By Luke W. Henderson
Spoiler Alert: Major spoilers for Boys Run the Riot will be discussed in the following article.
This spring, I came out as nonbinary. It was largely through reading and writing that I discovered something inside didn’t match how the world saw me. I consumed and created characters and stories that explored these feelings and ultimately helped me become my truest self.
Keito Gaku’s Boys Run the Riot was one of those stories. The manga resonated within me because its characters, two of them transgender, were also using art and creation to actualize themselves and their dreams. The story has a simple message:
Art can set you free, but only if you share it…
The protagonist of Boys Run the Riot, Ryo, is a high school trans boy who hasn’t come out to anyone. He finds excuses to avoid wearing the girl’s uniform he’s been assigned during the day and at night uses male clothing as a way to hide.
He is miserable and has resigned to “liv[ing]” a quiet life hiding and suppressing my true feelings and twisted dreams.” However, he soon has his world rocked.
Ryo gets a new classmate, Jin, who is repeating a year of school and is instantly branded as a brooding loser by the class. On a fateful shopping trip, Ryo and Jin happen to reach for the same shirt, but Ryo leaves before they can speak. Surprised by their similar tastes, Jin asks Ryo to make a clothing brand with him.
Here, the reader first sees the interaction of art and identity. Ryo initially rejects the idea after hearing Jin commenting how he should do more “girly” things, but Jin is insistent. He demands Ryo be honest with him.
Ryo erupts, coming out to Jin and causing him to say this line:
“If you don’t tell me, how am I supposed to understand?”
While Ryo doesn’t owe an explanation to Jin, he is correct. If Ryo wants his loved ones to understand what he’s going through, he has to be open about it.
While Ryo uses clothes to hide Jin believes “clothes are for letting you express and live as your true self.” Through creating, they start shedding their shame about who they are and even pass these beliefs on to their classmate and brand photographer Itsuka and a gay cross-dressing YouTuber named Tsubasa.
It is through these friends’ love of creating, whether it’s art, photography, or clothes, that they all begin to open up to other people and unabashedly be themselves. But simply creating the art isn’t enough, as they all receive pushback from their families and peers. Boys Run the Riot also argues:
Art can set you free, but only if you share it and fight for it…
Ryo, Jin, and Itsuka are labeled “weird” at school once they announce their brand. One of their peers goes far enough to break Itsuka’s camera when he doesn’t disassociate with Ryo and Jin. Their dream is an uphill battle for the entire series.
Their first attempt at selling their debut t-shirt ends in embarrassing disinterest from a store owner. They also have only three sales when they first launch. Despite their enthusiasm, the brand begins with more of a whimper than a bang.
On top of this, Ryo struggles to come out as trans to more people. He requests at a job interview to wear the men’s uniform and use the men’s restroom, but the employer can’t honor the request. His journey to being an out and proud trans man is a frustrating push and pull.
Their brand and their desire to make something push them to never give up. Boys Run the Riot sees the team collaborating with the previously mentioned Tsubasa and finding an established indie clothing designer to mentor them.
The fight doesn’t stop there. Ryo also becomes more comfortable defending their gender identity and Jin stands up to his emotionally distant father who wants his son to make more sensible, practical choices. They use their art to “bite back at the world” and become more comfortable in their skins.
But there is still one aspect that Boys Run the Riot explores within this theme:
Art can set you free, but only if you share it, fight for it, and make it authentically.
While the story’s main trio all have their bouts with authenticity, both in their art and themselves, this message is mainly developed in their interactions with Tsubasa.
As a famous YouTuber publishing under the moniker Wing, Tsubasa uses their platform to give Ryo, Jin, and Itsuka their brand’s first big push. Through their knowledge of branding and social media, they help the trio take better photos to sell their clothes.
Unlike Ryo, Tsubasa is extremely open about their sexuality and presentation. Their YouTube channel comprises mainly of makeup tutorials and discussions of their struggles as a gay boy interested in drag. At least, that’s how they present themselves.
While at a party sponsored by their agent, a photo of Tsubasa circulates of them making love with a woman. Their fans and community become enraged at the thought of them lying about being gay, but it’s not quite that simple.
It’s revealed that the YouTuber is gender fluid and still working out what that means for them. They clung tightly to their Wing persona because they felt less alone being adored by hundreds of thousands even if it wasn’t their true self.
What the book seems to argue is that the freedom one can gain from art and creation has to be genuine even if other people don’t like it. Tsubasa’s parasocial relationship with their fans made it difficult to change even when that is what they needed to be happy.
What feels freeing can change over time and comfort can hold one back. This is especially true for trans and gender non-conforming people who know their journey is can be deadlier than most.
Comparatively, Tsubasa didn’t lose as much as other trans people, but their transness made the blowback from their fans worse. This is where fighting for the freedom that comes from making art becomes so important. In a way, Tsubasa and Ryo are fighting for their very essence by fighting for their creations.
Boys Run the Riot may center on a trans narrative, but it’s a story for everyone. Pushing back against a society that deems one’s inner being as wrong is something important and should continually be fought.
While not everyone will be an artist, there are countless ways to create expressions of one’s inner truth. The thing is necessarily important, but the act; it’s vital is that the thing is made. As long as it’s authentic and prompts the desire to defend it, it’s worthwhile. That’s what the book taught me and I hope it will teach many others.
If this piqued your interest, here for more!