Today I do something insane and review two very, very different books that are both centered around how we experience life and love in high school — Viz’s low key We Were There (vol 1 and 2) by Yuki Obata and Yen Press’ hyper-sexual Sundome (vol 2, 3, 4) by Kazuto Okada. You couldn’t find two books that had a more diverse take on adolescent life and representation of that life through sequential art.
We Were There is a kind of shojo manga I feel we don't get much of in the U.S. -- it is a very understated take on adolescence from a very ordinary girl's perspective. Most relationship-oriented shojo manga is melodramatic, eventful, and fairly intense, while this title quite ably captures both a teenager's inner life and her struggle to make her outer life true to herself. The main character Nanami is an average girl but also very relatable. In the first volume we follow her to high school for the first time and watch her struggle with the very normal problem of figuring out how to navigate this new world and who she wants to be in that world. Nana -- short for Nanami -- wants to make friends and fit in. Unlike most other shojo girls, she isn't particularly boy crazy nor is she going to completely change who she is just so she has a group to provide social safety in the jungles of adolescence.
However, just like most of us, she quietly agonizes over whether or not she is making friends and whether or not she is accepted by her peers. When she makes a social faux-pas by getting a classmate's name wrong when she nominates her for school office you can feel her die a little inside. I think Nana is so relatable because we all know what this experience is like and we've lived some version of it many times during our adolescence.
We Were There, though, is primarily a romance title and fortunately for us almost all the romantic insanity we associate with shojo manga actually happens off-stage before Nana ever actually meets the boy she develops a crush upon. While trying to find a place for herself, Nana meets Yano, a popular but very distant boy in her class. Yano is well-liked but is quite cool to the people around him. We find out that his last relationship damaged him terribly and his slow discovery of Nana's inner strength and stubborness is surprisingly realistic. Nana likes him first, but instead of making herself miserable she confesses to him honestly about it, which gives Yano a chance to recognize her as a potential love interest and develop feelings for her over time. If, of course, he should he allow himself to care for her, which appears to be the big emotional thrust of the title in later volumes.
I quite enjoyed watching the relationship slowly develop between these two and can see many emotional obstacles in their path that make me want to come back for more in volume 3. The art is almost ridiculously cliched shojo -- sparse backgrounds, lots of background tone, sketchy-line work, big eyes. It doesn't bother me much, but it may give the impression that is a much sweeter story than it actually is. The emotional strength of this book is its inclusion of the tartness we experience along with the sweet when we first begin to crush, and then deeply care for, our objects of devotion as teenagers.
In many ways, Sundome is the polar opposite of We Were There, and yet I would argue both stories convey an emotional truth about first learning what it is to become close to someone for the first time. Yen Press' translation notes informs the reader that "Sundome" is "literally the moment of stopping just before," and in the context of this comic, that means stopping before sexual release. But I argue it isn't just about stopping just before the moment of ejaculation, but is also about stopping just before making a sustained connection with another human being, be it sexually or emotionally.
The first volume, which I read a while ago and didn't really interest me much, sets up the books' initial premise -- Hideo joins the Roman Club when he starts high school, a club that is interested in "occult"-like experiences and also forces its members to take an oath of virginity until they graduate (I don't remember the reasoning for this and honestly I don't thinkit matters much). This is fine with Hideo until the seductive Kurumi transfers into the school and basically manipulates Hideo into a disturbing master-slave relationship, in which she maintains sexual and physical power over him. In volumes 2, 3, and 4, she tells him when he can masturbate, when he can get close to her, when he can touch her / be touched by her. We know very little about Kurumi except she that using her sexuality may be the only way she knows how to relate to another human being. She joins the Roman Club and half the book is spent mixing their incredibly messed up interactions with various Roman Club occult-oriented adventures, and the reader experiences a surprisingly effective shifting tone of sexual danger and high school hijinks.
Hideo appears to be your average high school loser, except he takes to Kurumi's domination far too easily -- he isn't quite normal, but on the other hand, his motives are fairly clean in comparison. He is sexually entranced by Kurumi and the longer he allows her to dominate him, the greater his understanding of himself becomes. While he begins his sexual contract with her merely to be close to her -- in any way possible -- he discovers humans are selfish creatures who want to possess that which they love. In a way, in spite of the many, many ways in which Hideo humiliates himself sexually for Kurumi's attention and affection, this story is at its core about whether these two people can connect on any level outside of sexual power games. His desire to be "worthy" of Kurumi actually unbalances her, as there are hints that she is currently being sexually abused by an adult, who may be calling all the shots in her life. Hideo's only desire to please her (and since he is a normal teenage male in some respects, please himself) gives her the terrifying hope that perhaps it is possible to experience affection for a man who also desires her sexually.
This comic is very, very dirty without ever actually depicting the act of penetration, although there are plenty of sexual acts to go around. "Sundome" refers not just to Hideo stopping before ejaculation, as far as I'm concerned, but also could be viewed as the comic itself taking you to the brink of human connection of any kind and pulling back. The art is very disturbing since Kurumi really is just a young adolescent girl and Hideo a very young man -- seeing them depicted so graphically bothers me, but what bothers me more is knowing this comics' primary goal is to titillate its audience through these depictions, and because I think it does do more than that I can't simply dismiss it because I dislike its sexualized representations of young adults. It is worth noting that there is a very strong emotionally-driven narrative that can't be extracted from the sexuality of the title, but that very emotional core of the work doesn't really become apparent until volume 3 and 4 as far as I'm concerned.
Review copies of Sundome provided by Yen Press.