Sasameki Koto

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I believe this is what you’d call an “iconic scene”.

Sasameki Koto (ささめきこと, Whispered Words) is a yuri manga by Ikeda Takashi (いけだたかし) that’s fairly well-known in yuri circles. It had an anime adaptation that was pretty good (in my opinion) and ran in a seinen magazine rather than a yuri magazine, making it a little more famous on top of its general yuri renown. It has the honor(?) of being the series that made me realize I was a big fan of yuri. So, is it good? Well, yes, because if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing it, but to be perfectly honest it is far from my favorite yuri manga. While there are things you could consider “special” about this series, at its base it is definitely typical. Thinking about it, I wonder why it ended up being such a standout manga, but I guess you could mostly attribute that to it running in Comic Alive and thus having more exposure.

Hm, I feel like it sounds like I’m shitting on the series. I mean, for the most part the series is competent, and there are some things about it that are excellent, but aside from some niggling details I personally don’t care for there’s the ending parts of the manga to consider. This manga doesn’t stick the landing for its end very well. The very end is good, but getting there is rather bothersome. I’ll go into more detail on that later, though. Most of this review I’ll be explaining the manga and trying to understand why it was this one that made me a yuri fan.

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The premise and setup for this manga is very simple. Murasame Sumika is a tall, somewhat masculine-in-personality high school girl who is in love with her best friend, Kazama Ushio. Kazama is an open lesbian who adores cute girls. Sumika isn’t cute, so her love is a secret and unrequited. Kazama falls in love easily, but hasn’t fallen in love with Sumika. Therefore, Sumika suffers watching her friend fall in love and get heartbroken repeatedly (because homosexuality is not the norm). The first chapter follows one of these moments of love’s blossoming and ending, Sumika comforting Kazama in the end but revealing nothing. There you go, that’s all there is to it!

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It didn’t surprise me to learn this series began as a one-shot that wasn’t going to have a continuation or anything. Maybe because of that, the series progresses pretty much exactly how you might expect. That said, there is more to it, but the core of it (the relationship between Sumika and Kazama) remains unchanged throughout.

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The airhead.

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The not “yuri-esque”, but yuri couple.

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The useless addition.

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The curveball.

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The late additions.

Here is the cast. Among them, the most important characters are from the third and last pictures: the yuri couple and the freshmen introducing themselves. After that, the rest are side characters who aren’t as important. Two hang out with Sumika and Kazama regularly (the beaming girl, and the little girl), the other two (the boy, and the girl with glasses) serve a purpose and rarely appear after that purpose is fulfilled.

This is an overall pleasant cast, and the only one I can’t recall actually liking was the girl with glasses, Aoi Azusa. Mercifully, she is also the character who appears the least in the series. The rest? They’re funny! I don’t find Sasameki Koto to be hilarious or top tier comedy, but I recognize how lighthearted the series and its cast are. Main characters included (Kazama is super excitable, Sumika is an awkward goofball), this is a cast of quirky students reflecting Ikeda-sensei’s wacky sense of humor. This is nice, since the series can get fairly dramatic at times and some smiles and laughs can really alleviate the tension. I will say that sometimes the manga gets a little too wacky for my taste, but for the most part it works.

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I don’t want to fully discuss the cast, though, because talking about the important ones can get spoilerific and talking about the other ones beyond what I already said is almost pointless (though I can say the first character I pictured, Torioi Kiyori, is welcome and wonderful). I can talk about the two pictured just above a little more, however. Hachisuka Tomoe and Taema Miyako are an openly lesbian couple that we encounter very early on in the series. Miyako does not do much beyond scowling and being rude in an amusing manner, but her other half is like a goddamn pillar in this series. Hachi, while definitely a strange girl with plenty of quirks, is also mature beyond her years (and is actually more mature in years over the rest of the cast by two). She’s very interesting, so much so that I think it’s a shame she (and other characters) don’t get loads of focus and development. Instead of getting lots of focus, Hachi serves mainly as a subtle guiding hand for Sumika and Kazama. This is very good, but I’ll explain why that is a little later.

