Recently, I’ve seen a few posts on social media that play with the tired horror trope of “came back different.” The main idea is that someone disappears, dies, or can’t be reached in some other way. Everyone is happy when they come back, but it becomes clear over time that something is… off about them. Either they’re not who they say they are or the experience has changed them. Either way, the relief of getting better turns into horror and confusion, playing on the fear that something familiar will turn out to be the “other.” This idea is taken to a new level in The Summer Hikaru Died: what if they came back changed, and you knew what was going on, but you chose to let the fake go on as if nothing had happened? What if having a copy of someone you love is better than not having them at all?
What Yoshiki is going through in the first few pages is exactly that. He finds out that his close friend Hikaru is not really Hikaru. He calls himself a “ghoulie” and says he took on Hikaru’s form after finding him dead in the forest. He has all of his host’s memories and also seems to have become like him. Yoshiki quickly accepts the person who is copying his friend because they look a lot alike. No matter how much Yoshiki treats him like Hikaru, though, other people will still find out there’s a monster among them.
The way the story mixes Yoshiki’s unusual reaction with common horror tropes is very clever. The neighborhood cat, who is usually calm, gets scared and angry when not-Hikaru tries to pet him, and an old woman calls him out for what he is. In taking this creature, is Yoshiki bringing something into the village that will hurt them, either through active evil or just by being there? This is a different kind of psychological horror than usual. The unstable look in Yoshiki’s eyes as he looks at the thing in the body of his old friend shows how he is constantly torn between being scared and calmed by pseudo-Hikaru.
Yoshiki’s troubled feelings were compounded by his feelings for Hikaru and the fact that this thing was willing to answer his questions when the real version seemed to have no idea what to do. Calling The Summer Hikaru Died a boys’ love story doesn’t seem quite right, especially since the romance has been kept to background so far, though it’s almost there. However, Yoshiki is clearly attracted to Hikaru. As an example, Yoshiki’s defensive response every time Hikaru brought up girls is a subtle portrayal. At other times, it’s as clear as a bright sign that says, “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR SEXUAL EXPERIMENTATION.” Because Yoshiki’s feelings are at the heart, he is placed right next to the unuki as a “other,” which makes them similar. This being the source of Yoshiki’s inner conflict instead of the threat from the outside avoids the common problem of queerness being linked to monsters in horror stories, even those that try to be sympathetic. Instead, it strengthens the metaphor at the heart of the story.
As a character, Yoshiki doesn’t add much beyond being a way for the audience to feel quiet fear and for him to fit into the main metaphor. On the other hand, I was interested in the unuki that looked like Hikaru. Hikaru was the more outgoing and active of the two main characters, and the thing that has taken his body and memories has also taken on a lot of his personality. It is outgoing, silly, happy, and fits his name, which means “light.” His being different makes him both scary and easy to attack. For the first time, he really feels things for himself, even though he remembers Hikaru doing these things. This makes him cry when food tastes good or when a drama movie story is told. He wants Yoshiki’s love because he is so lonely.
I feel like I’ve spent most of the review just talking about The Summer Hikaru Died’s story and characters without giving my own opinion. But that’s because I think the story’s worth is clear from what I’ve said. It’s very well done how it breaks the rules of both the horror and BL genres, finding the things that they have in common and using them to make a story where longing, loneliness, and being open to being hurt add to the growing dread. We know right away that something is wrong, which makes us ask, “Can we live with this? How?” instead of questioning reality or the story’s events or being scared by Hikaru’s strange personality.
Mokumokuren, an artist, uses some of the same methods as well-known horror manga artists like Junji Ito, but she also has her own style. The artwork is mostly made with pen and ink, and the coloring is mostly done with cross-hatching. This makes the solid black shadows that pop up every once in a while stand out even more. The art is mostly a game of contrasts: the bright summer sun casts deep shadows; the unuki’s grin as Hikaru and his light, curly hair contrast with Yoshiki’s perpetually tired face, half-covered by his straight, dark bangs; strange events are shown directly, but familiar rooms are distorted by a fish-eye lens; even the onomatopoeia form contrasts by putting blocky English text next to more standard Japanese text. The strange becomes familiar and close through art, while the everyday becomes strange and upsetting. All of that can fall apart in an instant, though, if you get too close. The strangeness of the closeness turns into psychedelic chaos, which shows how scary and random it can be even when you try to accept it.
By no means is The Summer Hikaru Died the only horror show that puts more emphasis on making people feel uncomfortable and leaving them out of the loop than on scares and blood. Of course, it’s not unique in having queer themes. But the way it looks at the characters’ feelings and feelings of being alone through the lens of body theft makes it stand out.