I'm going to be perfectly honest: Like so many (and too many) young Black women and femmes, I am a survivor of childhood/adulthood sexual trauma, and it's only very recently that I've come to understand about myself that my askew view of sex is entirely stemmed from me being a product of childhood neglect and abuse, not only sexually, but physically, emotionally, and mentally as well.
I was conditioned from an early age (by not only my abusers, but my family, trusted adults, the media, and society as well) to believe that "sex" = "love", and grew up believing anyone who wanted to engage in sexual activity with me was just showing they loved and cared about me, as well as must clearly love me if they did engage sexually. I know now that isn't case.
When you add that factor to childhood neglect and abandonment that left me with a desperation to be and feel wanted, loved, and a willingness to do everything in my power to avoid being abandoned, unloved, and mistreated, you'll understand that it's not very hard to see why my perception of love, sex, and relationships is so askew, and has been for a very, very, very long time.
And this is a good chunk of the reason why I’m so fixated with Shoujo and Josei manga that tactfully addresses these sorts of issues, features strong relationships where the idea of love and sex are intertwined, and always have happy/satisfying endings.
When I first came across an ad in the back of another manga for Fuyumi Soryu’s award winning manga, “Mars”, I rolled my eyes at the tagline, hard:
“A bad boy can change a good girl forever” and “A good girl can change a bad boy forever”.
Sometime later, around my tweens, I want to say, I came across the entire fifteen-volume series and decided to give it a shot. What kept my interest were the crossovers with Japanese and Western/American culture, including one of the two main protagonists, Rei, wearing a jacket with the logo for the Chicago Cubs upon his first appearance.
The art was very different from what I was used to, but its also what attracted me the series in the first place.
On The Surface:
A sweet and funny series about a the blossoming high-school romance between a motorcycle-racing bad-boy with a heart of gold, and a shy, introverted, talented young artist who come together in a quirky “opposites attract” coming of age story.
What Lies Beneath:
A heart-rendering story that delves into heavy themes of rape, suicide, parental abandonment, severe mental illness, parental abuse, incest, self-destruction, drug addiction, school bullying…the list goes on.
Mars tells the emotionally driven and brilliantly-written story of Rei Kashino and Kira Asou as they overcome their painful pasts and respective traumas one would never believe they’ve suffered through were you to give them a passing glance:
On the outside, Rei Kashino is the school’s cheerful punk/bad-boy and ‘king’—he smokes cigarettes behind the teacher’s back, sleeps with anything that has two legs and a heartbeat, and is always in some sort of trouble; yet despite all of that, he has an incredible energy that draws people to him and his Devil-May-Care reckless attitude is why he’s so popular amongst his classmates that idolize him. His claim-to-fame is that he’s an award-winning professional motorcycle racer with dreams of becoming world famous.
However, beneath that cheerful exterior of his, there is a very violent, ruthless, and murderous temper fueled by the trauma of witnessing his twin brother, Sei, commit suicide right in front of him just two years prior to the beginning of the story.
Physically, they were identical—personality wise, however, they were poles apart. Sei was nothing like the outgoing Rei; Sei was the ‘weaker’ of the two, and was always getting picked on or bullied—he was a very delicate and sensitive person and cried often, which fueled Rei’s violent protective instinct to protect his brother at all costs.
As the story unfolds, it’s revealed that Sei wasn’t the only one in their family to kill himself, nor did Rei randomly develop his vicious temper overnight:
Rei and Sei’s mother, Shoko, though a very beautiful woman she was, was also severely mentally ill, and overprotective of her two sons to the point where she viciously and graphically kills her husband’s pet dog with a butcher knife right in front of Rei and Sei (who were only two or three) without a shred of remorse, truly believing she was protecting her boys (specifically Sei) when the dog had only been playing with them.
To complicate matters further, when her husband, Takayuki, swears to get Shoko help after confronting her and outright saying she needs help, Shoko drops the bomb on him that Rei and Sei aren’t even his children—they’re the sons of his late, free-spirited younger brother, Akihiko, who died in a brutal and horrific race-car accident during a race when he was burned alive after the car hit a wall—meaning that Takayuki isn’t Rei and Sei’s father; he’s their uncle.
Regardless, when Takayuki refuses to back down to have her committed for the safety of the children, that same night following his and Shoko’s confrontation, Shoko goes into Rei and Sei’s room and attempts to kill Rei by strangling him.
He’s saved only when his younger brother awakes screaming and crying, which alerts Takayuki who rushes into the room and pulls Shoko off Rei just as he stops breathing (with the resulting and repressed trauma of the incident causing an older Rei anxiety attacks where he'll stop breathing on his own and need external resuscitation (CPR)).
