing new.
In English “asexual” means not being sexually attracted to anyone. An asexual person may or may not be interested in romantic relationships. Western asexuality terminology uses a “split attraction model” to differentiate between sex and romance, where “aromantic” means not being romantically attracted to anyone. An asexual person may be aromantic or may not be. A person may be aromantic and not asexual.
Japanese people quantify the difference in another way. In Japanese, asexual means not experiencing sexual or romantic desire. Nonsexual means experiencing romantic and not sexual desire. So they are two different sexual orientations. Asexuality is also known as museiai (literally “no sex love”) and nonsexuality as hiseiai (“non sex love”). In English Kamatani would be considered asexual and aromantic, but this article simply calls them asexual for the overlap in definition and since they use the Japanese definition as a Japanese person.
This may seem like a lot of time to spend on this, but it’s important to explain Kamatani’s gender and sexual orientation since those identities are important to them. When people call Kamatani a woman that is not true and hurtful. Unfortunately even many fans of their manga do not know these things about them. So please, describe Kamatani as an x-gender person and use the pronouns they, them, and theirs rather than she, her, and hers. Kamatani hasn’t given an official statement for what pronouns to use in English, but it’s best to go with neutral when we don’t know.
Publicly out LGBTQ mangaka are rare, which is all the more reason to support them and their works. It’s even rarer for their manga to be legally available in the US like Nabari no Ou. Manga created by straight people for straight people are popular in and outside Japan, while Kamatani remains an obscure mangaka. Their experience informs their depictions of LGBTQ characters that a straight or cisgender person cannot replicate. Kamatani themself acknowledges that “there are still authors who, without realizing it, use the minorities as the subject of jokes. These attitudes are deeply rooted and widely accepted.” We should also recognize that LGBTQ people exist in Japan and have their own histories, identities, and terminology. We owe it to ourselves to read these perspectives.
Back to just Kamatani now. Let’s look at a list of favorite creators on their inactive blog, and the influences from them on their.
Writing wise they like
- Kenji Miyazawa, a classic Japanese children’s author. You may be familiar with the anime movie adaptation of his Night on the Galactic Railroad.
- Michael Ende, the author of The Neverending Story. You probably know the movie from 1984, which covers the first half of the book.
- Miyuki Miyabe, the author of Brave Story. You may be familiar with the anime movie or video games based on the book.
All these authors write for children about children in magical worlds. Even though they write fantasy, the emotions of the characters are very real. Kamatani doesn’t write exclusively for children, but always features children and teenagers as main characters. The compassion and understanding of the emotions of adolescence shine through their manga.
As for art they like
- Hasui Kawase, a Japanese printmaker from the early 20th century.
- Moto Hagio, creator of shoujo manga like The Heart of Thomas.
- Tim Burton, a filmmaker you surely all know.
Hasui Kawase and Moto Hagio are masters of composition, just like Kamatani. Hagio’s manga also tend to be fantastical with intense emotions and psychological drama. Kamatani looks up to her a lot as an artist, and owes her manga that explores gender and sexually to their understanding of gender. As for Tim Burton it’s easy to notice they both draw characters with thin limbs, but more importantly they both explore the macabre.
When it comes music they like
- The composers Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
- The conductors Yevgeny Mravinsky and Carlos Kleiber.
- The Japanese band The Back Horn.
- The choir boy Ben Crawley.
Kamatani has been writing about their love of youth choir since 2005, which informed their understanding of gender as well. In their manga Shounen Note, they express their love and knowledge of classical music and choir.
Let’s finally get to the works of Yuhki Kamatani like the title of this panel says. We’ll begin with their first long-running work Nabari no Ou from 2004 to 2010. It’s generally known by its Japanese title, which means Ruler of the Hidden in English. It was licensed by Yen Press and all 14 volumes are available in English in the US, so please go buy them if you can.
It was a very ambitious first manga. For one thing, it’s a shounen manga about ninjas so the Naruto comparisons are inevitable. The main difference between them while Naruto is an anachronistic world of ninjas, Nabari no Ou is urban fantasy. The story takes place in modern day Japan where ninjas live among everyday people, but also have their own secret society known as the Nabari world. Think the wizarding world in Harry Potter, but with ninjas.
