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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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10/15/2006 Archived Entry: "Book and Manga review: Socrates in Love"

Socrates in Love
By Kyochi Katayama
English Translation by Akem Wegmuller
English Language version published by
Viz Media, San Francisco 2005

Review by Kelly S. Taylor

Socrates in Love is a sad, occasionally funny, frequently very wise, little book. Despite the utter simplicity of the plot (boy meets girl, boy loses girl) and the youth of its main characters, it is a mature exploration of the nature of love. In my opinion, it's the sort of book that Eric Segal's Love Story wanted to be but was too brashly bourgeoisie to truly achieve.

Sakutaro Matsumoto is a prematurely cynical young man who starts the novel not believing himself capable of falling in love. When, to his surprise, he does fall, the result is tragic. The girl he loves dies. No spoiler here folks. The narrator himself tells you just as much in the first few paragraphs. The narrative moves fluidly back and forth between Saku's memories of being with Aki and his reflections on life without her.

The word "reflections" is key. This is a very thoughtful novel that self-consciously downplays its own melodrama. Instead of thinking about "Dying Young" when you imagine this novel, think of a story told by a less spoiled and mouthy version of Holden Caulfield trying to make sense of a romance that simultaneously brings him ultimate joy and ultimate anguish.

The book is not called "Socrates in Love" because the main character is a smart guy who falls in love. The title is rather a reference to a quote from Deleuze and Guattari that defines love as "A violence that forces you to think." This quote neatly encapsulates how the book looks at love, not as something warm and fuzzy but as a disruption that forces the main character into awareness of a world beyond himself. Aki's death leads him into painful contemplation of the cosmos beyond human existence. The narrator and the narrative ask us to contemplate questions such as: "Who are we? Where do we go? What's the point?"

I recommend this book without reservation. If the powers that be can ever stand to knock some Ernest Hemingway clunkers out of the way to make room for it, the novel should be required reading in high school literature classes. Socrates in Love is simple enough to read in an afternoon, and yet complex enough to keep turning over in your mind for the rest of your life.

Alas, but the same cannot be said for:

Socrates in Love
Based on the novel by Kyoichi Katayama
Art by Kazumi Kazui
English Language version published by
Viz Media, 2005

As I was reading the novel, I kept thinking, "This is an odd book to make into manga." No fights. No dramatic declarations. No people with big hair. For the sake of the manga, I regret reading the book first. I think that perhaps if I had read the works in a different order, I might have an entirely different opinion of this adaptation. The artist, Kazumi Kazui, in her afterward, indicates that she wishes the manga to be a taste of the novel that she hopes will lead reader back to the book. A worthy goal, but I think it would be a somewhat surprising experience – like tasting one of those hunks of spring sausage at the grocery store, buying the product, and bringing it home to find that you'd accidentally purchased filet mignon.

The experience of reading a novel and a manga based on it side by side really did heighten my awareness of the storytelling conventions of each media, though. Manga are great at capturing emotion. There are moments when a picture of a sparkling tear can capture a mood in a way that seems awkward and cliché in prose. However, manga are not particularly good at capturing complex, contradictory emotions.

Part of what makes "Socrates in Love" a remarkable piece of fiction is the way that it takes a story that's been told a hundred times and makes it fresh, believable, and real by resisting stereotype at every turn. What makes this manga adaptation a somewhat flat and unsatisfying is the way that it embraces stereotype and moves the melodrama of the plot back to a central position. The manga version of "Socrates in Love" is like a typical Hollywood treatment of one of your favorite novels. It captures the style, but not the substance of the original.

Saku's questioning and soul-searching narration is what makes the novel unique and poignant. In the manga, his reflections are confined to little black boxes that must compete with pictures and dialogue. Not trusting the narrative to sufficiently carry the plot, the artist has expanded and added to the sparse amount of dialogue in the book. Unfortunately these additions tend to be pedestrian at best and jarring at worst. Where the book includes contemporary popular culture references that make you think, "This is real," the manga indulges in joke-y asides and chiba caricatures that serve to distance the reader from the emotional reality of the book.

Most damaging is the way Kazui falls into the conventions of the Japanese teen drama genre. On the back cover of the manga, the story is described as "A sweet high school romance between an average guy and beautiful girl..." We've strayed a bit afield from a love that is a "violence that forces you to think," haven't we? In the novel, Aki and Saku, though average in appearance, are drawn to each other and alienated from their peers because they are exceptionally thoughtful and introspective young people. In the manga, Saku becomes the typical anime Every-Pointed-Hair-Boy – emotional and lustful. Aki is transformed from a shy, quiet, A student to a character who could be played by Hillary Duff – peppy and shallow.

There's a scene at the end of both the novel and the manga where Saku's female companion visits his old school with him years after Aki's death. In the book, this companion is not described or given a name. In the manga, she's pictured (of course) and given lots of new dialogue. The scene changes from "Life is a painful mystery" to the story of how Saku has learned to love again. In this manner, the literary equivalent of finely aged Brie is thus transformed into Cheese Whiz.

Read the book. I only recommend the manga if you are too young to be reading one of my reviews... or if you cannot stand to read books without pictures... or if you really, really, really hate Brie and luuuuuv you sum'a that Cheese Whiz.

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