Mangaka Shuuzou Oshimi is an avid explorer of sex, gender and sexuality. From adolescent stories like Avant-garde Yumeko and Sweet Poolside to explorations of sexual desire in Devil Ecstasy and Yuutai Nova, he has repeatedly delved into fascinating questions on the topic in often times uncomfortably intimate detail. Boku wa Mari no Naka, or Inside Mari, is without a doubt his most thorough work in this regard to date. Following twenty-something hikikomori Isao Komori who one morning finds himself inside the body of high school girl Mari Yoshizaki, the series poignantly uses a (seeming) body swap premise to investigate questions of bodily experience, performativity, and the divide between the Self and the Other.
The first bulk of Inside Mari is devoted to accentuating the different experiences that our protagonist Komori is faced with inside the body of a woman, which range from both biological, to perceptual, to performative. We see him experiencing the alien feeling of peeing through female organs, as well as menstruation. He also gets to experience the unpleasantness of having every guy look at him when he walks down the street, as well as the nuisance of classmates constantly trying to flirt with him. He has to adjust his way of walking to wearing heels and a skirt, and when sitting down he repeatedly forgets to close his legs together. He comes to participate in regular social activities with Mari’s friends, such as hanging out in the bathroom during recess, go shopping after school, and taking pictures together at photo booths.
The purely bodily dimension here is quite self-evident, and the experiences of being constantly looked at and flirted with is a nice touch of shifted perspectives. But what’s really interesting are the various performative acts that are made apparent as part of the everyday of a high school girl. The gender specific clothing of a skirt (which, as part of the school uniform, is regulated institutionally) generates limited physical behavior. Added to this are normative acts generated by social space, that play out in implicitly ritualistic fashion. It’s the attention drawn to these elements resulting from the inexperienced perspective of Komori that makes the first bulk of Inside Mari so interesting. While Mari, having been born and raised a woman her entire life, conforms to them naturally, for Komori it’s not quite as easy. In his inexperience of “being” a woman, he literally has to “act out” the role of a woman in order to fit its mold. As such, not only does this scenario unnaturalize the seemingly natural structures of the female gender, but also poignantly affirms the Butlerian idea that gender is a verb before it is a noun – a doing first and foremost that subsequently generates a being.
Despite Komori’s efforts to maintain Mari’s social space, it eventually breaks down when he accidentally triggers a love triangle between Mari, Mari’s best friend Momoka, and Momoka’s boyfriend Hiroki. It starts when Komori joins Mari’s social circle on an afternoon out in town. When at a fast food place, he overhears how the guys in the group start talking about a video game that he is well familiar with. Having kept a low profile until now to the point of frustration, he spontaneously joins in on the conversation and befriends the guys. Later during karaoke Komori becomes even more outgoing and especially friendly with Hiroki, much to Momoka’s dismay. She confronts him about this, resulting in a conflicting tension between them. The situation is worsened when Hiroki the next day asks to meet him at a café, where it gets revealed that Hiroki had asked Mari out and gotten rejected before he started dating Momoka. All of it reaches its climax when Komori is confronted by Momoka and the rest of the female group. He gets asked about his sudden friendliness with Hiroki but insists that there’s nothing going on between them. The girls respond that that is not the issue, but rather that his actions altogether were inconsiderate of Momoka’s feelings. He ends up being banished from the group completely.
A couple of things are worth noting about this arc. The first is that the entire conflict got triggered by Komori letting a part of himself shine through Mari, thus creating a crack in the performative shell. The order of the social space is implicitly maintained performatively, so to disrupt that performativity inevitably results in disorder. The second is that this order contains subtle nuances that operate naturally for anyone within it, but are unrecognized by an outsider like Komori. To him, befriending Hiroki and meeting him at a café is no big deal if there’s no romantic innuendo involved, but it is in fact enough to break down the order of the social space. And finally third, these nuances indicate an inherent instability in the order, since even the most minuscule of disruptions appears to be able to demolish it entirely. This begs the question of how legitimate the friendship that the social space represents actually is when walking on such a thin line. Indeed, it is the realization of this illegitimacy that partly fuels the subsequent chapter in Komori’s character arc.
