Despite the somewhat stereotypical presentation of high school in fiction as being a festering torture pit from which a passing grade is the only escape, it can justifiably be said that it’s still romanticized to a certain extent. Even notable “everyman” Peter Parker still had it pretty good in his school days, not quite factoring in the whole Spider-Man thing. But the fictional four years is still an absolute cakewalk compared to the reality of school, no matter where you are. And starting off behind the eight-ball– say, without the ability to hear– can make it a literal hell on earth.
Koe no Katachi (localized on Crunchyroll as A Silent Voice, though the creators subtitled the original as The Shape of Voice) by Yoshitoki Oima is a deep, insightful, and controversial manga about a deaf girl, Shouko Nishimya, and her elementary-school tormentor, Shouya Ishida. Ishida is a little hellion five years before the start of the story, jumping off short bridges for fun, and encouraged by a few of his friends. But when Nishimiya transfers into his class, he shifts his attentions toward making her life incredibly difficult, motivated only by her difference from the rest of the students. His teacher makes a half-hearted effort to keep the peace, but in the long run begins implicitly encouraging the bullying, which escalates as the rest of the class gets into it. Nishimiya is subjected to constant humiliations, including having her communications attempts treated as mockery, and having her hearing aids repeatedly ripped out and destroyed, usually by Ishida. It culminates in a brawl between the two, after which Nishimiya transfers out. Stripped of their target, the class– led by the teacher– shift their attentions onto Ishida, who endures four years of bullying equal to or worse than that which he heaped onto Nishimiya.
Five years later, when the story begins, Ishida is completely bitter and isolated, having been stripped of almost all contact outside of his somewhat scatterbrained mother. Despondent and regretful of everything that he’d done, he begins arranging his affairs prior to committing suicide, including paying his mother back for the hearing aids he’d destroyed. On what he believes to be his last day on earth, he happens to run across Nishimiya for the first time in five years, and– compelled to set things right before he dies– he tries to explain himself to her. When she instantly forgives him, to his great surprise, it sets in motion his slow, gradual, and excruciating process of emerging from his isolation and learning empathy, friendship, and even love– of others, but most importantly, of himself. And while Nishimiya might have something to say about that, she’s far from the only one from his past who’s about to speak up.
This is not, at its core, a love story. It’s more apt to say that this uses a love story to make its points. One of those points is obviously that deaf people are not to be mocked, which is expected considering that the series has the backing of the Japanese Federation of the Deaf; in this way it could be considered a follow-the-leader of series like With The Light. However, Koe no Katachi almost didn’t get published at all; the extreme attention to detail that is shown in treating the causes, process, and consequences of bullying raised the hackles of several political action groups in Japan. They claimed that it portrayed Japanese culture in a negative light. I happen to think that the situation is a bit reminiscent of EC Comics’ “Judgement Day”, which was similarly controversial for patently stupid reasons, specifically trying to elevate the comic book into the realm of social commentary. The fact of the matter is, both works tried to make a point about how something was wrong in their respective societies, and both works have beaten back the forces of malicious censorship to have their say.
This is also not an easy thing to read. Oima does not pull punches in showing exactly what happens when harmless banter crosses over into genuine terrorizing. Both Nishimiya and Ishida are deeply scarred by their actions and reactions, and the narration and perspectives reflect their inner torment very well. Ishida’s self-loathing reaches depths that are actually frightening to read through at times; the kid feels guilty for every single thing he’s done, and resents even the slightest happiness he could have in the present because of his past. The story gets psychologically brutal as characters fail to grasp what they’re doing and how it affects others. But, if the story went easy on the characters, it simply would not work; it comes at its point with the Churchillian pile-driver, hammering its well-needed moral constantly and incessantly.
Overall, though, the story (ongoing as of this writing) is engaging, and the characters who are intended as such become likeable and well-rounded. The art is well-drawn, and dialogue is clean and clever. Even details such as Nishimiya’s impaired speech come across perfectly, showing the strength and skill of the translators. I would consider this a fifth-gear series, and hope that a print release makes it into the libraries of every school in the world.