Kasane review: Sweet True Lies

Content warning: this manga depicts attempted rape and physical/sexual abuse of a child.

Kasane was written and illustrated by Daruma Matsuura as her debut work. The manga was serialized in seinen publication Evening from 2013 to 2018. The manga received a live-action film adaptation in 2018. Matsuura also created a light novel spin-off to Kasane, titled Izana, in 2014. She has since published other manga, Imakako and Taiyou to Tsuki no Hagane, in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Despite being the daughter of beautiful famed actress Sukeyo Fuchi, Kasane Fuchi is a physically ugly girl. While Kasane has dreams of following in her mother’s footsteps, her off-putting face makes her a prime target for her classmates’ bullying. However, there’s a spot of hope for Kasane-the lipstick bequeathed to her by her late mother. Wearing the lipstick allows the user to temporarily switch faces with someone by kissing them. Kasane finds some success using the lipstick to briefly insert herself into the spotlight during her school years and put her natural acting skills to use, but she’s still far from reaching her mother’s heights of fame.

After dropping out of school, Kasane meets with Kingo Habuta, a stage director who is strangely indebted to Kasane’s mother and determined to make Kasane into a star. Habuta hatches a plan involving Kasane and a stage actress named Neena Tanzawa. While Neena is popular, she suffers from Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, putting her out of commission for weeks to months at a time. Kasane agrees to take on Neena’s identity, fulfilling her own needs as an actress while helping Neena maintain her reputation. However, as time goes on, Neena begins to develop an identity crisis as Kasane’s acting abilities overshadow hers.

Kasane is a dark psychological drama reminiscent of older josei works by creators such as Kyoko Okazaki and Moyoco Anno. A major theme in Kasane is the commodification of women’s beauty and physical appearance, and the ugly measures used to obtain such standards. Kasane’s natural acting talent is overshadowed by her physical appearance, leading her to use other women’s faces like objects, first with Neena Tanzawa, and later with her half-sister Nogiku. However, the face-stealing lipstick does not instantly solve Kasane’s problems. She develops a sense of dysphoria, since she must fake an external identity separate from her ugly self, and she can’t shake her internalized feelings of self-hatred after years of childhood bullying. When she must shed the ‘Neena’ identity to become a new actress named ‘Saki’, she also has to destroy a budding romantic relationship she was building with a fellow co-actor. The story emphasizes that no amount of well-meaning attempts at empathy from other characters is ever helpful to Kasane, and she does what she does out of sheer determination to surpass her mother.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Nogiku. As previously mentioned, she is revealed to be Kasane’s half-sister, and she serves as a foil to Kasane, as well as a pseudo-antagonist in the second half of the manga. Unlike Kasane, Nogiku is a natural beauty, but her appearance is all she possesses. She was subject to horrific isolation and sexual abuse from her father, who saw her as a replacement for her dead mother. When Nogiku beats her father to death and escapes her captivity, she is limited in what she can do with her life. She has no birth certificate or legal documentation, and she also has no record of schooling, leading Nogiku to prostitute herself since she has no other means of making money or obtaining shelter. Her horrible upbringing combined with her disdain for the men who sleep with her leave Nogiku bitter and angry, seeing her appearance as a curse. When Nogiku gets more directly involved with Kasane, she’s disgusted by Kasane’s treatment of Neena, as it parallels her father keeping her mother captive, and Nogiku plans to kill Kasane to prevent her from abusing other women. Nogiku is such an interesting parallel to Kasane, and a part of me wished the two of them had an opportunity to develop solidarity together as women mistreated by society and their shared father’s mistreatment, rather than Nogiku simply acting as an antagonizing force for most of the story.

