Wednesday, December 18, 2019

If I Could Reach You volume 2 mixes good emotional exploration with a problematic premise (Manga Review)

A young adult woman, in a dress and jacket, looking up out a window with billowing curtains from an aerial perspective
If I Could Reach You vol. 2 - a cautious 7/10

If I Could Reach You volume 2 (Kodansha Comics) continues the story of high-schooler Uta who is in love with her sister-in-law, Kaoru. We'll explore several problematic aspects of the series. But the volume itself has good emotional exploration of the main and side characters, and depending on how the entire series wraps up, will either be a very good volume or the prelude to significant problems with the entire series.

In this volume, Uta is trying her best to put her feelings for her sister-in-law, Kaoru, out of her mind. She ultimately decides to stay over at a friend's house for a few days, ostensibly to study during finals (but really to avoid being alone with Kaoru while her brother is out of town on business).

During her time at her friend Chloe's house, Uta ends up taking a job at a diner in the same building and meeting the diner owner's daughter, Miyabi, only to find out that Chloe and Miyabi are "dating." The volume wraps up with a big potential "reveal" about Uta's brother that could set further developments in motion.


But before we get to the problematic aspects of the series, and a new potential problem brought up in this volume, let's talk about what is working in the series, and this volume in specific.

First, there is good overall emotional exploration. Uta is a well-rounded character who has multiple aspects to her personality and friendships beyond just her unrequited feelings for Kaoru. We can root for her as our heroine. Kaoru on the other hand shows a lot of fragility here, for better or worse, and also makes a career change to follow her passion (I love it when characters have actual lives!).

I also really like Uta's friend Chloe. She plays cool and spends her time listening and giving pointed advice to Uta, but it turns out she's pretty messed up herself and has a bad relationship with her dad, and no real mother to speak of (but lots of ex-step-moms). We get to learn more about her in this volume, but we also see that she is capable of growth and change.

For example, Chloe starts off being pretty awful to Miyabi even though they are sort of dating. But in the course of some deep thinking and intervention from Uta, she rethinks how Miyabi fits into her life and starts treating her with the care Miyabi deserves. It's pretty cool the way she and Miyabi take another step forward in their relationship. Overall, I just like Chloe as a character. Mega points for good side characters!

The art in this series is simple, but well done. Each character looks distinct, emotions are plain to read, and the art is uncluttered. There's also a lot of sparkly screentone use which I LOVE! Overall the writing is clear, although occasionally it jumps a bit and even after re-reading where the "jump" occurred I feel like I missed something. Thankfully, it always gets cleared up a few panels later, so ultimately it's not too hard to follow. Not the most consistent writing, but overall it's solid - particularly with its character development and the nuances of their personalities. I'll take that over fluid plotting anytime.

So on one level, we have a strong second volume of a yuri romance. This should be exactly what I love. But I have a couple potential problems with the series. Some series, like "After the Rain" take a shaky premise and ultimately do it solid emotional justice. Others like the recent "The Delinquent Housewife" take a problematic set-up and then punt on the outcome never addressing the critical themes either through critique or safe resolution. Then of course, are the series that are just awful and take a bad premise and whole-heartedly embrace it. Those I don't finish or sell-back when they do. Thankfully, I can't even come up with a good example because I avoid them like the plague.

The key to handling a risky premise isn't whether the characters make good decisions or bad, it isn't about the morals or ethics of the characters themselves. My judgement on the series WILL be about the author's take on the character's actions. If the characters make yucky choices AND the author seems to condone those, then this will be a bad series that should be avoided.

But if the characters make yucky choices and the author critically examines those choices, then that has literary value. OR, like "After the Rain," the characters could show their strong moral and ethical values and grow as people and move into even stronger self-realization through their actions.  I'd be okay with either the second or third option, just not the first. So if we get the later two, then this will be a strong series since there are likable characters and decent writing and art. But it has the potential to go the other way. Let's examine how that might happen from this initial setup.

Here are three things so far that could be problematic:

1) Uta is a minor and her sister-in-law is an adult. If they ultimately get together while Uta is still a minor, that is pretty much disgusting.

2) Uta and Kaoru are sisters-in-law, so its pretty close to incest, especially since they've known each other since they were young children and have always felt like sisters. Although Uta does describe Kaoru as being her friend prior to becoming sisters officially, it's pretty clear from the flash backs that since Kaoru is so much older, Uta was really just looking up to her as an older sister.

