Me, Myself, and I: Sexual Politics Inside Mari’s Body-swap Narrative

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When it comes to depicting adolescent struggles with sexuality, Oshimi Shuuzou is by no means a stranger with the sexually-charged Flowers of Evil laying waste to youthful idealism and schema precariously constructed, les fleurs du mal flourishing amidst the vestiges of innocence. His marked cynicism suffusing traditionalist narratives is something to be commended, and the same can certainly be said for his take on the body-swap genre and all of its established conventions. Ostensibly Boku wa Mari no Naka or Inside Mari appears to be yet another bawdy offering running the orthodox gamut, a relatively light-hearted piece about what girls and boys are made of. Isao is a NEET, days filled with video games and masturbation blurring into one. Having long since dropped out of university, the only ray of light in the darkness that is his life would be the angelic Mari. Admiring her from a distance through stalking allows Isao to momentarily forget how much of a failure he has become, and expects nothing to change… That is, until Mari turns around with an enigmatic smile and Isao wakes up in her body.

It’s a set-up which does little to destabilize the genre’s turgid whiff of homogeneity, all fidgeting in girls’ locker rooms and groping others a display of routine titillation. But true to Oshimi’s contemptuous model Inside Mari quickly takes on disturbing connotations as boundaries blur, challenging the genre and all its expected conceits once Isao peers into Mari’s impervious psyche.

mari01Setting a rather suggestive precedent for the material which ensues, Mari’s close friends reveal that our mystery woman doesn’t have a boyfriend because she refuses to be in a relationship with someone unless she’s terribly fond of them, echoing established genre dichotomies through coded expressions of familiarity. With such a statement the reader assumes that Isao is the man she’s enamoured with, tentatively sustained through evidential pieces strewn about the narrative such as Mari purchasing his ‘used’ manga. Based on the reader’s experiences with conventional body-swap tales it is to be expected that a stale romantic comedy veering on frivolity will take place, eroticisms pushing the envelope through a mutual exploration of each other’s bodies. The male reader is encouraged to project himself onto Isao as he discovers the intimate secrets a woman’s body supposedly harbours; a delicately fashioned orchard of which he is forbidden from entering. In a rather striking moment which likewise serves as a statement of intent, Mari is persuaded into singing the infamous AKB48 ear-worm ‘Heavy Rotation’. It is a piece which gained notoriety for its mawkish veneer parading idols about in lingerie, barely legal members gazing coyly at the viewer while caressing each other. Uncomfortable though the video may be, it posits sentiments about how idols are treated as commodities, a note which persists throughout Inside Mari as Isao realizes the destructive extent of his foray into Mari’s life. He acknowledges the notion of policing female bodies once he steps outside, noticing men indiscreetly ogling her and is horrified that Mari must go through something like that every single day.

‘Heavy Rotation’ likewise projects a teenaged fantasy stemming from the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s ubiquitous impact, otaku offerings generally providing one-dimensional glimpses into the mind of another while eschewing basic human interaction. A pinch of stardust, a swish of a wand and one will be able to understand the mind of another. Oshimi addresses such a gaudy sentiment in the first volume’s afterword, explicitly addressing the male reader through asking if they have ever thought about being a girl. He draws attention to the fantastical concept’s potentially challenging elements, for he would no doubt still view the female form through a sexually-charged gaze as he would have become a girl in body but not spirit. As was the case with Flowers of Evil however Oshimi is primarily concerned with laying waste to idyllic constructs, and with seeds sown amidst Inside Mari’s unsettling beginnings his thesis flourishes within profound unease. As Isao occupies Mari’s body one would naturally assume the reverse to likewise be true, yet the existence occupying Isao’s body is mystified once our narrator frantically interrogates him, culminating in a single horrifying question which serves as a piercing subversion of the body-swap genre and all of its shallow conceits: where’s Mari?