Matsuura has a knack for writing morally complex characters that seem to challenge the stereotypical “beauty = goodness” tropes. This is exemplified well with Habuta. Habuta is a scruffy middle-aged man with buckteeth who acts as Kasane’s manager and caretaker for most of the manga. When he’s introduced, Habuta seems to be tailor-made to be a giant red flag for readers, possibly as a creeper or a man with ulterior motives. This turns out to absolutely not be the case: Habuta had genuine affection and admiration for Kasane’s mother, and he’s determined to assist Kasane in reaching her acting peak. That’s not to imply that Habuta is a paragon of virtue; at times he can get very harsh towards Kasane (and later, Nogiku), though he acknowledges when he oversteps his bounds. Similarly, Amagasaki, an overweight, dumpy teacher introduced later in the manga, also subverts expectations. Amagasaki is harassed by his own students for his appearance, which led to him developing less-than-savory thoughts of revenge. He initially sleeps with Nogiku because he uses her as an outlet for his feelings, but later realizes Nogiku isn’t that different from him, as they are both victims of abuse. He develops genuine affection for her and pleads with her to stop pursuing revenge and instead focus on rebuilding her own life. It’s rather telling that Atae Kaidou, Kasane and Nogiku’s shared father, was a handsome man in his younger days but would end being a monster who ruined the lives of four different women in the story.

Kasane’s writing is not without a few hiccups along the way. The pacing hits a bit of a snag during the Neena Tanzawa arc and feels a bit jarringly slow. Too many times, the manga relies on arbitrary coincidences in order to make sure the plot is rolling. When Nogiku is introduced to the plot, she more or less falls into a short series of events that get her involved with Kasane and Habuta very quickly. There are also a few minor logic holes that don’t really get addressed, like why don’t people question why Kasane, while posing as Neena, has a different hair color? Or how is Nogiku able to be so cunning for someone who was raised in isolation? I’m also still bothered by a strange twist that’s revealed towards the end of the manga regarding Kasane and Nogiku’s respective mothers that doesn’t make much sense with information already established. In general Matsuura can write a gripping and tense story but some rough bits still stick out.

Matsuura has a distinctive art style that shines on a lot of the manga’s covers and balances gorgeous colorwork with a sense of unease in the way Kasane is depicted. Many of her chapter splash pages and two-page spreads are lovingly detailed, often to explore the characters’ dynamics, internal feelings, or even just to show off Kasane’s stage performances. She has a particular way of drawing characters’ eyes that exhibit sharpness and intense emotions. However, Matsuura’s art has a noticeable case of same-face syndrome when it comes to the ‘pretty’ girl characters (which, no, I don’t think is intentional to coincide with the manga’s themes). Oddly, Matsuura seems to be better at drawing distinctive characters who would be considered ugly or not traditionally attractive, at the very least. On that note, I have some issue with the way Kasane is depicted as ‘ugly’, which is likely due to the limitations of Matsuura’s art style. She is drawn with angled, glaring eyes and a mouth that is too big for her face along with an extended stitching-scar along her cheek, which honestly makes her look more like an ugly-cute lizard-girl who stepped out of My Hero Academia rather than a super hideous person. Apparently, the movie adaptation also struggled with her appearance, and just exaggerated her facial scarring. The manga sometimes has minimal backgrounds and some off-model panels when characters are drawn in profile view, but these are minor quibbles.

Pros: Compelling drama focused on society’s commodification of women’s physical appearances and self-determination to beat these expectations. Cast has interesting dynamics thanks to character complexity. Moral grayness and self-awareness are written into the characters well and seems to deliberately challenge readers’ expectations. Matsuura’s art style is distinctive, and her covers, chapter splash pages, and two-page spreads are gorgeous.

Cons: Story sometimes rides on arbitrary coincidences or characters in-story not paying attention to move the plot along. Pacing plods during the Neena Tanzawa arc. Matsuura’s art suffers from same-face syndrome and some off-model angles. Ending is abrupt and feels a bit mean-spirited.

Kasane is published digital-only in the U.S. by Kodansha. I was pleasantly surprised by Kasane, as it presents a lot more depth and complexity to its characters than expected at a first glance. It’s an excellent drama manga with a touch of magical realism and I highly recommend it.



Categories: Manga

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