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First I’d like to explain why talking about the “non-important” characters is merely almost pointless. I could examine them, but they don’t actually affect the whole manga that much save for arguably Lotte — but even she could just as well be removed from the series without changing most of the story. Here’s something special, though: they have their own stories in the manga and those stories range from somewhat to really rather nice. I mentioned Sasameki Koto began as a one-shot, right? Well, I think Ikeda Takashi recognized that he’s pretty good at making those because quite a few of the chapters in Sasameki Koto read like good one-shots more than they do chapters in a serialization. Aoi, Akemiya (the crossdressing boy), and Lotte all have at least one one-shot-like chapter dedicated to them (rather than Sumika or Kazama) and honestly, I liked all of them (even if I didn’t like Aoi herself). Each is unique in storyline and themes and you could pretty much read those chapters start to finish with no prior knowledge of the manga proper. Naturally, Hachi and the two freshmen also have chapters like this, and Sumika and Kazama have the most like this.

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I think this makes Sasameki Koto unique and special, but I hesitate to champion this as a selling point. I think this one-shot style is a skill of Ikeda-sensei’s that’s interesting, but it doesn’t change the manga from being a mostly standard unrequited yuri romance manga. To sell this manga, I’d say what I said at the start: Sasameki Koto is mostly competent, and in some regards excellent.

Reading this, I think this doesn’t look like the opinion I should have on the manga that hurdled me into the endless field of lilies with a blissful expression, careless and free. Is it the “excellence” of the manga that pushed me over the edge? No. It isn’t. I’ll tell you what’s excellent about it: Ikeda-sensei can capture emotion very well through expressions and paneling — both the beauty and ugliness of emotion. There is power, here, in scenes where emotions run high. Ikeda Takashi is a grown man who understands the hearts of 16-year-old girls. It’s sweet, it’s painful, and that’s all great. Not why it made me fall in love with yuri, though.

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Here. I think this explains it.

I’m a romantic and always have been. I like reading and writing love stories and thinking about love. I fantasize about it and am warmed when fiction explores it. What particularly interests me is difficult love. I like love that is a struggle, so long as it’s not contrived. In that vein of thinking, I like strange love: love that isn’t standard. A non-standard love comes pre-equipped with challenges, which feeds into my first interest by starting from a difficult place. If a love is fulfilled in spite of the hurdles and pain that get in the way, is that not a wonderful and powerful love? Is that not a ~pure love~?

What Sasameki Koto made me realize was that yuri fulfilled my ideals on a basic level. With any yuri story, the love is between two girls, and biologically-speaking that’s not normal. So, there’s already one hurdle of operating beyond the basic instinct of opposite sex attraction. Plus, because of Japan’s cultural views and really most cultural views from the world at large, the love between girls is going to be looked down upon. From all I’ve seen, the majority of Japanese see homosexuality as either hilarious or just a teenage phase — either way, a joke. Thus, if two girls still remain together in the face of this ridicule, it must be true love. Look to the page above: Kazama is fantasizing about a situation where her new love can be realized, but she’s doing so with a hurt expression. That really sums it up. No matter what, it’s going to be tough actually falling in love and being loved in return for homosexuals in this society. It’s not likely: it’s fantasy. Sasameki Koto deals with these troubles on top of the basic “unrequited love” premise, meaning it hurts a lot sometimes, but eventually a love between Sumika and Kazama will bloom. And when it does, it will be hard-earned and real.

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Oh, and I’m not gay myself so that’s why I find it difficult to be interested in boys’ love.

So that’s that. Sasameki Koto unlocked my yuri limiter and opened my eyes to the beauty of girl/girl relationships that I’d always been somewhat interested in, but never enough to actively seek it out. In terms of romance, Sasameki Koto is nice. Sumika and Kazama are really great friends, and we see that, so their good relationship is believable. The two of them develop character individually at times rather than always growing together, making them not seem overly dependent on one another. Kazama’s troubles from being an open lesbian and not having much in the way of hobbies or interests define her character arc, and Sumika’s troubles with loving Kazama but being unable to accept her “uncute” self as a result define hers. Since Sumika is the protagonist, we mostly focus on her (and how she’s a karateka who’s reluctant to return to the sport), but Kazama takes a sort of “main character” role as well sometimes which is interesting. We also thankfully get to see how the two became best friends and how Sumika fell in love with Kazama, which I am very happy with. It probably would have been fine just accepting that they were already friends with the start of the series, but getting to see their relationship grow in a flashback arc was lovely.

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“Negative energy”, huh?

Yeah, let’s talk about that “negative energy”.