Or, to be more accurate – just who is Mari?

mari02Unlike the myriad genre staples which no doubt spring to mind, Isao refrains from that inevitable exploration of Mari’s body, guilt overwhelming as he is struck at the extent of his invasion into her own personal narrative. Inside Mari is by no means a licentious display of entitlement but a psychological thriller as Isao struggles with the pressures of performing femininity and not sending the petals of Mari’s life scattering away into the wind. A lofty ideal for although he posits his intentions as wholesome he nevertheless impinges upon the sanctity of all that Mari is, peering into the innermost recesses of her mind, casting aside that veil of secrecy. Despite Oshimi emphatically drawing attention away from titillating eroticisms which the genre slavishly adheres to, he delves into more intimately physical components that generally tend to be absent lest their presence disrupt the escapist fantasy. Takahashi Rumiko of Ranma ½ fame infamously vilified the possibility of a scenario featuring a pregnant Ranma, offering the legendary “I don’t think about these things, and neither should you.” Hypothesising about potential physicalities undermines the illusory constructs such narratives are comprised of rendering the scene where Mari is menstruating, blood sliding down her legs and dripping onto the asphalt below worthy of commendation. Reminiscent of Carrie’s chanelling nascent femininity through moments of body horror, it challenges the revulsion suffusing female bodily functions; blood-stained pad and soaked pubic hair across a two-page spread refreshing in its transparency.

All the more so considering that Isao has placed Mari upon a pedestal as purity personified, into the upper echelons unworthy of desecration; more ideal than human. His naïveté results in an entitled display where he is left mourning all that the genre ought to have bestowed upon him – how he wishes to kiss Mari, to marry her, for her to rescue him from the abyss he’s in. Isao’s repellent declaration suggestively follows a male acquaintance of Mari’s forcefully kissing him, an event which began with a repressed Isao openly gushing of his love of video games for the first time since he set foot in that city. Complementing the whiff of toxic masculinity seeping through the margins, the real Isao professes his love for our narrator, all zealous proclamations of returning to university for Mari despite his only aiding in a masturbatory act several days prior deeply unsettling. When spurned he is appalled that such a pure construct could possess sexual urges, that she would be willing to engage in such acts without a trace of love. Such an insufferably awkward scene is by no means the anticipated confession that would occur within the genre’s more frivolous offerings, instead destabilizing its one-dimensional model entirely through a carefully measured distance between Isao and the reader-as-proxy. Unlike other titles concerned with dubious reciprocal conceits Inside Mari strives to remedy its superficialities, anything but a mutual tale of passion with the two drawing closer together, fulfilment arising from a change in perspective – Isao manipulating Mari for his own egocentric desires through taking advantage of her dissociative fugues.

mari03Its narrative likewise manipulates the reader via Isao’s skittish delineations, deceptively framing moments of same-sex titillation as anticipated heteronormative explorations. Self-consciousness strikes once Mari’s best friend grips tightly onto Isao’s arm, panicking over the possibility of falling for her. Later groping the same friend once she hugs him in good faith sows seeds of uneasiness which eventually coil around their tenuous friendship as it disintegrates. Isao overwhelmed with arousal in the girls’ changing room to the point where he passes out. Mari’s brother returning erotic manga to her room. Physical revulsion when a male acquaintance forcefully kisses him. Clinical, distant interest aiding the real Isao in a masturbatory display. A smattering of events parsed through a sexually-charged lens ostensibly coded as masculine, invasive actions parsed as same-sex thrills on par with the western trope that every female sleepover involves revealing negligees and sexual experimentation. The erotic manga are further contextualised as evidential signals pointing towards Mari’s assumed attraction towards Isao – however the suggestion that she purchased his used manga in order to draw closer to him hangs heavy in the air, a touch discordant.

