Claudine is a short story consisting of four chapters released in Weekly Margaret in January 1978. And as far as I can tell, its titular character, Claudine, is the first transman in manga history.
Japan’s ‘70s is an unofficial golden age for Shoujo manga (as in manga intended for girls and women). And there are a few reasons for why that is. It was the first time female creators were flooding the industry, as Shoujo had previously been predominately run by men save for a few outliers. But also, there was an abundance of overt queer representation during that decade. And I would argue that a lot of it, including Claudine, while not perfect, were reasonable faith efforts and quite ambitious even by today’s standards.
Still, because back then, innovative technology didn’t exist, and the internet was yet to be a thing for the masses, plus the fact that presumably cis-het women made these manga, there were bound to be gaps in what they understood during the time.
So what I am saying is that Claudine is important, tremendous and has merit but has aged. And that those agings should be examined.
To be clear, I am aware of other depictions of transmasculinity in manga, before and after Claudine. I will cover this in an upcoming video. But what I am getting at is that Claudine is explicitly a binary trans man and the first to appear in this medium. And possibly the only one who is front and centre as the main character of his own story.
So what I would like to do here is have a heart to heart with this manga and its lead character to see how the subject matter is handled, whether or not the story is worthy of appreciation, and analyse the context in which it was has been released. And hopefully, we can get something comprehensive and perhaps profound out of it. Maybe. We’ll see.
Part One: Context
This manga uses she/her pronouns for its lead character, who identifies as a man, which is misgendering. And the reason it’s a problem in everyday life is because constant misgendering can lead to adverse effects on the mental and even physical health of trans people.
So, on the one hand, you could assume that Ikeda did not know what misgendering was and why it’s an issue. But on the other hand, considering Tezuka laid the groundwork for trans representation in manga with three different characters over the course of three decades, who go by interchangeable pronouns, this seems slightly less likely.
However, it is vital to understand that Ikeda and Tezuka have very different artistic goals and narrative intentions from one another in their work. Tezuka generally speaking told light-hearted adventure stories about characters who were at the very least gender nonconformists, and the target readership was more likely a younger audience. Whereas Ikeda’s stories are a bit more ambitious, pursuing historical accuracy, with romanticism and ideals, the readership was likely adolescents on the older or mature side of the demographic.
The podcast Shojo & Tell episode 21 discusses Claudine and features the manga’s English translator Jocelyne Allen who explained that Ikeda did do a lot of research for this manga. What the mangaka was able to find out about gender variance in France likely was not much. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that if someone identified as the opposite gender in, for example, 1910’s Europe, they would be misgendered due to assigned sex being treated as the default for gender identity. And likely, that would have been what Ikeda had to work with.
And while I think the misgendering is meant to be understood in its context, the manga never discusses pronouns in a diegetic way, which to a modern reader is a bit confusing. And maybe harmful, as it could minimise the real-world effect of misgendering. But Ikeda doesn’t sidestep the issue of misgendering entirely. On at least two occasions, there is a considerate effort to portray a form of misgendering that doesn’t revolve around pronouns. Where when the lead character is called a “girl” and a “woman” the negative effect this has on the state of mind of this character is shown.
It is essential to understand that those about trans people, sometimes misgendering, in works of fiction, have narrative utility. And in Claudine’s case, there is a historical context that shouldn’t be overlooked. This is why I think that Allen made the right call to maintain the she/her pronouns for the manga’s English release. I just also feel that the distributor should have considered commissioning Allen to write up a quick pronoun explainer for readers to have more context going in. For example, Fantagraphics sometimes include Rachel Thorn’s writings in some Moto Hagio releases. But in this case, the distributor is Seven Seas, and they just do the bare minimum.
To discuss this manga essayistically and just in general, I will be using he/him pronouns to describe the character that most people do these days.
Something else I and others are irritated with is the manga’s title. The issue is deadnaming its lead character. And the thing is, it actually isn’t deadnaming, but it probably should be. Usually, when one is trans they go by a different name to match their identity. But for whatever reason, Claudine never does this. And yet, if you research this manga on Wikipedia, then you’re probably wondering why he is listed as “Claude”.
At the beginning of the story, Claudine’s mother has a throw-away line that some of his friends call him Claude. And so, some readers have taken up the practice of calling him such. However, Claudine never says that is his name and throughout looks pretty comfortable being called Claudine, including his family, friends and girlfriends. All of whom he is generally on relaxed terms with.