3) New to this volume: Miyabi, Chloe's girlfriend, is a second-year student in middle school. That puts her at roughly 13 years old, and I think Chloe is a first-year in high-school which makes her about 15. I'm a little uncomfortable with that age difference. One year at that age, would maybe be okay (I was in 9th grade and had an 8th grade girlfriend - although I was way too shy to do anything anyway!), but a two year age difference when one is only 13 feels wrong to me.

So if Kaoru ends up leaving her husband and somehow she and Uta end up together as a couple, that would be pretty gross, especially at Uta's current age. Now, there might be ways to make it work. Maybe Kaoru leaves her husband and Uta goes off to college and starts her own life, and they reconnect years down the road, both as adults. But if they get together while Kaoru is still in high-school, that's gross and should be illegal (I don't know the laws in Japan). And to be honest, Kaoru seems pretty emotionally immature which doesn't give me great hope that the series will avoid getting them together.

But, maybe this unrequited love will be the springboard for both Uta and Kaoru's emotional growth and they won't get together. There is nothing wrong with Uta having a crush on an older woman. There would be a problem if Kaoru reciprocated back at Uta's current age.

If the author continues to explore emotions and feelings and uses this to break some hearts and push people forward, that's cool and worth it. Not every yuri (or romance story in general) needs a "happily-ever-after" ending. I'm personally hoping they don't get together, because that would be both more realistic and could be the foundation for real character growth. I also wonder if perhaps Kaoru and Chloe might end up together (I would totally ship them).

The ending of this volume, which I won't spoil, sets up something with Uta's brother which promises to push the story forward, one way or another. It's a bit cliche of a plot development, and I saw it coming, but again, it's not so much what the plot point is, but how it is used that will matter. Cliche'd plot points that are used to push characters into complex emotional situations which reveal their personality and stimulate growth make for great writing. So far, this is certainly a possibility with this series, but not guaranteed by any stretch.

Nothing about the first two volumes suggests that the author isn't capable of turning a problematic premise into a rewarding story, but that is also no sure thing. Until we reach the end of the series, we do need to be mindful that there are significant problems with the premise.

Assuming the series wraps up in a meaningful way and the author provides sound moral and ethical critique of the character's choices, then I give this volume a 7/10 (and maybe a bit higher). But if the series goes off the rails and we end up with an adult dating a child (who is also her sister-in-law), then this volume will be no good (along with the rest of the series). So here's hoping it continues strongly and that the author keeps a solid moral and ethical commentary on her characters' choices.

🚺

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5 comments:

  1. First, thank you for reviewing yuri mangas. I found this blog helpful on some occasions when deciding on buying or not a volume. If I may ask, I have a question about a comment you said on the above volume. When you say "then this volume will be no good (along with the rest of the series)", it makes me wonder how much should we consider a volume separate from the series. Is there such thing as taking a volume separate from the series? Can we consider volumes on their own or should we only consider a series value as a whole?

    Moreover, from the perspective that the series could go downhill, should we inquire to the best of our abilities if it gets bad or not before it's released in English? The series currently has 5 Japanese volumes. I don't know if it's ongoing. Inquiring about it would mean to possibly spoil plot twists. Let me know if you believe my question is legitimate or irrelevant and if you have any comments. As for my own opinion, I suppose I'm not too sure if I should keep reading the series and feel emotionally involved with the characters considering the premise and the possibility that it goes bad. I feel conflicted buying and reading a volume and/or series whenever the material could become problematic. At the same time, I want to enjoy a series and not spoil it before reading it. Thank you for taking the time to read me.

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    1. Part 1/4
      OMG, what an awesome set of questions! I have thoughts, but as always, I welcome your answers to the very questions you posed (and anyone else's as well) since I learn more from others than hearing myself talk. >_< Now for the part where I ramble on in response:

      So the first question, "can we consider a volume separate from a series?" Yes, of course that's possible, and sometimes might be useful. Just like we can admire fabulous art but a shitty story, or great writing with mediocre art, each person must weigh in on what aspects they most like and which they can live without when other parts are great (for instance, I can do with simple or crappy art if the story is amazing).

      I think the toughest part is when the overall piece is lacking but there are brief moments of quality within it. We can certainly appreciate those moments when they occur without sacrificing our critical lens on the whole work. Sometimes I'll find a line that is so perfectly written even if the longer piece (be it a novel, manga, story, news article) is just average. As a wanna-be-writer, I can appreciate the craft in that line and use it to help me understand why the rest isn't working. That has instructive value. But that value is of course very different than the emotional value I seek when reading a series.

