I've read enough harem and magical girlfriend comedies to notice how creators love to write about romantic couplings that begin from a vantage of inequality. Whether it's the tsundere uppercutting her would-be boyfriend. Or the alien goddess lowering herself to the role of a mere mortal's loyal servant. Or other playful variations of Japan's intricate social hierarchy. But the unconventional relationship in Sundome comes closest to a dominant/submissive sexual partnership. Not that anything explicit actually takes place. The book can be described as one big tease. The title itself when translated into english is "stopping the moment before", which is a generally accurate description of the events in the volume.
Hideo Aiba is your standard wimpy male protagonist found in shonen manga. He's a member of the Roman Club, a group devoted to seeking out boyish adventures such as investigating ghosts, UFOs, and other paranormal mysteries. The members must remain virgins in order to preserve the club's youthful vision. To the rest of the high school's student body, they're just a bunch of otakus. But the club members also maintain high marks in order to get into a good college and have a successful future career. The club's "Old Boys" (school alumni) give out scholarships to members who manage to graduate with their virginity intact. But they also make this goal virtually impossible to achieve by sending "assassins" to strip them of it. Needless to say, these actions foster a certain degree of paranoia.
Then one day the beautiful Kurumi Sahana transfers into Hideo's class. She becomes immediately popular with all the boys in school. Hideo is no exception, and almost quits the club to pursue Kurumi. But when she expresses an interest in joining, he reconsiders. The other members naturally suspect that she might be another assassin, but are too flustered in her presence to object.
This silly premise in itself doesn't necessarily separate it from other rom-coms aimed at young readers. But the sexualized imagery certainly does. The story is characterized by juvenile fascination with prurient subject matter. Hideo's infatuation when first meeting Kurumi is expressed through his massive erection, drawn as a fairly obvious bulge in his pants. What perks Kurumi's interest in the club is their secret book on masturbation techniques. And when she confronts Hideo about it, she first asks him to demonstrate how to jerk-off, then rather bluntly states "Even if we were the last two people on Earth, I'd still never have sex with you. No matter how much you beg or cry, I’d never let you come". Hideo accepts these terms as long as it doesn't mean outright rejection. And he happily describes agreeing to this arrangement as putting on a "collar".
So begins an erotically charged, yet oddly chaste affair. Hideo is so desperate to please Kurumi at every turn that he often performs tasks that are well outside his comfort zone. He willingly courts injury and humiliation to keep himself within Kurumi's good graces, and for the small yet titillating "rewards" she doles out to keep him happy. Kurumi scolds him for showing weakness and praises him when he completes a task. The extremity of this behavior is going to be off-putting to a lot of readers. Manga fans who prefer their rom-coms be more innocent are going to balk at the level of abuse Hideo tolerates. Kazuto Okada doesn't use any of the usual manga tricks to glamorize his characters. While they might be sexualized, they aren't exactly sexy. Kurumi's emaciated form in particular is a gloomy mirror image of the petite figure ideal found in moe manga. All the characters look awkward and twisted, and the mood is exacerbated when they're surrounded with oppressive black stippling. The situations Hideo and the Roman Club face parody conventional manga tropes e.g. the constant panty shots, the indirect kiss, standing up to the school bully, the "test of courage", and other school club hijinks. But they're drained of much of their usual cuteness. And without the PG-13 filters, this brings to the fore the teenage cast's angst and obsession with sex.
Towards the end, the promise is held out that there may be more to Kurumi torturing Hideo than mere self-amusement. But the overall mood of this volume is one of abasement punctuated with moments of real intimacy, raunchy humor, and intense slapstick. Most of the adults who read this are going to wonder why Hideo puts up with Kurumi, and it would be hard to argue against the idea that what he needs most is to grow a spine. But beneath the surface, Sundome is a work that adolescents can relate to. Lurking within it's emotionally clumsy narrative is the dawning realization that nurturing a deeper, more mature connection with another human being sometimes involves the discharge of bodily fluids.