We begin with our protagonist Miharu who lives a normal life with his grandmother. A boy named Kouichi begs him to join their middle school’s ninja club, but Miharu is unimpressed and doesn’t care. Then he discovers he harbors a spirit called the Shinrabanshou (meaning “all things in nature”) so powerful that it can make anything possible by rewriting the fabric of the universe. His English teacher Tobari, who turns out to be a ninja, takes him under his wing and tells him to never use the Shinrabanshou under any circumstances because it would be selfish and unethical to do so. Miharu doesn’t care about using the power, and doesn’t know how to control it anyway. Tobari starts to teach Miharu jutsu to turn him into a ninja. Kouichi of course turns out to be a real ninja too and tags along with them. A samurai girl named Raimei also shows up at first just curious about the Shinrabanshou, but becomes Miharu’s friend and swears to protect him. Miharu acts indifferently to those around him and his new predicament, but soon finds himself thrown into the Nabari world as ninjas seek to use his great power for their own means.
Miharu settles in with the Fuuma clan, who welcome him with open arms and offer to find a way to remove the Shinrabanshou from his body. Another clan of ninja known as the Kairoushuu (Gray Wolves) come to the Fuuma village and try to kidnap Miharu. They believe the world is unjust, but could be revolutionized with the Shinrabanshou. They come armed with a deadly ninja named Yoite who uses a forbidden jutsu called Kira, which allows the user to fatally hurt others at the cost of the user’s life. The Kairoushuu fail their mission and retreat, but the mysterious Yoite has caught Miharu’s eye.
Later Yoite alone kidnaps Miharu and tells him, “I want you to make it so I never existed.” Yoite threatens to kill Miharu’s friends if he doesn’t comply. Miharu doesn’t ask for an explanation behind Yoite’s request. In order to make Yoite’s wish come true, the two of them must work together to obtain the five forbidden jutsu of the five ninja clans. With knowledge from the jutsu, they can learn how to use the Shinrabanshou. Yoite says this will all make Miharu the Ruler of Nabari. The main character aiming to become the ruler of ninja society sounds like Naruto wanting to become hokage, but its role in the story is different as it’s not Miharu’s goal.
Their plan has a time limit because ever since taking up Kira, Yoite is essentially on prolonged suicide with only a few months left to live. The distinction Yoite makes between wanting to die and wanting to disappear is something people with depression or other mental illness may understand all too well. Kamatani’s depiction of Yoite as an abuse survivor with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder is incredibly sympathetic.
At first Miharu works with Yoite in order to protect his allies, but finds himself feeling sympathy for Yoite. When the two of them are alone, he sees Yoite’s vulnerability and fatigue. For once in his life Miharu doesn’t feel indifferent, and instead feels a need to help someone he cares about. As time goes on he starts to question if erasing Yoite would really be the way to help them. Maybe he could save their life with the Shinrabanshou instead, but is that what Yoite wants? In turn, Yoite takes comfort in Miharu the more time they spend together. Miharu doesn’t know anything about Yoite’s mysterious past, so just sees them as the person they are now. He treats them with unfamiliar patience and warmth. The relationship between them is really the heart of the manga.
So… to address the elephant in the room, yes, the relationship between Miharu and Yoite could be romantic. Years ago there was argument and confusion over their relationship that boiled down to the question “is Nabari no Ou gay?” The romance is subtle, but it is there. For instance Kamatani sometimes symbolizes the bond between them as a thread, like the myth of the red string of fate where two lovers are connected by a red string across their lifetimes. Miharu doesn’t want the thread between them to be cut if Yoite dies. In fact, another character notices that Miharu cares for Yoite so much they “look like more than friends.” There’s more, but would go into spoiler territory.
So Miharu finds himself facing the classic Japanese dilemma of giri versus ninjo found throughout Japanese literature. Giri is the duty a person has to those higher on the social hierarchy. A person has giri to their older family members, their boss, etc. They are obligated to follow those people to preserve social harmony. In Nabari No Ou, Miharu has giri to Tobari who tells him not to use the Shinrabanshou. Tobari has social superiority over Miharu as an adult and as his teacher. He wants to guide Miharu to a path that would have the least consequences on the universe.