      On the flip side, as you are probably suspecting, a given line, storyline, or volume that espouses problematic or hateful/repressive values will color my interpretation of everything else in the series, no matter how innocuous those other aspects might be (or even if they are seemingly unrelated to the problematic part). I'm making this example up, but lets say there is an incredible romance story - beautifully written, deep emotional insight, the characters are kind to each other (but with the real complications that come up in life), the art is great, etc - and then one character does something that I find awful to the other character AND THEN writer DOES NOT comment on or critique it - instead it seems as though the writer is okay with it - well, that would ruin the whole thing for me even though it was just one small part. It would make me question everything else in the series. There is now a subtext that runs through that I don't want to support. (again, this was a random made-up example).

      Now, I don't expect every character to make perfect decisions all the time. That would be boring and nothing like life. Characters should make flawed decisions. That's human. What matters is the way the author uses those moments to interrogate their character's values as well as their own.

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    2. Part 2/4
      If the author presents imperfect people (as they should), then the author must use that imperfection to drive the story in emotionally sound and meaningful ways. The author's own values often come out in this process (they may also write about characters with values very different than their own and how they do so also tells a lot about the creator). What I'm looking for is character growth, rooted in how real people's psychology works, and to know that the author's value system is aligned with my own even when their characters act differenlty. In manga/anime specifically, some of the things that I don't want to support are loli-con/pedo stuff, lack of consent, and other types of inherent power imbalances that serve as the PURPOSE of the content. When those types of things are seen as the REASON for the manga's existence (ie, it's just exploitation for exploitation's sake - the thing that its author and audience are seeking) then I'm out of there!

      So let's say with this series, "If I Could Reach You" (and I'm totally about to make up plot to make my point), that the sister-in-law Kaoru divorces her husband and that she develops feelings for the younger Uta and they get together - it might or might not be okay for me. How I would judge those decisions would be based on how the author used that as a springboard to examine the implications of those choices.

      If the series gets the two of them together and its happily ever after and the writer never considers the psychological impact, never considers the age gap (and the adult/child gap), never consider how their families would react (most families would react badly I'm assuming - both for the getting together with your ex-husband's sister as well as the LGBTQ themes) then I would be really really disappointed with the series.

      On the other hand, if they got together, and then the series really unpacked the complexity of that choice - how it might affect their standing in society, employment, are there legal implications, what about emotionally? Is Uta (at her age) really ready for what it means to commit to Koaru (who would be leaving a husband for her)? - then the journey could be worth it even if I disagreed with the fundamental premise or choices the characters make. After all, we all make questionable decisions at times. But what does the author have to say about those? How does the author work to help us deepen our own understanding of ourselves?

      So for me, it's all about what comes later from that point or premise and how it's handled. That all being, said getting back to your original question: I could see how individual volumes may have quality writing or art that stands on its own. But for me, everything in a series reflects back (or should if its well written) on everything else.

      And I personally try and go a step further. When I find out that the writer, artist, director, actor, whomever involved with something is not a good person (ie espouses values that are contrary to my own in ways that hurt or diminish others in society), I try to stop supporting anything that person does, even if the work itself seems quality. For example, let's say an actor makes disparaging remarks about a group of people. I'd stop going to see movies with that actor even though their character doesn't do anything wrong and the movie is well written. Why? Because I don't want to financially support an @$$hole. I want to put them out of work by boycotting their movies.

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    3. Part 3/4
      It would also be reasonable to ask where I draw the line since people are human and imperfect. I have read plenty of books by dead (mostly white male) @$$holes (who abused their power over younger women) and love plenty of paintings (also often by dead white male) @$$holes who slept with their underage models (it happened a lot in the 19th century from what I gather). So does reading these books or going to museums to look at these paintings violate my stated approach? Maybe. I'll own that hypocrisy. But at least they are not personally profiting off my purchase of their book or my admission ticket because they are dead. I'm also going to learn about and critically reflect on their actions while also actively seeking out more diverse creators from those time periods (as well as now).

