Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash
In part three of this format, I discussed erasure of mainly bisexuals and asexuals, so in today’s post, I am going to talk about the depiction of this and several related topics in a manga by the asexual, aromantic and non-binary mangaka Yuhki Kamatani, called Our Dreams at Dusk.
Today, I am going to talk about the way that this series tackles erasure in general and in particular how it casts light at asexuality and aromanticism, as they are the main focus of this format. Additionally, I am going to address the inherent tensions of labels between being liberating on one hand and confining on the other, as this aspect is part of what makes this particular piece of fiction so interesting.
That being said, expect some spoilers from here on out. I urge you to read Kamatani’s work, as they have assembled some interesting stories before this one. Among others, they released one of my favourite manga, which I am going to address in a later post. But before that, let’s discuss erasure and representation in Our Dreams at Dusk.
Content Warning: Despair, Suicide, Sexual Harrassment
Our Dreams at Dusk or Shimanami Tasogare, as it is called in Japanese, is a manga with 23 chapters. The story revolves around Tasuku Kaname, or Tasu-Kun a gay student who is involuntarily outed and has to learn to come to terms with his identity.
At the beginning of the story, Tasuku is in denial about his identity and he has to learn how to accept himself. The abuse by his fellow students even leads him to consider suicide but when he is about to jump towards death, he encounters a mysterious woman who encourages him to tell her anything and thus prevents him from jumping. Over the course of the plot, the protagonist starts attending the LGBTQ+ lounge owned by his life saver Anonymous and while befriending the regular guests, he learns about his own and their respective identities.
The premise of this series is quite simple, as it uses a slice of life principle to convey the daily struggles of LGBTQIAP+ people in various forms. While the protagonist is a homosexual male, the show addresses issues going beyond this single identity and touches on the struggles that can be connected to differing sexual and gender identities and different situations in life tied to them.
Unravelling Queer Identities in Our Dreams at Dusk
I highly recommend reading the manga, as it is a great, emotional journey and points out important aspects of LGBTQIAP+ identities. Therefore, I am going to try not to spoil too much about the story and I’m going to focus on erasure and some general LGBTQ+ struggles portrayed in it as well as the ace representation in this manga.
Heteronormativity and Erasure
Initially, the manga focuses on cisnormativity, heteronormativity and amatonormativity quite heavily, i.e. the ideas that it there are only two sexes and that it is normal to experience sexual and or romantic attraction to one’s opposite sex. Based on these assumptions, everyone who does not adhere to these standards, as in everyone who does not identify according to the gender binary and everyone who does not experience sexual or romantic attraction in a way as it is expected of them, would be ‘abnormal’. The series does a great job at illustrating that this mindset is flawed and that it doesn’t reflect the reality, as there are many more identities than just cisgender and straight. It deconstructs these narrow-minded views through its diverse cast.
The protagonist Tasuku struggles a lot with internalised prejudice and homophobia and especially at the beginning of the plot, the harmful implications of heteronormativity and amatonormativity become clear when he considers taking his own life because of the abuse by his fellow students and his internalised homophobia.
Already in the first chapter, we get a great impression of this: students are pondering on their fellow students’ sexual orientations and just assume that someone is gay because they trim their eyebrows. This type of behaviour is problematic for various reasons: firstly, it is a massive cliché and what someone does to their body is not concerned with their sexual orientation at all. Just because someone dresses or grooms in an unconventional way, that does not mean that they are homosexual. Secondly, the students instantly drop the idea of that student being gay because he has a girlfriend. This is heteronormative, since they assume that he must be straight and never consider the possibility of him being bi, pan or asexual etc, simply because they are biased and obviously unaware of these identities. Apart from that, this could be considered an example of erasure, as they just don’t think about the possibility of the student being anything other than straight and never consider how he might identify. Through examples like this, the series illustrates the narrow-mindedness of society when it comes to gender roles and LGBTQ identities.
Being Queer and Closeted
A similar topic addressed in this manga are the struggles of being queer and stuck in the closet. Tasuku struggles with this a lot, as it takes him some time to come to terms with his being gay. There are various moments, in which the issues tied to this become apparent.
