Socrates in Love vol. 1

Socrates in Love vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Arist: Kazumi Kazui
Format: Paperback
Price: $8.99

The Socrates in Love manga is based on the book of the same name by Kyoichi Katayama, which was evidently a bestseller in its native Japan. I haven’t read the original novel, and I fully realize that it can’t (and shouldn’t) be judged by this manga adaptation. But I must say this much: this manga certainly doesn’t make a very strong case for the quality of its inspiration.

The story: Guy meets girl, guy gets girl, girl gets cancer, cancer gets girl, guy loses girl. Surprisingly, the preceding synopsis doesn’t spoil anything that isn’t revealed within the first five pages, nor does it leave very many details out. The only things it fails to mention are a pre-cancer trip to an island where Guy tries to get into Girl’s pants, and the long stretches of navel-gazing that occur between every major plot turn. And yes, I’m aware that the lead characters’ names are Sakutaro and Aki, but since they’re the only two characters of any real consequence, I feel no guilt at all in calling them Guy and Girl.

Above all its other faults, Socrates in Love commits the mortal sin of romance stories: it’s more in love with the thought of being young and in love than it is with the love two people share with each other. It has the romantic leads go through all the expected motions of two young people in love, but it fails to establish honest romantic chemistry between them. The moments of genuine warmth or emotional intimacy between Aki and Saku are very few and very far between. We’re supposed to believe that their love is extraordinary and lasting beyond death, but I never once found myself believing that they’d still be together by the end of high school. To make matters even worse, love is very seldom the predominant emotion at work in this story. It’s astonishing how the moments of the main characters expressing love for each other are far outweighed by drawn-out scenes of characters complaining about things or dreading things. I recall only four or five fleeting moments where the characters can be seen even enjoying each other’s company, but I can remember well over 10 instances of the characters complaining – about each other, about their circumstances, about their insecurities, about what has passed, about what might be. This is a story about a doomed romance that’s far more fascinated with doom than with romance. It seems odd that a so-called “timeless love story” would place so little value on love.

I think the lack of emotional power in this manga owes primarily to a lack of insight or understanding about love, illness, or the process of dying. One gets the impression that the person who wrote this manga has never been seriously ill before, or had to care for someone who was. Being diagnosed with a possibly terminal disease is crushingly isolating, for both the patient and those close to him or her, and that isn’t something this manga makes any effort to tap into. All we get are angry, tearful histrionics from Aki and a sort of “everything’s ruined” dread from Saku, who often seems like he’s feeling sorry for himself more than for Aki. Kazui tries to give Saku some eloquent moments of introspection, but attempted eloquence isn’t the same as insight or understanding. Without these things, Socrates in Love ends up coming off as that obnoxious form of emotional pornography: the “cryin’ and dyin'” novel. We’re not invited to share in Aki’s or Saku’s struggles; we’re invited to watch the girl lose her hair, throw temper tantrums, and die, and watch Saku do little more than gaze at his navel while this is happening. This manga isn’t for people who want to read about two young lovers struggling to come to terms with the specter of terminal illness; it’s for people who get off on seeing young love separated by tragedy.

Even on a purely technical level, Socrates in Love falls well below most of its peers on the Shoujo Beat label. It falls into the most common trap of bad cross-medium adaptations: it fails to stand as its own story, and has little impact to those who aren’t familiar with the source material. It leaves too much dangling in the air for those of us who haven’t read the novel, and the sentiments between the characters are woefully underdeveloped. Furthermore, there isn’t a strong narrative thread holding the story together, so it comes off as a collection of scenes and vignettes instead of a cohesive story. There’s not even a sense of time in the manga, and I wasn’t really sure how much time had passed between the beginning of the book and the end. The artwork is sketchy and minimalist, but it’s also extremely sloppy, so it can be hard to tell some of the characters apart or exactly what’s going on at the moment.

The manga adaptation of Socrates in Love fails because it more closely resembles bad soap opera than a genuinely good story. I will grant that it can be difficult to write a good story about terminal illness; it’s too easy to focus on death and the process of dying to the point where love and hope are snuffed out. Understanding and compassion are key in stories like this; for all their moments of overt melodrama, implausibility, or preachiness, titles like Arina Tanemura’s Full Moon O Sagashite or Reiko Momochi’s short story “Wish” were redeemed because of their attempts to treat their material with honesty, compassion, and dignity. Socrates in Love seems like it’s a bit too much in love with the original premise – two young lovers separated by tragedy beyond their control – to treat the subject matter with the honesty, dignity, and humanity it deserves. At their best, love stories – even those that end in tragedy – are celebrations of life and the better parts of humanity, but I’m unsure of what exactly this manga is a celebration of. Call me a cynic, but I thought Socrates in Love felt a lot like an elaborate funeral procession.

Added:  Monday, March 27, 2006

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