Having failed to uphold Mari’s social space, and having gone through extensive agony in his attempt at doing so, Komori reaches a breaking point and decides to demolish the performative shell entirely. He reveals to everyone around him who he really is and about his situation, but nobody listens to him. It is at this point that the series’ core thesis is made clear. Every agent within Mari’s social space – including as much her parents as her friends – never bothered about her actual self, but only exploited her performative shell for their own benefit. “Look at me! Nobody is looking at me. You only look at my skin,” Komori desperately bursts out during a quarrel between Mari’s parents in an attempt at expressing his frustration.
And here’s the crux: Komori himself is initially no different. Before he got stuck inside her body, he saw Mari every evening at the same hour at his local convenience store for a whole year. While never having the courage to approach her, he idolized her from a distance, perceiving her as an “angel” and the only light in his otherwise miserable life. Based on this glorified conception, he keeps a respectful distance to her body once inside it. Whenever he changes clothes or takes a bath he makes sure not to look at or touch the body, and at one point he even states that the reason he hasn’t explored it (sexually or otherwise) is because of this idol-based respect. Suffice it to say, his perception of Mari is rooted in the same form of performative shell and self-benefit as everyone else; he doesn’t see the actual Mari, but a conceived “angel” that merely serves to light up his own life. But as he gradually struggles to maintain the shell and the social space – and is faced with factors that imperatively place him in a more immediate relation to the body (specifically menstruation) – his concern for upholding his respectful distance also fades away. One morning after he’s changed his menstrual pad and is to prepare for school, he undresses naturally without any of the previous hassles. He observes Mari’s naked torso not with embarrassment or sexual lust, but simply with neutral indifference.
All of this reaches a culmination in the first of the series’ two masturbation scenes. Immediately following Komori’s outburst on Mari’s parents, he runs up into her bedroom and laughs happily from the satisfaction of breaking out of the shell. He then looks into the mirror, asks Mari if this is what she would’ve wanted, and kisses the reflection. He proceeds to undress and observes Mari’s naked body in its entirety through the mirror, reflecting over his embodiment of it: “I’m… looking at myself.” He starts touching himself and engaging in an increasingly intense masturbation. The presence of Komori is being visualized through a ghostlike silhouette that touches Mari, indicating that he isn’t merely masturbating using Mari’s body, but is having a sexual interaction with Mari herself. With Komori stating that “I’m you. You’re me.” and that “I wanted to become you,” the metaphysical divide between the two becomes increasingly blurred. As the climax draws closer he starts melting into her and the two appear to merge into one before they are interrupted.
This scene represents not only the final breakdown of the performative shell, but with it also the breakdown of the divide between the Self and the Other. From having perceived Mari as an idealized Other, to eventually having been confronted with her true Self from within and the struggle of the performative act, he now observes her in naked honesty. The sexual interaction that proceeds is one of intimate immediacy, of pure bodily physicality – proving Komori to be the only one capable of reaching beneath the shell. At the same time, a crisis occurs in the Self/Other-divide between Komori and Mari. Despite the indication that Komori is having a sexual interaction with Mari herself, he acknowledges that her body is also his by stating that he’s looking at himself. As he is then merging with her and stating that “I’m you. You’re me,” the Other is completely eradicated leaving only the Self. Topping this off is the line “I wanted to become you,” which expresses an original desire by Komori to make the idealized Other into the Self (a key point that will be returned to shortly).
