Shuichi Nitori has just transferred into a new school. He’s on the cusp of puberty and also in a bit of a quandary. Slim, androgynous and, let us be frank, rather pretty, he can’t stop thinking about wearing girls clothes.

On his first day he is befriended by Yoshino Takatsuki, a tall, burly tomboy who harbours similar secret yearnings. Her instinctive friendliness towards Shuichi is shared by pretty Saori Chiba, who is happy with her own gender but troubled in almost everything else. Always over-eager to please, she is a ball of inexplicable guilty feelings and is considering becoming a Christian.

From the start both girls encourage Shuichi to surrender to his urges. Yoshino’s clueless mother keeps buying dresses which the despairing daughter gives to her confused new pal, whilst Saori, also acutely aware of the Nitori boy’s underlying otherness, actively encourages him to cross-dress, even buying him an extravagant frock for his birthday, which almost kills their budding friendship stone-dead.

It is Saori who successfully suggests their unsuspecting classmates perform The Rose of Versailles as the end-of-term play with all the girls playing the male roles and vice versa. It’s a monumentally popular Shōjo tale adapted as movie and musical, which tells of Lady Oscar: a girl raised male by her soldier father who eventually becomes a dashing Palace Guard and a darling of Marie Antoinette’s Court.

Both Shuichi and Yoshino are hard-pressed to deny their overwhelming mutual need: boy wants to be girl and girl, boy. Inevitably the compulsion proves too great and both succumb. Yoshino cuts her hair and goes out in her brother’s school uniform only to be chatted up by an older woman in a burger bar. Shuichi’s periodic capitulations are less public, but increasingly important to his happiness and wellbeing, and honestly, he does make an astonishingly pretty girl…

Nevertheless, no matter how much Shiuchi and Yoshino wish they could exchange gender, time and biology inexorably march on and puberty’s cruel changes are forcing their treacherous bodies to betray them to a horrifyingly degree.

From any other culture this type of story would be crammed with angst and agony: gratuitously filled with cruel moments and shame-filled subtext, but Shimura Takako’s genteel, winningly underplayed and hypnotically beautiful school saga is resplendent with sensitively refined contentment, presenting the history in an open-minded spirit of childlike inquiry and accepting optimism which turns this book into a genuine feel-good experience.

Moreover the thoughtful progression of the protagonists, lyrical pace and mesmerising visuals promote such an aura of acceptance about such socially charged issues as transsexualism, sexualisation of children and gender identity – especially for kids hitting puberty – that you barely notice just how incredibly mature these youngsters think and act. Perhaps that’s exactly how kids have always been when adults aren’t looking.

Phenomenally well-received and critically lauded (a recommended work by the awards jury of the 10th Japan Media Arts Festival in 2006) this largely monochrome tome includes a helpful character chart in muted watercolours, a pronunciation guide for Japanese speech and ‘Snips and Snails, Sugar and Spice’, a useful guide to Japanese honorifics by translator Matt Thorn explaining the social, gender and age rankings and positions so ingrained in Japanese society. For as hide-bound and stratified a culture as depicted here, this background piece is an absolute necessity.

The comics portion of this book is printed in the traditional back-to-front, right-to-left manga format.