Does that mean everyone should call him Claudine then? Not necessarily.
Some trans people don’t change their names but just go a shortened version of it. Also, pre-Claudine, Kei Kisaragi technically did not change his name but instead went by the male pronunciation of his given name. And after all, Claudine doesn’t seem to mind either way being called Claudine or Claude in this scene. So if someone wants to call him Claude, they’re not wrong to do so.
But the only thing is that one can’t claim that calling him Claudine is deadnaming. Because if you look at the text, it isn’t. Though you could argue that there is a subtext that says his name is supposed to be Claude. But for this purpose, I’m going to default to the text and refer to the character as Claudine. However, it should be noted that saying there’s “wrong with a man being named Claudine” is an unhelpful statement as it can lead down a path of gaslighting trans people out of transition, whether social, legal or medical.
This is why you can still take issue with the lack of name change in the character’s story. Like later on, I’m going to compare Claudine to a real person who was reported as a butch lesbian and who changed her name to a masculine one. So you would think that if one tells a trans story, changing their name in their gender journey would be a standard trope, even back then. But contrary to popular belief mangaka don’t get the full say on their work all the time as they have to get approval from their publishers and editors in the process. And for all, we know they might have had opinions on how this character’s name was handled as well. Or maybe Ikeda honestly just did not know the significance of deadnaming, which I would give her the benefit of the doubt on.
Ultimately though I believe the most efficient way to interpret this manga is that its about a transman who doesn’t change his name and who is misgendered throughout in a time where and when that was deemed acceptable. And that since we are in a time that is pronoun aware, it’s best to consider the character’s identity, which in this case is man, and consider going by he/him as a result.
The last point in this section, toward the end of the story, the term transsexual is used to describe Claudine. But an entry warily uses the term transgender instead, even though this was not in the text to bring up the Wikipedia page for the manga once more.
The earliest use of the word transsexual was in 1923, coined by Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay German sexologist. And the word transgender first came into use in 1965, coined by John F. Oliven. So, historically speaking, it’s more accurate to say Claudine is transsexual, but other than that, there is no severe reason to not describe Claudine as transgender instead. However, I’m just going to stick to the terms trans and transman instead from this point when talking about Claudine.
These days the term transsexual is still a word some trans individuals use. Though most, it would seem, take issue with it for a variety of reasons. One such reason is that it conflates gender identity with sexuality. And the other is that these days the term is negatively associated with transmedicalism, which is the idea that someone is only trans if they experience dysphoria and at least intend to have hormone therapy and surgeries done. The problem is that it is exclusionary of other trans people these criteria may not apply to.
Dysphoria is the only thing that applies to Claudine, but other than that, he doesn’t express a need to change his body at any stage. Except maybe at the end. And the reason the word transsexual is used is not because of the dysphoria, but instead is used as a way of clinically describing the whole of Claudine’s experiences.
Part Two: Yuri Discourse
So apparently, there is a minor controversy as to whether or not this manga is yuri. For those who don’t know, yuri is a sub-genre of manga focusing on lesbian romance, to put it basically. So when I first heard about this, understandably, I was quite surprised that this was even a conversation people were having. So let us unpack what’s happening here.
One of the reasons this manga could be in yuri discourse is based on a technicality. That being, Claudine doesn’t medically transition. Personally, though, if you view this manga as yuri, as in a lesbian story because Claudine doesn’t transition, this is kind of a transphobic and possibly homophobic view.
Sometimes people just look at transmasculine people and think they’re just “hyper-lesbians”. And that’s not a healthy way to think of transmen or lesbians. It’s crucial to view Claudine’s story as a trans story, not a lesbian one, because it is about identity and a specific experience. Trans stories in a time where HRT and surgeries were impossible are fascinating and deserve to have light shed on them. They can also help us understand why some trans and nonbinary people today don’t necessarily feel a need to pursue medical transition.
Seeing Claudine as a lesbian ignores a lot of what is being conveyed about him, from his state of mind to his social transition. And Claudine’s social transition is very striking because some might argue that he doesn’t even do that and may cite this as another reason in favour of yuri discourse. Though to that, some trans people find enough contentment in their lives to not even so much as change their pronouns. In Claudine’s case, he gets to express himself through his gender presentation, he is recognized by his father as his son, he’s part of his university’s gentlemen’s club, he pretty much gets socially accepted as a man as much as possible despite not really being seen that way.