A major criticism I have no problem lodging against this series is how it’s 9 volumes long and it could really have finished within 7 — maybe 8 if you’re being generous. Indeed, I believe this series is overlong by two whole volumes’ worth of content and a big reason for that is the negative energy of Sumika and Kazama. It is so, so, frustrating. Like, “spoilers”, Sumika and Kazama get together by the end of this series. That shouldn’t come as any surprise because this is a romance with no real harem or love triangle elements — this ain’t no “will they/won’t they”, but “when they”. Oh, it’s damn nice when the confession happens. It’s great! But what surrounds it? Nrgh. Because of some…some nonsense their love takes longer to come to fruition than it ought to. At times, they just act annoying. Whether or not it’s believable is one thing, but it’s definitely aggravating. Plus, at least one roadblock to their progress comes up and almost gets in the way that I feel I could call a contrivance, because it almost comes out of nowhere.

Pacing and story structure almost fall apart in the last stretch of the manga, and I do not like it very much! Thankfully, Hachi is around to make things go smoother and clear some things up, but she can only accomplish so much. The story feels muddled all of a sudden and unclear. When it ends, it’s nice, but by the end I wasn’t completely satisfied with the journey. If a story doesn’t end very well, that can sour your impression of the entire thing because it’s the last thing you come away with. Thus, I’ve noticed Sasameki Koto doesn’t have a spotless, remarkable reputation on the boards where I discuss manga, but I think most would agree that on the whole it’s fine. Most of it is a good series and even in the mire of the final volumes it’s got some of the best scenes in the whole manga. The series took a while to finish (it was bimonthly while being serialized) so that certainly contributed to any negative opinions, also. I’ve read this series thrice: once while it was running/being translated, again last year just to read it all at once, and this third time for review. When I first read it, I remember coming away from it in a foul mood over much of what had transpired. On my second read, I reconsidered strongly. This series is much better when you have it all before you. After my third read…well, my opinions are in the form of this review, are they not?

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I would recommend reading Sasameki Koto. Even though there’s “bad”, “good” is what you’ll mostly find in this manga. The art is cute and goes into simple style often for comedic effect, and like I said before Ikeda-sensei has a good grasp on portraying emotion through his drawings and through the manga medium itself. Although I think the series could have ended sooner than it did, it doesn’t actually feel like a long series. Sasameki Koto reads fast and is rarely dull, so that’s nice. Note: that means a hell of a lot coming from me, as I am a very slow reader. Anyways, I may not hold Sasameki Koto in the highest esteem, but I do recognize its special place in my life. I shall bow to it respectfully, like a pompous douchebag.

You may import Sasameki Koto from Bookwalker (guide), honto (guide), or ebookjapan. It is also available in English from a publisher I have never heard of before in three big, fat volumes as Whispered Words. I know nothing about this company or this translation, so do as you like! For now, toodles, and have a good weekend. Thank you very much for reading.

7 thoughts on “Sasameki Koto

  1. Syaz says:

    I remember reading it a few years ago,never finished it. Can’t remember why I dropped it , maybe I exchange it for Ano Hana instead. That was great.

    • There could’ve been a lot of reasons in this manga’s case. That said, I *liked* Aoi Hana until I hated it, and pretty much everything else the author has made since.

      Unless you really mean Ano Hana, the anime about the ghost girl, but since we’re talking yuri I just assumed you meant Aoi Hana.

  2. dragonchild says:

    I think there’s an irony at work when Sasameki Koto is viewed strictly through the lens of a yuri story. I will concede that Ikeda made quite a few costly errors. Some characters were disasters and ditched early. The “early days” chapters are shoved right in the middle to the point that they come off as a distraction. The duration from the reveal to the confession is senselessly interminable. I agree with some of the harsher criticisms about the last volume.

    But let’s take a step back and remember that this was initially published in a serial mangazine, with fan anticipation driving the readership. Yuri stories have beats — the unrequited love, the angst, the reveal/confession, the kiss — and whatever expectations are set for what’s served last, when the fans get it, it’s basically curtains. That in mind, I feel that much of its problems stem from pressure to conform to the expectations of editors and *serial* readers.

