[WARNING: There’s a mildly NSFW image in this one, because that’s the kind of manga this is. Just nudity.]
…okay, I’m fully cheating with this one. There are only two criteria for this database: that there’s strong textual evidence that the character or characters in question aren’t cisgender, and that the media isn’t specifically about the LQBTQ+ experience. It is pretty much impossible to argue that Yuureitou (lit. Ghost Tower, but there’s no official translation and I’ve only ever seen it referred to as Yuureitou) isn’t about queerness.
The thing is, most media that Has Something To Say About Queerness follows a fairly specific mold of understated character drama. And that’s fine, I suppose. It’s just not something I’m personally interested in at all. (I’m the only genderqueer/trans person I know who actively dislikes Wandering Son, for instance.) Yuureitou…is not that. In fact, it’s not that to the point where I’m inclined to think it’s deliberate — Yuureitou is a Story About Queerness, about and for people who love things that are grotesque, bizarre, ugly. It’s about the importance of telling stories about ourselves. It’s one of my personal favorite depictions of queerness in anything I’ve ever seen, and it hits me so deeply it hurts.
Set in 50’s Japan, Yuureitou follows Taichi Amano, a fairly useless young man with a penchant for mystery novels who finds himself embroiled in a complex web of lies and secrets revolving around the titular Ghost Tower, rumored to hide a vast fortune waiting to be claimed by anyone who can make their way through its many deadly traps. He’s pulled into this world by a beautiful, mysterious young man calling himself Tetsuo and looking for an accomplice in his hunt for the Ghost Tower’s treasure. As we later learn, Tetsuo is a trans man — he used to be Reiko, the adopted “daughter” of the Ghost Tower’s previous owner and her supposed killer.
It’s impossible to discuss the ways in which transness is depicted in Yuureitou without some fairly major spoilers, considering how closely Tetsuo’s gender — and also the genders of two other major characters — are tied in with the plot. I can’t recommend the manga highly enough, but be warned that it comes with a long list of content warnings: lots of graphic and grotesque violence through means both mundane and baroque, sexual assault, medical trauma, incest, discussion of pedophilia/ephebophilia, discussion of forced abortion, and a lot of rather leery nudity, particularly of Tetsuo. There’s also some absolutely brutal misgendering, but it’s very purposeful. If you think you can stomach all that, I beg you to give Yuureitou a shot; it’s relatively short at nine volumes and has the whip-crack pacing of the mystery-thriller it is.
With all that out of the way, we can talk about the characters themselves, starting with Tetsuo. There is, unsurprisingly, a hell of a lot to unpack with him, since he’s one of the main characters and his transness is integral to the plot. Let’s start with the basics — there is absolutely no ambiguity that Tetsuo is a man, and a very binary one at that. His goals and desires throughout the series all stem from this — he wants the fortune of the Ghost Tower so he can establish a new legal identity as a man (as this is set long before there were any legal methods of transitioning). He longs for the kind of innocent, childlike friendship he was never able to have with another man because they perceived him as a woman. When, late in the series, he decides to live as a woman, it’s an act of self-abnegation born of guilt and self-loathing — and even then, he still uses the masculine first-person pronoun “boku.” His mannerisms and interests are masculine to an almost exaggerated degree.
Tetsuo also mentions taking male hormones, which brings us to one of the few genuine issues with the depiction of transness in Yuureitou — it doesn’t seem to understand how hormone replacement therapy (HRT) works. At one point, his voice becomes higher because he hasn’t taken testosterone in a while — personal experiences may vary, but the deeper voice is generally permanent. And even granting that Tetsuo’s doses of testosterone were probably light and irregular, he doesn’t look like he’s ever taken it in his life. His body is as hyperbolically female as his personality is male, curvy and hairless to a deeply implausible degree, especially for someone who’s been doing HRT. He’d definitely have some pubic hair if absolutely nothing else; I can’t imagine he shaves it.
Which brings us to Yuureitou’s general fixation with Tetsuo’s body. The series is often bordering on ecchi, and often, Tetsuo is the target of this — a statistically significant portion of the chapter title pages are practically pinups of him, for instance. I’m not going to claim this isn’t fetishistic, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who’s put off by it. I do think it’s to an end, though. Tetsuo’s body — with its excessively feminine eroticism — is visually foregrounded because it’s at the forefront of the character’s minds, whether it’s Amano’s struggle to see him as a man in spite of it, or Tetsuo’s own overwhelming desire to escape it.
This is a very real part of the AFAB trans/genderqueer experience — the fear of being perceived as female, and by extension as a sex object, by men. Tetsuo’s relationships with other men have largely been defined by this fear, and the fact that it’s not groundless. While living as Reiko, he was engaged — he found that he had a lot of similar interests to his fiance and they became close friends, but he was never able to see “Reiko” as a man. Amano is the eighth person Tetsuo approached to help him investigate the Ghost Tower — he wound up parting ways with the all the others after they became aware he was trans. It clearly weighs very heavily on him.
Another point worth mentioning as potentially problematic is the fact that Tetsuo — and trans men writ large by extension — is referred to once or twice as an eternal boy who will never grow into a man. Again, this varies depending on the individual, but it’s largely untrue. Trans men, even those two transition later in life, tend to pass very well and look as adult as any cis man. I believe the “eternal boy” misconception is also one that gives some trans men pause about transitioning — if they’re just going to look like an adolescent their whole life anyways, why bother?
