Metastable Relationship: Short Sunzen

Normally I try to stick to material that is fairly familiar to a lot of people because, well, a lot of people have seen it. That means I don’t have to tell you who the heck Spike or Fuu or Haruhi is and I can just get to the damned point.

In truth, using familiar material also is more likely to attract eyeballs. Let’s be honest here: if we bloggers aren’t attracting eyeballs, we’re not keeping the dialog going. (I’ll leave out those of us who have successfully monetized their blogs, since I don’t do that. But that’s another reason to go out and grab those eyeballs by the optic nerve.)

But every once in a while something pops up that’s an important point from my perspectives as a writer and an animator but in an obscure place. Short Sunzen was a manga that lasted two tankoban volumes (I should say two English translation tankoban volumes) like a decade ago…Oh, let me go check: 1999 in Japan, 2008 in the US. I ended up seeing it because I got it one of those “Twenty Manga for $20” boxes (it was on sale for $16).

I don’t care for the art style, which is based on many fine lines; the leading lady appears to have huge, out-of-scale hands (if that’s a trope, someone clue me in). But I liked the leading lady, Satsuki, although she is a classic stereotype: the Tomboy Who Cleans Up Good.

Short Sunzen Satsuki

Volume One, with Satsuki on the cover

Satsuki really is a classic, literally. She goes to Tama, a “tough” school in Osaka, and when we first see her she’s beating up a boy, sitting on him and twisting his arm until he cries “Uncle!” Now, this is high school, so it’s not like they’re little kids, and Satsuki beats up more boys as time goes by, even gets suspended from school for it once. She is a genuine Tough Chick.

Sendo is the Boy Who Loves Her. He’s also from Tama, and the only one he hasn’t beaten at arm wrestling is Satsuki. So in terms of beating people up he’s Beta dog to Satsuki’s Alpha.

What I find interesting about them is the way their relationship is constructed. Short Sunzen is essentially a romance story, the story of the pair of them as a couple. Whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy will depend on volume two, which I have on order 🙂 but it’s the story of Satsuki and Sendo.

Now, there are romantic relationships that are stable. You look at them and you say, “Yeah, that’s going to work for a long, long time.” Chise and Elias. Spice and Wolf. Kobayashi and Tohru.

Then there are romances you know will bomb, if the participants were dumb enough to try them. Spike and Faye. Haruko and Naota. (Mamimi and Naota, for that matter; our boy may have a shot with Ninamori, though.) Haruhi and Kyon. Asuka Langley Soryu and anyone. Unstable.

But in between those two states are relationships that are metastable, that can hold together for the short term, until something changes. See it? That’s it right there, that’s the tension that drives the series. A metastable relationship is finely balanced on the edge of the knife, ready to blow over in the first breeze. As it stands the relationship is perfectly stable if no one changes, but PEOPLE CHANGE. That’s what people do! So that underlies the relationship: something is going to change and when it does, then what happens? Which way will the relationship tip?

What makes this so cool is that the audience can see this but, if they are written properly, the characters can’t. A good one, and so far the Satsuki/Sendo relationship is a good one, can keep you reading, knowing that something is going to drop and when it does the whole thing could blow up. That’s what we call creative tension, and it’s a goood goood thing.

Let’s figure out how this got put together in Short Sunzen. For starters, Satsuki likes Sendo. She actually does like him a lot, regards him as the sort of friend she can count on when she needs help from someone. She knows that if she’s in a fight he has her back, and if she needs someone with a bike to drive her to Festival, she can call on him.

At the same time, because she genuinely likes him, she tries to reciprocate for the things he does for her. At the Festival he drives her to, for instance, she lends him her camera so he can take pictures of cute girls. When she exchanges uniforms with a girl from the “classy” school, she calls on him as a protector/escort, but says, “Look, hold my hand. It’ll make it look like you’re a really high-class guy going out with a girl from the classy school.”

She doesn’t just use him. If he does something for her, she tries her best to pay him back, often by trying to make him look good in the eyes of the ladies. She likes him, she wants him to be happy, so she tries to fix him up!

Here comes the tension: Sendo isn’t interested in any generic ladies; he loves Satsuki, flying fists and all. Typical of high school boys in anime and manga, he finds it almost impossible to tell her so; when he drops hints she overlooks or ignores them because in her head she doesn’t think of him that way, and doesn’t think he thinks of her that way.

See how that works? Sendo wants to be near Satsuki because he wants her to love him back. Satsuki wants to be near Sendo because she really likes him and he is one of her best (possibly only) friends. This keeps the relationship stable for the time being: they each want to be with the other.

BUT this relationship can only hold up so long as they are stuck in those roles. At some point one of two things is going to happen: Sendo will work up the nerve to make Satsuki understand how he feels (and then she will be forced to respond) OR he won’t, and since they are high school kids high school will end and he will never see her again.

That creates the narrative tension: When will Sendo tell her? How will Sendo tell her? And what will Satsuki say or do? (It’s distinctly possible she will punch his lights out. The tagline for the books is “It’s girl meets boy and boy meets fist.”)

This is ratcheted up by the fact that there are hints Satsuki is a lesbian, and not just because she’s the tough girl who beats up all the boys. She fights her first fight to protect Kyuko, the girl from the classy school that she changes uniforms with. When Sendo shows up on the scene she asks him, “What? You want to get intimate with Kyuko-chan, too? Fine. But you’ll have to fight me off.” Too? TOO? Yeah, that reads with a queer vibe.

Now, this is a simple formula for creating a viable romance. That doesn’t make it easy. You have two problems if you’re trying to build a series around a metastable relationship.

> Both characters have to be likable and attractive. The story is built around both of them; the reader can like one more than the other (I certainly like Satsuki more than Sendo), but you have to like them both, or else as a reader you have no investment in seeing what happens between them. This is where it’s important that Satsuki cleans up nicely and reciprocates Sendo’s favors to her. If she’s just a punk or just a taker, she’s not sympathetic. And while Sendo does a lot for Satsuki because he loves her, he’s still a pretty good guy and also a gent about it

> You can’t draw it out too long. There’s a limit to how long the audience will wait for the shoe to drop. The longer it takes, the stupider the characters look. That makes them less likable and sympathetic and as to what that means, see previous point.

Ranma 1/2 is one of those stories that seemed to have the same sort of metastability, but the fact was that for all her complaining we all knew Akane was going to marry Ranma; most of the series consists of finding reasons to keep them apart. But Short Sunzen is based on a genuine metastability: as friends their lives are working, but when Sendo finally drops the L (Love) -bomb on Satsuki, no one knows what’s going to happen, but SOMETHING’s going to happen, it’s going to be big, and it’s going to transform the relationship as it currently exists.

Boom. End of series. Tragedy or comedy? Only time will tell.

Can’t wait for volume two to show up.


Later: Here it is! I held off reading it until this post went up. Good luck to Satsuki and Sendo!

Short Sunzen Sendo

Volume Two is here, Sendo on the cover

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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