- Author: Marc
- Date: December 20, 2010 - 6:00pm
- Filed Under: manga
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.