Thankfully, there was a lot more LGTBQ-related manga that came out this year to counter missteps like the previous review, including today's subject. Who could have guessed that the best BL book to come out in English this year wasn't from a specialized imprint, but from an oddball publisher like One Peace Books?
I HEAR THE SUNSPOT (Hidamari Ga Kikoeru), by Yuki Fumino. First published in 2014 and first published in North America in 2017.
Taichi is a cheerful, outspoken college kid who is driven more by his hunger than anything else. That hunger ends up leading him to Kohei, whose hearing loss has led him to withdraw from most of his peers. Taichi accepts his offer to take his notes in exchange for food, and the two become friends. That friendship is put to the test when Kohei's condition gets worse and Taichi begins to understand his true feelings.
Deafness seems to be something of a topic du jour in manga thanks to the runaway success of A Silent Voice. Most mangaka who bother to deal with it are simply content to add a deaf character for the sake of flavor or to show a character winning over a deaf person by learning sign language. I Hear The Sunspot goes the extra mile, though, by actually exploring how Kohei's disability affects not only his own self-image, but how others perceive and interact with him.
For most of the manga, it's easy to forget that this is technically BL. Even Fumino did, as her author notes mention how her editor had to remind her that this was meant for a BL magazine and needed some sort of man-on-man action. She's far more concerned with exploring who Taichi and Kohei are than forcing them to act out the same old seme-uke roles or stuffing her pages with smut. This ends up working greatly in this work's favor, though, since that freedom from formula allows these two to be fleshed out full before bringing them together.
As heartwarming as the friendship-turned-romance between Taichi and Kohei is, the real heart of the story is Kohei's backstory and how it informed the person he became. Kohei has only partial hearing loss thanks to a high fever in high school, and from that point on Kohei finds himself in a strange, liminal space. He doesn't want to be sequestered away from the world as a disabled person, but he's frustrated by others treating him as an object of pity, scorn, or as a pet project, which ironically just leads to him sequestering himself from others on a literal and emotional level.
Fumino treats his story with the gravity and sincerity it deserves, which makes it all the more satisfying when Taichi's brand of blunt honesty and cheerful empathy wears down the barriers Kohei has built around himself. It also allows Fumino to justify a second-act separation that feels a lot more justified than what we usually see in any romance, much less BL. Having read this, it's easy to see why Fumino could forget about BL fanservice: she didn't need it when the core of her story was so strong to begin with.
I also like how ordinary Fumino's world looks. Her art style is delicate and scratchy with backgrounds that seem to gently fade into the dappled screentones of shadows. Her characters are refreshingly humdrum-looking; no one would mistake Taichi and Kohei for the usual gaunt sort of bishonen you find in these sorts of manga. She also has a very unpretentious composition style, with things only getting particularly impressionistic when Kohei starts reflecting upon himself. Overall, it's a style that matches the story beautifully, as its simplicity and delicacy keep the focus on our leads and the emotions between them.
I Hear The Sunspot works as both a down-to-earth romance and a heartfelt exploration of disability. It's hard to believe that this was Fumino's debut work, but if this is what she's capable of now, then I can't wait to see what she'll deliver in the future, starting with this book's two upcoming sequels.
This book is published by One Peace Books. It is currently in print.
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