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Zombie Cherry is a shoujo manga about a girl named Miu who accidentally turns herself into a zombie after overdosing on a restorative elixir made by her childhood friend Haru. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the boy Miu’s in love with, Tohno, can’t stand zombies. As silly as the manga often is, it plays this premise surprisingly straight — the knowledge that Miu’s existence as a zombie is temporary, and she could die for real at basically any time, hangs heavy over the heads of the cast, making for a thoughtful meditation on death, loss, impermanence, and the importance of living freely while one still can.
It’s the lattermost theme that brings us around to the subject of this entry: Rio Hasegawa, initially introduced as the prettiest, most popular girl in school, and Miu’s main rival for Tohno’s affections. At first, she seems to be nothing more than a typical two-faced shoujo manga rival, manipulating Miu to get close to Tohno — but when Miu protects her from a shattering window, injuring herself in the process, Rio starts to take an interest in her. Over the course of the series, we learn more about Rio as she and Miu strike up something resembling a friendship, albeit one still very much couched in rivalry. Rio might be blunt to a fault, but she’s also loyal to those she cares for (even if she won’t admit she cares for them) and intensely driven to live without regrets — all in all, an immensely likeable and admirable character. And as we learn in chapter 11 (out of 17, so fairly late into the series), she’s a trans girl.
This is something that comes out when Rio goes to visit/bother Miu after Miu has stopped attending school for several days due to zombie-related complications. Rio puts Miu in a wrestling hold in an attempt to persuade her to return to school; in the resulting tussle, her wig comes off, and we get an example of my second least favorite trope, the accidental dick-grab. (My least favorite trope is of course the intentional dick-grab.) This of course results in another tussle as Rio attempts to get her wig back from Miu, this one resulting in Miu’s head coming off. And now everyone’s secrets are out in the open.
When asked why she dresses as a girl, Rio says it’s for the same reason that Miu does. She is a girl. Her father, the school’s principal, doesn’t approve — but he said that if Rio dresses as a girl for the entirety of high school without anyone finding out, he’ll not only accept her as a woman, but pay for her transition. To her credit, Miu never questions Rio’s gender — even her initial reaction is more surprised and puzzled than anything close to disgusted or disapproving — continuing to treat her the same as ever and happily offering to keep her transness a secret for the sake of her bet with her father. (It’s also vaguely implied that Tohno is also aware she’s trans and is keeping it a secret for her, offering a possible explanation for what she sees in him.) There’s a moment where Rio takes off part of her makeup (she’s an incredibly skilled makeup artist) and Miu reacts with disproportionate horror, but this is a common enough gag even with cis characters, and when we see Rio presenting male, she’s still gorgeous. I don’t love it, but I don’t think it’s transphobic, either.
And yes, we see Rio presenting male. At one point in the story, Haru needs certain specialty ingredients to make more of the elixir that keeps Miu “alive” as a zombie. Rio is able to obtain these ingredients through her father’s academic connections — but the next day, she comes to school dressed as a boy, and explains that her father’s condition for getting the ingredients was that she give up the bet. Miu is upset and intensely guilty, correctly seeing this as her friend giving up on something incredibly important to her for Miu’s sake. “You want to be a woman!” she says. “More like, you are a woman!”
Other than this, and the surprise Rio’s classmates show when she comes to class looking like a boy, there’s no real discussion of her gender. This makes sense, and is probably for the best — Zombie Cherry is Miu’s story, not Rio’s, after all. Having a trans character doesn’t make a story about transness, even if their transness is relevant to the plot, as it is in this case. Rio is unambiguously a girl to herself and to Miu, even if circumstances force her to dress as a boy; this is never questioned by anyone onscreen. Of course, it would still be a really bad look for the manga to end with her still presenting male — thankfully, in the final chapter, we see that she’s gone back to her female presentation. “It’s stupid to have a bet on acceptance,” she says when Miu asks about her dad. “It’s good enough for me that I accept myself.”
I love this. It’s a great counterpoint to my least-favorite aspect of To Skin the Flesh — the truth is that there are some people who will never accept you, no matter what you do, and often these are the people closest to you. Bet or no, Rio’s father is clearly a transphobe who would rather have a son than a daughter — demanding that she pass perfectly for three years without anyone finding out is exactly the kind of gatekeeping bullshit that cis people try to pull. One gets the impression that he only made the bet in the first place because he thought she’d never be able to pull it off.
This brings us back to the thesis of the manga: live as you want. So what if Rio’s father disapproves of her transness and won’t fund her transition; so what if everyone in school now knows she’s trans. Rio still chooses to present the way that feels natural to her. She accepts herself, and Miu and Haru and Tohno accept her too — what more does one need?
As for how to improve representation… Rio’s gender is so incidental to the story as a whole and handled so well (for the most part) that I don’t have a whole lot to suggest — except maybe getting rid of the dick grab. Even Rio’s skirt flipping up would be better. I don’t love the makeup removal joke either, but like I said before, I’m not sure that’s actually transphobic as such. All in all, though, a surprisingly good showing!