So yes, this is a trans story, not a lesbian one. Even so, I don’t want to be completely dismissive of this manga being yuri. Or at least part of that discourse.
Homophobia is a theme in this manga. Because Claudine is not recognised as a man and is seen as a woman in his society, he may be treated specifically with that type of prejudice. But at the same time because he isn’t being seen for who he is, he’s also being treated with transphobia. And so, really, two different bigotries are happening in this manga that is synonymous with each other.
I would also think that some butch and nonbinary lesbians may resonate with parts of Claudine’s story. And some transmen, not all, but some, may have genuinely lived their lives as lesbians for a time or thought they were lesbians along the way to realising in retrospect that they were always men.
Also, I don’t think that yuri media necessarily have to be about lesbians. They could be about women on the bisexual spectrum. I interpret Rosemarie as being demi-panromantic for Claudine. And I think that Sirene is an open-minded heterosexual. Or maybe she’s bi for masculine people.
But another thing to point out is that Claudine’s romance with Sirene has a lot of similarities to Saijo Eriko and Masuda Yasumare’s relationship, who were outed in the press as a lesbian couple after they survived their suicide attempt. Yasumare, like Claudine, was affluent and presented masculine, and the name Masuda was not her birth name but another masculine signifier she chose for herself. Her relationship with the actress was also notified to the press by her mother, who I imagine wanted her daughter to adhere to the Good Wife Wise Mother ideology of the time. And this mirrors Claudine’s meddling mother.
Part Three: The Tragic Hero
Before I talk about the themes and story, allow me to discuss my thoughts on the art.
As previously mentioned, the artist and author, by extension, is Riyoko Ikeda. Admittedly she is not my favourite artist among the Year 24 Group. Still, regardless of my subjective opinions, she does hold her own as a draftsperson among her contemporaries in pretty much all of her published body of work.
What is most beholding about Ikeda’s approach is her skill for designing elegantly butch or masculine-presenting AFAB characters. Another aspect to admire is her fine feathery linework and dream-like panelling. I think this way of panelling Shoujo manga was slightly over-embellished in its time.
However, in the case of Claudine, this style of panelling stories works well here as it is an abridged version of the main character’s life from childhood to adulthood as it is reminisced from someone else’s perspective.
The story is recounted by an unnamed psychologist who examined a ten-year-old child at the behest of a concerned mother. The child was named Claudine, and the concern was that despite being assigned female at birth, Claudine had been identifying as a boy since he was eight.
This story’s setting is period fiction, but there is a little more to it than that. I’d like to explain a concept called presentism. This uses a historical setting or old tale to explore modern ideas. A recent example of this was The Last Duel about today’s #MeToo movement.
In the case of Claudine, the story is supposedly set during the early 20th Century in the commune village Vernon in France. But once you start to look at the characters’ fashion and hairstyles, the manga then starts to feel very ‘70s. So the presentism in Claudine is not very obvious anymore because the ‘70s have become historical as well, and the first couple of times I read Claudine, these elements were so blended together that I overlooked the presentism.
So Claudine is using visual language to convey presentism, but what about thematically speaking? This is by far the most challenging thing for me to analyse, as when I was researching, I could not find any sources that could explain what Japan’s cultural attitudes were on transmen and what the trans experience was like during the ‘70s. At least not in English. And affordable.
An esteemed Orlando Byron informed me of the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theatre troupe famous for its actresses performing male roles. They were established in 1913 and are still going stronger today, so at the very least, we can assume that since the 1910s’, women and/or AFAB people cross-dressing as men have been deemed acceptable, at least as a form of entertainment. But we might have to save most of troupe’s rich history for the future.
Other than that, all I know about Japan’s ‘70s is that there was a noticeable change in fashion trends and self-expression. Political movements such as feminism became significant and sexual openness eventually led to the publication of gay men’s magazines. It was a comparatively free-spirited time in Japan for sure.
And that zeitgeist is something that I do see in this manga. Claudine, for example, rather than hide who he is and be ashamed as most trans-people generally kept their identities secret for most of history! Claudine, instead, is confident and frank about who he is.
Another presentism overthrow is that the psychiatrist, rather than administer a cruel method of “fixing” his patient’s identity, instead keeps an open mind. He pretty much believes that there is nothing to be concerned about regarding Claudine but still wants to take him on as a client out of unsaid curiosity, much to Claudine’s acceptance of and even glee.
