Tag Archives: writing

A Silent Voice: How to Draw Guilt

As a member of the romance family, shoujo manga seems to be particularly under appreciated in a critical sense. While many romance manga pieces may not shine in the ways Western critics are expecting to find, they have qualities that can still be shocking and powerful. So I’d really like to point out a few manga series that have impressed me, starting with Yoshitoki Oima’s A Silent Voice.

This comic is about Shoya Ishida, a rambunctious boy who meets the new girl in elementary school called Shoko Nishimiya. As Shoko is deaf, Shoya and his classmates resist accepting her disability and resent their teachers for expecting them to accommodate her needs. The entire class begins to bully Shoko in more and more cruel ways, breaking her hearing aids and carving harsh words into her desk. Shoya ends up on the crest of this wave of viciousness, and when Shoko is forced to move to another school, the blame is levelled solely at him.

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Shoya grows up with a bad reputation and he is ostracised by students who were once his friends, bullied in similar ways that Shoko experienced. Realising the pain he put her through, he grows to hate himself more and more, until six years later when he sees Shoko again. While limited by his self-loathing and guilt, he is driven by the same feelings to somehow make up for what he took from Shoko.

It’s interesting to read quotes recommending this work as ‘heartwarming’ – certainly, the story moves toward recovering from trauma and improving relationships, but I didn’t expect to be confronted with such dark themes in an apparently ‘heartwarming’ romance. But it’s a good surprise. The themes in this comic are already extremely complex, but Oima faces them head on. She doesn’t hesitate to depict reprehensible cruelty among children, while simultaneously showing a kind of forgiveness. Hatred is born of ignorance and it perpetuates itself and sweeps people along with it. No one close to Shoko’s traumatic experiences emerges without pain and regret.

Yet each character deals with it differently. Some students deny their involvement in the bullying, while Shoya destroys himself over it, and Shoko’s feelings remain fairly mysterious for a lot of the story. But I realised in later volumes that I didn’t fully understand Shoko, much like Shoya, because I was perceiving her from my own point of view. I felt like she should feel either resentful or forgiving of others’ behaviour, but it didn’t occur to me that she would also be judging herself.

In a lot of fiction, I find that characters are attacked and violated without much pause to speculate on the effect it would have on them. The plot moves on to the next fight scene and the characters don’t change that much. A Silent Voice is an in-depth study on the ways that a traumatic experience shapes you and holds on to you for years, if not your entire life. Shoya returns his ostracism with his own disregard of others, shown with thick black crosses over characters’ faces until they’re able to get through to him somehow. He considers his life to be over when it’s barely begun.

Shoya’s character design itself was surprisingly appropriate. Most main characters in manga, certainly in romance manga, have large, expressive eyes, while Shoya has decidedly small dots as his eyes and a fairly harsh appearance. Yet these guarded, contracted irises speak of his perpetual wariness, fear and pain.

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Shoya looks like a bully, even when he is one and even when he isn’t. Only by reading the comic can you know him well enough to decide for yourself. His facial design and some of his internal sequences were the most palpable depictions of complete unexpressed anguish and guilt that I have ever seen. It makes it sound like the comic is very unpleasant to read but it’s cathartic and comforting to feel less alone with the things I am ashamed of about myself, things I regret, or the things about myself I most want to hide.

And it’s also a very sweet romance. Both Shoya and Shoko have many psychological obstacles to overcome in order to reach each other, but it’s beautiful to see them get closer with every volume.

If you’re looking for a well-wrought manga series, don’t go past A Silent Voice. The sixth volume is out now and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I hope you enjoyed my apparently annual blog post! I’ll do my best this year to be a little more regular and just write, rather than over-thinking. That’s what a blog is all about, right? Thanks for reading.

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Fantasy as Escapism

I’ve heard too many people argue that the best thing about the fantasy genre is ‘escapism’. Fantasy can indeed be an absorbing, relaxing means of forgetting our own problems for a while, but all fiction can do this. Fiction depicts a facet of reality, but even realism is not a perfect clone of our world. All fiction takes us away from our lives while simultaneous reflecting them. However, the argument that escapism is fantasy’s greatest quality is somewhat counter-intuitive.

We’re all very welcome to have preferences for whatever genre we’d like of course, but unfortunately some people completely dismiss fantasy as ‘stories about wizards’, ‘elves and dragons’, or ‘stories for children’. These definitions cover Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in an overly patronising and simplistic fashion, and that’s about it. The trouble is, the concept of ‘escapism’ fuels this perception of fantasy as a flight from the complexity and significance of reality.

Fantasy obviously has fewer superficial connections to reality than realism, but it focuses instead on psychological or emotional truths. Fantasy often follows a ‘quest’ structure, in which the protagonist faces an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, and this enemy symbolises the challenges we face in our own lives that seem insurmountable. However, even the fantasy texts without a strict formula use metaphor to render emotional struggles tangible. Kate Forsyth once claimed that fantasy can portray ‘moral truths too bright and too fierce to gaze upon directly.’

The advantage of the fantasy genre in representing emotional reality is that an entire world can be constructed to support the metaphor, from the implications of its political system to its aesthetic references. Giving readers a translation of emotion into sights, sounds and smells encourages a stronger sense of empathy, as they can react personally to the scenario rather than trying to understand an abstract idea amid the distractions and inconsistencies of our world. For those who relate to the metaphors, there is also a sense of validation. A person may get a tattoo because they feel their journey should have left visible scars; fictional representations of emotional struggles are similarly authenticating.

The concept of magic within a narrative rebalances negotiations of power. Characters with a strong connection to magic are always the most passionate; spiritual or emotional power is usually linked to magical talent. Consider Harry Potter and Voldemort’s strong senses of what is right in the world, despite their opposing approaches. Magic is often the one thing that gives power to an originally disempowered or undervalued protagonist. Fantasy traditionally rewards good behaviour and the villains lose the battle in the end, giving the impression of a sympathetic, just universe. Such narratives can be inherently empowering.

I attribute the surge in fantasy’s popularity in Western culture to a heightened sense of insignificance in our society. Many people have a sense of political disempowerment and futility. The development of the internet has also made us increasingly aware of how many people there are aside from us in the world, all speaking at once and desperate to be heard. It’s entirely understandable that we should seek fiction that reminds us that everyone is capable of changing the world.

While I agree that plenty of fantasy books are not very well-written, I would say there is about the same ratio of bad to good quality fantasy books as there are realist books. The only difference is that publishers are allowing a great deal more fantasy books to be sold due to the current surge of popularity. Btu regardless of the quality of writing, I think it’s great that the market is so open to the genre because its aesthetic possibilities are limitless and it is a comparatively unexplored form.

Like and genre, fantasy has specific strengths and purpose that it performs extremely well. As a writer, I have a strong emotional focus and fantasy is the best possible choice to convey my meaning. But I certainly still haven’t fully explored the possibilities of fantasy or speculative fiction. It’s important to be able to articulate the value of a genre, and there is so much more to fantasy than many people realise.