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“I feel like clicking on this link will get me put on some kind of government watchlist,” is a comment I get a lot, generally from friends I’ve just recommended a manga to.

Sometimes this is because I’m reading something genuinely freaky, but more often it’s because there’s some kind of sexual content that makes people uncomfortable. The idea of the culturally-stunted American who lives in perpetual fear of sex and sexuality while worshiping violence is an old cliche and obvious insult – one often invoked by people afraid of being “shamed” for their tastes because calling someone a prude is easier than engaging with criticism – but there is a tiny element of truth in it. In my experience, western comic audiences are far more open to extreme violence than sex. We seem to be much more comfortable with seeing the inside of someone’s skull than the inside of their underpants and that strikes me as incredibly strange.

That being said, let’s be honest with ourselves: Some of the sexual content depicted in manga is weird as fuck. I’m not just talking about the tentacles. The sexualization of young girls, the trivialization of sexual violence and pedophilia, incest played for laughs or actual romance. It’s all very strange when you pull it out of the weird contextual bubble of Otaku culture, but it’s surprisingly common across a large selection of genres. If you’ve been reading anything beyond the usual shonen fluff for any period of time and tend to think critically about your entertainment, you’ve likely developed a tolerance for it. I know I have. At some point, panty shots just stopped registering on an intellectual level. They’ve become visual punctuation – invisible, yet somehow vital.

But for those new to the medium, the “what the fuck am I reading?” effect is a very real thing. It drives them away from work that pushes boundaries and towards safer, more conventional stories.

So this is a little experimental article series I’m calling “The Watchlist”. It’s about interesting, well-crafted manga you might have passed up because they look or sound a bit weird or pervy. It’s not meant to be a more-hardcore-than-thou list of ultra-obscure guro manga. In fact, the more hardcore body-pillow-owning types among you might find my choices a disappointingly tame. Still, the next couple of pages deal with manga aimed firmly at adults. There’s no expressly NSFW content, but I’d still advise you not read it directly in front of your boss unless he or she is, you know, wearing chaps.

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Sundome is a heart-breaking romantic comedy about teenagers peeing on each other.

Kazuto Okada’s S&Mish dramedy, Sundome, isn’t exactly obscure as far as erotica goes. It was popular enough to warrant English releases of all eight of its volumes (which is great because the scans are abysmal) and it’s been adapted into four live action movies (which sounds impressive until you watch them and realize they barely had the budget for one movie, never mind four).

The bulk of the story is your usual ecchi slapstick about horny teenagers and sexual frustration. The male lead, Hideo Aiba, is aimless and bland, notable only for his attraction to Kurumi Sahana, a mysterious transfer student he immediately starts pining for. What makes Sundome stand out in its crowded genre is the power it gives its female lead. And all the peeing. I guess. But I digress, Kurumi is fully aware of Hideo’s attraction to her, and she uses it to manipulate him into a sexually charged, but technically chaste relationship. She ends up joining the school’s Paranormal investigation club in order to remain close to him.

This is largely an excuse for pages of secretive, tease and denial erotica in various locales. The scenes are played for equal parts arousal and laughs, though they succeed at the latter with more regularity. One early sequence sees Kurumi goading Hideo into attempting a kind of avant garde masturbation technique involving a construction nail. I mean, if you can’t laugh at a guy being tricked into stabbing himself in the dick with a nail, what can you laugh at?

Things get interesting when it becomes apparent that Kurumi isn’t just manipulating Hideo for shits and giggles. She’s using his infatuation with her to sculpt him into a stronger person, spending most of the story hovering between complete enigma, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and that crazy art student from The Shape of Things. Hideo gets the bulk of the character development, but as he grows as a character he becomes less obsessed with Kurumi and more observant. His narration does as well, giving us a better understanding of Kurumi’s character, even if many of her secrets are never actually revealed.

But yeah, there is a great deal of what TV Tropes calls Author Appeal going on in Sundome. There is the aforementioned issue of people peeing on one another, and if that’s not your jam (spoiler: it is not my jam) then a fair few sequences that are meant to be intimate and sexy are going to have you reaching for the hand sanitizer rather than the hand lotion. Oh and Kurumi is super thin, too. Really thin. Like, can only be damaged by blunt weapons level thin. It makes sense in the context of the story, and it’s used to brilliant effect in the third act, but sexy it is not.

And I guess that’s the thing that struck me about Sundome. I didn’t find it particularly sexy (and I think I was supposed to), but I did find it emotionally engaging, funny and heart-warming.

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Onani Master Kurosawa is a challenging drama about loneliness, anger, bullying and growing up. Oh, and stealing people’s stuff and waking on it.

Onani Master Kurosawa (literally “Masturbation Master Kurosawa”) is a – god fucking help us – coming of age drama about a troubled teenage boy who vents his frustrations with the world by sneaking into the girls’ toilets and masturbating in one of the stalls, usually to violent fantasies about his female classmates. This behavior escalates when he decides to “punish” two class bullies by stealing and ejaculating on their school uniforms.

As bizarre as it sounds, Onani Master pulls no punches about how unhealthy Kurosawa’s behavior is while also using it as a source of some genuinely funny dark humor. Seemingly oblivious to how pathetic he is, Kurosawa narrates his life and his exploits in the girls’ bathroom like he’s a Machiavellian super-villain. He gives smug, detailed descriptions of how he manages to steal his victims clothes, he strikes ludicrous dramatic poses as they discover their soiled clothing (many of which are almost direct parodies of panels used in the similarly over-the-top Death Note, leading to Onani Master being affectionately labeled Fap Note by its fans) and he regards his fellow classmates with the kind of sneering disdain you expect from Lex Luthor rather than a chronic masturbator.

But it’s when that joke starts to wear thin that Onani Master starts to get really good. It’s clear from the start that Kurosawa is driven to act out by a sense of isolation and pain he doesn’t understand. He sees himself as superior to people who are nothing but friendly towards him, but it’s obvious that this stems from his inability to connect with them on an emotional level. He’s a wonderfully observed character. People have made comparisons to Catcher in the Rye, and that’s not just lip service. Both Onani Master and Catcher capture something quintessential about being a socially awkward teenage boy. I see shades of myself in Kurosawa, and not just because I also spend all of my time sneering at people and masturbating.

But while the story might focus on Kurosawa and his pain, it doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of his actions. Perversion, the genuine personal-space-invading kind, is often used as a goofy character trait in manga (how many times has a guy with stolen panties on his head been used as a punchline?) but here we see the genuine damage it can do to people. Kurosawa isn’t just acting out his sexual fantasies, he’s using them to attack other people and it the result is lasting psychological damage.

And that’s honestly just the first few chapters. Onani Master goes some very unexpected places in its second and third acts. It gives us an unflinching look at how bullying can destroy a person, an intimate examination of developing friendship and unrequited love and a crushing example of how betrayal can shatter those bonds.

It’s also never unlikely to get an official Western release because no publisher would ever want to run a series that’s essentially called “Wank Master,” so you can enjoy this one on a scanlation site of your choice guilt free.

This one’s a master stroke. Or something. God. Make it stop.

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