Thursday, April 9, 2020

If I Could Reach You volume 4 has some actual insight! (Manga Review)

A high-school girl in uniform, sitting outside in the sun
If I Could Reach You vol. 4 - 7/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

Much to my surprise, If I Could Reach You volume 4 (Kodansha Comics) actually had a lot going for it this time around. Anyone who has read my reviews of the first three volumes knows that I'm concerned about two things: 1) a potential relationship between an adult and a child, and 2) that the adult seems to be potentially feeding into this. Well, volume 4 leaves us with some hope that the adult will ACT LIKE AN ADULT! There are also some real moments of wisdom presented throughout. I'm more hopeful for this series than I've yet been.

Synopsis of volume 4: Uta designs a valentines menu for the cafe. Kuro is being passive-aggressive with Miyabi because Miyabi has been spending time with her family instead of Kuro. Uta's mom comes back out of nowhere after being absent for five years and says she wants Uta to move back in with her and Uta's father. Uta clearly, really hates her mother. We get the backstory on a friend, Konatsu. And finally, Kaori makes a decision about how to handle Uta's feelings for her, but the volume ends on a cliff hanger. Whew, lots of stuff in this volume.

The major arc of the series focuses on Uta who is in love with her older sister-in-law Kaori. At the end of Volume 3, Uta has all but made her feelings clear to Kaori. However, Kaori plays it dumb in this volume. After Uta's mom requests Uta move in with her, Uta is struggling with her hatred of her mother and her love for Kaori. At one point, Uta asks Kaori about whether she can still live with her  "even now that you know the way I am." In that moment, instead of acknowledging Uta's feelings, Kaori plays dumb.

We get an interesting flashback to what Kaori was thinking in volume three when Uta told her. Kaori worries that by doing anything she "might brush up against a line that should never be crossed." I really appreciated this thought. It shows Kaori as an adult, understanding that despite human desires, there are some objectively right and wrong things and she seems to know that doing anything more with Uta would be wrong.

This is further expounded later in the volume when Kaori talks about the situation with a friend (but pretending Uta is a neighbor kid, instead of her sister-in-law). The friend is concerned that Kaori, despite good intentions, is just ignoring the issue. Her friend asks, "Have you tried considering their feelings?...We're adults now, you have to break things off with them, and send that kid in the right direction."

Between the friend's thoughts and Kaori's (from the flashback confession), we get a clearer sense of the author's own views on this relationship, for the first time. I've been wondering throughout the first three volumes whether the author intends for us to want Uta and Kaori to get together despite how inappropriate it is (child and adult, sisters-in-law, etc...). But now, the underlying moral/ethical framework of the author seems more clear, and it suggests that they know this potential relationship isn't a good thing. I'm relieved to get clarity on this and to see that it suggests a strong moral stance.

Further on this subject, we get to learn more about Konatsu's background. For those who forgot (and I was one of them, needing to reread the first three volumes to remember), Konatsu is a friend who is a year older but in the same grade, and who has a reputation for being promiscuous. In this volume, we learn that a year before, she had a one-night affair with a female teacher.

What was remarkable to me about this, and so utterly different than most manga, is that there were actual real-world consequences to this affair. Instead of them being happily ever after even though it was a teacher/student relationship, the two parties were both hurt by this in many ways. The teacher lost her job, Konatsu was forced to withdraw from school for a year to let things calm down, and the teacher even says to Konatsu (in a letter) that "What I did was the most inexcusable thing a teacher can do." AMEN!

I've said it in every review of series with teacher/student relationships, but it is NOT okay to romanticize teacher/student relationships. They are harmful to the student. FULL STOP. As an educator myself, nothing pushes my buttons like a mangaka promoting teacher/student relationships and not exploring the real-world harm that children experience in this imbalanced relationship, truly a form of abuse. So between Kaori's thoughts, her friend's guidance, and now this teacher being clear about child/adult relationships not being okay, I really feel secure that the mangaka has her values straight. This gives me great hope for how the series will resolve: painfully probably, but not blindly and blissfully promoting relationships between children and adults.

Adding even more positives to this, Kuro (Uta's friend) is dating Miyabi, who is two years younger (Kuro is most-likely 15, and Miyabi 13 from what I can gather), but Kuro makes it clear when talking to Konatsu that they aren't actually doing anything sexual. Kuro explicitly ties this chastity to Miyabi's young age. That's amazing. I have less issues with a 13 year old and 15 year old together (than student/adult relationships), even if they do sexual stuff, because that's puberty, and the ages are relatively close (but certainly there could be developmental and emotional differences). But to have the older character specifically recognize that potential issue and treat the younger one carefully on account of the age gap is just awesome modeling for teen readers. I'm so happy to find that characters (and the mangaka) are sensitive to these issues.