On the other hand ninjo is human feelings, essentially compassion: the ability to see another person and feel for them and want to help them. Giri and ninjo are seen as opposing forces. Ideally a person can balance giri and ninjo in their life, but that isn’t always the case. You may have to do something in the name of giri that goes against ninjo, or ninjo may pull you away from giri. In Nabari no Ou, Miharu is drawn to Yoite by ninjo. He sees himself in Yoite and falls in love with them, which makes him want to disobey Tobari. To find out how Miharu reconciles his internal conflict between giri and ninjo, you’ll just have to read the manga. He’s not the only character with this struggle, either. Many characters find themselves emotionally moved by other people in ways that go against their social obligations, but again would go into spoiler territory.
This only scratches the surface of Nabari no Ou, in order to leave the rest a surprise. There are many more characters and much more story to this manga. It’s a story where every character has secrets and connections that gradually come together. However, there are just a few other things to mention before we move on to more manga.
First, Kamatani’s art evolved significantly over the course of publishing Nabari no Ou. Most artists will tell you that creating comics is a great way to improve your art because you’re in a position where you have to draw a variety of things at a regular pace, and this was probably the case for Kamatani. Their art wasn’t bad at the beginning or anything, but as they grew they developed an amazing sense of flow and composition. Their current art style emerges around volume five, which is when the manga hits its stride in general.
Second, you may have noticed this article referring to Yoite as they, them, and theirs. Though official translations of the manga and anime use he, him, and his there is ambiguity of gender identity. The manga does not offer a specific identity, but that “Yoite is Yoite” no matter how they present, how other people perceive them, or that they were born intersex (a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fall under the social constructs of “female” or “male” sex). It’s all part of the larger theme of gray areas in Nabari no Ou, like how characters can’t easily be sorted into right or wrong.
In 2008, an anime adaptation of Nabari no Ou aired in Japan before the manga was finished. The anime made people around the world more aware of the manga and it particularly gained an English-speaking fandom, even popular enough for the anime to be licensed and dubbed by Funimation. The fandom faded away for the most part after the anime ended. Nabari no Ou is pretty obscure now, and if anything people seem to just know the anime. It’s 26 episodes long with an original anime ending, so if you’re a manga purist you may not like it. The original ending takes liberties with characterization and removes the fact Yoite is intersex. The whole show is available for free subtitled on Funimation’s Youtube channel.
Next we have Liberamente, a collection of short stories published in 2005 including their debut story “Hanaya.” The art is more like the early Nabari no Ou art. “Hanaya” follows a pair of siblings in a society where humans who transform into animal hybrids are ostracized. At first the sister is overwhelmed when her brother transforms, but comes to accept him and encourages her village to do the same.
Shounen Note was Kamatani’s next big project from 2010 to 2014. Unlike Nabari no Ou, this manga is aimed at adults. It follows a gentle young boy named Yutaka who joins his middle school choir as a soprano. For those who don’t know, soprano is in the highest vocal range of voice types. The most common combination of voice types for a choir to perform a song are (from highest to lowest) soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Yutaka’s voice hasn’t changed yet with puberty, making him a rare boy soprano. Unfortunately this manga hasn’t been licensed for release in the US, but hopefully someday.
Yutaka has a particular relationship to music. He is very sensitive to sounds, to the point they can overwhelm and upset him. But pleasant sounds and music can make him happy to the point of tears. The manga doesn’t say so explicitly, but you can infer that he is autistic. Yutaka is a great solo singer, but he becomes interested in choir when he hears them practice one day. He enjoys the complexity of different voices singing together, and finds himself less overwhelmed by noise. He also joins the town’s opera troupe to perform The Turn of the Screw, but finds himself psychologically lost in the role.
Of course manga doesn’t come with audio, so Kamatani has to communicate music and other sound through art alone which results in many beautiful pages. Usually a scene involving music begins realistically, then transitions into the fantastical. The room fades away and characters are carried to new settings. It perfectly captures the feeling of being swept away by a song. Every song referenced in the manga is a real song, and when you listen to them you can understand Kamatani’s imagery even better.
The rest of the choir club have their own issues to deal with as they aim for various competitions. That may sound like the set-up for a sports manga, but the competition with other school is not the structure or focus. If you read it expecting hot blooded friendship and rivalry, you’ll be disappointed. Rather, the manga is a study of adolescence through the psyche of various characters. It’s easy to joke about how overdramatic everything feels when you’re a young teenager, but Kamatani fully embraces the melodrama of middle school in Shounen Note. The mental growing pains of the characters are taken seriously, while also acknowledging they don’t have the perspective of an adult. On top of that, it’s easy to read the children as mentally ill and neurodivergent. As the characters grow, they question what makes them who they are and one classmate even starts to become uncomfortable with their gender assigned at birth. In an interview Kamatani has said “at some point, it’s only natural to fail to understand yourself. I would be glad to know that, through my characters, readers could see that they don’t have to deny this happens.”
