Yesterday, I finished a book by Taeko Watanabe called Ame ni Niteiru, which translates to something like, “Like the Rain.” The book consists of two stories, the title story and “Boku no Mune mo Atsukunaru,” or something like “My Heart Warms As Well.” However, they both cover similar themes and, in my opinion, the former is by far the stronger story, so I wanted to talk specifically about that one today.
If you recognized the name Taeko Watanabe, it’s because her long-running shojo period drama Kaze Hikaru is being released (slowly) in English. I’m a fan of that series, so when I saw this older book from her in the Book-off for a buck, I snatched it up.
The story “Ame ni Niteiru” is a gentle and tragic boys’ love story about a soccer player named Tomo with no motivation to improve, and the mysterious, waifish new transfer student, Yuu. It’s beautifully drawn and written. I was happy to have the opportunity to see Watanabe experimenting with more complex and aesthetic panel layouts than she typically uses in Kaze Hikaru. Even back in 1999, she drew with such a confident hand. There are a handful of layouts here that simply took my breath away with their poetic beauty and often, their deceptive simplicity.
The writing is just as strong, with the interspersing of poetic turns of phrase lending a wistful quality to the work. It reminded me of the transience so often conveyed in Japanese poetry, and which is a big thematic element here as well. The imagery of rain evaporating off someone’s shoulder is a strong one, and permeates the story through both repeated phrasing and repeated imagery. A couple different themes are set up here, the inherent value of living, the transience of human life, and the importance of pushing yourself to improve being a few big ones. All are carried well throughout the story, intertwined skillfully with the central romance, and paid off satisfactorily in the end. It’s a confident story told by a confident creator.
So in the end, I enjoyed the story a lot. There was a lot to like in it. So why haven’t I told you what it’s about yet? Well…That’s the problem. This isn’t just a gentle little boys’ love romance. More specifically, it’s a romance between a healthy boy and a boy with a terminal illness. And that’s where the story suffers, both by treating a character’s illness as inspiration for the protagonist, and by relying on tired old tropes of homosexual relationships as inherently transient.
Although I do struggle with mental illness, I don’t have personal experience with disability or life-threatening illness. As such, please take my opinions here with a grain of salt. If you have a different perspective as someone with such an illness, please feel free to tell me off in the comments. I feel somewhat more confident in tackling the gender-flipped Class S dynamic of the queer romance here, but again, I’m not a gay man.
Alright, disclaimers over. Let’s talk about why this story is P R O B L E M A T I C (ugh).
The main character Tomo is in a rut. He’s the ace of his school’s soccer team, but that’s not saying much, because his school’s soccer team sucks. He seems determined not to take it seriously, instead languishing in the knowledge that, at least at this school, he can be the best without even trying. His childhood friend and coach beg him to get a grip and aim for a university famous for soccer, but he’s loathe to think about the future.
Then he meets Yuu, whose barbed words immediately get to the heart of his insecurities. He can’t help but hate him…But he also can’t help but be fascinated by his ethereal beauty. “Don’t you think that ‘beautiful’ is a word that exists for him?” his friend asks. (I’m not even going to get into the romanticization of Yuu’s emaciated body or pale skin. Hoo boy.)
The two boys grow closer and closer as Tomo learns that Yuu likes to watch the sun set near the hospital by the sea, and Yuu starts coming to watch Tomo’s soccer practice. And of course, eventually Tomo learns that Yuu has a weak heart, and is going to die. A mistake Tomo made in English at the beginning of the story comes back to haunt him, as Yuu says, “When you said that, ‘it’s like the rain,’ I thought faintly that, yeah, it really is. My life, that is.” There’s some poetic turns of phrase and pretty images of rain falling, and in the end, after Tomo takes Yuu to see the dawn for once after watching so many sunsets, Yuu passes away. Right before his passing, Yuu says to his mother, “Keep me updated. Tell me where he chooses to go.” Just to make absolutely sure we understand that he died not for himself, but so Tomo could figure out his bullshit.
I don’t think it’s all bad to depict a character finding meaning through helping another person find theirs, but I do think that in the context of life-threatening disability, that idea gets a lot hairier, especially because people with disabilities are so often forced into the role of inspiration for able-bodied people. Ultimately, although there are some nice allusions to Yuu finding meaning in his life as well, the focus is mainly on Tomo deciding not to throw his future away by being merely complacent. Yuu isn’t given enough agency of his own, being characterized solely through his bitterness over his sordid fate. And when he finally says, “I’m glad I was born,” he means it solely in the context of being able to inspire Tomo to be a better person.
Then, of course, to add another layer of thorns, this is a boys’ love story. Boys’ love has a long and unfortunate history—adapted from older Class S yuri stories—of depicting homosexual relationships to be inherently temporary, a symbol of the brief and transient beauty of youth. Both yuri and BL stories, especially in the 20th century, have a tendency to assume that the central relationship must necessarily come to an end before graduation. This is true from the first BL manga, as “The Heart of Thomas” begins with the death of one member of its central pair. This is also why I find it so refreshing that more and more BL and yuri titles these days focus on adult characters, with no looming graduation around to spoil their wonderful gay joy.
Along those lines, I did appreciate the acknowledgment at the end of this story that the two boys’ relationship was unequivocally romantic in nature. It’s a small scene, but so often, these kinds of stories dance around the queer elements of their stories, remaining carefully within the realm of plausible deniability. But here, the nature of the boys’ romance is clarified by the story’s heroine. It’s a small but refreshing addition that should be so much more common than it is.
This story was published in 1999, and unfortunately, despite being poignant and beautifully told in many ways, from the very get-go it shows its age. More modern stories like I Hear the Sunspot and A Silent Voice, while still far from perfect, do a lot more to tell realistic and humanizing stories about characters with disabilities than this one. It’s interesting as a relic, and as a different kind of work by the talented creator of Kaze Hikaru, but little else. I gave this story 3 out of 5 stars.