This Week: Whispered Words (Sasameki Koto)
A series in many respects about secrets, even if my explorations of yuri and shōjo-ai here is anything but.
To say that I was hesitant going into Whispered Words may be something of an understatement.
It had nothing to do with the homosexual context itself, of course. For as many representation problems as anime and indeed media at large can have with non-heteronormative sexualities, when its gets things right it becomes a thunderous cause for celebration and enjoyment. And anyone who has read this blog long enough knows I will grant swell write-ups for them should they click for me. Rather though, Whispered Words has a set of circumstances surrounding it I had yet to slam into in the course of my blogging career.
Consider the authors of the girls or boys love source material I have granted posts to already. Takako Shimura brought Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana) into the world. The Class S genre champion of the modern era, Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru), arrived courtesy of Oyuki Konno’s writing and Reine Hibiki’s illustrations. Women developing stories of young ladies in relationships with each other. Even expanding further to Keiko Takemiya, who was instrumental in spearheading the advancement of male paired romance manga and fought tooth and nail for the likes of The Poem of Wind and Trees (Kaze to Ki no Uta) and The Door into Summer (Natsu e no Tobira). While a woman herself, those examples of hers are still very much a case of someone not in a societal position of power (especially in a male dominated comics industry the Year 24 Group was cracking open) crafting narratives which featured minority sexualities.
The Whispered Words manga was made in both story and art by Takashi Ikeda, and serialized in the seinen magazine Monthly Comic Alive. So then, a man writing a story about high school lesbian laced romantic comedy antics, intended (if only by publication distribution demographics) for adult men. This is by no means unheard of, to be sure. And to be fair, I am a biological adult male, who based on some of my other writings I hope has come across that I do enjoy various yuri and shōjo-ai works. So there is a market I can point to, insofar as myself is concerned.
But, from a media studies standpoint, there is a wide variation in power and its potential ill-handled use by a creator coming from a dominant social position when it comes to sexuality and gender. There is a fair amount of self reflection that would be required, so as to not only avoid coming across as gross or insensitive but to prevent absentmindedly steamrolling and flattening the narratives of ones fictional individuals from wrong frameworks. There is a fair amount of mental deprogramming involved in this, which is something I try to remain mindful of even myself in my own writing.
Thankfully, for all the books that appear over the course of the series, Ikeda seems to have put in a fair amount of homework.
As heavy as any and all of this may sounded over the last few paragraphs, Whispered Words is again a romantic comedy.
Leading lady Sumika Murasame is a fifteen year old girl. Tall to the point of being called a beanpole, good at sports and martial arts, class president, and unbeknownst to many she is romantically and sexually attracted to other women . More specifically, she is enamored with her classmate and best friend Ushio Kazama, who often has fleeting crushes for other girls (be they people at school, or via fashion magazines) but her preferred type leans more for those she considers “cute” in an adorable or wish to be protective sense. Girly girls. Snuggly girls. The kind of girl she does not see Sumika as, and indeed even views her own friend as heterosexual due to Sumika keeping their feelings and orientation largely internalized. As things progress there are of course additional classmates introduced into the narrative, lesbian and otherwise, as the series walks us through both fun filled days and some topsy-turvy emotional turmoil.
A key feature of Whispered Words is how much Sumika carves out her own little place as a character, even in comparison to other yuri works. Her tallness might indicate to some a more The Rose of Versailles style Lady Oscar type lead of conviction and theatricality or perhaps a Sachiko Ogasawara larger than life quality out of Maria Watches Over Us, well mimicked by other series in the genre. Sumika wobbles around mentally far more than the French Revolution era commander however, and in-universe she does not posses the quiet grace often displayed by the popular Lillian School for Girls leader. This is amplified all the more by the presence of another classmate, Tomoe Hachisuka, who does better fit the popular Oscar or Takarazuka Revue mold and the presence she brings to the screen. Sumika is by all means competent, skilled in karate as she is and achieves her class president duties well. It is the kind of area where she is well known enough and participant in some school functions, but she is not framed with a larger gravitas or popularity.
