Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #42: Sickness Unto Death, Vol. 1 by Asada and Seguchi

There are cultural references you expect to see, and the surprising ones. Personally, I'd never expect a manga -- or a comic from any nation, for that matter -- to closely reference the work of Soren Kierkegaard. But that's the thing about the actual world, as opposed to the ones we model in our heads: it's always bigger and stranger and more interesting.

And so Sickness Unto Death -- a two-volume manga story written by Hikaru Asada and drawn by Takahiro Seguchi -- does take its title, and a lot of its tone, from Kierkegaard. That focus -- on mental suffering and anguish, and the despair that leads to death or the desire for death -- makes this book immediately a more complicated and nuanced tale than we might have expect. Unlike most of the manga that makes it across the Pacific to the US, this is obviously a serious story for adults, and not just a genre exercise to waste the train-commuting time of a identifiable demographic of Japanese consumers.

So this first volume of Sickness Unto Death begins with a framing story -- psychotherapist and psychology professor Kazuma Futaba is found by one of his students at a gravesite -- and then Kazuma explicitly tells her, and us, the story of his first love: the girl in that grave. Asada immediately closes off any hope of a "happy ending" -- even before we meet the sickly teenager Emiru Arima, and see Kazuma fall in love with her, we know that she will die.

(Of course, we know that everyone will die, even ourselves. But we also know that she dies in the story, which is more immediate.)

Kazuma wants to save Emiru, who has a low metabolism and a general overall sickliness -- she has what Ebert called "Ali McGraw disease," so she's devastatingly weak at opportune moments but otherwise is just generally pale and cold and wan -- but he's convinced that the origin of her sickness is psychological in origin, and so only what he can learn from his studies (he's just beginning as a psychology student at the local university) can save her.

That's a good guess: Emiru is an orphan, raised by her butler in a mansion since her parents died at the age of four, and she led a full, outgoing life until two years before, at the age of sixteen, when she suddenly became sick and withdrew from the world. There's no physical reason for her illness, but there's clearly some trauma from earlier in her life that resurfaced two years ago -- and it's darkly hinted that has something to do with her father -- and Futaba thinks, or hopes, that his love and devotion can save Emiru.

The story isn't over in this volume, but we know he's wrong. We still need to learn what the true source of Emiru's existential despair is, but knowing that won't help. Between Kierkegaard and that filled grave, there's no room for romantic notions. So Sickness Unto Death is a dark tale, as you'd expect from the Kierkegaard title. But it's worth seeking out: life has as much darkness as light, and this is a bracing, clearsighted vision into one such life.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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