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Sweet Blue Flowers Manga Finale Notes

I just read the finale of the Sweet Blue Flowers manga, and I’m somewhat torn.

On one hand, the ultimate conclusion is relatively satisfying as far as the main two characters go (something I was a bit nervous about), and it confirms that, indeed, the anime was only about a third (half, if you really rushed the second half) of the story, and despite attempting to put a period on the end stopped just as things were getting good.

On the other, the end felt like it came really abruptly; for a slice of life story about people coming to grips with their sexuality, having (major spoiler) Akira’s tentative feelings and relative romantic immaturity finally develop over the space of less than 30 pages—a chunk of which is about other characters—seemed almost like an afterthought—like the author knew where the story was going, but decided that we didn’t actually need to see Akira wrestle with things once it came down to it.  The end, basically, seemed really rushed.  Some earlier parts did as well—there are bits that just don’t seem to get the number of pages they should given the unhurried mood—but the end was glaring even by the standards of this series.

I’d normally blame that on it actually being rushed—either the author ran out of pages or got sick of the story and decided to get it over with quickly—but when you look at the story on the whole, I’m just as inclined to believe that she’s just not that good at narrative.  The series uses a lot of flashbacks and nonlinear storytelling, but frankly it just doesn’t work well—it often borders on confusing, and even when it’s not it rarely seems to add anything to the mood or drama of the story.  It more seems like an attempt to make slice of life more interesting, and one that doesn’t work well.

She also introduced a number of minor other characters that looked like they were being set up for sub-plots or something, but ended up going almost nowhere, and felt like they were cluttering up the story rather than making the world richer.  Again, it felt like the author kept coming up with characters she liked, and couldn’t resist putting them in the story, but didn’t have the time (or energy) to give them the room they needed to develop enough story to make them engaging to the reader.  Most could have been cut without removing anything at all, and I’d much rather have seen those pages spent on the main cast.

Speaking of whom, it goes somewhat with the low-key slice-of-lifeness, but it doesn’t do a particularly satisfying job of wrapping up the other two main characters, either; one gets some time that doesn’t feel at all conclusive or weighty in the final chapter, and the other was more or less written out about halfway through but felt, somehow, like she wasn’t quite done with her time in the spotlight.  At least she got something of a brief epilogue appearance later on.

The anime is an interesting contrast, because it fixed most of the narrative issues with the manga; it smoothed out the awkward or unnecessary nonlinear chunks, significantly fleshed out the rushed parts, and knew exactly when to slow down and spend time on important things and small, intricate interactions between characters.  The only mistake it made, basically, was not being a couple of seasons longer.

And that’s the real tragedy; Sweet Blue Flowers is a refreshingly understated lesbian coming-of-age romance with an unusually frank recognition of both reality and sexuality hampered only by an author who was a little too creative and not good enough with narrative flow to make the story as outstanding as it could be—it was forced to run mostly on the charm and life of its characters.  The production team of the anime clearly knew exactly how to work with and expand on this base material, but didn’t get the chance to take it as far as the story was supposed to go, leaving the anime a frustrating disappointment and the manga satisfying but rough around the edges.

Still, I’d recommend either if you’re in the mood and prepared for the flaws.

Sundome Finale Comments

My preordered copy of the final volume of Sundome arrived in the mail the day before yesterday, and despite a great deal of hesitation—I knew it was going to be depressing—I of course couldn’t resist reading it the moment I walked in the door. Bottom line is that while it loses just a bit of its steam toward the end, and the conclusion is somewhat disappointing for its lack of detail, it’s certainly consistent in what it is and what it’s saying right up to the last page, there’s a heck of a final full-team adventure, and for something that’s outright porn by almost any standard, emotionally powerful stuff. Certainly, on the whole, one of the more intriguing and disturbingly alluring series I’ve ever read.

I’m going to cut loose with the spoilers for the rest of this, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want to blow any surprises, just stop here.

Where Sundome was going was a little uncertain for most of the series—somewhere dark for sure, but just where wasn’t specific. Later it became pretty clear that the destination was Sahana’s death from her illness, and indeed that’s exactly where it ends. Interestingly, it never really does open up as to what all is going on around her; we never do find out who exactly the older man is (other than that he’s her doctor, which you could’ve guessed relatively early), or what specifically happened to her family (other than that they’re dead, which was implied early, and that she was apparently in an orphanage previously), or get any specific comments from her personally (past what she said to her fish and “I’m not taking you with me”) about what’s really going on in her head with her “plan” for everything.

