For this post, I'm going to try to switch to calling Mashiro a "she," as this appears to be the gender that she has settled on (for now, anyway). The previous volume ended with Mashiro finally telling Sou that she loves him. Plus, there was a parasitic student on the loose in the dream world.
Although Sou must know that Mashiro is likely still emotionally wishy washy, he chooses to leave his sister for Mashiro. That doesn't mean that things are over with Ai, though, and Sou still has a lot of issues to deal with. In the meantime, however, Sou and Mashiro have relationship issues to work through. Although Mashiro has decided to be a girl (in private anyway - during regular school hours, no one but Sou and Kureha knows Mashiro is anything other than a guy), this decision doesn't always seem to sit comfortably and certainly hasn't solved all her problems. She's jealous because she doesn't think she's as cute or pretty as Kureha or Ai or any of the other girls Sou has been with (by the way, Mashiro still thinks there might be something going on between Sou and Kureha - yet another reason for jealousy). She's embarrassed about letting Sou see her in the girl's uniform she was given.
Also, the physical part of her relationship with Sou isn't working out so well - the two of them enjoy kissing well enough, but when Sou and Mashiro try to have sex for the first time and Mashiro complains that it hurts, all Sou can tell her is "Your first time is supposed to hurt, just deal with it!" and "Just shut up, lie down, and let me do my thing!" Understandably, Mashiro smacks him (although, to be fair, I think Sou was pretty upset about the way things were going, too, and he might've said stupid things because he was flustered), at which point Sou admits that it's possible he's only using Mashiro as a way to forget his sister. Ouch.
Of all of them, Kureha appears to be doing the best. She's decided to move beyond the rape that has, up until now, shaped her dream form. Now her dream form is herself, with armor. Unfortunately, she doesn't have any weapons in the dream world, so when the parasitic student attaches itself to her hand she needs help getting rid of it. After the black knight cuts off her hand for her, he goes after Kurosaki and then after Mashiro. At first, Mashiro is a bit confused and tries to escape - after all, she and Sou had finally become a couple (or whatever you want to call what the two of them are). She realizes, however, that Kureha is ready to graduate, and the only way she can graduate is by using the key hidden inside one of the dream students. Mashiro allows herself to be killed and, as she dies, transforms her blood into birds that kill the black knight. In the end, Kureha is left with the key, but even though she is now able to graduate, she chooses not to. Her "special class" teacher in the waking world (who is not the same person as Mashiro's teacher, by the way) warns her that she may not get another chance to graduate, but Kureha is ok with that, as long as she gets a chance to see Mashiro graduate and maybe help him along. As frustrating as Mashiro can be, she still cares about him.
In the dream world, there are signs that Mashiro may not be as settled on her gender as she thinks she is (surprise, surprise) - the male Mashiro tries to get his body back, but the female Mashiro manages to get away, for now. Sou/the black knight also has some inner turmoil bubbling up in the dream world, in the form of someone I'm guessing is Ai. Also, before he dies, the black knight says, "That woman continues to control me... The words of a dead woman will always haunt me..." This doesn't make sense to Mashiro, and it doesn't really make sense to me either. However, it leads me to the next character, Kurosaki.
In the latter half of this volume, Mizushiro focuses a bit more on Kurosaki. Before her death, his mother told him to do as his father tells him, so that he can support his father and eventually take over the company. To Kurosaki, this feels like slowly killing the part of himself that is himself, so that the perfect leader he pretends to be can survive. He's tired of it, tired of being his father's puppet, and by the end of the volume he's decided he's not going to be the "perfect leader" anymore. He's quitting kendo, and he rips into Mashiro, who has made it no secret that she admires the person Kurosaki knows he is only pretending to be.
Kurosaki seems to come across a lot of suits of armor. He has some kind of panic attack after seeing one of them. It's possible that it reminded him of Sou from the dream world, but I've been kicking around another idea. Kurosaki feels that he's two people, himself and his father's perfect puppet. What if he's two people in the dream world as well? In the dream world, he looks like himself - this could be because he is himself. The other part of him, the perfect part, could be the black knight, which would explain the "dead woman" comment. If all this is true, however, then who's Sou, and why would Ai have hung around the black knight so much if it hadn't been Sou? Well, it's just an idea - I look forward to seeing what gets revealed in later volumes.
