[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ickness Unto Death is a gentle melodrama that grows stranger with each chapter. It begins with a framing narrative about psychotherapist Kazuma Futaba and one of his students walking into the verdant garden of an abandoned estate. They stop at a grave and Kazuma tells the story of his first patient, back when he still an unqualified freshman.
At the beginning of his story, Kazuma encounters a woman having a panic attack on a busy street. He comforts her, finding that her skin is cold and pale. She finds that she feels warm in his embrace. Later, Kazuma finds out that she owns the mansion he plans to move into while he goes to school. Her name is ‘Emiru Ariga’ and she suffers from a “terminal illness of the spirit.” Of late, the family butler, Kuramoto, has been charged with Emiru’s care, but he’s advanced in age and needs help, especially during his upcoming extended hospital visit.
Kazuma takes over Emiru’s regular checkups, monitoring her blood pressure, pulse and heartbeat. This last requires Kazuma to reach up Emiru’s nightgown with a stethoscope and set it against her cold skin. Little moments like this are depicted with the grace and care of a romance story. You feel their hesitant passion as they grow closer. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the story and is the most ably executed aspect.
Emiru’s madness, however, is a little overblown. She doesn’t suffer from despair but, instead, DESPAIR. Asada and Seguchi often use entire pages, or two-page spreads, to show Emiru’s illness. It’s a bit too cartoonish, much like the scene in St. Elmo’s Fire, where Demi Moore sits before an open window, freezing cold but sexy, framed artfully by billowing curtains. It’s all too much and it’s a note that they hit a little too often in Sickness Unto Death. I know that her illness is what drives the story, but I feel like we are reminded of this fact way too often.
There’s a hint of the supernatural at the beginning of the story: Emiru’s cold skin, her fear-bleached hair, her low temperature, and her blood pressure. All of these things suggest how close Emiru is to death. Further into the story, Kazuma discovers a door in the mansion that’s been boarded up. Beyond it lies what seems to be the source of Emiru’s madness. The door never opens, but it’s possible that the little slab-headed, shark-toothed ghost from Emiru’s nightmares lives on the other side.
Sickness Unto Death hits on several horror tropes: the haunted mansion, characters screaming as they wake from nightmares, the obligatory shower scene, and the slow reveal of a haunting – either real or in the head of a main character – as well as creepy children’s drawings. You get the idea.
Kazuma learns about Emiru’s happy past, her involvement in school, her large group of friends, and her decision to live life to the fullest. Their relationship grows and Emiru experiences a brief period of happiness. She feels so connected to Kazuma that she sits him down so that she can tell him her secret. But then the volume ends.
I like the emotional cliffhanger, and I hope that Asada and Seguchi amp up the tension in the concluding volume. I found the story a bit too light and ephemeral during my first reading, but it took on depth when I read it a second time. I’m now more excited about what comes next.
Sickness Unto Death has a 7 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber. It’s a good story but not a great one. I wonder if the second volume will change my opinion. I wonder if the story will get better, or fade into the bland repetition that the creators narrowly skirted in this volume.