By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers
I first read Kasane by Daruma Matsuura a year ago, and I loved it even as I was torn on how to feel about its depiction of beauty standards and gender norms. Matsuura’s work is a fascinating study on the blurred lines between acting and living, as the plays performed on stage hold up a mirror to Kasane’s own life and feelings. Returning to Volume 1 now, I can safely say that the manga’s ability to bring these complex themes to light and make readers question them in a multifaceted manner makes Kasane worthy of discussion in and of itself.
The eponymous character of Kasane is a young girl who wants to be an actress like her famous mother, Sukeyo, but is shunned from the spotlight due to her conventionally ugly face. However, everything changes when she receives her mother’s lipstick in a dream and remembers that it can steal the face of whomever she kisses. What follows is a tragedy about the destroyed lives, including hers, that Kasane’s actions leave behind.
First Failed Transformation: Cinderella
The very first play Kasane introduces is an elementary school adaptation of Cinderella, a fairy tale made famous by Charles Perrault (and Disney, of course). The parallels between Cinderella and Kasane are immediately clear; like Cinderella, Kasane is bullied and abused by those around her, and they are also both given a chance at happiness through a magical transformation.
For Cinderella, the pumpkin carriage helps her go to the ball and the beautiful gown and glass slippers accentuate her beauty. But the real power is in the fairy godmother’s wand which gifts Cinderella all of these items. Unlike Cinderella, Kasane has a more direct source of magical power in the form of the lipstick as it gives Kasane the chance to be the beautiful princess for a while. Those that Kasane kisses are given a chance to reflect on taking their own beauty for granted as Kasane steps into their lives, wearing their faces.
In the Cinderella fairy tale, the fairy godmother appears to Cinderella after her stepsisters leave for the ball. While the godmother has always been watching over Cinderella, she appears here because Cinderella’s desire to go to the ball is so strong. Similarly, Sukeyo is called by Kasane’s desire to appear on stage and gives Kasane the hope that the godmother brings to Cinderella. It feels like it belongs in a fairy tale:
Sukeyo only shows her full face when she’s beautiful, like here, or, as another example from Chapter 4, when Kasane thinks about ruining her mother’s legacy. Otherwise, her true face is hidden in darkness, or by the speech bubbles, as she appears often to guide Kasane further down her path to fame at the expense of others and self.
Sukeyo encourages her to take what she wants as she gifts Kasane the lipstick. However, Kasane doesn’t immediately use the lipstick after this dream.
During rehearsals, Kasane is sabotaged by the leader of her bullies, Ichika, who threatens to strip her naked in front of everyone else out of jealousy. This is Kasane’s first and only attempt to act with her true face. She tries to transform into an actress without the lipstick, but the fear of being humiliated causes her to withdraw from the play.
Kasane’s desire to be recognized as Sukeyo’s daughter acts as the painful impetus behind many of her decisions to use the lipstick moving forward, but Ichika’s bullying–with the support of their peers–is what finally pushes Kasane to use the lipstick.
Dark Duality and Swan Lake
Another work I saw similarities to in Chapters 1-2 is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Kasane is both Odette, the female lead, and Odile, her dark counterpart. Swan Lake is a ballet about true, tragic love and mistaken identity as Odile tricks Prince Siegfried to marry her through the dark sorcery of her father.
But wait, you might say, wouldn’t Ichika be Odette? After all, Kasane is the one who steals her face and tricks “the court” (in this case, the rest of her classmates) when she takes Ichika’s place on stage. However, we have to remember that Ichika is not the heroine of the story, and has victimized Kasane many times even though Ichika is a victim in this situation.
This duality of Odette and Odile can be seen in how a single ballerina traditionally plays both roles. She has to capture the pure helplessness of the White Swan and the insidious seductiveness of the Black Swan who takes Odette’s face. It’s then fitting that the same duality exists with Kasane, just as we can also attribute this duality to many of the other female characters within the story, like Ichika. Women don’t have to be either the Black Swan or White Swan, often falling in between rather than on a single side.
Kasane can be seen as both the innocent female lead who just wants to be loved, or as the sinister Odile who chooses to trick the audience with magic. By complicating traditional notions of beauty and goodness through Kasane’s ability to steal faces, Matsuura encourages readers to feel uncomfortable as she contemplates the intersection of beauty standards, gender, and fame.
What is Beautiful is Good
The idea of physical beauty reflecting one’s inner beauty is a major theme within this work that mirrors traditional fairy tales and the reality of how people perceive one another. This is shown in the “what is beautiful is good” stereotype in which people associate physical attractiveness with positive personality traits like kindness and happier lives. Kasane immediately undercuts this notion by having the bullies be beautiful and Kasane be their victim, as seen above. It is also, as I mentioned, very common in fairy tales.
I find it particularly fascinating to examine beauty standards through fairy tales, which are some of the oldest forms of storytelling. In fairy tales, women and girls are often placed in a binary of being either the beauty or the hag. The images of the beauty or the hag are said to have symbolic or archetypal meanings. If a girl is truly beautiful, she’ll fit into the feminine ideals of beauty that will earn her freedom and a prince or king. If not, she’s evil or is punished by having her physical visage reflect her inner ugliness at the end. Essentially, a female character’s physical form becomes a “visual code” for her inner goodness.
As Kasane experiences the ecstasy of being beautiful, the girls she steals from experience what it’s like to live in her body temporarily. She tells Ichika, “I want you to think about how much I’ve suffered” (Chapter 2, Kasane). Kasane even hopes that this will allow them to become friends by developing empathy–after all, they’ve both experienced the horror of ugliness now, haven’t they?
Contrary to her hope, Kasane is rejected by Ichika. Kasane then finds herself unable to empathize with beautiful girls in general–even those who do want to be her friend like her middle school classmate, Iku.
Iku also experienced bullying in elementary school, but Kasane finds out that Iku was bullied for being too cute. Because the two girls don’t share the same reasons for being bullied, Kasane distances herself from Iku with the belief that her friend can’t truly understand her pain.
This makes it easier for Kasane to steal Iku’s face. As she does so, she thinks, “The two of us are creatures from completely different worlds, after all. That’s why I’m okay with repaying your kindness with a stab in the back” (Chapter 5, Kasane). It is ultimately Kasane choosing to focus on their differences (in beauty) rather than similarities (as victims of bullying) that pushes her to steal Iku’s face. Kasane internalizes the immorality people associate with her ugly appearance by convincing herself that she doesn’t have to follow morals set by society.
In the end, Kasane sacrifices her friendship with Iku to perform on stage in her place. As Kasane graduates middle school, she sees her desire to connect with other girls as a fantasy and swears to follow her mother’s path to fame. As she steals more faces and becomes physically beautiful again and again, she becomes the monster people who are repulsed by her true face believe she is.
Why I Enjoy Kasane
Personally, I think Kasane is one of the most well-written antiheroines I’ve ever read. Her willingness to throw aside morals due to the world-beating her down so much, and the wavering sympathy and horror I felt at her actions and throughout this journey makes me wish more people would pick this series up.
Kasane blurs the boundaries between victim and victimizer, acting and stealing, and beauty and ugliness in many ways. It elevates these themes by calling back to famous works of art, especially those featuring female characters, and creates a story that is uniquely Kasane’s. It’s what I fell in love with within this manga, and I am very anxious yet excited to continue running towards the questionable ends of Matsuura’s characters while reading.