Before I wrap things up, I'd like to talk about the parasitic student a bit. After she's cut off of Kureha, she doesn't survive long. Mashiro inadvertently kills her when she admits that she doesn't know who she is - after she's gone, Kureha tells Mashiro that she's been in their waking world class all along. It's just a little thing, but I like how, in this series, the students in the dream class can kill each other by accident, just with words. In the real world, words can cut pretty deeply too, but the evidence of the damage they cause is often hidden. Not so in the dream class.
Overall, I enjoyed this volume. Damaged characters are fun to read about, and this series is full of them. I may occasionally want to wring Mashiro and Sou's necks, but that doesn't mean they aren't interesting. The series is just about finished (from what I can see in Anime News Network, it looks like I've got two more volumes to go), and I can't wait to see how things end. The nice thing about not really being sure whether I like most of the characters or not is that, when the series ends, I probably won't find myself wishing it would continue. It's kind of a good feeling.
The extras: there's a page of translator's notes at the end (mostly just explanations of people's names, except for one note that helpfully deciphers a reference readers may not be aware of) and some very interesting author free talks. According to the teaser, in the next volume "A tortured Sou must choose between reality and dreams" (which appears to be a choice between Ai and Mashiro - which one is reality and which one is the dream?) - somehow, this sentence feels like a spoiler.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Loveless (anime TV series); Loveless (manga) by Yun Kouga - Twelve-year-old Ritsuka's life isn't very normal - his older brother died not too long ago, his mother is physically abusive, and a strange 19-year-old man named Soubi has shown up, claiming to have known his brother. Soubi says he is Ritsuka's Fighter, while Ritsuka is a Sacrifice. Ritsuka slowly comes to understand what this means, as he learns to battle other Fighter-Sacrifice pairs who may be able to lead him to knowledge about his brother's death. Those who'd like another story with mystery, twisted relationships, and emotionally damaged characters might enjoy this title.
- Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP - Watanuki is a high school student who is plagued by the ability to see spirits. One day, he meets a woman named Yuuko who can help rid him of this ability. Anybody who receives her help must pay a fair price in return, so Watanuki becomes her cook, housekeeper, and errand boy for an undetermined amount of time. Until he has worked enough to earn her help, Watanuki will continue to have to deal with his abilities, which often come in handy when Yuuko gives him special errands to run. This series includes lots of mini-stories, as Yuuko deals with clients who need her special skills and knowledge. Sometimes things turn out well for the clients, and sometimes things end badly, and, due to these experiences, Watanuki gradually grows and changes. Those who'd like something else that's often strange, sometimes a little dark, and has a tendency to deal with characters who have secrets and personal issues they have to overcome might want to try this series.
- The Sandman (graphic novel series) by Neil Gaiman - The first book is the series is called Preludes and Nocturnes. This series focuses mainly on Morpheus, the Sandman, a dark figure who watches over dreams and makes sure they stay separate from reality. Despite this, several of the stories in this series involve the blending of reality and dreams. Morpheus' various siblings make the occasional appearance, and they're fascinating as well. Those who'd like another character-focused series that deals with dreams might enjoy this title. The series often takes a look at aspects of human characters' lives and personalities and how these intersect and blend with their lives in the dreaming world.
- Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - Yukino is a vain and greedy (albeit likable) girl who has spent years making herself seem like a perfect, elegant, and humble student, just so that she can be praised and loved by others. One day, Arima, a boy she views as a rival, sees beneath her mask and uses this knowledge to blackmail her into helping him out with his tremendous volume of work. Arima appears to be the real deal, a good-looking, perfect, and humble student, but he has his own secrets, some of which are far darker than Yukino's. As Yukino spends more time with him, she begins to fall in love with him and wants to help him deal with the darker parts of himself. Several of the characters in this series have secrets, hidden selves, and insecurities that may appeal to some fans of After School Nightmare. This title is most like After School Nightmare when it's at its darkest, but it does have a tendency to be lighter in tone than Mizushiro's series.