    Sure, that’s speculation. My point is that while this story has its lumps, Ikeda didn’t make a mistake in having a LOT going on outside the main yuri beats, per se. To fans who are only interested in seeing unrealipstick lesbians lust after each other, most of it is probably annoying. I invite them to take a closer look. If you read the chapters in *chronological* order, i.e. the meat of the 4th volume first, this is as much a story about *insecurity and acceptance*. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but if you’ve ever been ostracized, Ikeda’s portrayals (particularly the waves of gossip) feel painfully real. As a DIRECT result of that, almost everyone in the core cast (Tomoe being the notable exception) starts with self-esteem and/or social issues. Sumika hates that she’s tall & plain, Ushio is terrified of rejection, Lotte hates that she’s short and cute, Mayu’s forthrightness makes her toxic, Koi’s mother is a “frequent flyer”. Sumika starts out alone (again, chronologically), then her friendship with Ushio gets them a couple more friends, Kyo joins somewhen along the way, Tomoe recruits them, that leads to meeting Aoi. Meanwhile, the gossip waves continually evolve. This gradual snowballing of acceptance culminating with the “best couple” competition isn’t a side item; it’s one of the biggest triumphs of the story! Sure, it’s a yuri romance. But it’s also a story about social outcasts finding one another, being there for one another, trying desperately to preserve what they have while fighting for acceptance, yet I haven’t seen a single review anywhere mention ANY of that!

    Hence the irony. Yuri fans are complaining about a clunky story, and those complaints are legit. But I think if more fans bothered to notice what else it offered, then maybe Ikeda would’ve had the confidence (or editorial support?) to write a better, or at least better-arranged story. A few simple ideas:
    – Move the “early days” chapters to the beginning.
    – End the sixth volume with a real kiss. At this point, Sumika’s & Ushio’s arcs are essentially done.
    – Make the last three volumes about Mayu. Sumika and Ushio at this point become secondary characters in a steady, nothing-left-to-say relationship, guiding their kohai through their own storms of confusion.
    However, again, doing this would’ve messed with the established “yuri” beats and (based on what’s been said about this series) possibly resulted in an editor’s rejection, and there never would’ve been a published work to complain about.

    It’s a flawed story. But when I see what Ikeda tried to accomplish with it, I’m willing to forgive it. Unlike most yuri stories, this one took courage to write. I won’t defend many of the mistakes, but I will defend it for that.

    • Well thought-out and overall great comment. I see what you’re saying but I think your suggestions for improvement lead to why people haven’t “noticed” this. Going off memory rather than rereading my review here, but I’m pretty sure even if I didn’t mention it I certainly noticed those themes. The problem is that the manga is very scattershot, indeed possibly due to the serialized format. It doesn’t focus, it does forget, and the pacing is very wonky. Basically if it really wanted to evoke those themes better, it should have focused on them better. My recollection is more that it focused most heavily on the main romance (slow and delayed as it was) with occasional and rather short forays into side stories that rarely got a lot of development. I seem to recall another girl with glasses having a lot of development, although the issue I had with her was simply really disliking everything about her. That won’t help for an engaging story.
      It’s still definitely worth something and probably worth a read. Ikeda didn’t have a lot of experience at the time of writing this story, if I recall correctly (and checking, yes: supposedly it was his first very long serialization), so missteps or mishandling should probably have been expected.

      • dragonchild says:

        By “better” I hope you mean execution as opposed to dosage, because while I agree 100% about the pacing, I’m not sure how much more he could’ve focused on the “society” part when not only is it evident in early chapters, and prominent in the “early days” chapters, near the end it threatened to drown what remained of the romance! In particular, one of the later plots that I presume really got on everyone’s nerves was the student council election and subsequent fallout. For the romance, it was an annoying waste of time. And I will concede that it was handled badly. I’m just saying it *wasn’t* an accidental loss of focus. He put way too much work into it for that to be plausible. This was ENTIRELY about the “society” part; the romance was deliberately put on hold to focus on it. While it could’ve been done better (fine, *much* better), I can’t call it scattershot when it consumed almost a full volume and a half.

        There are extended lengths of time when “society” vanishes from the story to focus on the core cast; I think this was fine because that’s when a lot was going on with said cast. Ushio’s spiral of self-destruction comes to mind. Laser focus on that, at the time, was the right call. I think that caused most *readers* to forget that something else was going on, because that’s what *they* focused on. . . because for a while, OK, that’s all there was. So Ikeda’s at least partly to blame, here, sure. But a volume and a half, plus the “early days” chapters, plus all the other times it popped up, wasn’t enough for fans to consistently notice this was (also) a story about social acceptance? That’s more or less a quarter of the entire series!