A class president, but not the “class president type” as it were, going off of stereotypical archetypes.
Furthermore, as the lead the series take ample opportunity to peek into her inner monologue, and she has a dirtier mind than some of the more stoic icons of her genre.
This would very much be where the greatest series of minefields for this series would have been. There is a fine line between what would be comedic and lighthearted, the kind of lewd thoughts expected of a high school mind with frustrated and raging adolescent hormones, and slipping into turning on the pandering firehose for fetishising girl on girl relationships via male gaze. I feel Whispered Words manages to strike a swell spot here though. Sumika’s inner fantasy sequences pop up at rather understandable points, like imagining what Ushio may look like in a bathing suit when a beach trip presents itself.
The series makes efforts to point out in its comedy how Sumika is not just romantically but indeed quite sexuality attracted to to her crush. But it strikes a balance that prevents it from going way too far off in the second direction in a way that would make it a harder sell or compromise flow. For a silly as the series can be at points, and for how much Sumika does blushingly pine after Ushio, there is the element that she desires for her in more ways than one. Which I feel is important, as for all the slack jawed reaction faces that can crop up after comedic events situations like this do make her come across as a human character as well without approaching the occasional sexual thoughts in a way that would be seen as exclusionary.
For as much as the manga may have been in a seinen magazine, I would consider it a failure if only men could enjoy it.
Something that would be remiss of me if I did not mention is how Whispered Words handled gender relations in regards to clothing.
As you may have imagined given the kind of user and blog name I use, some of the coats I have in my wardrobe would happen to be classic ladies styles as well given how there often is not an analogue between a certain nice piece of clothing for different demographics. This is very, very, minor crossdressing, to be sure, but it is something that even on that level has produced its fair share of acidic remarks over the years. Naturally, there are folks who far and away outclass my level of not caring about clothing tags. On a different front, there also is the host of situations which can occur when one is transitioning, to feel comfortable in their identity.
Something that has often felt off to me is how much media makes rather lazy at best and horrifically insensitive at worst imagery of dressing in clothing society has assigned gendered labels to. Anime is certainly no exception to this. So I feel it is important to point out there is a biologically male character in Whispered Words who often dresses presents as female for personal reasons. That for all of the notions it is already juggling regarding lesbians and trying to handle a romantic comedy without making a mockery of them it does also find time for this subject. Both in a way that felt appropriate for the circumstances, and has its own little emotional resonances as well.
I see a series where even in the first third of the show this character is in their bed, clutching their pillow and remarking to themselves that they were not called gross that day, and I am reminded of how very rare that is.
Whispered Words aired during the autumn anime season of 2009, which places it directly after Sweet Blue Flowers concluded after the summer season of the same year.
In this respect, I feel they compliment each other well. Sweet Blue Flowers aims for a more soaring and resonant emotional vibe and has a lovely watercolor aesthetic provided by J.C.Staff, while Whispered Words is a romantic comedy and granted a blunter and reaction face ready look via AIC.
Series director Eiji Suganuma is an animator and animation director by trade, and has little else of note to his full directing chair roles (as it is mainly otherwise affairs like Kodomo no Jikan and Mashiroiro Symphony – The Color of Lovers). While he does a workmanlike job the real strength of the series lies in its recruiting Hideyuki Kurata going well. The original creator of Read or Die, which bounces around well in the head considering the prominence of books to Whispered Words, in addition to extensive writing on comedies from Excel Saga to Samurai Flamenco. This series is very much pulling from Excel’s personal playbook in particular, as while Sumika is never as hyper as Excel ever was there are definite similarities in how a runaway train of thought builds or the timing for reaction face gags.
Takashi Ikeda is currently working on the ongoing manga series Ms. Unemployed 34 Year Old (34-sai Mushoku-san). Were this production to ever be granted a future animated rendition, the content Whispered Words managed to approach and deliver on would give me confidence to not be as apprehensive about it.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.