From this point, the manga is not solely about Claudine’s trans experience; dysphoria, for example, is not deeply explored; the psychiatrist primarily reflects on Claudine’s love-life and, to a lesser extent, his relationship with his wealthy upper-middle-class family.
While his mother is mostly presented as a transphobic foil, who would prefer her child to conform to his assigned gender, only lightly entertaining his identity on one occasion, his father, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.
Auguste de Montesse fully and unconditionally accepts and embraces Claudine as he is and even does father-son like activities with him, further encouraging his gender expression. I can see how this level of fatherly approval may be perceived as unrealistic as during the ‘70s, and even today, parental rejection or worse is sadly expected. But I think the story pulls off a nice compromise by establishing one parent as a transphobic pressure; thereby, that burden has been acknowledged. And then another parent as having nothing but love for his child, showing how it should be, and I can see how some trans people may appreciate this comforting aspect. But also, some trans people just do have good parents. Or at least one good parent. Granted, the story lists off a bunch of justifications for why Auguste adores his trans-child, the main one being that despite already having three sons, all of whom are older than Claudine, none of them took after their father. On the other hand, Claudine is exactly like his father in every way except in assigned gender, which Auguste joyously overlooks.
It is all but said that Claudine is Auguste’s favourite based on this. Having a favourite child is probably not a good thing (technically speaking), but I can’t help finding it wholesome anyway, just in this particular case.
This dynamic is very much in stark contrast to Ikeda’s previous and most famous work, The Rose of Versailles. In that series, upon the birth of its most iconic character, the father already had four daughters and was determined to have a son, so realising that this was not in the cards for him (biologically speaking), he decided to raise his youngest as his son and named him Oscar. This is, of course, an inaccurate and hyperbolic portrayal of transmasculinity, though not maliciously so.
I don’t know what Ikeda’s intent was, but reading Claudine almost feels like a reevaluation of Oscar. Here in Claudine, the character’s gender identity is not chosen for him by a male-heir anxious patriarch, but instead, it comes naturally to him, and the father is chilled out this time and already has male-heir filled three-fold. So there’s no ulterior motive in favouring him.
Saying that, there are still some, we’ll say, Freud-like indications going on with Claudine. In particular, there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it twist halfway through the story that probably adds recontextualization to Claudine’s relationship with his dad. But we’ll put a pin in that for now.
The main parts of this manga are Claudine’s romantic relationships. Of which there are four.
The first one is Rosemarie, a childhood friend. Claudine does not like Rosemarie, but her infatuation and even obsession with Claudine kind of implies that the two were close once. And it is left up to interpretation as to why Claudine has started to leave this person behind. My discernment of what has happened is a combination of three things. One is that Claudine has begun to recognise toxic traits in Rosemarie. Two that Rosemarie is a dysphoric reminder of his former girlhood that he was initially raised in. And three, Claudine has misinterpreted Rosemarie as wanting a lesbian relationship from him, which obviously clashes with how he sees himself. Extra interpretation: Rosemarie might have outed Claudine to his mother when they were eight.
Early on, Rosemarie is characterised as jealous, desperate, manipulative and a gossip, who later has an interesting character arc. Ultimately I think she serves the story by demonstrating that transmen can be desired, and Claudine indicates in turn that transmen also have their own personal standards for a romantic partner.
Maura is Claudine’s first love occurring in his early teens. She is a sweetheart who is sent to work for the de Montesse household, and I’ll be honest, I have some issues with how she was utilised. Maura essentially works for Claudine, and the fact that he falls in love with someone who is a servant to him is a bit corpulent. And it gets worse. Toward the end of this arc, Maura finds out that her father passed away, and Claudine chooses that moment to make his move, and because they get caught, Maura is fired. And it’s just really unsatisfying because we never know Maura’s thoughts and feelings toward Claudine. That disclosure alone, I think, could have saved this patch of the story. Though the psychiatrist mentions that Claudine announced that he intended to marry Maura when they grew up, so I guess we can assume they had that conversation out of sight at some point.
Maura’s design is also really misleading on the first read, unintentionally, so I imagine, but confusing all the same because she looks the same as Sirene. Saying that I’ve reread this manga a lot now, and Ikeda obviously did try to clear this up directly in the text that this was a completely different character. But I still think it was a poor choice for a visual medium.
