Sixteen pages usually isn’t enough to cover a topic in any grandiose sense, so I’m not sure why I built up the expectations that I did. Maybe it was the summary, which said that Akihito Yoshitomi’s Secret Stream would try to tackle internalized homophobia? No. That was definitely it. After reading the sixteen pages, though, I’m not sure if the summary was holding onto the same hopes that I had when starting, or if Yoshitomi thought that he was truly saying something meaningful, without realizing that they weren’t really saying anything of import in the end.
Secret Stream is an incredibly simple story. One day after school, Tomoko invites her friend Risa to visit a stream with her, a stream that seems to be untouched by any others’ footprints. In other words, secret. Risa doesn’t understand the point in going there, but starts to get an idea when Tomoko starts saying that dipping their feet in the river feels as though they’re “washing away all the nasty stuff” from their hearts. It’s shown that prior to this Risa dreamed about sharing a kiss with Tomoko and because of that she realized her feelings for Tomoko, but also started avoiding her because, let’s face it, having romantic dreams about your friend is awkward enough without the societal repercussions of coming out. Especially when your friend-crush is talking about cleansing impurities. Needless to say, when Tomoko asserts that Risa needs to come clean about something, Risa starts going through an internal crisis.
Feeling that she indeed has a tainted heart, Risa plunges herself into the river hoping to cleanse the impurities and go back to thinking of Tomoko as just a friend. Tomoko follows suit, but it just so happens that Tomoko can’t swim (despite the water being shallow enough that you could probably stand up in it, but I digress). Somehow, after ‘rescuing’ her friend, Risa ends up kneeling over Tomoko in typical “we’re about to kiss” fashion. But before Risa can return to her own monologuing, Tomoko asks for her forgiveness.
It turns out that Risa’s dream was actually reality. While Risa was out sick from school one day, Tomoko came to visit and ended up kissing her. For months, Tomoko had believed she tainted her friend with her feelings. She wanted only to cleanse Risa from the impurities she herself had put there while washing out her own “dirty heart”. Of course, neither of them are cleansed of their love for each other. Rather, this trip to the river cleansed their self-loathing.
It’s folly to expect that every manga ever to be about something highly meaningful: you can have stupidity for the sheer sake of entertainment, as well as fluff and just about any other aspect you could think of. But it feels like Yoshitomi had so much more planned and that the characters could have been so much more developed in these personal struggles than they were. And I’ll be honest, I feel a little bit cheated. Yes, I wanted Tomoko and Risa to end up together and be in a happy relationship, but to end the story with “we realized our feelings for each other and everything is perfect” seems cheap. It completely invalidates the internal struggles of both of the characters.
If both of the characters are at the point where they both think they’re disgusting for having the feelings they do and actively hope that the river will, in fact, cleanse them, it’s going to take more than a kiss to overcome their issues. It should take more than a kiss to overcome their issues. Though certainly less insulting than the healing dick trope, it still feels a little bit insulting for the problem to be solved that easily.
Sixteen pages may not have been enough to adequately cover the true driving force behind this story, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have been written. I just wish that Yoshitomi had more space to expand on this issue. It’s an issue that needs to be explored, and I think it would be explored well in his understated style. At the very least, after Secret Stream, I’m more inclined to look at his library of works and see if he has written anything longer. For you, dear reader, I would recommend this, but only if you’re willing to put up with feelings of dissatisfaction afterwards.