Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Still Sick volume 2 - well, at least one is an adult lesbian and that's something! (Manga Review)

Two women, in the rain, under one umbrella
Still Sick vol. 2 - 7/10 (*See full scoring rubric below)

Still Sick volume 2 (Tokyopop) shows some real promise for this series. It is a stronger overall volume than the first one, and we get a much clearer sense of each character's strengths and weaknesses, and thus the emotional trajectory we hope for them over the course of the series. It isn't perfect, but it is a series about two adult women finding themselves. They are clearly adults and at least one of them is written as such. It's refreshing to have a yuri series about adults in love. More josei yuri please!!!!

The overall plot of this volume concerns Shimizu and Maekawa's burgeoning friendship outside of the office as Shimizu supports Maekawa trying to get back into being a professional manga artist. Volume 1 ended with a kiss from Maekawa that was supposedly meant only to tease Shimizu, but it clearly confused Shimizu. In this volume, they continue exploring this meaning, Maekawa tries working on an original series, and we learn a lot about their two personalities.

Shimizu really struggles with accepting herself as a lesbian at first: "I don't know what normal is" and "how much I worried about not being able to act like a normal girl." (BTW audience, it IS normal for a woman to like women. I really hope the younger generation lives in a society where they realize these feelings are just as normal as a woman loving a man). But over the course of the volume, she definitely begins to accept this and even, slightly, act on it.

Maekawa, on the other hand, seems more concerned about the intensity of the relationships she has than who they are with. She was distant with past boyfriends, and claims she doesn't think she could see herself with Shimizu. Overall, she prefers to keep people at a distance rather than getting close and then losing/ruining the more intense relationship. She seems as afraid of relationship pain as she was of not living up to her expectations as a mangaka.

Maekawa admits she is looking for a relationship that will "fill in the parts of me I wasn't satisfied with" (yikes, she has some interpersonal work to do) and also that he wants a relationship that isn't so fragile that her own bad attitude will ruin it. Whatever she does feel for Shimizu, she does recognize that Shimizu is special and doesn't want only a low-level time-wasting relationship with her. But the risk/reward of more intimacy seems too much for Maekawa to handle this volume.

There's an overall selfish quality to Maekawa, but also a verging-on-borderline-personality-disorder quality, where she can be both manipulative, and highly engaging but then also immediately push people away or turn on them. Just like the kiss that was "just a joke" at the end of last volume, Maekawa hugs Shimizu from behind, and various other things that are both suggestive and that she shrugs off as meaningless. Plus the number of times she is mean or pushes Shimizu away really confuses poor Shimizu. Shimizu even calls her out on this, including: "you act cute when you want a favor." Maekawa doesn't come across really great in this volume. She's a pretty emotionally immature person. Shimizu on the other hand, really exudes a  groundedness and adultness that are nice to read.

But overall, by situating all their interactions and emotional exploration within adults, rather than in the overly dramatic pubescent teen years, the story is lent some important emotional distance and relieves it of some of its unnecessary weight. When they fight, they're still decent to each other at work, they still go about their lives, they don't mope and dither the way we might expect of the fragile beings that inhabit a lot of shoujo manga. Ah, adults being adults.

Getting back to the plot, we see Shimizu take small steps to coming out to herself and to Maekawa, and Maekawa is clearly affected by it. When Shimizu tells Maekawa that she likes her (meaning it as a friend), both of them internally realize that there is more behind it than that. For Shimizu this is an awakening, for Maekawa it is a source of fear and anxiety.

At one point, confused by the conflicting signals from Maekawa, Shimizu actually leans in to kiss Maekawa. For Shimizu, it is the first real realization of her romantic feelings for Maekawa. But she stops short, realizing the feeling wasn't mutual. She's so sad and embarrassed to have misunderstood the situation and starts avoiding Maekawa.

After a few days of being alone, Maekawa finds a time to hug Shimizu and then kiss her on the ear. Shimizu pushes her away, scolding her for always leading her on, but Maekawa insists that she isn't. She says she isn't like this towards anyone else. But when Shimizu makes it clear that she is romantically interested in Maekawa, Maekawa can't reciprocate and only asks that Shimizu continue supporting her art career.

In the end, it's pretty clear to the reader that Maekawa is so afraid of taking the next step with Shimizu because of the possibility it won't work in the long-run. She wants to keep her at a distance, knowing Shimizu is in love with her, because that's better than trying for a relationship and letting it fall apart and getting hurt.

The same theme of fear about being true to yourself and the risks that come with that comes up as they discuss where Maekawa is stumped with her manga series. In the past, she abandoned what she wanted to do to pander to the editors and fans, and she's still trying to find that balance now. Shimizu tells her she'll never finish if she only worries about what others want.

Slowly, over the volume, all of this forces Maekawa to begin facing her feelings towards Shimizu. Where Shimizu's struggle is with coming to terms with her sexuality and foreshadows her likely naivete with dating (in the future). Maekawa's struggle is likely to be much more about fear and anxiety and we'll probably see it mirrored in an opening up of her artwork at the same time she (hopefully) opens her heart to Shimizu.

I also want to point out that there are a lot of moments of actually decent adult advice in this volume. Shimizu tells Maekawa that when taking interpersonal risks: "you might end up hurt, or you might upset the person you're with. Things will turn out differently than you expected and you have to be prepared."

Later in the volume, Shimizu's friend talks about how he realized that his fiance was his partner and that if they put their lives on hold (break up) because they felt they had to be ready now for the possibilities in the future (like being able to support a family), they'd never end up getting to that future at all. These, and other moments, reflect a maturity in the writing (and some of the characters) that elevates this above the pure comic medium. It's super awesome to have a comic about adults where some really act like adults - normal, thoughtful, not overly dramatic, decent people.

Sadly, despite some really good things in this volume with the writing and characters, the art is pretty lacking. I mean, it's fine. But it's really minimal. It isn't the reason you'll read this. However, I could envision how much more powerful the writing would feel if the art was equally strong.

So overall, while some of the writing is a bit clunky, and the art very minimally perfunctory, and Maekawa is quite emotionally immature, we also have some very adult-like adults and some real representation. I was quite surprised by the improvements in this volume, they are subtle, deep in the nuance of the writing, but that makes for a good one to reread. Still Sick volume 2 gets a good 7/10.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 7 - it's not so much plot, as it is character interactions, but I'm into it
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6 - Maekawa is pretty unhealthy, and I'm not so into that, but Shimizu is an intriguing blend of adultness and naivete
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 6 - some of the prose is a bit, meh, but sometimes there are really well written sections (see the advice examples above)
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 7 - Although I may not like Maekawa's personality, I actually think there are probably young adults like her out there.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 6.5/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 1 - there's some good advice, and some good feelings going on
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 2 - I'm giving this a 2 rather than a 1, because although "lesbian" hasn't been used, this is about adults in the adult world, and seems to be a bit more realistic and representative than a "pure" yuri (ie, we're not at an all-girls Catholic school! - not that there's anything wrong with that either)
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not the point of the series so no bonus points, but it does focus on two women and how they are leading their lives, so that's good.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 2 - Shimizu takes an important step and accepts that she likes women. Even Maekawa hints at a capacity for change.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - serviceable at best.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0
  • Fan service (0-5): 0
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -0



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