by Kazuto Okada; translated by Christine Schilling
published by Yen Press; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
!!! WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, SPECULATION ON FUTURE VOLUMES, & ADULT LANGUAGE !!!
Hideo’s and Kurumi’s troubling relationship/romance continues to explore new ground. In volume three, they inadvertently discover the world of golden showers. Kurumi doesn’t seem very shy about touching and grabbing Hideo’s penis. In fact, she treats it like a child does a new toy.
However, she still allows Hideo very limited contact with her own body. They haven’t had sex yet but had a couple of passionate kisses. There’s one new threat to their dysfunctional happiness. Hideo learns that Kurumi is regularly visited by an unnamed older man, I’ll call him Mr. Blackshoes. When given the chance to find out more about the nature of Mr. Blackshoes’ and Kurumi’s relationship, of course, Hideo chickens out, instead preferring to torture himself with speculation.
These two volumes increase the role of the Roman club in the narrative. The student council president wants to shut down the Roman club so he can make Kurumi his own personal secretary. To date, he’s the creepiest character we’ve meet, and in this manga that’s saying a whole lot. Kuyouko, the other female Roman member, comes up with the plan that saves the club and Kurumi. Later, Kuyouko tries to instill some bravery in club member Tatsuya, but that scheme backfires. We get to see the club members bonding by hang out in the clubroom together, doing karaoke, and having a ghost story party. This is the first time in the series that they’ve truly become a circle of friends. Friends with lots of issues, but friends nonetheless.
My own dysfunctional relationship with this series continues. I’ve previously reviewed volumes one and two. Volume three represents the series’ pinnacle of nudity and sexual content, although Okada is very careful to keep Sundome from crossing over into the porn genre. This volume reminded me of the most explicit softcore films that Cinemax is famous (infamous?) for showing late at night. It’s this erotic content that almost made me quit the series. I felt Sundome was dangerously close to simply becoming a catalog of fetishes. I mean golden showers?! Really?!
The other element in volume three that I found off-putting was the red herring of Mr. Blackshoes. It’s obvious that Okada is adding this element to the story to create dramatic tension. I have to give him credit, the last pages of collar (chapter) twenty-seven are masterfully designed to create the false impression that Mr. Blackshoes and Kurumi are lovers. The best way to know what is true in Sundome is to look at what Hideo thinks and take the opposite. The fact he’s convinced they’re lovers is almost a guarantee they’re not. I’m upset about how Mr. Blackshoes is presented because it’s such a cheap ploy to create tension. Hideo and Kurumi have enough problems to work through without the need of a false lover subplot. Such a juvenile trick feels like Okada has a low opinion of his readers.
My speculation is that Mr. Blackshoes is Kurumi’s physician and guardian. It’s been heavy hinted that Kurumi has a serious illness. In fact, in volumes three and four the implication is that her disease is terminal and there isn’t much time left. Mr. Blackshoes’ regular visits are part of his treating her illness and giving her spending money. Of course, it would be nice to get all of Kurumi’s backstory, but that isn’t likely anytime soon. Okada is sure to string the readers along until the last volume, which promises to be two hundred pages of exposition.
You can see the dynamic in Hideo’s and Kurumi’s relationship beginning to change. Kurumi is treating Hideo less like a pet and more like a friend. She actually leans on him for courage in the graveyard, she seems to genuinely care about his health, she takes comfort in his presence, and she suggests they go away to the seaside sometime. The sad part is that Hideo refuses to see himself as anything more than a playtoy. He’s so locked into his own negative self image that he can’t see Kurumi is tiring of the games and has developed genuine affection for him. She’s making subtle offers for a real relationship and he misses it every time. He frustrates me so.
As I mentioned earlier, by the end of volume three I was pretty disgusted with the series and ready to walk away. However, I had already bought volume four and figured I should get my money out of it. That was a horrible mistake on my part. Just when I thought I had kicked the habit, another fix, and I was hooked again.
Volume four tones down the nudity and sexual content significantly. Mind you, this is Sundome we’re talking about, so toned down needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the focus here is on character development, and thankfully, we are spared any new fetishes. What makes this volume especially additive is seeing Kyouko begin to mature and blossom as a person.
Kyouko initially joined the Roman club because she thought Kurumi was stealing her boyfriend and she was looking for revenge. Over the course of the series, we’ve seen that she has a genuine interest in the UFOs, ghosts, and the supernatural. She participates in all the club activities and hangs out in the clubroom as much as the other members. Beginning in volume three, there is a subplot that deals with Kyouko coming to grips with her own self-esteem issues and a burgeoning romance between her and another club member, Katsu.
In volume three, Kyouko’s ex-boyfriend comes by the clubroom and invites her to hang out on the roof. For some inexplicable reason she agrees. Next, we see her finishing up giving him a blow job. Once she’s done, he walks away and says, “I’ll fuck you later when I’m feeling horny, ‘kay?” Kyouko returns to the clubroom to find Kurumi sitting alone and waiting for her. She breaks down and cries saying, “Kyouko isn’t a fucking toilet!!” Here we get the first glimpse that she’s changed and no longer happy with her old life. In volume four, when the ex-boyfriend tries the same stunt he’s soundly rejected. I can’t help saying, “Yah! for Kyouko!”
Incredibly, the Roman club has begun to instill in Kyouko a sense of self-worth. They may berate her for saying stupid things and her lack of general basic facts, but they see her as a full-fledged member and treat her as an equal. The Roman club is a twisted version of Genshiken for its members. It’s a safe place where they’re allowed to express and be themselves without fear of being rejected. They can be tough on each other, but they also show genuine regard for each other. Well, at least as genuine as it gets from them.
I’m interested to see how the potential romance between Kyouko and Kutsu develops. They are both shy and indirect about their feelings, something very out of character for Kyouko, and may show how serious her feelings truly are. Katsu offers to give her a ride home on his bicycle and pays for her karaoke. Kyouko doesn’t complain about being partnered with him on several occasions and actually seems to gravitate toward him during club functions. I’m hoping Okada doesn’t screw this up and develops the storyline properly. I’d like to see them become a couple.
I continue to like Okada’s artwork. He’s a master of communicating emotional content. Not just the simple emotions of happiness and sadness, but even the complex emotions of desire, pensiveness, gentleness, and frustration. In volume three, we get to see him be visually playful when drawing the student council president and his many exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, be warned in volume three you will get to see Kurumi in all her natural glory both front and back. There are plenty of panty shots and nipples exposed through wet shirts in both volumes. The mature warning on these books should be fully heeded.
Given Christopher Handley’s current legal problems, I couldn’t help but feel that reading this manga was a subversive act. The characters in Sundome are all only fifteen or sixteen years old. Granted, there is no explicit sexual activity, but there’s still plenty of nudity and softcore images. Further, given the current conviction in Australia over Simpsons porn, I’m much more appreciative of and concerned over my free speech rights. It’s funny how a series that has caused me no end of distress while reading it has been the catalyst for this realization.
I guess at this point I might concede a very qualified recommendation of this series. If my reviews haven’t sickened you or scared you off, then you might want to give the first volume a try. But Sundome is like cigarette smoking, it’s better if you don’t start. I’m not as emotionally attached to the series as I was with the first two volumes, but I’m too caught up in the story and characters to stop. I’ve talked about reading as a conversation and this is one that I just can’t seem to pull away from.