While this romance was quite drab, it’s not all a tedious read during this time in Claudine’s life, as something else has been occurring in the background to pick up the slack. The reader is introduced to Rosemarie’s tutor Louis Lacques to which Claudine has an out of context dramatic reaction. Which, to be honest, the first time reading is a little bit disorienting. But still, it creates an intriguing set-up with a satisfying payoff. And it’s related to the aforementioned mid-story twist, but we’ll put that on hold once again.
After some years pass, Claudine, now a little grown, experiences his second love. This time for an older woman, a librarian named Cecilia, at his high school. Interestingly this scenario is a kind of flipped version of what happened previously. With Maura, Claudine had been in a position of power and was presumably somewhat older than her. But now, this time, Claudine is in love with someone who technically holds power over him – at least as an educator.
Aside from the upsetting implications of these scenarios, there is notable character development between these two romances in terms of Claudine himself. Before, Claudine seemed to like Maura for superficial reasons like her purity and cooking, but this time around, he loves Cecelia for their intellectual connection. However, once Claudine makes his move on Cecelia, she reacts to what he did not expect. She rejects Claudine, as she should; however, she does so in a manner that is homophobic and transphobic. Homophobic because she implies that two women couldn’t have such strong feelings for each other, and transphobic because the statement undermines his gender identity. Saying that, it’s not clear if Cecelia knew that Claudine was trans, but in any case, her words trigger Claudine’s dysphoria along with breaking his heart. If Cecelia knew that Claudine was trans and rejected him solely, for this reason, this is perfectly fine and valid, as different people have different attraction capacities. But she should have done so in a sensitive way, or not even that, just saying no is and should be enough as no one should have to justify why they don’t want to be with someone. But really, it should have mostly been about the age difference.
It is now time to unpin the mid-story twist. Leading up, it becomes noted that Cecelia is the sister of Louis Laques, and in a tense exchange, it is revealed why Claudine does not like him; because he has been having an affair with his father, Auguste, this whole time. And it doesn’t end there. Rosemarie discovers that Auguste is also having an affair with Cecelia, which she blabs about to both an unsuspecting Claudine and Louis. This causes the latter to fly into a furious rage at his double betrayal as he burns his sister and lover in a forest fire.
First things first, this twist implies that Auguste was bisexual. And yes, the portrayal of bisexuals as cheaters is a negative stereotype, though there is some nuance to be found here. Earlier in the story, it had been recounted that Auguste did not choose who he married. It is wordlessly suggested that he might have been pressured to marry behind the scenes as he displayed an “unexpected conservatism”. During this time, male heirs were also pressured to reproduce their own male heirs’ post haste. And while we never see Auguste and his wife interact at any point, the fact that they have very different attitudes toward Claudine suggests that they might not have been well suited.
And so, with this interpretation, it is somewhat understandable why Auguste would cheat on his wife. But having an affair with your lover’s sister, whom your son also loves, is crossing a line and where the understanding ends. And yes, it would seem that Auguste had to know that Claudine was enamoured with Cecelia as he talked about her all the time with him.
While this part of the story has been riveting, it does feel hollow at the end as the chapter doesn’t get much of an aftermath. We don’t get to see Claudine process these revelations, for example. As well as a conflicted mourning the tragic loss of both his father and second love.
Upon reflection, Auguste being a closeted bisexual kind of makes his acceptance of his trans son make a lot more sense. It adds another layer to the bond that they shared. While Auguste didn’t get to have much say in the kind of life he would have liked to have, he at least wanted Claudine to have as much freedom as possible to be himself. And it’s possible that Auguste wanted to live openly queer through his son vicariously. I’ve heard more stories about closeted parents being resentful of their happily out children, so Auguste almost seems improbable, but still, it’s interesting to see a very different mentality be portrayed.
Ultimately Auguste was a great father but also obviously a complicated man.
None of this nuance is shown in the story, however. It’s annoyingly truncated, and I’ve had just to piece this together myself. And it’s a shame that the manga doesn’t have the time to show Claudine have a changed perception of his father, one that is tainted and will be frozen in time because his father is gone now, so this feeling can never be felt be resolved. That’s what I wish was included in this manga.
