From the manga stack: YOUR AND MY SECRET Vol. 1

I’m increasingly of the opinion that a mastery of tone is one of the most important skills a creator can develop. When carefully and creatively applied, tone can be a cornerstone for a fully realized fictional world, from the profound humanity of PLANETES to the kinetic absurdity of SGT. FROG. When neglected or situational, it only highlights inconsistencies, as in SEVEN OF SEVEN.

Happily enough, YOUR AND MY SECRET creator Ai Morinaga shows real promise in this area. It’s a good thing, since the subject matter – a comic examination of gender identity – really calls for a careful hand to keep things from becoming crass.

YAMS tells the story of an aggressive girl and a gentle boy who switch bodies. The girl, Nanako, is delighted with the turn of events. People seem much more willing to accept her natural temperament coming from a male body, and she’s curious and savvy enough to take full advantage of gender-based double standards of behavior. (She can do things as a boy that a girl would never get away with.)

The boy, Akira, has a rougher go of it. As with Nanako, people respond better to Akira’s personality when it’s coming from a girl’s body. But this subjects him to unwanted romantic attention, reinforces his insecurities, and makes for some rude biological awakenings. He can’t even take much voyeuristic pleasure from the switch, partly because of his inherent modesty but more due to Nanako’s threats.

Compounding the interpersonal complications are unexpected reactions from friends and family members. Akira’s first encounter with his family in his new body is a smart comic reversal of expectations, but it’s also a genuinely emotional moment. And that’s where tone comes in: Morinaga always remembers that adolescents very rarely feel comfortable in their own skin and makes it a defining motif for the manga.

It’s not without flaws, though. Nanako’s grandfather, who sets the plot in motion with his ill-conceived inventions, is far creepier than the rest of the manga can support. (He’s thrilled that he can ogle his granddaughter’s body without his granddaughter being in it to object.) Beyond lechery, his function is to hinder any progress towards a return to the status quo. (Fixing the body-switching machine is expensive and time consuming, and he doesn’t much care to begin with.)

Morinaga’s artwork shows real polish and care, though. While the mostly teen-aged characters are all somewhat idealized (nobody unattractive seems to go to this particular school), none of them are sexualized beyond their years. She’s also strong with emotional expression and body language; it’s a treat to compare pre- and post-switch Nanako and Akira.

While imperfect, YAMS generally takes an intelligent, creative look at a situation that offers a lot of potential for comic complications. It also makes me want to know what happens next, which is really the bottom line.

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