        “Better” in general, though, yeah. I thought the first half blended the two elements very well, but starting midway he more or less handled them sequentially, and the story suffered greatly for it.

  3. dragonchild says:

    OK, one last comment and I’ll be out of your hair. TBH I went back and re-read parts of the manga to see if I’d missed something. Anyway, that got me back into the much-derided 9th volume. I was wrong, but not the way I thought. I *underestimated* the “social acceptance” theme. It basically includes the entire last volume where he finally re-merges the two stories.

    He’s blessing the couple.

    It’s quite apparent in a few sequences, so I doubt it was missed entirely. Anyone in any country who’s been through a wedding knows they go a lot smoother if the parents are on board. But homosexuals in Japan can’t get married, and Ushio’s parents are dead. Most (light) romances are satisfied with the couple affirming their love for one another, anyway. So why bother? Isn’t this a huge waste of time?

    To answer that, we need to re-visit the last volume from the perspective of an old Japanese conservative. The first response to anything taboo is, “If I don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exist.” If pressed they’ll congratulate themselves for saying it’s “no big deal” and basically just not take the person seriously. But marriage? You gotta be kidding, says UCJ (“unnamed conservative Japanese”). Grow up. The career prospects of the groom (Sumika in this case) are of immense importance, and homosexuality is proof of indiscretion. They’ve had their fun, but reality is going to catch up to them in a hard way.

    Fine, Ikeda says. To prove this relationship isn’t merely a fling of passion, we’re gonna set UCJ’s damn checklist on fire.

    Ikeda heads off the initial denial phase with Ushio becoming Class President. She’s gone from outcast to literally the most powerful student in the school. She didn’t get there by popular vote, but she’s impossible to ignore. She’s talk of the whole school.
    Then we explore Sumika’s career future. This bit has some of the biggest pacing issues, but the end result is she’s going to a top-tier medical school, fast-tracking a lucrative career. The question of financial security is settled emphatically.
    Meanwhile, Ushio decisively ends Tomoe’s hijinks. The relationship is officially running on its own power.
    Then there’s Sumika’s birthday bash, when she confronts her father (who’d VERY conspicuously picked a proper suitor, attn: UCJ). He’s not happy, but he relents without much resistance. Murasame family, check.
    Then we’re off to visit Ushio’s grandmother. At the family grave, she assures Ushio that her parents would’ve accepted Sumika. So now they’re blessed by Ushio’s family.
    Aoi abruptly reappears to turn the story into a “There and Back Again by Bilbo Baggins” thing. I initially thought this was a cheap gesture, and maybe it is, but FWIW this brings the fans into the story. Presuming you read this far, you’re pulling for them, so the couple is vicariously blessed by the fans. At this point Ikeda’s piling on.
    They win “best couple” at the cultural festival, making them blessed by the student body.
    Of course the last person to bless them is Kyo-chan, who does so in style.
    But then even after the kiss finale, we’ve got a few pages left. Ushio’s brother and his bride allow the couple to ring their wedding bell. Someday, their union will be blessed by God.

    With all this going on, I’ll reiterate that I’m convinced Ikeda thought he was done with the serious romance parts by the end of vol. 6, making the last few beats (confessing, kissing, etc.) more ritualistic than meaningful. I personally *disagree* with that decision; I think he left a lot unsaid. But read this way, the last three volumes make a lot more sense, with the kiss in fact the LEAST important scene. It was just saved for the end for business reasons.

    I *won’t* say he did it *well*. He got badly sidetracked by Mayu (who really should’ve just gotten her own side story), and focusing on the social story for so long made it look like Ushio was toying with Sumika for months. He also has a bad habit of chewing scenery and then advancing the plot in easy-to-miss bursts of casual dialogue. I wonder if he had a choice about saving the kiss because it really made the physical side of the relationship stunted to the point of backwards while Sumika ran around wrapping up all the UCJ stuff. All that said, the last volume was in fact the *least* scattershot. I think I finally figured out his real message: This started out as a wacky romantic comedy, grew into a struggle against social trauma, then ended with a sincere (if clunky) message of hope for real gay teens in Japan.

    Thanks for your time.

    DC

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