And after all was said and done, the psychiatrist also recounts that Claudine had known about his father’s affair with Louis since he was eight. At the same age, he began identifying as a boy. The implication here is that Claudine’s discovery of his dad’s gay affair caused him to see himself as the opposite gender from that point. And it would seem that the psychiatrist is using Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex to rationalise Claudine’s trans status.
One part of the Oedipus Complex is “penis envy” where Freud theorised that girls or assigned female at birth children experience anxiety when they realise that they don’t have a penis and develop an inferiority complex around it. In retrospect, he may have been onto the discovery of transmasculine identity but instead over-generalised it as a universal condition of women. And its worth pointing out that many of Freud’s theories have been criticised in modern times by feminists for his sexist takes and by LGBT+ organisations for its lack of acknowledgement of LGBT+ people and families.
Now all of these Freudian nods in the manga are presented as vague and are just there to sprinkle what the view on trans people would have been like from a psychiatric point of view at the time. That may have also been the view in 70s’ Japan, but I am unsure of that. That’s just my presentism theory on the manga.
For clarity, this theory is not being used maliciously by the psychiatrist. I don’t believe Ikeda meant any harm by it (I actually interpret the psychiatrist as an insert character for her curiosity on trans identity). (In fact, Freud never meant any harm in his work as he revolutionised psychology to be compassionate). And at the end of the manga, this suggestion gets fully retracted by the psychiatrist anyway. And as far as I have been able to research, Freudian theories such as the Oedipus complex has really only become unaccepted in the 21st Century. But to be honest, I’m not an expert on the evolving history of psychosexual analysis.
In any case, the use of Freudian theory here is so faint that it isn’t harmful enough to be concerned about. So my reason for bringing it up is really to just let reader be aware of it as I have noticed a certain transphobic group who disguises itself as feminism, as early as this year, use penis envy and internalized misogyny interchangeably against transmasculine identity. So just know that the Oedipal model is more or less considered unscientific. And that really it’s deemed to be imaginative now. In fact, there is something called psychoanalytic film theory, which includes ideas like the male gaze. And the Oedipus complex has become exclusive in that area.
You can see the Oedipus complex and myth at play in the manga of Claudine. For example, we can contrast Oedipus’s killing of Laius and marriage to Jocasta after the fact with the climax of this chapter, as Auguste’s murder is causally Claudine’s fault for his inconsideration of Rosemarie, and at the time of his father’s death, Claudine grows up from there and becomes a man after which he meets and falls in love with a new woman.
Which leads us to the final love. During Claudine’s university years, he is granted special membership to the social boys club, and at one of their parties, he meets Sirene Beige.
This is not their first time meeting.
From the beginning of the manga, they have been crossing paths for a while now. At first, I know you might think that the girl introduced at the beginning is Maura, but it’s not. If you read the text and note that Maura’s family was familiar with the de Montesse back when she was a baby, and the fact that Claudine’s mother didn’t recognise Sirene when they met at the beginning, everything is logical in the text. And unfortunately, Ikeda’s visuals did not strongly support the text very well in this particular aspect of the story. Sorry to bring that up again.
So anyways, Ikeda’s story is trying to convey that from the beginning, Sirene is “the one” the one Claudine is destined for, and a star-crossed lovers story has come full circle.
Everything is excellent this time around. Claudine is now an adult who has met someone age-appropriate and an equal peer at university, and it’s also much clearer this time that the woman Claudine is interested in reciprocates his feelings. They get to be in a relationship together after a time of friendship. However, it’s not under fortunate circumstances.
Sirene introduces Claudine to her parents as her “friend” (boyfriend), and they ask for their permission to become “room-mates” (live-in lovers). And they like Claudine, so they allow them to live together since they view Claudine as a “mademoiselle” (monsieur), completely unaware of how things are. After receiving the parents’ blessing, they act like they’re getting married, and for a time, they do live in bliss. But unfortunately, it doesn’t last.
One day Sirene meets Claudine’s brother Andrew. Andrew is, of course, the oldest and, therefore, heir to the de Montesse estate. And he’s also cis.
Sirene, keeping Claudine in the dark about it, meets with Andrew casually, and over time their relationship develops into something more. And so Sirene makes the decision to ghost Claudine so she can marry Andrew instead.
I actually want to defend Sirene for a bit. In this period, if a woman could marry rich, that was objectively in her best interest at the time. Unfortunately, she would never be allowed to marry Claudine legally. And maybe she wanted to start a family, and obviously, the means to do so would not have been available for them. And maybe she didn’t want to be in a relationship that she would have to keep secret for the rest of her life and, if found out, punished for it. I think it’s understandable for someone not to want to live that way.
