This manga is about two best friends: Sumika Murasame and Ushio Kazama. Ushio has a seemingly endless series of crushes on other girls—specifically, on cute girls. She's oblivious to the fact that her athletic, sarcastic and distinctly *un*cute friend Sumika is in love with her. When a couple of girls in their class realize their feelings and form a club just for girls who like girls, things to seem like they're beginning to improve...
Sasameki Koto is an excellent love story between two beautiful female characters. It is also a Slice of Life story that, at its worst, falls below the mediocre. These two pieces' inability to mesh impairs the overall work but it is ultimately saved by some of the most gorgeous manga pages in either genre and garners a must read status.
Sasameki Koto, or Whispered Words, follows the love journey between high school classmates and best friends Ushio Kazama (henceforth, 'Ushio') and Sumika Murasame (henceforth, 'Sumi'). The plot is conceptually simple. Sumi has a crush on Ushio and Ushio not only likes girls, she's "out of the
closet". It seems like things should be simple until you remember that there's more to falling in love than sexual orientation. Ushio, as it turns out, is into cute girls and uncute Sumi is all too aware of this.
Sumi is a character I think most readers will instantly be able to root for. She is a hard worker who gives her best at everything she is good at and manages to top her peers at each of those things. It just happens that the things she's good at are not very girly things, an area that is a rare weak point for her. This gives her an unapproachable vibe to many of her classmates. In Ushio's eyes, on the other hand, Sumi's strengths make her the coolest. Cool, however, is not cute. This is a fact that Sumi is inadvertently reminded of constantly by Ushio, who is oblivious to Sumi's true feelings. Knowing she has no shot with Ushio and not wanting to ruin their friendship needlessly by coming out to her, Sumi chooses to allow her feelings to only brew inside herself.
Ushio is simply a girl-crazy-girl who can't find a cute girl to go out with her. At least, that's how she starts out. One great thing about the story is that the true appeal of Ushio is not immediately known to the reader. On the surface, she is very cute and popular amongst the boys at school (yes, she's ample). She's small and fragile and described as the kind of girl you want to hold and protect, yet it seems she's only interested in finding a cuter, smaller and more fragile girl to protect for herself. In the early chapters, you may find her ways to be off putting but her development as a character is a crux of the overall story. Ushio is no brain dead beauty, coasting through a life of privilege without a hint of hardship. Learning of her upbringing, seeing her overcome her adversities and watching her mature as she strives to become something beyond her own-self should win the hearts of the reader just as much as they have won Sumi's.
Looking at the first chapter in comparison to the rest can be a bit jarring. Sasameki Koto was originally conceived as a One-Shot but ended up evolving into a 53 chapter story. The tone of the first chapter is a very somber one, following the thoughts of Sumi's unrequited love. Ushio, it is shown, has a habit of falling into crushes with cute girls and is quite loud, giddy and youthful about it. These crushes always lead to heart break and it falls on to the shoulders of best friend Sumi to pick up all the pieces. This is torturous to Sumi, knowing she would never break Ushio's heart herself. Sumi tries to protect her friend and to some extent herself, by being harsh about Ushio's crush state antics. This results in Sumi coming off as very cold without all the proper context.
After a dramatic first chapter climax, the second chapter lightens up the mood considerably. Comedic aspects are brought more to the forefront; the series' first couple volumes earns some very genuine laughs, as Ushio's unintentional rejections of Sumi are as cleverly funny as they are brutal. Ground work is also laid for a broader, Slice of Life story that would revolve around the two main characters. By as early as chapter 5, in particular, the first chapter is almost unrecognizable in tone and mood.
The art of this manga is nothing short of stunning, especially after the first chapter. Just as the mood shifts from the first, the art style follows and for the better. Not just very well drawn, Sasameki Koto features a real sense of direction when it comes to its panels. It reminds me of the way a movie director would create a shot. Unique angles are used for dramatic effect. The lighting is always logical and well placed for each scene. One personal favorite recurring setting is that of a class room, after school, as the subsiding sun glimmers through the windows and seemingly hugs the characters with its radiance. Every scene that takes place here is etched into my memory. Sasameki Koto is simply gorgeous.
One thing you might not expect, maybe not even notice at first while reading, is that this manga is actually quite action oriented for the genres that it covers. While there are scenes like those of characters just sitting down for a quiet lunch, there are also many scenes involving intense chasing, frantic crying, emotional meltdowns, tantrums, slapstick humor and even plenty of Karate. The action is drawn every bit as well as the still moments and even shows off the art direction to a better extent. During some of the most memorable scenes, your mind may trick you into thinking you are actually watching an animation.
Where Sasameki Koto falters is when it tries to branch out into its constantly increasing cast. For it to be be a flawless gem, secondary characters would need to be properly developed in a way that brings more dimensions to them while directly involving Sumi and Ushio in a way that subtly pushes the two together. As it is, only a handful of chapters throughout the entire work manages to do this. Instead, most of the time it is more akin to flipping a light switch; sometimes the story is about progressing the main relationship and sometimes it's about nothing of real interest.
