“Shoya is a bully. When Shoko, a girl who can’t hear, enters his elementary school class, she becomes their favorite target, and Shoya and his friends goad each other into devising new tortures for her. But the children’s cruelty goes too far.”
Trigger Warnings for: Bullying
The Highschool Genre is an interesting genre to talk about in Manga. Unlike western Comics, where Archie is pretty much the only remaining example of it in mainstream Comics, Highschool Mangas are alive and well, still being used as a platform by some of the best mangakas in the industry as well as making some of the most popular series of present day (an example of it being Silver Spoon). The reason why I bring this up is that something like a down-to-earth Highschool story with no element of the fantastical present would be strange to find as an ongoing in the comic industry ( I am sure if you look hard, you may be able to find one, maybe a graphic novel or Webcomic, my point is that you have to look really hard in the first place), let alone one that tackles disability and Bullying head-on. But thanks to the healthy state of this genre in the manga industry, it is not surprising that a series like that managed to find a place to grow.
“A Silent Voice” (Koe no Katachi, also translated as “The Shape of voice”) by Yoshitoki Ōima is one such Manga. Originally published in 2008 as a One-shot, it was later redone in the February 2011 edition of Bessatsu Shounen Magazine. Due to the subject matter, the manga had trouble finding a magazine willing to publish it before finally being picked up by the August 2013 edition of Weekly Shounen Magazine (not to confuse with the Weekly Shonen Jump). It also received support from the Japanese Federation of the Deaf and is set to have an animated movie produced by Kyoto Animation.
Now, while the series is a Highschool Manga, it should be noted that most of the first volume is actually set in Elementary school.
*Spoilers bellow this point*
The volume begins with a teenage boy looking for a girl named Shoko who, upon seeing him, runs away. The boy(Named Shoya Ishida) goes after her while calling her name. It is then that we cut to a flashback set 6 years ago. We see a young Shoya trying to encourage his friends to jump off a bridge to the water as part of their “Daily Daredevil Contests”. We also learn that he is very self-centered and rude to those around him as well as never thinking the consequences of his actions.
One day, a transfer student named Shoko Nishimiya joins his class. Shoko is deaf, thus she can only communicate through a notebook she has with her all the time. Shoya, who is weirded out by her condition and thinks it would be fun to make fun of her, decides to “test” Shoko’s deafness and see if it is really true that she is deaf. Despite the teacher asking him to stop, Shoya’s pranks quickly grow into tormenting Shoko, something that his entire class eventually joins in as they grow tired of how much they feel they have to sacrifice because of Shoko. Despite this, she tries to remain cheerful, which further pisses Shoya off. Even the teacher, while not actually taking part in the bullying, does at one point encourage their attitude by laughing at their jokes or admitting he understand how they feel.
This reaches a point when, after the entire class ruins 8 of Shoko’s hearing aids (which would cost around $14,000 total), the principal receives a call from Shoko’s mother who suspect she is being bullied. It’s at this point where the entire class, including the teacher, puts the blame on Shoya and use him as a Scapegoat.Following this, there is a shift and the entire class starts bullying Shoya as a way to keep the charade that Shoya was the only one repsonsible of Shoko’s Bullying. Shoya, in turn, keeps on bullying Shoko until she is forced to be transferred yet again but Shoya’s bullying from his companions continues until graduation. Likewise, his reputation makes people ignore him on Highschool and is completely alone. He falls into depression and decides to end his life but not before he apologizes to Shoko, returning to the beginning of the volume.
If there is something this series does really well is it’s kid characters and depiciton of bullying. The kids are not fully aware of their actions or their consequences, they are self-centered and rude but, with the exception of Shoya, they do try to be nice to Shoko before deciding it is too much work. I think it’s a fairly realistic depiction of a group of kids who haven’t fully learned moral codes. Likewise, the Bullying Shoko suffers throughout this first volume is not sudden, but gradual. Shoya starts small and his pranks grow from there. As more of his companions start joining him, the more justified they feel on their actions. When Shoko, who just wants to make friends and tries hard to befriend Shoya, keeps on being friendly to him, he just gets angrier and even justifies himself by saying it’s Shoko’s fault she is being bullied.
The volume deals with Bullying of kids with disabilities as well as Victim Blaming, how it can happen at a young age, kids not wanting to admit they are being bullied and how adults and teachers may lack the ability to deal with it or, sometimes, even encourage it.
It is a shame, then, that Shoko is little more than a plot device.
Now, from what i have seen, starting with volume two, the series starts giving more focus to Shoko and her own stuggles. However, I am not speaking about those volumes, but rather this one, and i have to give what i feel is a big problem with this first arc.
The problem with Shoko here is that she falls into the archetype of the person with a disability that remains nice and good despite how hard things are. She keeps on being thankful towards others and apologizing for everything and she is there to make us feel bad that she is suffering this and for Shoya to learn a lesson. We do not learn anything about her beyond the fact she is deaf and she had to transfer because she had dealt with bullying in her previous school. She is defined by the fact that she is deaf and because she is nice despite people treating her like crap.
In contrast, We do focus on Shoya, a lot. We learn about his family, how his mother owns a salon, his friends, his relationship with other kids his own age, the fact his sister has had multiple boyfriends and that the latest is Brazilian, etc.
Really, the only time Shoko gets any kind of spotlight is in a side story between chapters 1 and 2, in which we see her getting a haircut from Shoya’s mom and how Shoko’s mom is strict as a way to try and make Shoko stronger. We also get a few moments of her confronting Shoya, but this moments are rare and far between, not to mention they do not tell us anything about her other than hints of depth which we are not going to see here.
On the one hand, it makes sense, we are seeing things from Shoya’s perspective and how he discovers how awful his bullying of Shoko was. How his attitude lead to everyone betraying him and making his life miserable. On the other, it feels like the author is giving focus to the Bully by throwing the Bullied to the side, deciding that the fact she is being Bullied for being Deaf is enough character for her. And that’s a flaw i cannot overlook.
However, even though I find the treatment of Shoko’s character questionable, i do think it deals with the topic of bullying in a realistic way. In that sense, and as a way to show the kind of Bullying a kid (Specially one with a disability) may face, it is pretty good. But as representation of kids with deafness, that’s where i feel it’s greatest fault lies.