I was unsure whether or not to bother writing about To Strip the Flesh, a short story by Oto Toda originally published in Shonen Jump+. Or rather, I wasn’t going to write about it — there wasn’t an English translation anywhere, and as long-time readers may be aware, I tend to find media explicitly about queerness deeply uninteresting. But it has come to my attention that VIZ is going to be publishing a translation, so I felt obligated to interrupt my hiatus for one more job.
To Strip the Flesh is about Chiaki Ogawa, an online streamer with the unusual niche of skinning and butchering the animals his father hunts. His relationship to his father and hunting are the driving forces of the story — Chiaki has identified as male his entire life, and wanted to go hunting with his (unnamed) father; however, his father is a transphobe and a misogynist who refuses to let his “daughter” hunt. Chiaki’s mother died when he was young, and her last wish was for her “daughter” to become a beautiful bride — Chiaki’s father is adamant about seeing this wish fulfilled, and Chiaki goes along with it and lives as a woman out of a misplaced sense of obligation. He plans to transition after his father’s death, and has already been taking testosterone for about a year when the story begins. Eventually, Chiaki hits a point where he can no longer endure his father’s assertions that everything he does is for Chiaki’s own happiness, and gets gender affirmation surgery — when he returns a few weeks later¹, he finds that his father has read the book about gender that Chiaki left, as well as some other books he procured on his own, and now accepts him as a man. The last we see of Chiaki is him two years down the line, a smoking hot trans man hunting with his father.
Allow me to be clear: this is not bad rep. I would go so far as to say it’s fairly good rep — media that is explicitly trying to tell a story about transness (as opposed to media that happens to include trans characters) almost never does a bad job of it. Certain elements are genuinely very effective, especially the central metaphor of skinning and butchering. In an interview, Toda describes feeling discomfort with their² growing chest when they hit puberty — they imagined scraping it off with a knife, even putting a kitchen knife against their breasts through their clothes. This image is directly repeated in To Skin the Flesh, and it’s a damn good one, viscerally evocative and as real as its origins would imply. Wanting to cut away the parts of one’s body that don’t feel right is about as gender as it gets.
My main issues lie with Chiaki, his father, and their overall relationship. Chiaki doesn’t really have a personality, at least not one that we’re privy to — he’s almost entirely characterized by the fact that he is a binary trans man who wants his father’s approval for reasons that are never really clear, considering that his father sucks. His interest in hunting stems from his father, and his desire to be a man is fairly directly linked to his desire to join his father on hunts. To be fair, it’s made clear that Chiaki is a man separate from that desire, but the two are linked in a way that ambiguates cause and effect. Would Chiaki be more comfortable living as a woman if he was still allowed to hunt, or if his father wasn’t such a misogynist?
That ambiguity — the question of whether one genuinely wants to be something else, or whether they just want to escape what they are right now — is a very real thing for trans people, especially transmasculine people who experience misogyny, and one of the greatest failings of To Skin the Flesh is that it doesn’t explore that tension at all. There are a lot of reasons for Chiaki not to want to be a woman. His father is a misogynist, forbidding him from going hunting, insisting he get married, demanding he fit into a specific gendered role. He gets sexist comments on his videos all the time — “strip me next,” “lemme do you,” the kind of thing people who look female on the internet almost invariably have to deal with. We are provided with a lot of reasons for Chiaki not to want to be a woman, whereas we more or less have to take on faith that he identifies as a man. Of course, no one needs (or even usually has) a reason for identifying as any gender(s) over any other — but this is a work of fiction, and the ways in which these things are framed matter.
Chiaki’s father also has no real personality, outside of being a misogynist and a transphobe until it suddenly serves the story for him not to be. I understand the idea behind his arc, at least — it’s not like he changes overnight, he has two weeks to a month (the timeline is a bit vague) for him to do his research and think things over — but from a narrative perspective it’s still incredibly abrupt and not terribly convincing. There is a whole separate discussion to be had around the concept of filial piety and cultural expectations around parent-child relationships, but all we ever see on screen before his face-turn is Chiaki’s father ignoring what he says, talking down to him, claiming he knows best — regardless of his intentions, he is not a good parent, and it seems absurd and deeply unhealthy that Chiaki would bend over backwards for him the way he does. Yes, he gets better, and I’m sure the point of the story is that people will come around with time. But the truth of the matter is that people often don’t come around, and even when they do, Chiaki is 26 years old by the time it happens. He had to put up with his father being a misogynist and a transphobe for 26 years — even putting aside the time he was a minor and couldn’t really do anything about it, there were eight years during which he could have done anything.³ It shouldn’t be the responsibility of queer people to educate, to be patient and understanding as we are ignored and belittled and forced into lives that don’t suit us. We don’t owe anything to the people who refuse to listen or care.
What really brings this into focus is that there’s a character who accepts Chiaki immediately — his best friend Takato. He initially had a crush on Chiaki, thinking he was a girl — however, after Chiaki explained he was a boy, they became fast friends, with Takato eventually operating the camera for Chiaki’s streams. He clearly cares about Chiaki deeply, even agreeing to marry him to satisfy Chiaki’s father’s wishes, and he’s just generally a good dude. He’s not a perfect ally — when Chiaki first tells him he’s planning on getting gender affirmation surgery, Takato’s first response is to run off a long anxious list of potential downsides, including “you won’t be able to become a real man.” This clearly comes from a place of genuine concern, but a lot of what he says is missing the point, if not flat-out incorrect. Yes, there are people who commit suicide after gender affirmation surgery — but there are also a hell of a lot of trans people who don’t get surgery and still commit suicide. None of this is ever really corrected, which is very irritating. Despite this, Takato is still an infinitely better ally than Chiaki’s father — he does his research, actually listens to what Chiaki says, and doesn’t try to talk him out of surgery once it’s clear that’s what he wants. He’s not perfect, but he’s a good friend and probably the most interesting character in To Skin the Flesh. I was actually hoping Chiaki and Takato would wind up together at the end as a gay couple — there’s a decent bit of evidence to support it! — but no dice. Even so, the presence of Takato makes it clear to the audience that there are people who get it without needing to be lead by the nose, which makes Chiaki’s attitude towards his father even more baffling to me.
It’s always hard to talk about improving representation for narratives explicitly about transness, because they’re usually very careful about how they portray that sort of thing to begin with; it’s all the more difficult in this case, because I have an unusually strong dislike for this story that is mostly unrelated to the quality of its representation, which is fine. I’m sure there are people out there who have struggled with beloved but unaccepting parents in much the same way as Chiaki. It’s made quite clear that Chiaki identifying as male is distinct from his desire to go hunting with his father, despite the strong connection between those things. It would be nice if Chiaki had a personality outside of his relationship to his father and the fact that he’s trans; it would be nice if his father’s acceptance read as anything other than narrative convenience. But it’s fine.
¹ – Chiaki goes to Thailand for the surgery, which is a fairly common practice for trans people in East Asia — Chii talks about doing the same in her autobiographical manga The Bride Was a Boy.
² – There is very little information available about Toda online, including their gender. While the fact that Chiaki’s behavior directly echoes Toda’s own might imply that Toda is also transmasculine, it’s not clear, and I don’t wish to assume.
³ – In the spirit of full disclosure, a personal note: I’m also 26, and I’m nearing the third anniversary of cutting myself off completely from my parents. It had nothing to do with the fact that I’m queer — I just hit a point where I couldn’t stand to have them in my life anymore. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I wish I could have done it sooner. So it’s a bit galling to see Chiaki so attached to a parent much worse than either of mine.