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.
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.
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.