This is both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, there’s never any exposition or dramatic reveals; we only know the most important little bits—that Sahana has a powerful bond with Aiba, but has no intention of opening up to him about her past or family. One could assume it’s too painful for her to think about, or perhaps it’s just that she wants Aiba to have no connection to her past at all, given their… unusual relationship, and that she’s not trying to hold him back, but to make him strong in her place. (I’m assuming here that the people we saw from the train were at the orphanage she was in; nothing else makes sense in context.)

On the minus side, after so many hints dropped and so many musings in Aiba’s head about what’s going on with Sahana and her past, I really wanted to know a little more about the backstory—even if he never got it, I wanted at least a bit in the way of specifics about just what kind of catastrophic tragedy put her where she is at the beginning of the story. (And actually, since he ends up working for the mysterious doctor, Aiba presumably does find out at least some of that eventually.) Most disappointing to me was that she never explained what she had originally meant when she asked Aiba to take her to the seaside; while it became a final adventure in the last moments of her life culminating the story, it wasn’t clear if she had originally intended him to take her ashes to be buried there, to take her to visit the orphanage, or something else. I’m assuming the former, but had that been stated explicitly it would have tied the final story together with more than just the implication that what had been a tragic request about death became an affirming quest about life.

Points, certainly, for not going through the expected series of dramatic reveals or info-dump at the end, though. The unwavering focus on the tiny world of the Roman Club and the core emotional bond between Sahana and Aiba was an interesting way to approach the whole story, and certainly left the entire thing with an air of mystery and unease.

Interestingly, the final volume does absolutely everything it can to make a story about an obsessed and devoted kid trying to take a dying 15-year-old-girl on one final adventure uplifting and upbeat. Which, frankly, doesn’t help that much—it’s still depressing, though certainly affecting if you’ve gotten caught up in the characters. And it’s no secret to anyone in the club by the end that she’s dying, and its quite satisfying in how the story eventually reveals that they all “get it” without going into any details or unnecessarily drawn-out drama—there are no big weepy scenes, no screaming, just commitment, teamwork, and Aiba’s increasingly unhinged devotion.

There are even some subtly powerful moments, top among them a shot of Sahana so weak she can barely move, lying in an ICU clean room, but having put her clothes on in preparation for Aiba coming to break her out for their final trip—emaciated and with her face not visible, capturing her isolation and weakness, yet showing her complete faith that he will come for her. There are a number of other poignant moments digging deeper into her, her way of thinking, and what the two of them mean to each other, but that particular image was the one that stuck with me. It also follows through with her already increasingly bony body, which was unsettlingly fragile even at the start—she isn’t just dying, she looks like it. That she can barely stand, yet has complete control over Aiba, is potent stuff.

Speaking of getting farther into Sahana’s head, there was one very important thing about her relationship with Aiba that I realized abruptly during the final volume that I was surprised I didn’t earlier; I’m not sure if this is because I’m dense, or if we weren’t supposed to get that until the end. It had already been established in book 7 what she was doing; being an ephemeral nobody herself—her parents were dead, she had no relatives, no friends, and no future—she was taking a nobody and building him from a weak child into somebody—a man with the strength and commitment to do anything. And, further, a person onto which she had indelibly imprinted her existence—someone through whom her influence would live on after she was dead and, to all the rest of the world, vanished. Aiba was, in essence, a statement (explicitly at the end of both of the final two books, and reiterated by the doctor)—”I existed.”

But what I hadn’t understood was why, earlier on, she established so clearly that she didn’t belong to him, only the other way around. At first I took this to be a sort of generic statement of domination, but the lack of commitment seemed weird given how obvious and powerful her love for him is by the end. Of course, it actually makes complete sense—she knew she was dying, so she would not commit to giving him something she could not. He was not allowed to “own” her, because he couldn’t—she wouldn’t be there for much longer, and he needed to live on after she was gone. So it was a combination of kindness to him and preparation for the inevitable—impressively nuanced stuff, and actually quite affecting when you think about it (a sentiment that may come from having a wife much older than I am who I will almost certainly watch die some day with much of my own life left). She even worked in the threat—temptation, really—of taking him with her, but then let go, telling him that he was not allowed to follow her, even if he wanted to. In essence, “I own you, and I will let you go when the time comes, but I do not belong to you, so you cannot stop me from leaving you behind.”

Maybe this was obvious to other people, of course—I’ve been known to miss really blunt things on occasion. It didn’t, so far as I could interpret, explain the whole “no sex” thing; maybe just an extension of the same possession issue, but there was the hint of something else there that I, at least, failed to pick up on.

