Ushio Kazama is girl-crazy and everybody knows it. She has a different crush every week, and they all have three things in common: they are feminine, demure, and cute. In other words, they are the complete opposite of her best friend Sumika Murasame, who is athletic, serious, and taller than everyone in her grade. Unfortunately, Sumika is hopelessly in love with Ushio. A former karate master, Sumika “Violence” Murasame desperately tries to balance her need to stay true to herself with her longing to become a girl Ushio will love.
The manga follows a typical slice-of-life formula that revolves around Sumika’s attempts to remain friends with Ushio while agonizing over her unrequited feelings. However, the genuinely likable characters elevate the story above standard teen romance fare. Sumika and Ushio are engaging and act like real teens thrown into difficult situations. There are hints that Ushio was bullied at her previous school because of her sexuality, and girls at their current school often question whether Ushio is a “pervert.” Ushio and Sumika also meet a couple who are surprised and delighted to find other lesbians at their school, driving home their separation from the other students. Sumika’s self-doubt and attempts to change to fit Ushio’s type are also heartrendingly realistic, and by the end of the volume, I related to the characters so intimately that I felt personally invested in the outcome of their story. The characters’ feelings of “otherness” make the series widely accessible to all teens who have been bullied or singled out. However, light fanservice makes this series best suited to teens age 13 and up.
The publisher’s summary for the volume focuses on a love triangle between Sumika, Ushio, and Masaki, a cross-dressing boy from their class, but that description is misleading. Masaki’s story is initially promising: he became famous after his sister dressed him up and submitted his photos to a modeling agency, and he is still coming to terms with the fact that he enjoys cross-dressing. Masaki defies the common misconception that all cross-dressing men are gay or transgender: he carries a torch for Sumika, and at one point, he tells his sister that he doesn’t wish he was born a girl. Unfortunately, I found myself cringing during Masaki’s eventual “date” with Sumika because his cross-dressing is treated as comic relief. Far from the major character the summary implied, Masaki shows up rarely in the rest of the volume—and then, again, only to provide comic relief. While it is not an obligation for every author to educate readers and defy stereotypes, this treatment of cross-dressing may alienate some readers.
Ikeda’s art is simple yet masterful with frequent forays into chibi style: cute, small characters with enormous eyes that emphasize extremes of emotion. The art’s simplicity is clearly purposeful—it highlights the characters’ facial expressions and draws the reader’s focus to each character’s emotional reaction. He draws each girl with a distinctly different body type, a refreshing element that is often neglected in manga. However, the editing includes several spelling mistakes and characters’ names are spelled inconsistently.
Despite its faults, Whispered Words is a delightful story with charming and—above all—realistic characters. Romance fans will root for Sumika to win Ushio’s heart and, after a tense cliffhanger, they will be clamoring for the second volume. For readers craving more light shoujo-ai about school life, try Strawberry Panic! by Sakurako Kimino and Namuchi Takumi (recommended for teens ages 13 and up).
Whispered Words, vol. 1
by Takashi Ikeda
One Peace Books, 2014