Upon closer inspection

March 19, 2009

It’s trite but true that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, but it’s also true that a second impression can really chip away at the goodwill generated by the first. For example, I liked the first volume of Miwa Ueda’s Papillon (Del Rey), but the second has me scratching my head. I can only liken the reading experience to being at a party, having an interesting chat with a new acquaintance, losing track of them as you mingle, and later overhearing them talk about how they burn their own hair clippings, use the ashes as the base for an under-eye night cream, and swear by it, just swear by it.

Okay, that’s probably overstating it, but the things that intrigued me about the debut volume are downplayed, and the worrying undercurrents are amplified and accelerated. Ueda shifts focus from the sibling rivalry between twins Ageha (country mouse) and Hana (city shrew) to Ageha’s simmering resentment towards her mother. It’s a fair enough shift, but their issues are resolved with a singular lack of subtlety. I don’t want to give away too much, but I have this personal rule that forbids me to pass up an opportunity to type the phrase “feigns a coma.” I’ll say no more.

Because really, why dwell on a manufactured medical crisis as bonding opportunity when I can fixate on my mounting dislike of Ageha’s guidance counselor, Hayato? There’s the strong suggestion that he’s some kind of instinctive genius under his lecherous, perhaps actionably incompetent exterior, and his zany schemes do actually seem to yield positive results, but only a gifted seer could have foreseen any positive outcomes from them. (Again: “feigns a coma.”)

But even his bumbling takes a back seat to his grossness. Unpredictable as many of the second-volume twists may be, you can see Ageha’s attraction to Hayato coming from a mile away, and the anticipation is not pleasant. Because you just know that nothing in his nature resembles clinical distance or therapeutic ethics. The course that covered transference must have been among the many Hayato slept through during his college years.

I admit, though, that the bizarre shift in tone and approach between Papillon’s first and second volumes makes me perversely eager to read the third. Maybe an alien will burst out of Hana’s abdomen and begin eating the rest of the cast. You just don’t know for sure.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)