Sundome occupies a very special place in my bookshelf - right at the very back, protected by a thick layer of dry science fiction that insulates it like lead over a radioactive source. Many, many times I have caught a glance of the volumes lined up in their pristine covers and thought to myself "Why the hell do I own this series? I feel uncomfortable just having it in my flat! Why do I own a series which, at first glance, looks irredeemably perverted with its constant use of painstakingly detailed explicit content, voyeurism, domination, and sexual practices of questionable cleanliness and merit?” Having now read the whole of the series, I can say that I persevered because there is a damn good story to be told in Sundome, a precious ruby of goodness encased in an off-putting presentation.
Sundome follows the adventures of Hideo Aiba, a high school student whose only real characteristic is that he has none. The wonderful twist of this seemingly dull characterisation is that Hideo is a realistic extrapolation of a harem protagonist, having no drive nor redeeming features, let alone a harem. Bereft of the usual plot halo that harem protagonists have, everyone else can see the main character for the dull, boring sod that he really is.
Hideo is a member of the Roman Club, a well realised send-up of the nondescript "occult" clubs that appear in anime. However, this club has a secret - should a member remain chaste for the entirety of high school they will receive boons from the club alumni once they graduate, getting a hidden helping hand in university, employment and so on. Something that the members mention multiple times is the possibility of assassins - women sent by the alumni to tempt members to stray from their righteous path. This combination ensures that the club has a self-fulfilling reputation for its members being utter nutcases and weirdos.
This premise sounds utterly absurd - surely this is a joke? Such a bizarre basis for a club in an otherwise realistic setting cant exist, right? Your internal sensibilities reject it as being too absurd to be real yet the series continues to play it perfectly straight, using the setting as a springboard for humour and serious development. This is especially true of the “assassins”, which even until volume seven I still believed was a farce every time a character mentioned it. The series preys on the fact that the male characters are utterly untrustworthy and prone to saying stupid things, playing with your expectations and using your own reactions to entertain you.
This twist makes the series fascinating - it reflects your own demands for normality and sense back at you by constantly turning them aside and instead showing you the absurd world which it maintains, free of any hint of irony. You feel that you are constantly re-discovering the world the characters inhabit, keeping the series fresh.
Such an arresting use of absurdity is especially evident with the main female character, Sahana Kurumi, and her interactions with Hideo. When she is introduced, our male lead is instantly infatuated with her and does the normal male harem lead thing of making an ass of himself. In response, she teases him, saying, “No matter how much you beg or cry, I’ll never have sex with you.” - something put so bluntly that it is a shock to the senses. It’s so strange that the author can't be willing to follow through with it, right? Hideo seems to think so as well, and allows himself to be strung along by Sahana for the rest of the series.
The utterly bizarre relationship that forms between the two main characters is the main focus of the story - there is a central plotline to keep things coherent but this feels like a backdrop to the character interactions, providing flavouring and tension but not getting in the way. At times you can almost fool yourself into thinking they are a somewhat normal, if cripplingly uneven and awkward, couple.
Somewhere within this surreal setup is a surprisingly honest coming of age story. You see the different members of the cast come to terms with their swirling emotions, overpowering desires, the expectations of real life and the twisted demands of the Roman Club, all at once. The fact that Sundome does not shove this gradual development in your face but instead allows you to discover it shows how maturely the story is handled in the series.
The art in Sundome can charitably be deemed to be "all over the place" - vast differences in detail can be seen, with some of the highest detail full page spreads being almost voyeuristic in the level of effort lavished in their construction. Indeed, the most discomforting events are usually those that also sport the most care in the artwork. I have a personal theory about this: The more the characters present are invested in the scene, the higher the detail is on the page. While it could be said that this is not a new technique, I feel that Sundome follows this to a much closer degree than most manga, and the subject matter in question also makes this practice more readily visible. This helps prevent the series from feeling outright smutty with its explicit content; it never falls into the trap of having female characters exist only for tittilation. It can still be argued that the series is exploitative, but I feel that this is not its entire raison d'être as many of the explicit scenes are made to provoke discomfort rather than arousal.
This combination of character investment, highly detailed artwork, and frequently off-putting or distasteful subject matter creates some masterful tension in the series, completely pulling you into the events that are occurring. However this combination can also be off-putting or even feel abusive, giving rise to the "Why the hell do I read this? Its disgusting!" reaction in some readers.
Sundome saves itself by putting in tension release valves - changes in viewpoint or the end of a chapter can come abruptly during an uncomfortable moment and provide a chance to exhale and regroup. These moments of relief really help break up the book and make its more uncomfortable elements easier to digest, maintaining your interest and desire to keep reading. More than once while re-reading the series I would find myself deflating at the end of a chapter, putting the book down, and walking away for a while in order to digest events and drive off the lingering feeling of discomfort.
The primary thing that makes Sundome shine is that all of the events portrayed have a grain of realistic truth at their core. After all, what is on your mind first and foremost when you are a hormone-packed teenager? Its certainly not crochet, and its not like teenagers are immune to stupid decisions or infatuations. People can get into abusive relationships and spend forever justifying them, even if it could be considered unhealthy from an outside perspective. People do and believe stupid things, no matter their age or supposed intelligence. The world often doesn't make sense or is unfair. All of it is delivered sincerely, if in an outlandish manner. In fact some of the things used for the plot are portrayed in a hyper-realistic manner, increasing the tension and discomfort that can be felt, especially when combined with the varying intensity of the art.
After all the above is said and done, does Sundome succeed as an enjoyable series to read? For me, yes. The series is not afraid of making the reader uncomfortable or cut close to the bone as events unfold, becoming riveting in the process. The second half of the series in particular has some amazing pay-offs for all its careful earlier development, all of which feels authentic and well constructed. Sundome is not for everyone, however - the the sheer absurdity and amount of off-kilter explicit content may be too much for some to stomach, and this is in no way a failing on their part. However, if even after reading the above the series still sounds interesting, then you should by all means give it a fair shake. You may find yourself enjoying it, even if you spend half your time with a face screwed up in disgust.