      I'll give another example: I have stopped watching American Football because I find it unethical that we are paying people to destroy their lives and health (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy - CTE) for entertainment. It's like the Roman gladiators who had no choice but to fight or die. And in a society (American society especially) where black and brown youth have so few educational options and live in a actively racist society, there are implicit and explicit power imbalances that force these young athletes to take the money even knowing what they are doing to their bodies. Then the teams have pretty much all white owners (sad to think that white men "own" their black players....yuck), general managers, coaches, media conglomerate CEOs and boards of directors, all of whom profit from the "disposable" bodies of these black and brown men. Basically, I won't give them my money since it upholds these unethical practices.

      But could i enjoy watching one game knowing that no individual game is what causes their CTE down the road? That some of the players made the choice to play with the full knowledge? That some had other career and academic opportunities and still chose to play?

      Intellectually, I might be able to disassociate myself in that way, to fragment my consciousness so as not to think about the bigger issues but instead focus on whether they should pass or run on 3rd and 4 - but why? Is the value of that individual game so high that I would put my values to the side for it? People might say: "Oh, but I'm only one person, it doesn't make a difference" but it would if the millions all stood up and said "no, it's time for change."

      So for me, it is the same with a problematic manga. Even though I could say: "Yeah, they do some shitty stuff, but its drawn so well and the kissing scenes are so emotional...so I'll let it slide." I just can't. I just wear my values on my sleeve and my push for a more just society for all people is usually first in my thoughts, and that includes surrounding myself with things that push those values forward. So I'll use my dollars and my voice to push for only high-quality, high-value stuff to be published and translated. There is more than enough of that out there. Let's stop pandering to those that want exploitation (like panty shots - OMG, enough already. We don't need fan service. Ever.)

      Your second question about "whether to inquire about the plot and resolution in the Japanese versions of a potentially problematic series since they're published earlier than the English translations" is really interesting. I certainly think there could be a lot of value in that - as long as you don't mind the spoilers, like you said. I read a cool book review that said it was going to "spoil" the end because a book isn't good based on the way it tricks you - it's good based on the way it gets there - the words, the pacing, the character changes. That's why we reread things - we already know what happens but we keep getting more out of it each time.

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    4. Part 4/4
      But here's a manga example from my own life: Erika from Okazu shared with me that she was really happy with how the series "Yuri is my Job!" is going in the Japanese version after I had expressed doubts with the first volume's English translation. However, I still decided to place that series on the back burner because I felt like there were so many other series that grabbed me quickly and with a limited budget, I didn't feel I needed to push myself to try to like it right away. I might read it later, but since I read a mix of manga genres, I didn't feel like I had to read it just because it was yuri (and of course, whether it ACTUALLY is yuri would be a whole great discussion - because who really gets to define what yuri is (I think each reader gets to create their own definition!)).

      So spoilers vs. being sure you aren't spending time or money on things that could go in the toilet? I could say that you could just wait until my reviews of the whole series come out, but then you wouldn't have the fun of reading the series as it is published - which also could diminish whether volumes even get published. After all, publishers will only publish what sells and if a current volume doesn't sell well they may cancel the rest of the series. Then the question is, what role we do play in buying anything just so things keep getting published vs. buying only what is quality so only quality gets published? And who gets to chose what is quality? So many questions, so little time. And truth be told, I don't have very good answers for them.

      In the end, here's how I think about it for myself: If a series has some potential for complex and challenging experiences that might not be good, I'll stick with it as long as I get the feeling that the author is going to do something worthy with it (it paid off in "After the Rain" for instance). But when I start reading something and it is clear that the whole point of the series is to enjoy things that I find upsetting (fan service, loli-con, sexual exploitation of minors, etc...) then I'll stop reading right away (for instance "Hot Gimmick").

      Interestingly, I tried re-reading "Peach Girl" recently which I hadn't read in a long time and found I couldn't stomach the awful two main guys anymore. I had thought it was a great series when I first read it, but not anymore. I just couldn't stand seeing her expend her time and energy and emotion on those two awful people. It had felt more empowering the first time I read it, but now, it just seemed horrid that she would be with either of them given all the shitty things they do. The series just keeps making excuses for awful men (so much like that other awful series I read recently: "Happy Marriage").

      So even over time what seems okay might change, or what feels problematic may evolve into deeper understandings. Our interpretation of these works isn't static, but at the same time, we all have limited funds and want our funds to go towards things that bring us joy or make us feel/think and support quality people in the industry. At least, I do.

      I hope by illuminating my own thought process on the matter, you can consider how you might make the decisions. In no way am I indicating that my way of thinking is right or the only way. Just something to mull over. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter as well.

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