Alright folks, we’re in for a trip here, so let’s get all the baggage sorted and accounted for before we leave the driveway. A Sign of Affection deals with the topic of disability, a subject that can be both staggeringly complex on a societal level and intensely personal, and isn’t always handled particularly well in media. So it’s only fair I put my cards on the table when I talk about it. I’m not disabled, though I have several loved ones in my life who are, including someone who is hard of hearing and has used hearing aids for multiple decades. I don’t purport to be an expert, and there are surely going to be some cultural differences at play when discussing a story from a different country, but I can promise you that I take this topic seriously, and want to approach it with as much care and thought as I possibly can. I’m also aware I’m a guy discussing a show mainly aimed at women, so I set myself up for Hard Mode this season.
I’m happy to do it because I love what this show is doing so far. I am a sucker for sweet romances, and while these opening episodes have been predominantly slow and contemplative, they’ve very much delivered so far. Yuki makes for a wonderfully love-struck heroine, and there are a million little lines from her through these episodes that capture the feeling of being on the precipice of love; the fluttery feeling of talking with your crush, or the way your eyes seem to just find them whenever you enter a room they’re in, or just the way you can’t stop thinking about them when they’re away. I especially love the tension of episode two, where Yuki has to steel herself just to look at Itsuomi’s face because she needs to read his lips to keep up their conversation, but also good lord eye contact is hard when your heart is about to beat out of your chest. It’s a situation that’s specific to Yuki’s deafness, but a feeling that’s universal to anyone who’s been in love before.
Of course, that leads into how this show portrays and approaches Yuki’s deafness, and that’s a bit of a mixed bag. Like I said, I’m not an expert, but I know enough to recognize that the ease and accuracy of Yuki’s lip reading is, let’s say, generously optimistic. In real life, lip reading takes a lot of mental energy and attention, and is most definitely not a replacement for signing or written communication. Yet it’s often a necessary bridge between HoH people who can use it and the able-bodied people around them who almost certainly don’t know sign language, and that’s doubly true within the show. While Yuki frequently converses through signing and text message, there are moments where the narrative defaults to lip reading to either preserve the romantic framing of a moment or simply expedite communication, because the “language” of an audio-visual medium just isn’t set up to accommodate a more grounded portrayal. I’m not qualified to say if that’s an acceptable sacrifice for the sake of telling a well-meaning story, but it’s nonetheless a useful example of the exact kind of friction that can arise from being disabled in a world designed by and for an able-bodied majority.
Granted, the show is very interested in tackling that kind of friction, especially through its character writing. Every person Yuki meets treats her just a bit differently when they learn she’s deaf, and that’s something she’s very aware of. Rin is casual and tries to be thoughtful, but can sometimes get caught up in her world and not recognize she’s left her friend floundering, like when she starts chattering with her crush at the cafe in episode one. There are strangers, like Oushi’s friend, who considers inviting Yuki to a mixer until finding out she’s deaf, and changes his mind, presumably because he thinks accommodating her would kill the mood of a group date. There’s Oushi himself, who seems convinced Yuki needs to be protected from the outside world, falling into the classic trap of patronizing a person because of their disability and convincing himself it’s because he knows better – also he’s quite obviously jealous over her new guy friend which is making it all the worse. The story is careful to never define Yuki solely by her deafness, but it directly defines how it affects her relationships in a way that feels real.
That’s also what makes Itsuomi such a fascination to her. The dude is so upfront and casual about seemingly everything, including her, that it catches our heroine off guard. Where communicating with anyone is a deliberate decision for Yuki, Itsuomi converses with seemingly anyone without the slightest effort, even across language barriers. Yet that lack of trying is only an illusion, and his worldliness results from throwing himself into learning about and experiencing new horizons. He wants to learn about other people and places, the same way Yuki longs to experience more of the world than the narrow slice she grew up with, and that shared desire is the perfect spark to bring them together. Meeting Yuki was as much an inspiration for him as it was for her, showing that the world around him is not just wide, but deep and that there are new people and experiences he can learn about everywhere, including his home base. It’s an important piece in building their prospective romance, placing the two on more mutual footing as they inch closer.
There’s also a lot of drama bubbling under the surface of both their personal lives, which will doubtlessly boil over in the coming episodes, but for now, it’s been lovely to see these two get closer and build a rapport. If the show can continue to build on that foundation – and maintain its grasp on the topics it’s tackling – then I think we’re in for a real gem this season.
A Sign of Affection is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.