Claudine is burdened with passion. The fictive figure of our drive to be loved as we feel love. He and the comic bearing his name are emblematic of our transcultural and personal need to address type and individual, group dynamics and internal states.
Riyoko Ikeda’s Claudine is evergreen in the way few trans comics remain after decades, in part because it was crafted in the late 1970s, but is set in the earliest years of the 20th Century, but mostly because of its author’s genuineness and that its primary goal is not to laud, to warm, to laugh, or to amuse, but to make you angry. It is a tragedy in the classical sense, culminating in death, in unfair death, and while sad, mostly tinged with earned, if impotent rage.
The rage the reader feels, as Claudine develops page on page, cannot halt the tragedy of the narrative, the cruelty or ignorance of its world, which is a frozen, crystalized, eternally blazing thing. What good the rage has is in our world and in us. We, here and outside the comic, can affect change, we can improve our narrative and our world’s parameters.
It is almost a shame that the Year 24 Group, also called, in English, the 49ers, are grouped together, not because it was not a fabulous explosion of talent, revolution, innovation and full-on great comics in late-1970s Japan, but because we now have an easy group nomenclature to dismiss individual accomplishment. An individual did not start comics conventions in Japan, the wave did. Individuals did not advance the treatment of female sexuality, of queer sensibilities, of trans narratives in comics; the wave. Layouts and the use of non-narrative elements in design and for emotional and psychological impact did not radically alter because of Hagio Moto or Riyoko Okeda; wave. We get to treat people as drops in a wave.
The through line of Claudine is not the title character, but the narrating psychologist explaining his life and reassuring the audience – which especially in 1978 would have been largely incredulous at the veracity of a transsexual gender. Even the doctor, who treats Claudine as a child and follows his life, cannot know everything. No one in the comic or outside it can. But, by having our narrator – educated, informed, relatively separate and clinically and sociably concerned – validate what our audience may be suspicious of, and what many characters defy or deny throughout Claudine’s life, we are pushed to feel the unfairness.
Ikeda changed her world, at a national and international level, and within the transnational supercommunity that is comics. Ikeda was honored with the Chevalier medal of the National Order of the Legion of Honor by France, not comics, not manga, not a school or movement. This is not a situation that would occur again and again for male manga authors, even in anglophone societies, and I can say this because they don’t. While, in anglophone cultures, we may handwave manga was manga, we do not credit Osamu Tezuka or Leiji Matsumoto to their generations or when they finished school, but by their works and them as individuals.
Part of the intrinsic appeal and the vibrant frisson held in comics about transgender characters (intersex, crossdressers, and transsexual, especially as understood thirty-plus years ago), in which many of the Year 24 Group’s major characters fall, is that they could present women or female-tangent, female-read characters with the higher ceilings of men than the glass ceiling, and also the incredible lateral freedom of the male-presenting, even respecting the restraints on both crossdressers and trans people.
And, just as importantly, they had the freedom in transmitting these understoods to audiences that were under extreme restraint, themselves, and feeling real life consequences extant with those restraints, allowing for the consequences to be dramatized in a more fantastical or controlled fashion than Realist approaches.
Japan was faced, in 1978, with a legal and cultural ban and erasure of queerness, especially of women’s queerness, that had been enforced within living memory. The concern for freedom to love and to exist is butted against, not hundreds of years of legal, religious , and cultural education that queerness is wrong, but only decades, and those decades tied up with increasingly frowned-on imperialism. Ikeda’s work, even when it hews to government support, is an intrinsically anti-imperialist statement and capable of using transgender and France as fairy-realm states where the consequences are the lesson-based causality of fairytales, with the cartooned features and drawn lines that enhance emotional states and make emotive promises.
The wavy hair and thin limbs and fine hands of Claudine’s characters evoke the same passion and movement in us as the waving lines of fire burning freely and bursting light that flashes beside characters not as real life, in-story presences that a character can see, but flashes of awareness, starbursts of conclusion and alertness.
Ikeda’s large eyes, dark and ringed like the bottom of soda bottles’ rippled glass give her comics a Nell Brinkley shimmering honesty. Claudine could be a lost Brinkley comic, with its flowing clothes, gorgeous hair, impactful eyes, except Brinkley would never end her comics in such sheer and unrighteous unfairness. No on looks up in Claudine. There is no sense in looking up. Eyes are cast down, aside, even level, but in-world and on-page, to look up would be too much aspiration.
Every line and stylized element guide the audience to a sense of the world, a sensation of consequence and atmosphere.
Dr. Nobuko Anan says, in Contemporary Japanese Women’s Theatre and Visual Arts, “[T]his book is not so much about the social and material reality of Japanese women. It is about the ways imaginary girls are constructed and manifested in the arts as a result of the desire of those with ‘girlie sensibilities’ to create an alternative to their everyday reality.” That, too, is the state of Claudine and its audiences. Not that Claudine is a “girl,” but Claudine is a tool through which we see male roles and female persons. And, Claudine, himself, is girled throughout, misgendered repeatedly by other characters and the limits of experience and terminology.
Claudine and the other characters are tools for girls and for an alternative.
The women Claudine loves, romantically, remain consequential figures as they float across the pages. The narrating doctor, the inconstant family, the quiet, scarred, consistent love of Rosemarie do work in every panel, reaffirming a world we ought not accept.
We survive a story told and finished (in-story) decades before the first readers had a chance to be its audience. The job of looking up is ours. If we don’t, Claudine died in vain. If we don’t, we die as Claudine or we live and die as the conformists, victims, or other unfortunates leading to Claudine’s death.
Claudine Will Make You Angry
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