There is a very noticeable pattern that plays out mostly the same from beginning to end. New characters are frequently introduced just a few chapters prior to them taking over the story's focus. It is just long enough of a takeover, a chapter give or take, for their personal plots to be halfheartedly resolved; this is whether we have reason to be invested in them or not. Afterwards, only a lucky few of them won't be pushed so far into the background that, when you see them reappear into speaking roles 20 chapters later, you may have to remind yourself who they are. It is not a good sign that the best thing I can say about my fourth favorite character of the story is that they manage to be consistently around without ever receiving a side story or character development.
This recurring pattern is unfortunately paired up with poor pacing of the main story, which will bring most to mild frustration, at the least. It seems the author is very good at creating climatic situations but felt the need to come to an abrupt halt every time things are just getting good. Whether it be to give a new character a day in the lime light after a tense moment of verbal backlash, or to tell several chapters of back story after a huge cliffhanger, this story never develops a proper flow. That's not to say what's there isn't good, it's great, it just that it doesn't flow. The story telling becomes a disservice to the story itself.
Fortunately, even when the story is off on a tangent about something you may not care about, the story's art direction never falters. Its faster paced, action oriented style makes this a much quicker read than its page count would suggest and should help the reader bear through the less interesting parts. This is a different kind of flow than what the kind the story needed but is to its benefit.
I want to stress how much I love Sasameki Koto overall but to ignore its blaring problems would be neglectful towards any potential readers. Unfortunately, I think describing those problems require more words than in relation to describing its many strengths. Looking at the story at its worst, it's obvious to see how it could have been better. Looking at the story at its best, there might not be anything better. It wouldn't be right to give it a 10 out of 10 but I don't think the fact that it isn't perfect can be held against Sasameki Koto in regards to a recommendation. It is a favorite of mine and I absolutely feel it is a must read for any fan of love stories.
Before delving into a review a primer on certain theories in film and comics is needed.
The two main components of cinema is montage and mise-en-scene. The former is about how the placement of shots are edited together while the latter is about how the shot is composed in the first place (atmosphere, props, gesture of characters etc...). Certain film theorists have stances as to whether a montage heavy approach (e.g. the fast moving shots of Fight Club and Trainspotting) or an atmospheric approach (e.g. the deep focus shots of Citizen Kane or The Trial) is better. French New Wave theorist Bazin sides with the
mise-en-scene as he perceives that montage is a form of illusion meant to fool the audience into believing what is not there.
Scott McCloud is a comic book theorist who came up with the book Understanding Comics; it's a really edifying book on the components that make up comic books and how to analyse the methods used in creating them. He first establishes how comics are less a representative medium like art but actually a pictoral language, having more symbolic value than representative value. Two things he talks about are negative space, the area between one panel and another panel, as well as the types of panel placements that exists. As an explanation for what the types of Panel Transitions are I will just link this: http://www.mangatutorials.com/tut/paneltrans.php .
Looking up information of the net, there isn't much on Takashi Ikeda. He's a doujinshi artist who expanded his own one shot into a 50+ chapter long Shoujo-ai drama piece. The amount of things you can find out about him as an individual is sparse without Japanese channels. All that you can derive about his nature is incidental, only seen through the language of his art. He is a formalist, an artist who immensely enjoys his own craft, who loves to play around with structure; his work has the sense of the young artist eagerly seeking new techniques and experimenting with different forms and methods of conveying his story. This aspect breathes new life in the pretty cliche girls love genre.
If we analyse Sasameki Koto from a film theory perspective it uses more montage methods than atmospheric methods (though I'm not saying the work is devoid of atmosphere but rather the atmosphere is more conveyed through panel placement than the drawings themselves). Inio Asano is a creator who relies more on mise-en-scene techniques; she makes use of really beautiful realistic art and a fantastical expressionist tinge to give her work power.
The first thing to take note is the 'clutter effect' and how its used as a method to convey dramatic momentum. In scenes of comedy Ikeda will clutter his pages with jokes, deformed characters and dialogue, sometimes filling in the negative space between the panels with miniature figures. On the flipside his dramatic scenes are spaced in the conventional comic form and also makes use of aspect-aspect placements to create atmosphere. In extremely dramatic moments he builds up the panels to deliver a single page climatic shot (this isn't really a new technique [Oyasumi Punpun has its own double page climatic shots] but what makes Ikeda's explosive shots powerful is his ability to build them up). This manipulation between cluttered comical pages with sparse dramatic pages perfectly illustrates the main theme about the distance between the two characters; the comedic pages distracting the audience from the horror vacui of Sumika's unspoken words and feelings.
Ikeda also manipulates panel transitions with adequate artistic dexterity (though not as brilliantly as the true formalistic masters like Chris Ware of course). A prominent example to take note (that stuck in my head even after I completed the manga) was when Scene-Scene transition was manipulated interspersing two different simultaneously occurring scenes; one of a calm setting; the other of a violent occurrence fading in; both combining to build up to a shot of catharsis and emotional turmoil.
Sasameki Koto is a simple work of technical ingenuity. Though not having the playful formalist romps of Shintaro Kago, the stylistic manipulations and tight plotting of Tezuka or the romantic metaphorical symbolic details of Craig Thompson; Ikeda's entertaining and dramatic labour of love manages to surpass the standard romance works out there.