For instance, in chapter 3, even a friend of his says “thank goodness you’re not gay” and “aren’t people who call others “gay” gay themselves?” This is just ignorant and homophobic, as is implies that it is bad to be gay. In this case, the friend unknowingly discriminates against Tasuku who hasn’t come out yet, which does not make it easier for him to accept himself. That’s a very fitting example of what it can be like to be closeted. Especially if people who are important to you say things like this, this might prevent you from accepting yourself and it makes a coming out even harder.
However, Tasuku is not the only one struggling with this. Among the friends he makes at the lounge, there is a lesbian called Haruko who lives in a relationship with a woman who has not come out to her parents yet. In chapter four, they have a small fallout because like Tasuku, Haruko’s girlfriend is not at the point where she wants to openly present herself as gay yet. Despite this, Haruko accidentally tells Tasuku about her partner and does not consider her wants and needs, hence Haruko’s partner understandably gets upset about this involuntary outing in front of a stranger.
As the example suggests, the stigma tied to lesbianism and other queer identities and in addition to that, being closeted can impact relationships and the way that people negotiate them. If a couple has decided to keep their relationship undercover until both of them are ready to reveal it and one of them violates that promise, that’s a transgression.
Especially relationships that do not fit heteronormative or amatonormative standards and such between people outside of the gender binary can have more complex dynamics than ‘just’ a relationship between two heterosexual cis persons whose identities do not challenge the status quo.
The examples above are only some of the struggles LGBTQ+ people can face if they are not out yet and the manga depicts these issues in a relatable and tangible way.
Belittlement and Misguided Good Intentions
Apart from sexual orientations, the series touches on gender identity and especially in this context, it illustrates how people can behave in harmful ways despite having good intentions. There are two trans characters in the story: Utsumi Natsuyoshi, a trans man, and Shuuji Misora who is still questioning their identity.
At some point, an old classmate of Utsumi appears and asks him to attend a reunion. She constantly misgenders Utsumi and uses his dead name by calling him (deadname omitted)-‘chan’ instead of ‘Utsumi-kun’. This illustrates her lack of awareness, as this is a really disrespectful thing to do. However, her harmful behaviour goes beyond that, as she strips Utsumi of his agency and tends to talk for and belittle him seemingly without even realising.
This ultimately leads Utsumi to leave the reunion, saying that he has had quite enough and that he is going to talk to people about his identity if he wants to do so himself. Despite having good intentions and trying to help Utsumi, his old classmate doesn’t really understand him and ends up harming him unintentionally by talking for him and belittling him and consequently turning him into ‘her project’. Despite this, Utsumi does not get too mad at her because he knows that she means well. However, due to this, her behaviour is all the more frustrating to him. This illustrates that you shouldn’t talk over marginalised people but instead listen to them and support them.
Similarly, Tasuku unintentionally offends Shuuji in an almost grotesque way. Trigger warning: sexual harrassment
Shuuji is unsure about their gender identity and Tasuku is trying to help them figure it out. This results in them attending a festival, which marks the first time that Shuuji presents themselves as female in public after having presented themselves as female in the lounge. Initially, this may seem like a nice way of them making a new step on the way to find themselves but this ends very abruptly when they are groped by someone in a group of passing strangers. As if this wasn’t bad enough as is, Tasuku tries to cheer Shuuji up by implying: ‘Well, at least you now you know you pass as a girl, so you could take that as a compliment’.
Understandably, Shuuji is disgusted by this and shouts at Tasuku. This puts a massive strain on their friendship. But why does Shuuji get so upset? First off, Tasuku trivialises abuse and harrasment. The fact that he does so unintentionally does not take away from this. It is just messed up. Regardless of the situation, harrassment is never okay and you should not downplay it as Tasuku does. Secondly, in this context, he assumes he understands Shuuji but clearly doesn’t. Accordingly, in a similar way to the previous example, Tasuku thinks he understands Shuuji and acts in a way that he thinks is helpful to them but in doing so, he betrays his lack of understanding and plays down an experience that can be really hard to cope with even without this context, in which Shuuji’s identity is concerned. What Tasuku says above implies that Shuuji is not a “a real girl” and it is based on the assumption that they identify as a girl, which is not established at this point. Tasuku plays down the situation and jumps to a conclusion about Shuuji’s identity in the process. Therefore Tasuku’s behaviour in this situation is a major transgression and seriously sucks.