In terms of her decision to go with Claudine’s brother of all people, well, it’s messed up, but the thing is, she does fall in love with Andrew. Probably not as much as she did with Claudine, but enough to go with him and be happy. I think Sirene loved Claudine and probably always will but needed a relationship with an openness that Claudine could not provide, but Andrew could. And I find it hard to be judgemental about that.
However, I would not go as far as to say that Sirene did nothing wrong. Because despite the fact that she is marrying Claudine’s brother, which is a huge deal, she never tells him. Not once in any of the letters she writes to Claudine during their separation when she asks to go back to being friends did she ever explain that she was going to marry Andrew.
So let’s move on for a moment and talk about Rosemarie. Rosemarie, scarred by the previous fire, has grown as a person. When she first sees Claudine with his new girlfriend, she doesn’t scheme or gets jealous this time. Admittedly, her reaction comes across as a mask, a bit more fake than genuine, but it’s in order to hide her heartbreak and ultimately comes from a mature place on her end. She at least now has impulse control and the decency to friend-zone herself in front of Claudine and Sirene when they were together.
But let’s be honest, she’s living in Paris with ulterior motives, hoping that her torch-holding for Claudine will be rewarded anyway. And in some way, this might have been a good instinct on her part. Because, after Claudine has had his heartbroken a thrice time by Sirene, he goes to visit Rosemarie. Despite maintaining her cool-headedness, she just immediately mentions that she can’t get married because of her facial burn (this is more of a Japanese attitude than a European one) but that it doesn’t matter because she couldn’t marry any man unless it was Claudine. You could look at this as a calculatedly subtle proposition from Rosemarie, who, by the way, still thinks Claudine is otherwise taken, and it is definitely that. But it’s also more than that. I think Rosemarie is more comfortable with rejection and is just trying to make sure that Claudine properly understands her feelings just for her own closure. It’s actually sweet.
And while Claudine does not reciprocate, as he has made clear multiple times, he does catch that Rosemarie sees him as a man, much to his surprise. So yes, Rosemarie has been a nuisance, but on the other hand, this is the first time we’ve seen Claudine give her the time of day and hear her out. I point this out because, in a way, Claudine has kind of been self-centred throughout. And all he gets out of Rosemarie’s heartfelt pour out is that he is a man. Now to be fair, it is a significant moment. This is the first time he has been validated as a 25-year-old adult. His father died so long ago when he was an adolescent, and he was the only one in his life back then who assured him by calling him his son. And Rosemarie demonstrates that she understands Claudine’s situation, basically telling him his body does not make him a woman and that he is very much a man. At least in her eyes. Before I said, Claudine was probably misinterpreting Rosemarie as wanting a lesbian romance from him, and I like to think that at this moment, Claudine realises where he went wrong in treating Rosemarie the way he did.
So, in any case, Rosemarie changes the subject after this by mentioning that Andrew is in town, assuming Claudine already knew, which he didn’t. And this causes him to connect with what is happening. Finally, Claudine confronts Sirene and Andrew and learns the truth. Bringing up the Oedipal complex once more, this moment can be compared to Oedipus realising the horrible truth about his situation with his mother.
And after Andrew condescendingly explains to Claudine that he is just a woman, after all, Claudine has enough and leaves in rage and tears.
After what I think is a short time, Christmas is approaching, and we see Claudine have one last consultation with the psychiatrist over the phone. The conversation is one that is surprisingly anti-Transmedicalist, with the psychiatrist explaining to Claudine that he doesn’t even see him as a patient or a case and says he does not have a father complex. Thereby, the Oedipus model is rejected as an explanation for why Claudine is trans. Claudine concurs that while he did adore his father and had complicated feelings about Louis, none of that had a bearing on the fact that he is a man. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist poorly words the last part of the conversation, who explains Claudine’s predicament as having an imperfect body. I think, in some ways, this is an explanation that Claudine does find helpful in understanding himself. Still, he fatally internalises this because of his broken heart (which the psychiatrist is unaware of).