And within days of Shoko leaving the hospital, having been committed there for some time, she hangs herself to join her beloved Akihiko. And her body is discovered by her two sons who are too young to understand death or why ‘mommy’s floating in the air’.
The boys are sent to America (specifically, Los Angeles) to live with relatives for eight years following the incident. The psychologist who treated Takayuki, Shoko, and later Rei, instructed their father to tell the boys their mother had died of leukemia instead of suicide.
And because, prior to her death, Shoko made a four-year-old Rei promise to always protect Sei, the same violent and obsessive over-protectiveness temper in Shoko eventually manifested itself in Rei—to the point where a twelve-year-old Rei steals and shoves his uncle’s gun in the mouth of a bully that had been tormenting Sei, with every bit the intent to kill him:
Only to pull the trigger and realize the gun was empty due to the fact that their uncle had cleaned the gun the night before, and hadn’t reloaded it. Upon returning to Japan two years later, Rei would later find himself rushing to the roof of their junior high to stop Sei from jumping off—only to have Sei shake off his hand and jump with a smile on his face.
The trauma of seeing a dead body that looked exactly like him, combined with losing the only person in the world he loved and trusted shattered Rei's pysche, leaving him with major gaps in his memory, and having false ones implanted by his doctor and father in an effort to rehabilitate him. Fourteen-year-old Rei quickly spiraled out of control, turned to drugs, alcohol, fighting, and was forced to be hospitalized for his own good until he was well-enough to be released and start high school.
Enter Kira Aso: the quiet, introverted, and immensely talented artist he meets prior to the beginning of the story after he helps her rescue her keys from a storm-drain, and later (where the story actually begins) when he sees her sketching a picture of a mother and child at the park, not remembering he’d met her prior.
He asks for directions, and Kira, in her extreme hurry to get away from him, accidentally draws him a map on the back of the mother and child drawing before wordlessly rushing off for home. When Rei realizes much later there’s a drawing on the back, it calls out to his own feelings of having to grow up without a mother (and that is plainly stated by Rei's best friend as the reason why Rei so girl-crazy).
Kira’s fear and introversion is justified; after losing her biological father in a brutal car wreck, Kira was raped constantly by her mother’s new husband, when she was only fourteen, two years prior to the beginning of the story. The trauma left her with a crippling phobia of men, and caused Kira to close off all emotions and withdraw from society entirely, much to the ire of her classmates who hate the quiet and shy Kira and bully her violently and often.
Rei and Kira not only wind up in the same class together, but sitting next to one another. Rei quickly recognizes her from the park, and the two strike up something of an odd friendship—which only draws further ire from the girls in the classroom who has never once seen Kira talk with a boy, much less the type of guy its assumed she would hate worst of all.
One of the defining moments in the series takes place early in the beginning of their association when Rei takes notice of Kira painting a marble bust of the Roman God of War: Mars. Kira explains that Mars was a hero who overcame tragedy; whereas Rei laments over how someone so bloodthirsty could have such a gentle face:
When Rei eventually returns the "Mother-and-Son" sketch to Kira, she promises to turn into an oil painting he can have, which excites Rei quite a bit, but makes him feel a bit guilty for taking something without offering Kira anything in return. Knowing that their recent interractions have caught the ire of violently jealous female students, Rei makes a promise to Kira to protect her:
Just before they part ways, Rei jokingly extends one more service of his to Kira:
To which shy, little Kira replies:
Shocking Rei so much, he goes sailing down the stairs with all of the grace of a cube-shaped Slinkey:
As their stories unfold and intertwine, Kira and Rei find themselves confronting their individual pasts and traumas, along with everything (and everyone) in between that seem hellbent on keeping them apart—
From dangerous and violently jealous girls (and guys), Kira’s desperation to keep Rei from finding out she was raped, Rei coming to grips with his brother’s death, Kira's stepfather reentering the picture, and a murderous male psychopath and admirer of Rei who can’t stand to see the positive changes Kira is inspiring within him.
You wouldn’t think a series like this could have any kind of a happy ending, but it does.
What I love most about this series is that as a survivor of childhood/adulthood sexual abuse and childhood trauma and neglect, I’ve yet to see any series that tactfully handles these particular issues as well as “Mars” does, from the start of the trauma, all the way down to the painfully slow healing process that will always leave a little bit of a hole in my heart; one that I try to fill with the hope that my story—in spite of everything—will also have a happy ending as well.
(Tomorrow: Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, And Japanese People With C4 Hair: A Look at Ai Yazawa's internationally famous shoujo masterpiece, Nana.)