This would seem like nothing but metaphysical mumbo jumbo if not for the big twist at the end of the series. It is in fact revealed that this isn’t a body swap story at all, but a story about multiple personality disorder. It started when Mari as a young child underwent a traumatic identity shift. Her birth name was actually Fumiko, given to her by her grandmother on her father’s side. Her mother however was extremely against this, as she had decided on the name Mari from the beginning. So when her grandmother passed away, her mother quickly took the opportunity and changed Fumiko’s name to Mari, without listening to her daughter’s own wish. In other words, “Mari” is an identity that was forced onto Fumiko by her mother. In her intense struggles of embodying this identity as a teenager, she found her sanctuary in the miserable hikikomori Komori. For the year that Komori supposedly saw Mari at the convenience store, it was Mari who observed him every evening through his apartment window. Perceiving him as the idealized Other – whose life seemed so carefree and completely devoid of any performative struggles – she stalked him in extreme detail, watching him play video games and jerk off, and even renting every single porn magazine that he had rented. Thus, at the night of the seeming “body swap”, she resided into her constructed image personality of Komori.
Are there extreme contrivances all over this twist? Yes, definitely. But it does provide an effectively concrete wrap-up to the narrative’s running motif of performativity and the Other. “Mari” is in this context defined as the very object of performativity for both our characters. Just as we see Komori being estranged inside a body that isn’t his, so was Mari prior to him. The struggles of performing “Mari” that Komori deals and is eventually unable to cope with was something that Mari dealt with every single day. And when she became unable to cope with it, she escaped into the idealized Other; from one identity forced upon her to another created by her as a form of asylum. The idealized Other is in other words not just something that the Self looks up to and glorifies, but also wants to become. Mari wants to become Komori and Komori wants to become Mari (which, considering that this very Komori is the constructed Other inside Mari’s head, becomes very convoluted very fast) – precisely because they are worlds apart and therefore seem to embody everything that the other person wished they embodied. “Seem to” is here worth emphasizing, since the idealized Other is nothing but a fictive image. Once the signifier of the Other becomes the Self, this fiction is made more than obvious. At the end of the day both Komori and Mari have their problems and imperfections; they’re both human.
As interesting a text as Inside Mari is, there are some critiques that I have to give. First, it could have been more encompassing in its exploratory scope. For all that it examines and challenges the heteronormative matrix, it ultimately remains within that matrix. Komori is (for all we know) a heterosexual male and Mari is (for all we know) a heterosexual female, and that’s as far as the text goes. At times there are seeming indications of Mari being homosexual – first subtly from the fact that she’s never dated anyone since she keeps rejecting every guy that asks her out, and then more strongly when her hidden stack of porn magazines is revealed and that she’s a regular customer at the local porn shop. The latter however gets refuted when it turns out that her consumption of these magazines was just part of her stalking process of Komori. If the narrative had made it explicit that Mari was homosexual, that would’ve added much more richness to not only its general thematic scope, but also to Mari’s performative experience specifically. As it stands, the performativity of Mari (as in her struggle to perform the “Mari” forced upon her by her mother) has little to nothing to do with gender or sexuality at all. To have included an element like homosexual repression would not only have expanded the text beyond the heteronormative, but also tied Mari’s performative experience to that of Komori in a really nice way. Scenes such as when Komori visits the girls’ locker room, or when he intuitively grabs Momoka’s bottom out of sexual temptation, would’ve become ten times more interesting in such a context.
Second, there is the issue of accurate representation. Shuuzou Oshimi himself is a man, and even though I have no knowledge of any research that he may have done in preparation for this work, it’s always a challenge for an artist to accurately portray an experience and perspective that isn’t his – especially when dealing with such an intimate topic as gender. Are the pains of menstruation, the unpleasantness of being constantly looked at and flirted with, and the various elements and nuances of the social space of high school girls that we see in the series realistic depictions of these things, or are they merely Oshimi’s own conception of what they might be like? As a male myself, I have no answer to this question, but I think it’s an important factor to consider nonetheless.
All in all though, Inside Mari is an incredibly enjoyable read for what it is. While not as up there as Aku no Hana, it is definitely one of Oshimi’s more well-crafted titles, and an excellent culmination of the thematic thread that’s been present since the start of his career.