Since I don’t want to give everything away, I am not going to address how these situations are resolved. Instead, I am now going to focus on asexuality in Our Dreams at Dusk.
Asexuality and Aromanticism: Invisible Identities?
One of the main characters, Anonymous, identifies as asexual and her identity is used in the plot in an interesting way. It is first hinted at in chapter 17 when someone remarks that ‘She doesn’t get involved or show any interest in anyone or anything’. Luckily, in the next panel, it is instantly emphasised that she is no less human just because she seems to be ‘uninterested in others’.
‘She isn’t something that’s colourless and transparent. Anonymous is human just like us.’ Although, we don’t know about Anonymous’ ace identity at this point, this is a nice way of countering the dehumanisation of asexuals and aromantics based on the assumption that sex or love are what make people human.
In the next chapter, she is confirmed to be an aromantic asexual and in a flashback, we learn how she decided to claim the name Anonymous for herself: ‘Even if I try to explain what asexuality is, it doesn’t get through and I don’t have a duty to explain, either. Besides, I feel like I just don’t need to go through that sort of emotional labour… To be honest, I still don’t know where I’m going to end up.’
This touches on an aspect that I often thought about before figuring out I’m ace and it might be a very subjective thing that is not representative of asexuality and aromanticism as a whole: the issues of labels and worries concerning one’s future. Since sexual and romantic relationships are constantly normalised and everything is labelled, it can be tough to grasp your own identity and you can easily get the impression that something about you is wrong if you are not interested in sexual or romantic relationships.
This narrow-minded view on life as a homogenous process that has fixed stations like relationships, marriage and childbirth preached by heteronormative and amatonormative societies does not suit everyone. You don’t need to do these things to be happy and it is up to you to see what makes you happy and what defines you as a person. And you don’t necessarily need labels to be happy. Yes, they can help to describe things but they can also be restrictive and confining. This aspect is elaborated on later in the chapter and in the plot, when Anonymous figures out that she would like to be alone and that this might be her valid form of happiness.
Anonymous stands up immediately when she is told that a chosen solitude might be her valid form of happiness and says ‘This is it’. The fact that she smiles and that she is happy after this realisation emphasises that this freedom from labels might indeed be her form of happiness. Instead of being confined by a label, apparently, she just wants to be herself. This implies that from her perspective, one’s identity should not matter and that we should all get the chance to be happy with ourselves and our identities instead of being reduced to and treated based on them. This however, is only an interpretation and up to everyone to decide for themselves.
This aspect of accepting one’s self and not being confined by one’s identity is illustrated in more detail towards the end of the story, when Anonymous and Tasuku talk to each other. When Tasuku tries to understand her, Anonymous replies: ‘I’m not Anonymous because I’m asexual. That’s just one aspect that makes me as a person.’
Throughout the plot, Anonymous constantly offers others to let them tell her things but emphasises that she will not listen. Now, since she realises that Tasuku is actually making an effort to understand her, Anonymous offers to tell him something and remarks that he doesn’t have to listen, turning her own behaviour until this point around. She emphasises that we can only try to understand others but never really understand them, as they are different persons. According to this logic, who we think someone is is just a projection we make on them based on our perception of them and not an exact representation of that person. In other words: one’s sexual orientation does not necessarily determine their entire identity but it is just one part of who they are. This realisation can be really empowering and liberating because you don’t have to be anything. Instead, it is up to you to decide whether you draw empowerment from your identity and embrace it or you feel confined by labels. You are valid and have to find what makes you feel comfortable about yourself. However, this is just one possible interpretation. Different takes on this are definitely possible. If you want to form your own opinion on this, check out the manga.
Our Dreams at Dusk is an interesting and relevant story about LGBTQ+ identities and their implications for life in modern society. It touches on various topics, such as heteronormativity, erasure, being closeted, well intentioned harmful behaviour and the ambivalence of labels as empowering on one hand and restrictive on the other. The series addresses these topics openly and provides a good insight but at the same time, it doesn’t get too explicit or on the nose. If you are interested in a relatively short series with interesting themes, Our Dreams at Dusk might be the right thing for you.
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