Content Warning: Discussion of ableism.
As a long-time reader of manga, I always found the medium to be a means of escape to fantastical worlds. Yet, there remained a disconnect between me and the stories I was reading. Discovering I Hear the Sunspot filled that absence with its portrayal of the specific reality of being both gay and Deaf.
The series follows Sugihara Kohei, a college student with deteriorating hearing, and Sagawa Taichi, a sociable peer seeking income and consistent meals. As Kohei and Taichi’s relationship develops after Taichi agrees to take notes for Kohei in exchange for meals, a narrative of identity exploration in a society that denies one’s legitimacy unfolds.
I Hear the Sunspot does not shy away from Kohei and Taich’s budding romance nor does it ignore the painful experiences of seeking connection in a hearing world that does not understand or accommodate Deaf individuals.
Portraying LGBTQ+ characters in manga is sometimes a tightrope walk over pitfalls such as over-sexualization, relegating characters to token minority status, and ignoring the LGBTQ+ facet of their existence entirely. Author Yuki Fumino avoids perpetrating such misrepresentation in I Hear the Sunspot through her depictions of Kohei and Taichi. Neither character is an object to be displayed behind other characters or mishandled for sexual fantasy. Instead, their relationship is allowed to progress and face setbacks at a leisurely pace that comes across as relatively realistic.
After Taichi seems to quite literally fall from the sky, Kohei offers his lunch to a clearly-hungry Taichi. Upon learning that Kohei is in need of a notetaker, Taichi offers to fulfill the role in exchange for more lunches. From there, what starts out as something resembling a business exchange slowly evolves into a tentative friendship.
The friendship becomes romance as the two protagonists stumble awkwardly through the discomfort and misunderstandings that come with trying to convey those feelings and renegotiate the boundaries of their relationship.
As their relationship develops, they struggle with keeping their relationship closeted, avoiding discussing their love lives in detail with their family and friends. They quarrel as most couples do, navigating both petty and life-altering matters with a combination of compassion and miscommunication. They experience jealousy alongside the desire for each other’s happiness and company.
Furthermore, I Hear the Sunspot is not consumed by the romance between Kohei and Taichi. Both are presented with other hurdles relating to meals, jobs, college, and family. They spend time with characters other than each other, maintaining relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Kohei and Taichi have traits beyond their sexuality.
This comprehensive depiction of characters is an acknowledgement of the personhood that queer people possess. Not only are the protagonists of I Hear the Sunspot gay men who are not over-sexualized or confined to the background but are also fully developed characters with individual lives.
Bringing Attention to Deaf Issues
Deaf representation is another area of diversity that sometimes falls short. Yet, by making Kohei hard of hearing, Fumino creates a platform for Deaf issues in I Hear the Sunspot.
In order to understand the nuances of depicting Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing issues, it is crucial to understand the distinctions between the three categories. Proper-noun “Deaf” refers to a community of individuals who self-identify with the label of Deaf. The Deaf community has its own culture and utilizes sign language for communication.
Members of the Deaf community tend to not view themselves as disabled, instead viewing their deafness as being a difference in lived experience. Being deaf or hard of hearing simply refers to levels of hearing loss, with deafness meaning one has little to no hearing and hard of hearing extending to lesser degrees of hearing loss. People within the Deaf community may be deaf or hard of hearing, although not all deaf of hard of hearing individuals identify as Deaf.
Kohei’s existence on the border between hearing and Deaf allows the story to explore the conflicts between both worlds. Kohei desperately seeks to function in a hearing world. He attempts to engage with hearing peers, pretending to understand and participate in conversations.
However, the hearing world often excludes him. People pity Kohei but do little to accommodate his way of being. His peers frequently disregard his separation from society, minimizing the importance of acts such as speaking louder or repeating themselves without realizing the isolation that Kohei experiences as a result.
On the other hand, the Deaf world possesses its own independent culture to which Kohei has yet to adjust. He neither knows Japanese sign language nor self-identifies as Deaf, making the community seem inaccessible to him. Because Kohei lacks a means of nonverbal communication and has yet to fully accept his hearing loss, the Deaf community is sometimes just as walled off as the hearing world.
