Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Conditions of Paradise was actually decent (Manga Review)

Two adult women embrace
The Conditions of Paradise - 6/10 (*see full scoring rubric below)

I know I sound a bit surprised in the headline, and honestly I was. The Conditions of Paradise (Seven Seas) is a stand-alone collection of yuri stories, many originally published in Comic Yuri Hime. I wasn't expecting much, I don't tend to like one-shots or brief series, and the nudity on the cover had me highly skeptical about the authenticity of the volume. I'm also not a fan of Akiko Morishima's work Yurikuma Arashi. But while far from perfect, it was better than I expected and some of it was pretty enjoyable. More than anything, it is a yuri manga about adult women! YAY!

The first three stories focus on long-time friends who finally come together romantically. One is a traveling, free-lance journalist who has loved the other one since high-school. The other has recently broken up with her boyfriend. Through a series of current events and flashbacks, we see them make progress, take the slow first steps together, and then become an intimate and close couple.


The next two focus on a 20-year-old art student, who is fairly mature, and her 30-year-old, self-conscious, art instructor. The flip between their ages and their maturity levels makes for a fun and funny dynamic and is an interesting exploration of how women can be awful to themselves, particularly as they age.

The sixth story, "And We Strive for Love," focuses on a 29-year-old who dresses like a little kid (ughhh), and her magazine editor girlfriend who also plays the flute. They're basically lovey with each other, with a couple of random "plot" points. It's whatever.

The seventh story is about a first-kiss with a lollipop in between. Also whatever.

The eighth story, "Princess Sakura in the Flurry of Flowers," is a historical fairy tale about a cherry tree that falls in love with a woman and becomes human in an attempt to get her to fall in love back. It's pretty much what you'd expect but with an ending that did not resonate well with me. I'm okay with unresolved endings, I'm okay with melancholy, I'm okay with unhappy endings. SPOILER AHEAD: I'm not okay with a lesbian being married off to a man after her partner sacrifices herself and there being no critical analysis of the trauma or oppression that either woman faced. SPOILER OVER.

The stories are a mixed bag, with some being much better than I hoped, and some being pretty mediocre. The opening stories about Sarina and Sumi are the strongest and most balanced between the two women. I think my favorite moment of their three stories is well after they are a couple, Sarina is on a walk letting Sumi do some work. She's talking to herself about how she's aware that she's gotten too clingy and too needy in past relationships and that's why they've failed. She doesn't want this one to end and also wants to continue getting closer emotionally and physically with Sumi. Just then, Sumi shows up, and has heard the whole thing. Their discussion after is embarrassingly cute and earnest. I loved it!

The next set of stories, which focuses on the young art student and (slightly) older teacher wasn't as interesting or as intimate as the ones with Sarina and Sumi. However, what was fascinating was how the 30-year-old became so self-conscious once she was dating a 20-year-old. She would see flaws in herself, that she was sure her girlfriend would notice, only to realize that she was the only one beating herself up.

For instance at one point she notices her girlfriend looking at her hands. She's worried that she sees the flaws, but it's only that her girlfriend wants to hold hands. Again and again, we see how women can be their own worst enemies, harder on themselves than anyone else is. It's internalized misogyny and the story has some valid moments of exploring that. It isn't a terribly deep or moving story, but that one aspect was meaningful to me.

The other three stories, well, they just weren't that interesting. They were one-shots, they were fairly predictable, they didn't move me. And as I said earlier, I really didn't like the nonchalance with which the final story ended. It felt dismissive.

Let's talk fan service. Not all nudity is fan service. Not all intimacy is fan service. When they fit within a meaningful story and emotional arc, then they can be in service to real characters. But when nudity or intimacy is depicted only for titillation of the audience, then it is fan service, and I don't like it. This volume was somewhat mixed.

It doesn't start well with a cover that depicts two naked women in an embrace and nothing else. That had me worried that this was written voyeuristically. Thankfully, it didn't really feel that way in the actual stories.

After the cover are several full-color art pages. These depict characters sitting around together in skimpy and flirty lingerie. Again, not my thing. I'm also not sure how many actual women sit around like this. My wife and I sure don't. But when nudity and physical intimacy is shown in the stories, it is relatively brief, sensitively depicted, and fits within the story. It didn't feel unnecessary to me and was actually quite beautiful.

However, there is a loli-ish character (but she is 29!) in "And We Strive For Love" and I don't see that depiction as being realistic nor necessary to the story. Also, in the first story, there is a lot of groping before they become a couple. So the covers, the color-art, the loli, and the groping. But on the other hand,  women are depicted fairly anatomically normal: no absurdly impossible breast physics (thank you Erika at Okazu for the amazing article on this!) and in normal clothing and no panty shots or other awful fan service.

The art is fairly simple overall. It's not bad, but maybe a bit loose. There are some stories with a lot of white space in the panels. The use of screentones is mixed, sometimes they're well deployed, sometimes there isn't much to speak of. It's competent art, but nothing to write home about. It serves the stories functionally but doesn't elevate anything.

Thankfully, despite Morishima-sensei having problematic moments in this and other works, she does identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, so hopefully she is writing for the community. I tend to think so, and despite its imperfections, I felt overall that I could find representation for my own self in some of these stories.

More than anything, it's another example of yuri about adult women being translated and published in English. That's awesome. I do wish, more than anything, that at least one of the stories would have dealt with the actual implications of being an out (or a closeted) lesbian of bi-sexual individual in society. Like much yuri (as opposed to LGBTQ+ manga), this tended to present the relationships in a bubble, divorced from the realities of being queer in society. However, we also need escapist media, so there is a purpose to that as well. Less a criticism, and more a comment. My personal taste is yuri that is mostly bubble but with moments where the real world intrudes.

Anyway, The Conditions of Paradise is far from perfect, but it does have some decent stories and characters to offer, some meaningful depictions of intimacy between women, and tons of adult women. It gets a better-than-I-expected 6/10.


*SCORING RUBRIC
BASIC SCORE:
  • Story interesting (0-10): 6 - some are, some are not
  • Characters interesting (0-10): 6 - some are, some are not
  • Quality prose/writing (0-10): 6 - some is, some is functional
  • Emotionally plausible (0-10): 7 - I really did find myself connecting with a few of these stories.
BASIC SCORE (avg.): 6/10

BONUS POINTS:
  • Emotional insight/depth (0-5): - 2 - there were moments of honesty, particularly with the first two couples
  • True LGBTQ+ representation (0-5): 2 - we didn't get much of what society thought or how it impacted their lives, there wasn't any sense of risk, but they were adult women, in the real world, in relationships. I found representation in that.
  • Female agency (0-5): 0 - not the point of the series, but I think there's all of one shot of the back of one man's head, so I loved that it was all women.
  • Character growth/change (0-5): 1 - although they were short stories, there were actual arcs for a few of them.
  • Quality art (0-5): 0 - functional, anatomically reasonable, but doesn't get bonus points.
BONUS POINTS (sum/8): +.5

PENALTY POINTS:
  • Homophobic/transphobic (0-5): 0
  • Misogynistic (0-5):  0 - in fact, this was critically examined in one story!
  • Fan service (0-5): 1 - the cover and color-art, but overall, the stories were pretty healthy.
  • Child/adult relationship (0-5): 0
  • Exploitative (0-5): 0
PENALTY POINTS (-sum/2): -.5

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

🚺

Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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