Last month I reviewed one of Shuzo Oshimi’s oldest works (Devil Ecstasy) and now I find myself in the position of reviewing his most recent ongoing series: Welcome Back, Alice. Does it offer the intriguing yet often bizarre storytelling the author is known for? Let’s find out!
The story follows the protagonist Yohei and his childhood friends Kei and Yui. In middle school, Yohei and Kei were inseparable and while Yohei held romantic feelings for Yui, he could never work up the courage to speak to her let alone confess his feelings. However, these peaceful days together soon came to an end when Yohei spotted Yui confessing her feelings to Kei and then kissing him which quickly drove a wedge between Yohei and Kei’s relationship. Before they got the chance to make up, Kei’s family moved away, leaving Yohei alone at school with nothing but these bitter feelings.
Fast forward three years and we find Yohei and Yui starting their first year of high school. Yohei vows to himself that this is the year he will finally talk to Yui and build a relationship with her, but little does he know his life is above to be thrown into disarray yet again when Kei transfers into their class having moved back to town all by himself. Not only that but he’s now presenting as a woman with beautiful long golden hair and wearing the girls’ school uniform, which certainly startles both Yohei and Yui who previously knew him as a sporty young boy.
Although Kei is now presenting as female, he insists that he is “done being a guy, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a girl.” So he’s fine with Yohei and Yui referring to him with male pronouns (as they do throughout the book so I have done it here to reflect that) and doesn’t particularly care what anyone else thinks of him either. Kei simply wants to start over with Yohei and continue his friendship with Yui.
As a reader, there is a lot to unpack regarding Kei, not only because of his feelings toward his gender but also because he appears to have feelings for Yohei. It’s unclear if Kei’s dislike for the male gender is because being male is what attracted Yui to him (therefore souring things with Yohei) or if Kei has always held romantic feelings for Yohei and thinks presenting as female would help change Yohei’s opinion, or if there is something that happened in the three years he was away. The answers to those questions are something Oshimi seems to have no intention of revealing right now, so all we can do is speculate.
Meanwhile, Yohei finds himself confused about everything. He still wants to find a way to be with Yui, but now that Kei’s returned and is presenting as female our protagonist finds himself with feelings for him despite the fact he knows Kei is male. Kei’s advances only serve to make Yohei more flustered as he tries to gain control of his feelings and work out why he’s attracted to Kei and if that means he doesn’t love Yui. Plus he still needs to get to the bottom of what Kei felt for Yui when they kissed back in middle school.
It’s a messy situation and the kind that we often find Oshimi depicting in his work. A fairly ordinary young man getting wrapped up in something outside his average lifestyle is the theme of most of his works, including Flowers of Evil and Happiness (although that one has a fantasy bias to it). I think the author does a great job of depicting this in the artwork too, with small panels that depict the cast’s emotions in great detail. Because Oshimi uses small panels most of the time, when he does make the transition to a full-page spread for a pivotal scene it hits with the intended intensity of whatever is happening in that given scene. Honestly, as someone who has followed Oshimi for so long now, I love seeing how he’s worked to perfect his particular style rather than change it from work to work. You can tell, even at a glance, that this manga is his.
In the afterword for this volume, Oshimi talks about his own struggles with gender identity and how he briefly thought he would be better off as a girl, but to say that was turning a blind eye to the struggles women have to deal with. In this manga he hopes to “examine, confront, and deconstruct one’s sex drive and masculinity” and I think as far as that goes, he’s off to a good start.
It’s clear that rather than trying to jump on board the popularity of LGBT+ themes in manga right now, Oshimi is instead tackling a subject close to his heart. That’s not to say it isn’t also jumping on the bandwagon, but knowing the author identifies with the struggles of his characters makes it easier to give him some leeway there. This manga is trying to convey a lot of raw emotions and I think depending on how Kei’s situation is handled it may come off as insensitive to some readers who are trans, non-binary or relate in some other way to his situation. Yohei’s confusion over being attracted to Kei may also prove another red flag there since it borders on being disrespectful, but for this kind of story, it’s also surprisingly honest in a way that Oshimi isn’t afraid to be. If you’ve read anything else from the author you’ll know more or less what to expect, but newcomers may want to check out the free preview before committing to reading the volume.
Welcome Back, Alice Volume 1 comes to the West thanks to Kodansha and has been translated by Daniel Koman. The translation reads well with no issues of note. The series is ongoing in Japan at four volumes and Kodansha has already released Volume 2 digitally with a print release to follow later this month. Volumes 3 and 4 are set to follow in August and December respectively.
Overall Welcome Back, Alice Volume 1 is an intriguing look at not only what gender means on an individual level, but how those around us come to understand it. Our cast is already going through a turbulent time as they enter high school, but Oshimi isn’t afraid to throw the cat among the pigeons and plunge them into chaos as he thoroughly explores these themes.
A free preview can be read on Kodansha’s website here.