Manga: Koe no Katachi | Listen Closely

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When you think of manga, you don’t normally think of it as containing social commentary or as being socially conscious. Part of this is because the Western audience isn’t aware of how Japanese society differs from Western society. While you can pick up on some cultural and social differences, such as school lasting six days a week, there are some matters you don’t normally see in manga that tell you about certain practices in Japanese society. This is something that the slice-of-life genre, which follows daily lives of the characters without having too many fantastic elements to it, can show, and one recent series shows a side of Japanese culture that most Western readers may not be aware of.

Koe no Katachi, which roughly translates to The Shape of Voice or A Silent Voice depending on the translator, is one such series. The story is about a girl named Shouko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who enrolls in a normal elementary school. There, she is bullied and tormented by her peers for her disability, until she is finally forced to transfer. Instead of addressing the problem head on, the class and teachers elect to push the blame on one bully, Shouya Ishida, and find him solely responsible for Shouko’s treatment. This leaves Shouya friendless, and he spends the next few years full of self-loathing and suicidal depression. It isn’t until Shouya reunites with Shouko that he starts to make amends for his actions and tries to find out how he can live a better life for her sake.

The series originated as a one shot (a single chapter manga) story by newcomer Yoshitoki Ooima. Ooima won several awards for her story, but had trouble getting the story picked up for serialization. A group raised a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent the series from being published, claiming it showed a negative side of Japanese society. The series was picked up eventually and given endorsement by the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, allowing the series to run for seven volumes and 62 chapters, running from August 6, 2013 to recently ending on November 12, 2014. The lawsuit and struggle to have Ooima’s manga published does show why the series needed to be made.

Japan has a very different take on disabilities, most of which is shown in the manga. Generally, people with physical disabilities are treated like burdens for their families and peers, or are often blamed for the disability. Ooima apparently based the series off situations her deaf sister had to face growing up, and similar issues can be seen with how Shouko is treated by her peers. In school, her classmates hated her because she had to continually ask for clarification in lectures and blamed their class losing a choral contest on her tone deafness. Even when she gains a regular group of friends, most of them (particularly the ones who don’t know sign language) often don’t take her seriously, nor do they seek her input or try to converse with her.

Later, when her family is introduced, we learn she lives with her mother, grandmother, and younger sister. It’s not until midway through the series that it’s revealed her father was pressured by his parents to divorce his wife after she gave birth to a deaf child, heaping all the blame on Shouko’s mother and Shouko for her disability. While it’s clear that this was not at all acceptable (especially since it’s after the divorce Shouko’s mother learns she’s pregnant again, so the bastard abandoned two daughters instead of one), you see that her father and his parents think it’s based on karma, as well as finding a way to entirely blame Shouko’s mother without considering how it can be his fault (just to be clear, it totally was. Her mother contracted an illness from him while pregnant that led to Shouko being deaf. They still think it’s her fault for that, claiming she should have been vaccinated).

However, Koe no Katachi is not only a series about how deaf people in Japan suffer, it’s also about how bullying and peer pressure can affect all parties involved, even if they aren’t given proper punishment for their actions. Shouya was the most active bully in elementary school, but he wasn’t the only one involved. When he was made the scapegoat, all his friends were perfectly fine putting all the blame on him and even gaslighting him as time passed to make him feel even more guilty. This results in him turning away from everyone in the world and even planning on killing himself before he reunites with Shouko. Even after he starts to make new friends, Shouya is constantly kicking himself for his actions and acting as though he’s not allowed to be happy. It takes a while for him to even accept the idea that he can be happy despite what he did in the past.

Even some of Shouya’s old friends suffer because of the bullying. One in particular, Naoka Ueno, had a crush on him but was pressured into bullying him when the tides turned. Ueno’s actions towards Shouko and Shouya also suggested deep jealousy as she feels Shouko was playing for pity, and so she blamed Shouko entirely for Shouya’s treatment. Even years later, Ueno is completely unrepentant to Shouko and even has trouble understanding why her attitude towards Shouko might push Shouya away from her. This only torments her further and even adds to her own feelings of self loathing, showing how even as the bully who got completely away with harassing someone, she got very little out of it. At the same time, while some bullies like Ueno suffer for what they did, some even get completely away with what they did and are never given any indication that they think they did wrong or that they’ve ever considered making amends.

As you can tell, this is a really heavy series, with a lot of gut wrenching moments. The series released new chapters on a weekly basis, and starting with Chapter 38, everything got a lot harder to read. I remember starting to breathe really heavily while reading some chapters, as the series started to go really deep into the psyche of its characters and had a lot of terrible moments occur. It got really hard to read, and I started to really wonder if and when things would get better. Fortunately, this isn’t a cynical series, although there are some characters you will pray death upon as you read.

Still, I am really glad I read this series. I liked that I was challenged to keep reading even as things got worse, and I was able to empathize with the characters. I do think it was silly for a lawsuit to try and prevent this series from being published because I feel it’s good to highlight these sorts of issues. Some children are horribly treated for being disabled, sometimes schools do a really poor job at handling cases of bullying, and sometimes bullying can lead to suicidal tendencies and depression later in life. It’s a harsh fact, but it does need to be addressed and it shouldn’t be lightly glossed over.

I wanted to wait until this series finished before reviewing it, and I’m really glad I did. It’s probably one of the best manga series I’ve been reading lately, and I really did feel a connection to it. If anything, I wanted to see where it went and wanted to know everything would turn out okay for everyone involved. It touched on a lot of the feelings of isolation and loathing one can feel growing up, and I think it handled the subject matter really well. I also liked that it didn’t have an easy solution to its issues, but at least worked to make the characters grow with the story. It makes me want to seek out other series that challenge social issues and show a real depth and understanding of the matter while still being entertaining to read.

Koe no Katachi can be read in full on Crunchyroll (or any manga scanlation site if you don’t want to pay for Crunchyroll). An anime series is in the works, although no release date has been set.

This review was originally published in Quail Bell Magazine.
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