Given that Vertical has been expanding into shojo manga over the past year, I initially thought that this was another entry in that vein. It’s a romance story, there’s a whole lot of melodrama in the execution and the art initially comes off as very shojo-esque in its panel arrangement and design. Then in chapter three the protagonist, concerned that the main female character has been in the bath for too long and has passed out rushes in only to see her drying off and we all get to see a “courtesy breast” as a result. Later on, in a flashback we get to see a small panty flash from the girl too. It was around then that I realized I wasn’t reading a “shojo romance,” but a “shonen romance” that really wants to be the former. (If you need context for the idea of a “shonen romance,” think of “Maison Ikkoku,” “Love Hina,” or even “Chobits.”) Now I realize the tone I’m taking here may make it seem like this is a bad thing, but this volume is passable enough even if the ultimate quality of this two-volume story is going to ultimately hinge on one major plot point.
That point being just what turned a cheerful high school girl into an emotionally and physically frail white-haired wreck? Emiru had everything going for her in terms of popularity, academics and extracurricular activities, but when we meet the young woman at the beginning of the volume, she’s about to pass out in public when she feels as if the world is closing in around her. It’s from the timely intervention by psych student Kazuma that she recovers from the episode and it’s clear from the time that they talk afterwards that there’s a spark between them. Also, in one of those crazy coincidences that populate romantic fiction, it turns out that the house Kazuma will be staying at while at college has an invalid that he’ll be called upon to take care of. Any guesses as to who that’ll turn out to be?
From there, Kazuma gets a firsthand look at how debilitating the despair which envelops Emiru actually is with her decreased body temperature, slowed heartbeat, and her constant reminders that she’s doomed and should never have been born. Writer Hikaru Asada really lays the drama on thick in the script while Takahiro Seguchi returns in kind with the art. This isn’t a very subtle love story by any means and that only reinforces the “shonen-ness” of the whole endeavor. I will admit that the shortened length of this series does force them to cut out a lot of the repetition and filler that most romances in manga indulge in. We know that Kazuma and Emiru are going to hook up and BAM -- they do before the end of the volume. Yes, there is the little issue that Kazuma was acting as her informal therapist before all this, but… details. It’s a trope I can live with and there’s an argument to be made as to whether the “therapy” he was offering was substantial enough to be called that.
Even so, much is made out of the root of Emiru’s despair. It’s something so terrible and awful that it caused such dramatic mental and physical changes in this once lively girl and haunts her to this day. What could it be? There’s so much “hype” to that effect in every chapter that I’m not sure it can live up to it without provoking some physical reaction in me as I read it. Maybe once I get vol. 2 I’ll find the answer and throw the book across the room after being so shocked by it. Maybe it’ll inspire physical revulsion in me as I grip the book to see if Emiru and Kazuma find a way to get past this trauma and find a happy ending. That’s the kind of result I’m expecting to have after all of this buildup.
Unfortunately I’m not all that optimistic that whatever reason Asada has in mind is going to live up to it. Everything here is competently executed, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before either. Asada does employ a framing narrative involving and older Kazuma relating the story of his relationship to a younger student to try and offer some ambiguity about the narrative. I don’t think it works. That’s because we know the outcome of the relationship, get the impression that it didn’t end happily ever after, and are left with some time in the present to expect a resolution that will give the teacher some closure. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t play out like that in the end.
“Sickness Unto Death” is another beneficiary of the “Vertical Halo” that currently envelops the publisher. They do their best to bring out titles that don’t entirely cater to mainstream tastes and I feel compelled to keep checking out each title to see what makes it different. Right now, the biggest selling point for this series is that it’s a shonen romance that doesn’t prolong its characters’ romantic fates until sales dictate otherwise. There could be more to it, but it all hinges upon the revelation behind the cause of Emiru’s despair. Though I’m curious enough to come back for it in December, everyone else is recommended to wait until then before investing any money of your own.