I’ll close by commenting that the last issue does contain the only time that the sexual content seemed to get in the way of the emotional story rather than enhance it. While I can completely understand why Okada decided to put some sexual content into the final scene—it would have seemed out of character if he hadn’t—it just felt like the relative violence of it clashed with the otherwise beautiful imagery of stars, darkness, waves, and the two of them completely alone together. Perhaps that was the point, and it certainly didn’t ruin anything, but I fet like it didn’t quite mesh with everything else up to that point—the bit earlier that got him arrested in the ICU was plenty to get roughly the same point across (of him belonging to her and desiring her completely no matter what condition she was in). It wasn’t even that it seemed to be graphic sexual content for the sake of it—if anything it was restrained compared to a lot of other parts.

That was still a very minor blemish on an otherwise uniformly gripping, powerfully sexy, occasionally hilarious, darkly emotional, and all-around intriguing series. The sort of genre-warping thing you just plain don’t see pulled off very often, and almost never so well. I’m now curious to see what Okada is working on next, and if he can pull off something that unusual again.

Hentai That Isn’t

I was well aware I would regret it when I said that it’d be hard to top Kanokon for pushing the envelope between a dirty TV show and outright hentai. I do wish it had taken a little longer before I noticed KissxSis (more readably and accurately written Kiss×Sis, if you can figure out how to type a multiplication sign), though. In my defense, it’s not quite the same thing—Kiss×Sis is full-on, unequivocal adults-only from more or less the first scene; it just coincidentally (at least in comic form) develops a little personality down the line.

This got me thinking about things that dance around that line, and one particular manga series that defies expectations in the process. Some categories, because I love creating arbitrary categories:

Porn Plus

Kiss×Sis is simple: it started out as a light hentai manga series (no excuses—it’s certainly not full-on hardcore, but it’s hentai) with almost nothing past the dirty situations. Being less about gynecology and more about desire (it’s make-out porn, so to speak), you don’t technically see much, and the shenanigans get cut off before they get too far out of hand. They also get cut off well after the point at which it’s left risque behind and crossed into the territory of softcore H.

Then, after the protagonist graduates from junior high into high school, the manga actually gets less dirty. On one hand, the characters are pretty amusing, so it’s nice to see them given a little personality. On the other, it’s an awkward transition—after having gone more or less all the way already, suddenly toning down the lascivious come-ons seems silly, and the excuses for cutting things off exceedingly weak. There are also a trio of secondary love-interests/harem-bait added, which removes the one mildly unusual thing about Kiss×Sis—the fact that it was less a harem and more a willing tag-team—and replaces it with pointless harem situations and improbable excuses.

Essentially it evolves from passably erotic softcore twin-sister H into a generic harem comedy with the safety off.

This category, I’ve dubbed porn plus, as in “porn that eventually evolved a plot or interesting characters.” Adam Warren’s Empowered is squarely in this category (and, unlike Kiss×Sis, is a great series—a manga-style classic superhero parody comic series with a lot of personality once it evolves past a string of bondage jokes).

Fetish-Action

The action-centric variant of the same thing.  Seikon no Qwaser, for example—it may have a high budget, nice art, stylish action, a good voice cast (how does someone with as much talent as Ayako Kawasumi keep ending up in crap like this?), and a rocking end theme, but it’s porn. Softcore, but porn—the point of it is the violent, misogynistic breast fetish, and everything else is just designed to support that and broaden the market appeal. Ikki Tousen is another one in this category.

Hardcore Transplant Victims

These are those occasional oddball things that are a decent movie/show with raging hardcore porn spliced in for no good reason. Kite tops the list, and Mystery of the Necronomicon is another. Edit the porn out of either and they’re both at least reasonably entertaining, nor would you know anything was missing.

Sundome

Now Sundome, this weird little series is a different beast, and almost in a class by itself—porn with integrated plot that isn’t just window-dressing.

I’ll confess it was the wickedly alluring cover that grabbed my attention, but it’s the content—and not just the dirty stuff—that held it. 10% lowbrow school comedy, 20% budding femdom romance, 30% dark coming-of-age psychodrama, and 40% fetish porn, it’s like the bastard child of a hentai show, Kimagure Orange Road, and The Ping Pong Club, composed of the best parts of all three.

This series is interesting because it’s the sort of thing you’re not likely to ever see animated (at least not properly); it’s unquestionably full-on adults-only stuff, so it’s never going to get sold outside that genre, yet there’s far too much characterization and plot to sell alongside simple skin flicks.

What’s really interesting about it, and where it differs from both Kiss×Sis—which it sounds similar to—and the above-mentioned Kite genre, is that the erotic content and the emotional drama are inextricably intertwined. The porn is the drama, and the story would not have the same depth or character without it.

It’s a story about power, control, and treading the line between devotion and obsession, in which the erotic content is an integral part of how the charaacters relate—it’s who these people are. Further, the fetishes aren’t just there “because”; the protagonist falls into them naturally, so you can see how something goes from a coincidence, to a turn-on, to an unnatural (and possibly unhealthy) focus of his attention.