Kohei’s own opposition to anything that might further distance himself from the hearing world is a contributing factor to his inability to enter the Deaf community. He even actively resists offers to join a sign language group during the early parts of I Hear the Sunspot.
Kohei’s attachment to the hearing world and avoidance of the Deaf world eventually puts him in conflict with Chiba Ryuu, a Deaf individual with whom Kohei bonds over soccer. Ryuu presents Kohei with the perspective that the hearing and Deaf worlds should remain completely separate, believing that the conflicts between the two are irreconcilable. Kohei and Ryuu’s friendship forces Kohei to confront the inaccessibility of the hearing world and his willingness to embrace Deaf culture.
Kohei’s status as hard of hearing and the accompanying trials serve to emphasize the extremes of the hearing and Deaf worlds. Through Kohei’s struggle to determine whether it is feasible to exist in the gray space between the two, I Hear the Sunspot is able to give a platform to the adversity faced by those experiencing various forms of hearing loss.
The Value of Intersectional Representation
Including both LGBTQ+ and Deaf experiences in one series is remarkable. It is even more revolutionary that these identities coexist within one of the main characters. Kohei’s journey towards understanding what it means to be gay and Deaf helps to provide insight into the realities of being part of multiple marginalized groups.
It is not only the dominant heteronormative and hearing cultures that forget those who are different from the norm. When marginalized identities intersect–which is known as intersectional invisibility–individuals who possess multiple marginalized identities are likely to wind up forgotten due to assumptions that people will otherwise be normative outside of that community’s identity.
In the case of the identities presented in I Hear the Sunspot, for example, it is more likely that people view being straight and Deaf or gay and hearing as the prototypical forms of existence, leaving those who are gay and Deaf to be forgotten. This also ignores ways that discrimination can look different in various communities (i.e. straight vs. gay ableism).
For individuals at such intersections of identity, it is easy to feel lost. Society at large may not acknowledge or validate such a lived experience. There may also be a lack of the support needed to weather such erasure when an individual’s own communities also forget that they are there. It is crucial to combat such experiences through acknowledgement. If not in the real world, then the media that individuals consume must tell their stories.
An Imperfect But Valuable Voice
Despite the groundbreaking representation of marginalized populations in the series, I Hear the Sunspot is not without its faults. The series occasionally unintentionally mistreats its own subject matter.
Although it is a relief that Kohei and Taichi are allowed to be more than their relationship and identity exploration, there is another form of oppression in the fact that they are denied the opportunity to explicitly own their sexuality. It is a detrimental blunder to never allow characters to label themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or any other form of queer. Although it may be accurate for one to shy away from labels in the early stages of discovering one’s own sexuality, there exists the potential to erase a sensitively constructed character’s identity by not even exploring the power and security labels can offer.
In contrast to this absence of labels for queer characters, the active use of labels to describe hard of hearing and Deaf characters creates similar erasure of some of the subtlties of Deaf culture and deafness. Throughout the series, characters refer to those with any variety of hearing loss as having a disability.
This is not always entirely incorrect, as some deaf or hard of hearing individuals outside of the Deaf community may identify as having a disability and/or seek to participate in disability activism. Kohei himself grapples with where to position himself between disabled or Deaf over the course of I Hear the Sunspot.
However, other characters, such as Ryuu, who clearly express their identification with Deaf culture and rejection of the hearing world, should not be generalized as also being disabled. Referring to culturally Deaf individuals with the word disabled may be received as implying that they are deficient or inferior to hearing people. Without moving past broad applications of such labels, the series is unable to fully explore Deaf culture.
I Hear the Sunspot faces its subject matter, particularly the hardships of hearing loss, unflinchingly. Despite some limitations, the series portrays a believable experience of possessing intersecting identities, constructing a multidimensional reality that many people experience in real life. In doing so, I Hear the Sunspot reflects a potential that exists for future manga to tell the stories of similarly complex characters.