On the other hand, Konatsu continues to be a challenging character. Aside from her sexual promiscuity (not just with the teacher), and some questionable ways she intrudes upon Kuro's life (making things worse with Miyabi), she does make a slightly homophobic (at worst) or dismissive (at best) comment about Kuro and Miyabi's relationship. She seems to suggest that maybe their relationship isn't real, that it's just a thing girls do while they are young. There is a history in Japan of accepting relationships between school-age girls, particularly at the turn of the 20th century, but viewing those as temporary phases or learning opportunities before the women were around men and married, i.e. that they aren't really lesbians. There is also a long history in yuri manga playing off this idea of youthful dalliances amongst school girls. 

So maybe, that historical view what Konatsu was hinting at. However, it is also possible that Konatsu, who seemed to genuinely care for the female teacher she slept with, was actually trying to tell herself that what she felt for the teacher wasn't anything real, and wasn't really talking about Kuro's relationship at all. It might be some self-hate going on with Konatsu. It was a tough moment to read, it came off as very dismissive of the reality of Kuro and Miyabi's feelings for each other, but that may say more about Konatsu than anything else.

Moving back to Uta, we also get some history about her mom and her mom's relationship with her daughter-in-law, Kaori. Uta's mom is a physician who had something to do with Kaori's mom and her death. Somehow, Uta's mom lost her license and left Japan in order to continue practicing medicine. She seems pretty cold and is mean to Kaori, that is, until they are discussing her mother. Kaori and Uta's mom actually manage to have a fairly sensitive conversation about this topic, and Kaori is able to express how she wishes her mom had involved her in whatever fateful decisions were made that involved Uta's mom. Despite friction between them, there also seems to be a strong connection through Kaori's deceased mother. It's an interesting twist and addition to Uta and Kaori's connection and I expect this will continue to be expanded on in future volumes.

Finally, there are a few other moments of very deep, emotionally resonant writing in this volume, well beyond what we had in the prior three. Here were some quotes that really stood out to me:

  • "Just because someone likes to be on their own, it doesn't mean they like to be alone." Boy howdy, if ever a quote described me, it was this one. I sent a pic of it to my wife to help her understand me better! 
  • "If you don't say the important things while you can then by the time you want to you won't have the chance anymore." - some of the most sound advice ever.
  • Talking about Kuro, Uta reflects that maybe since Kuro has avoided getting close to anyone for so long that she doesn't know how to express her feelings. - Yup, me again!
On the other hand, the art is pretty mediocre. The line use is very simple. Backgrounds are minimal if there at all. Some of the character's anatomy, particularly in the faces, can be sloppy at times. Screentone use is basic, just black, white, or gray. It's not distractingly bad art, but it doesn't enhance the story at all. 

Volume 4 of If I Could Reach You finally gives us a strong sense of the mangaka's moral stance on child/adult relationships, it has some really insightful quotes, and it looks like it is going to start moving towards some resolution with Uta and Kaori in the next volumes. In many ways, it was one of the strongest volumes in the series. The art continues to be underwhelming, and I would always love more of Kuro and Miyabi (who deserve their own series), but at least we know that this series is not romanticizing relationships between adults and children which too many manga do. If I Could Reach You volume 4 gets a pretty good 7/10.

  • Story interesting (0-10): 7 - the backstory with Kaori's mom adds a lot.
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6 - Uta and Kaori continue to be pretty vanilla, but Kuro and Miyabi are great.
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 7 - better in this than the prior ones with some really insightful moments.
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 8 - the interactions between Kaori and Uta's mom were multi-dimensional, Kaori seems to be really processing, and Kuro's passive-aggressiveness towards Miyabi seems consistent with what we know about her. 
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 7/10

  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): 2 - there were some profound quotes and thoughts that really hit home.
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 1 - hard to say since we still don't have anything about the social issues of being openly gay. It's also hard to say whether Konatsu and the teacher were really interested in each other. Yes, Uta does love Kaori, but is it in that "yuri" way or is it true expression of sexual orientation?
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not really the point of this series. 
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 1 - I think Kaori is showing some growth. Everyone else is pretty stagnant. 
  • Quality art (0-5): 0
  • Other (0-5): 2 - an actual, honest to goodness critique of the problematic nature of adult/child relationships. Finally a mangaka who seems to get that this isn't something to promote, even as a romantic fantasy.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +1

  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 1 - hard to know if Konatsu was being hard on herself, or was actually being dismissive of lesbian relationships when she said Kuro and Miyabi's relationship wasn't a real one, but just a school-girl thing.
  • Misogynistic (0-5): 0 
  • Fan service (0-5): 1 - a totally unnecessary nude moment with Konatsu in Kuro's bed.
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0 - I'm going to give it a zero, because the mangaka actually critically examined the problematic nature of these, so even though there are two (Uta and Kaori potentially, and Konatsu and her former teacher) they aren't being promoted as positive.
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -1



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