That said — this is the closest I’ve ever seen anything come to representing my own gender. My circumstances are very different from Tetsuo’s, obviously — I’m AFAB nonbinary, looking to get a mastectomy but with no interest in HRT — so it’s not as though seeing myself reflected in a depiction of a binary trans man necessarily says anything good about that depiction. But that’s what I want. I don’t want to be a man; I want to be a boy forever, and being AFAB means I can have that. I apologize for my bias, but it’s too true to my own experience for me to get upset about the inaccuracies.
Overall, though, Tetsuo is one of the most painfully real depictions of transness I’ve ever seen. His envy when looking at a photo of Amano as a child; his bitterness when Amano, before realizing he’s trans, says he’d give anything to be like him; the look on his face when someone knows his secret and still treats him like a man; the look on his face the first time he cuts his hair short and dresses like a boy and realizes he might want to live after all. Yuureitou might be a bit sketchy on the biological side, but in terms of lived experience, it gets transness very, very right.
Amano is interesting as hell. When he’s first introduced, he seems to be the “token straight” — a normal guy who likes pervy magazines and has indecent fantasies about the women he knows. In fact, when he finds out Tetsuo is trans, he reacts exactly how one would expect — even though he claims to still see Tetsuo as a man and his friend, he starts thinking of him and being attracted to him as a woman. The first time I read Yuureitou, I was furious and disgusted. Thankfully, it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Due to being suspected for murder, Amano and Tetsuo have to go on the run — which leads to Amano crossdressing as a disguise. There is a very obvious way for this to go: Amano sees how hard it is to live as a woman when one is really a man, and learns to empathize more with Tetsuo through that. And it’s not that the manga doesn’t take that direction, but it complicates it in a very interesting way — Amano kind of likes it. He doesn’t experience dysphoria from being a man, but he finds that he likes being a woman. His feelings towards Tetsuo shift as a result of this too — instead of being attracted to him as a man attracted to a woman, he starts feeling attracted to him as a woman attracted to a man. He’s charmed by how cool and collected Tetsuo is; he likes being protected and cared for by him.
Amano’s arc over the course of the manga is one of realizing and embracing his own queerness, even if it’s never said in as many words. He reaches the point where he refuses to see Tetsuo as a woman, even when Tetsuo himself — overwhelmed by guilt and responsibility — claims to be one. He decides to spend the money he gets from the Ghost Tower to fulfill the dream of one of his allies, a gay man named Yamashina — to start a publishing business and tell queer stories, with the specific goal of creating a world more open to people like himself and Tetsuo. At the end of the series, we see Amano dress up as a girl — not as a disguise, or because he’s forced to, but just because he wants to. It seems safe to say he’s some degree of nonbinary, and a fairly excellent depiction at that.
There is also Marube, one of my go-to examples for how to do a queer villain right — or rather, how to get away with having a queer villain. He’s absolute scum; a corrupt prosecutor in his public life and a narcissistic pervert in private. This perversion is specifically tied to the fact that he’s genderqueer — he talks about having “a maiden in his heart,” and claims that molesting his daughter is his way of embracing that part of himself. His end goal is to swap brains with Tetsuo via experimental surgery and have sex with himself in a female body. There’s a scene where he chases Amano through the halls of his mansion in a skirt, threatening to rape him. All of this is vaguely attributed to his psychosexual obsession with a woman he had a sexual relationship with when he was 14 and his desire to become her. So yeah, if he was the only genderqueer character in the series, he would be an absolute nightmare horrorshow.
That’s the thing, though — he’s not the only genderqueer character in the series. He can be queer, and insane, and insane in ways that are very specifically linked to his queerness, and it’s fine, because we have Tetsuo and Amano. Not that either of them are especially good people — Tetsuo lies to, manipulates, and endangers Amano for his own purposes; Amano is initially kind of a scumbag, driven by a combination of pathetic ego and desire for revenge; both of them kill or allow people to die for selfish reasons over the course of the series. But they’re real. Tetsuo is hardened by years of being forced to live as something he’s not by someone he hated and having every attempt at forming a bond with another man end badly, before eventually finding the friendship he seeks in Amano and embracing his best self. Amano matures from someone who never thought to question his own privilege into possessing both a deep, sincere desire to help others and build a better world, and the willingness to put in the hard work it takes to do that.
At its heart, Yuureitou is about not just the crushing isolation of being queer in a society that fears and despises queerness, but also the euphoria of embracing your true self at any cost, of being acknowledged and understood, of finding others like yourself and realizing you’re not alone. It’s about the importance of telling stories about ourselves — and reflecting queerness in all its contradictory, ugly glory rather than sanding the edges off to make it more palatable is part of that. And yes, it’s flawed. But even so, it still speaks to me more deeply and personally than any wholesome cautious depiction of queerness I’ve ever seen.
If I were to improve anything about Yuureitou‘s rep, it would be the issues around Tetsuo that I mentioned earlier — specifically, I wouldn’t have him say he was taking testosterone. It’s not really relevant to anything, and it’s distractingly incorrect if you know how HRT works or propagating misinformation if you don’t. It would probably be for the best to get rid of the “eternal boy” stuff as well — I might relate to it personally, but it’s not accurate in terms of binary FtM transition. Other than that, though, I think Yuureitou‘s rep is basically perfect, but I’m also embarrassingly in love with it.