What’s interesting about Aiba is that his behavior borders on disturbed, yet at the same time his increasing devotion to Sahana actually makes him a better person—he gradually becomes stronger, more confident, and more mature, both physically and mentally. Sahana, for her part, has a casual dark side that makes it believable that Aiba could get pulled farther and farther down the proverbial rabbit hole, as she in turn sees how far she can push him and shape who he is. She’s also a marvel of a character for her ability to go from sweet to flat-out creepy depending on mood and situation, sometimes in the space of a single page. Not to mention the little hints of emotional weakness that show she is, indeed, human inside.

From the standpoint of erotica, Sundome is noteworthy for “showing” almost nothing, having no sex at all in the clinical sense, and only revealing the most fleeting bits of nudity, yet being incredibly explicit and flat-out filthy—not to mention wickedly sexy. It succeeds at this in part through a refined sense of chiralism. (That’s a fun Japanese word describing the sexiness of a fleeting glimpse—the onomatopoeia chira—as a form of erotica.) Taking this beyond the average panty shot, Sundome works with brief glimpses or shapes caught through clothing to build sensuality and tension.

That’s where Sahana is unique as a character; she’s hyper-aware of sexuality and how she appears to Aiba, so every casual gesture and sly look is calculated and intentional. It’s manipulative, but in an up-front way—she subtly leads Aiba on, then tells him what he’s thinking and challenges him to admit to it and follow through. And, as a result of her thus-far-unexplained constraint on their relationship—no sex, ever—the follow-through is more willing self-denial than the stuff you’d expect in a normal hentai story. At the same time she uses a similar sort of non-sexual emotional manipulation to challenge Aiba to become more of a man.

The art is near-perfect in this aspect, in part for subtle eye-catching detail, but as much for how Sahana looks—she is sickly and physically fragile, something driven home by the occasional glimpses of her waifish, unsettlingly bony frame. The dichotomy between her frail body and the emotional power she holds over Aiba is memorable, and indeed it’s what the whole core of the series is built on—someone weak controlling someone stronger. In fact, as the next-to-last volume confirms oh-so-casually, making someone else stronger, yet completely subservient to her.

That reveal is the other thing Sundome does spectacularly well: Slip in a sentence that, without saying anything specific, brings major ongoing aspects of the story into sudden focus. In volume six, it was the line “You may not.”—with that, what the whole relationship, and Aiba himself, meant to Sahana snapped into focus. In volume seven, an offhanded comment to her fish hints at exactly what she’s been doing the whole time, and where it’s all headed.

Nowhere happy, of course; the sense of impending doom starts out with casual bits of foreshadowing through the narration and builds to an oppressive sense that something terribly wrong is hiding behind the scenes and will, soon enough, make itself inescapably known. There are only fleeting hints of this early on, but by halfway through the unsettling shadow surrounding Sahana is already strong, and by the end the dark pall is so strong even the erotic content is overshadowed by it. I find it particularly interesting that a series with a playfully dirty dark side at the beginning evolves into a relatively heavy drama while maintaining a strong sense of continuity, and that the characters are strong enough that you care what happens to them. More, in fact, than I ended up caring about the erotic content by the end. I suppose you could say you start reading for the porn then keep reading to find out where the story is going.

It also maintains its sense of humor, at least a bit, and cleverly adds the relationship of a couple of secondary characters to provide a happy romantic end in the next-to-last volume so the entire thing isn’t an overwhelming downer. Even more interesting, those other characters don’t do anything at all dirty—their complete celibacy is a significant plot point. It shows clearly that the erotic content isn’t why the characters exist—the author is perfectly willing to tell parts of the story without resorting to anything unreasonably dirty.

The only other series I can think of off hand that is even close to Sundome in category is Ghost Talker’s Daydream; it’s really more of a seinen-flavored josei drama in which a job as a dominatrix is a part of the character’s life, but a few sections of the manga are explicit enough, and with enough of a focus on the eroticism rather than just necessary detail, to qualify as adults-only (rather than just “R-rated”). You wouldn’t, however, call it outright porn, so it’s not quite the same.

Dirty Comedy

And, to close, there’s this category, which is completely different from the rest even if looks similar—stuff that’s very dirty, but in reality is not porn at all. Sakura Diaries is one example, and the more recent B-gata H-kei surprised me by being another—both are quite explicit with the dirty jokes, but in the end the point is that they’re jokes, not that they’re dirty. That is to say that they’re comedy first, dirty second (or, in the case of Sakura Diaries, comedy/substantive character drama first).