The conversation ends abruptly, and Claudine makes a final heartfelt plea to Sirene in a letter. I can’t be entirely sure, but I think what happens is that the letter got delivered but landed on the floor out of sight, and Sirene misses it. And so, on Christmas night, Sirene doesn’t visit Claudine or respond to him at all. And sadly, Claudine takes his own life. Rounding out the Oedipal myth, this final decision correlates with Oedipus’ action of blinding himself and going into exile.
Now I’m pretty sure some will be reviled at this manga for doing a “bury your gays” ending. And I’m going to talk more about this in the future, but there are complicated historical and cultural reasons in Japan why the “bury your gays” trope is not applicable for a lot of queer manga. It’s too reductive, ignorant and American. Not to say that there isn’t an issue of representation considering the sparsity of transmasculine representation in manga.
My main regret with this ending is that it doesn’t dwell on what I think is an interesting question. If Sirene had found his last letter, would she have changed her mind?
The second last page shows what I believe is Rosemarie one year later visiting Claudine’s grave on Christmas night. I wish we could have also seen Sirene visit in this scene just to make us at least wonder if she would have done anything differently.
The fact that Sirene is not given an appearance in the aftermath of Claudine’s death implies callousness which is at odds with how she was presented in the manga as Claudine’s “true love”.
But the last image we get of Sirene and Rosemarie, respectively, illustrates one of the points the manga is trying to make. Sirene is seen to be happy and content. And Rosemarie as alone and sorrowful.
Everyone in this story who is queer or romantically involved with the queer ends up worse for it. And Rosemarie is the only one in this group that survives, though burned and destined for a solitary existence.
Whereas Sirene abandons being true to herself. Before she was a heteroflexible person who was in love and sexual with an AFAB man, but she leaves this version of happiness and winds up better off as a result.
The story isn’t trying so much to say that being queer leads to downfall and unhappiness, but rather the pressure of a compulsory cis heterosexual society. And that maybe that society needs to change and make space for queer people to coexist in.
In conclusion, Claudine is a beautiful manga with a surprising amount of things going on that doesn’t have enough time to flesh out anything it does appropriately. And it’s okay. I encourage you to read it if it comes back in print.
This manga’s main literary accomplishment, at least to most, is for it contributing a first explicit portrayal of a trans man in manga. But really, I think it does a bit more than that.
It’s the only manga that I have read that is about a character’s entire love-life, for example. Usually, Shoujo presents the first love in high school, and that’s it. So I would like to see more long-form Shoujo stories follow in Claudine’s footsteps in this regard.
And honestly, considering this was from the ‘70s, and from a psychologist’s perspective, I’m rather impressed that ultimately it doesn’t pathologise being trans too much in the end. Which, at the moment, trans people in Japan desperately need to hear. Instead, it presents trans as just a different sort of humanity deserving of love and belonging like anyone else. And despite how it all ends, the amount of focus on the joy of being trans is something to be appreciated.
My biggest takeaway from Claudine is that it was a reexamination of Masuda Yasumare and her treatment from the media in their time. I can’t know for sure if that was intended or not; all I know is the parallels I drew in the previous video and the fact that Ikeda and her works are associated with the Takarazuka Revue, which Saijo Eriko was part of at the time of her union with Yasumare. As for the Oedipus myth, it’s entirely possible that other readers could see different tragic tales to compare. Oedipus is just the one that I saw.
Whether she knew it or not, in a way, Ikeda has reimagined Yasumare as a trans man, flipping her villainous defamation in the presses for being queer by reframing her as a tragic hero and society as the villain through the Oedipus myth. L
So as it is, my hope for what someone could get out of this is to try to look into the potential cultural, philosophical and historic reasonings of a given shoujo manga.
Usually, when I see discourse around this manga, it’s usually just sensitively discussing the insensitivity of the manga. However, I would say that it is not an insensitivity; it’s an ageing. Or the sticky yuri question, which are all, of course, relevant and should be brought up. But if that’s the only conversation people are going to have about this manga, and not look much further, then I think that’s just a bit disappointing.
Claudine may just be a molecule in a raging sea of manga, and it certainly is not the most excellent transmasc story ever told, but it certainly deserves a bit more of a better discussion than what it has gotten, I think. And I hope I have at least contributed to a potential jumping-off point for that to happen.
Thank you for reading. This is actually the text version of a two-part video series premiering on my YouTube channel if you would like to see that when it comes out. At the end of those videos, there will be proper bibliographies for all the things I discussed here. Also, if you can, please consider checking out my Patreon.