Over the course of Inside Mari revelatory instances point towards Isao being a construct of Mari’s own imagining, a rather severe case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Adrift in the tempestuous sea that is her life, left abandoned to the waves by an emotionally distant and abusive mother, Mari finds herself lacking in identity and desperate to latch onto something that will save her. Something that will make her feel real. No one is looking Inside Mari as they only see the immaculately constructed façade which results in pressures blooming amidst the shadowy annals of her psyche. She envies the carefree Isao and his lack of direction in life, dissociative fugues giving way to a psychological escape which take the form of ‘Isao’: assimilating his very being through breaking into his home and observing him. Appropriating a masculine personality facilitates an avoidance of the pressures in Mari’s life, while similarly channelling her queerness down heteronormative and accepting channels beyond the rigid confines of all that she must be. Via external influences such as Yori however ‘Isao’ is able to remain relatively grounded, Yori displaying a level of emotional vulnerability towards Mari that ‘Isao’ is unable to parse, resulting in questions regarding his being able to envision such scenes in perfect clarity despite them supposedly happening to an entirely different person.

mari04In spite of it all objectification persists via Yori’s erratic behavioural patterns; vilifying Isao’s reluctance to tarnish Mari’s existence with sexual desire as “creepy” yet expressing horror once told that Mari aided in a masturbatory act of Isao’s. Both figures view Mari as a sacred existence lacking in humanity, which results in a cathartic refutation: “I’m not filthy, but I’m not clean either… None of us are”. And so she actively dispels the mist enveloping her existence, the one which kept others at bay ever since Fumiko had been locked away inside her heart. Tellingly Mari leaning down to kiss Yori takes on almost ritualistic connotations as portentous shadows bathe the pair, suggesting that something momentous is about to occur as barely suppressed impulses at last burst forth (“my body moved by itself”). In marked contrast to the clinical interest earlier shown with Isao and the abject terror with the male acquaintance, Mari’s response is nervous delight, all flushed cheeks and lips traced. An interrogative compromise of sorts arises with ‘Isao’ idly wondering if the action was Mari’s desires made manifest, drawing closer to the psychological source of all that is taking place. As if in response to this nascent freedom of hers, the bookstore where Mari covertly purchased erotic manga goes out of business, a motion which all but says ‘you’re free’. It is juxtaposed with Mari rushing through the streets in a feverish daze searching for Yori once she goes missing, openly, sans restraint. Yet most telling of all is the 54th chapter title (‘what was bottled up’), offset against a pair of hands drifting towards each other, culminating in a confession, an “I love you”.

When Mari finally orders ‘Isao’ to disappear it is through having found a presence she can connect with in the midst of the tempestuous ocean threatening to engulf all that she stands for. The Mari shown at the end is confident, at ease with who she is as a person. A far cry from the uneasy behavioural patterns of ‘Isao’; a closeted girl struggling to fit in with classmates that don’t see the real her, pushing through the throng in order to meet the one that does – Yori. As a testament to Oshimi’s narrative power all that initially appears to be yet another salacious body-swap romp takes on distinctly affecting qualities through an interrogative exploration of a woman’s identity and sexuality.

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*Inside Mari can be legally read on Crunchyroll. To my knowledge, no western publisher has picked it up for a physical release yet.

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3 thoughts on “Me, Myself, and I: Sexual Politics Inside Mari’s Body-swap Narrative

  1. hecker says:

    Thanks for writing this, it’s good to see intelligent reviews of Inside Mari. (Actually, it’s good to see reviews of Inside Mari, period, having an intelligent one is a welcome bonus.) It would be great if Vertical would pick this up, like they did with Flowers of Evil. I guess we’ll see.

    Like

  2. rauzi says:

    Wonderful analysis. Between Inside Mari, Flowers of Evil, and the ongoing Happiness, Oshimi has become one of my favorite working artists. His explorations of teenage sexuality and psychology are incredibly nuanced and incisive.

    I think I read the very end of the manga differently than you did. While Mari seems much more confident than “Isao”, and much more confortable than we can assume she was before his persona took charge, her relationship with Yori seems lukewarm, distant, when compared to how it was when she “was Isao”. Notably, when they say goodbye to each other, both of them reach towards one another only to pull back, as if no longer confortable with a level of intimacy they (but really Yori and “Isao”) once shared.

    The resurfacing of Mari is, as a whole, a happy ending, but I think Oshimi makes efforts to not depict her life as something that was solved and fixed up. The Isao personality leaves, and Mari must now try to live, and build her life, as Mari. That she gets to do this, after being bottled up and repressed for so long, is reason enough to be thankful.

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