Like music, Kamatani communicates the mental states of the characters through art as the side characters take turns getting the spotlight. Usually a character internally describes their thoughts with a metaphor, then the metaphor comes to life on the page. For example, one character doesn’t comprehend the point of view of his classmates and starts to see them as aliens speaking in a language he can’t understand. Another character imagines her social anxiety as a castle around her with a gate that covers her mouth. The art makes the characters all the more palpable.
The story gets more complicated with the introduction of a famous boy soprano from Russia named Vladimir. He acts polite in public, but can actually be cruel and angry. When he happens to hear a recording of Yutaka performing in the choir, he is so emotionally moved by his voice he decides to visit his town. Like Yutaka, he has a sensitivity to music. When the two of them meet, Vladimir decides that Yutaka is empty inside and scolds him for not taking his time as a boy soprano seriously before his voice changes. This shakes Yutaka to his core, as he fears Vladimir is right.
Shounen Note taps into mono no aware, another concept of Japanese culture found in literature. It has a role in Nabari no Ou as well, but that one’s harder to talk about without spoilers. Mono no aware means “the pathos of things” and refers to the philosophy that beauty can be found in the impermanence of everything: seasons change, feelings change, and people change. In Shounen Note, children grow up and question their identities. The voice of a boy soprano can’t last forever. The manga explores Yutaka and Vladimir coming to terms with this fact, but to see how they deal with it you’ll just have to read the manga.
Busshi no Busshin is one of Kamatani’s current manga projects since 2013. The title means The Sculptor’s Buddhakaya in English. Unfortunately this manga hasn’t been licensed either. The story takes place in 10th century Japan and is built around Buddhism, which Kamatani extensively researches (especially Buddhist art) to create the manga. It follows a sculptor boy named Sou who nearly dies on the battlefield, but is saved when a Kannon bodhisattva possesses his body. Now the human and bodhisattva share a half-wooden body, but Sou has lost his memories.
Shimanami Tasogare began in 2015 and was serialized across the defunct magazine Hibana then online on Ura Sunday until it ended in 2018. In this manga Kamatani drops all pretense and directly addresses LGBTQ issues by exploring the lives of LGBTQ characters in a small town. Sadly, this manga hasn’t been licensed either.
Shimanami Tasogare follows the coming of age of a gay boy named Tasuku. His friends at school make a joke about him being gay and he brushes them off, but later that day tries to kill himself. Before he can, he sees a stranger jump off a cliff. He runs to tell someone and finds a lounge where that very person is alive and well. The story involves real social issues, but has its surreal moments like that. The feelings and thoughts of characters take form as visual metaphors, but it’s more ambiguous what’s real and what’s fantasy than in Shounen Note.
Tasuku finds that the lounge is a place where LGBTQ people in town gather. Kamatani explores various identities and issues through these characters. For example, a woman takes Tasuku under her wing and comes out to him as a lesbian. She explains how she was so fed up with pressure to marry a man she came out to her parents and moved away. Now she lives with her partner she met through social media, though they’re struggling with only one of them being out to family.
Shimanami Tasogare comes highly recommended. It’s extremely cathartic to read as an LGBTQ person, as the struggles and emotions of the characters hit very close to home. The manga depicts homophobia and transphobia, but it is always in a negative light. In general the manga aims to educate people about the dangers of prejudice and stereotypes, whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ community or not.
When Kamatani isn’t working on manga, they play Touken Ranbu and draw characters from it. For those who don’t know, Touken Ranbu is a popular browser game where you collect cards of personified swords and battle with them. They draw a variety of characters, but their favorite is Nikkari Aoe. Their art has even appeared in official Touken Ranbu manga anthologies. Kamatani is also a fan of Tiger & Bunny, Big Hero 6, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, and Super Sentai. Kamatani even collaborated with Super Sentai writer Yasuko Kobayashi to create Unlock, a three chapter manga.
Hopefully you’ve learned something new, even if you’re familiar with Kamatani. Perhaps this introduction will be followed by an in-depth (and spoilery) look at these manga someday… For now, you should go follow Kamatani on Twitter and Pixiv.