Saturday, April 1, 2017

[Manga] Koe no Katachi Review

Koe no Katachi / A Silent Voice - 9.5/10

For Agatha

Social ostracism is a human universal: in order for there to be a group there must be outsiders.  Those with obvious differences are the natural choice.  Koe no Katachi is a story about the people on both sides of this experience.

Shouko Nishimiya is a deaf girl who has recently transferred to a new school.  However, her hopes for a fresh start are swiftly dashed when Shouya Ishida, a rambunctious but fairly normal boy, chooses her as the class pariah for his taunting and other antics.  This triggers an avalanche of abuse as the inconveniences caused by her disability become the grounds for her wholesale rejection by the class and teacher.  In the end Nishimiya is forced to transfer schools once again.  Unfortunately for Ishida the spite that was formerly directed at Nishimiya becomes focused on him, resulting in his own social isolation.

Years later in high school Ishida again meets Nishimiya, but with newfound empathy he seeks to atone for his bullying.  The resulting events of the manga lay them both bare, and they begin the slow process of healing together.

The Good:

The terrible clarity with which Koe no Katachi portrays the mentality of both the victimizers and victim is the bedrock on which the series is founded.

First there is Nishimiya.  Born deaf, she fundamentally cannot forgive herself for living.  She blames herself for her parents’ divorce, for the inconvenience caused by having to keep transferring schools, and ultimately for her own bullying.  It is the sad logic of the isolated that they believe they are at fault for their own suffering.  And since they are at fault, they are convinced they deserve it so as to remind them of all the trouble they have “caused.”

Next is Ishida who is given an insight into this same state after his elementary years.  However, as one who has fallen from acceptance his feelings are somewhat different.  While he also regards himself with a level of self-hatred he seeks to fix his mistakes.  That is, while he loathes himself it is because of what he has done, not who he is.

This distinction may seem small, but its effects are profound.  This can be most readily seen in the chapter leading up to Nishimiya’s attempted suicide.  Some may question why Nishimiya chooses this time to try to kill herself.  The answer is simple: she is too happy.  Here she is with friends now, enjoying herself.  It isn’t right in her mind.  She deserves suffering.  Ishida doesn’t think this way: while he also beats himself up, he seizes upon potential acceptance with a fierce hunger, such as when they attend the amusement park as a group.  He ultimately holds out hope for light at the end of the tunnel while she does not.

Last, I’m going to use Naoka Ueno, one of Ishida’s classmates that joined him in bullying Nishimiya, as a prime example of the tormentor.  Ueno is driven by her own desires and has reasonable self-esteem.  She isn’t evil so much as interested in her own well-being and willing to sacrifice the well-being of others for it – in other words: a distressingly normal human.

What is telling is when Ueno is faced with Nishimiya’s reflexive self-sacrifice she is incensed.  She wants Nishimiya to fight back, to give her justification for her actions.  But this fury more deeply stems from a lack of comprehension.  Ueno fails to understand Nishimiya because she cannot envision what it is like to not value herself.  It is completely beyond her ken.  She can only conclude that Nishimiya must be putting on an act, abusing her status as “disabled” to garner sympathy.

Another wonderful aspect of Koe no Katachi is its detailed drawings of faces and hands.  As a series that must portray the thoughts and feelings of a character who cannot speak them herself, Koe no Katachi devotes beautiful effort to ensuring that her voice is heard.  There are honestly too many pages to name where I was impressed once again by the detail given to the small details of expression.

Finally, while Koe no Katachi has many outstanding pages, there is one in particular that touched me more than any other: Nishimiya’s resolve in Volume 6, Chapter 45, pg 17-18 (read right to left).  A few pages before we see Nishimiya’s younger self, battered and hurt, expressing to her sister one desperate wish: “I want to die.”  This is not an idle thought or a petulant outburst after a bad day.  Nishimiya, in her soul, does not believe she deserves to live and be happy.

But in the aftermath of her attempted suicide she has been confronted with something that she never imagined: her self-hatred had hurt those closest to her.  But, this anger…it was for them wasn’t it?  Didn’t her mere presence cause them pain and grief?  How arrogant could she be to ever think that a nasty, useless creature like herself had the right to forget this?

And yet…they cry.  Her mother, her sister…even Ishida…they cry for her.  Why…?  Was she…was she really worth that?  No…yes?  She had hurt them again, but…they loved her still.  She has been hurting alone inside for so long…does she deserve to now cry with them, for herself?

In this moment of remorse, pain, compassion, and release Nishimiya feels for the first time that she has value as a person.  I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is for her to do this.  Her whole life has been built on believing she is nothing.  To turn this around is possibly the most difficult thing she has ever done.  And as the chapter closes we see her realizing the truth: she has to live.

The Bad:

Without a doubt, the weakest portions of Koe no Katachi are the final 8 chapters.  Nishimiya’s attempted suicide is the climax of the series.  In that darkest moment everybody’s worst fears are realized.  The aftermath of this event lays bare the realities of the situation: that half measures and kind intentions were not enough.  But at the same time, it offers the hope that having passed through this ugliest of times people may renew and strengthen the bonds between them.  Ending with Ishida’s reunion with Nishimiya on the bridge, after both fearing they may never see the other alive again, was a perfect finale to this arc.

This is, in my opinion, where the manga would have best ended, with perhaps a couple of chapters afterward to round things out.  Instead we are treated to a lengthy and somewhat meaningless denouement, where details that did not matter before are given extensive coverage.  How all the characters would spend their futures was of no concern.  Nor, really, was the movie they were making; the entire scene where the professional artist berated their poor production was particularly underwhelming.

What made this worse for me was also the unfocused and ambiguous nature of the “friends” at the end.  I hold Koe no Katachi in very high regard for most of its psychology, but in this area it was tenuous.  The behavior of many of the characters in the hospital continued to reinforce that they were still focused on only themselves.  Kawai’s speech in particular was disgusting with its self-serving pantomime of compassion.  And yet, in the last few chapters we are shown that apparently Nishimiya is to continue to spend time with these people that resent and despise her, and that they are actually going to build a bright future together.  This goes beyond forgiveness into the realm of masochism.  Up until the very end of the series I felt uneasy, waiting for Ueno or Kawai to make another move; this isn’t the feeling one should have if they’ve truly become friends.  As such, this aspect of the resolution felt false to me, as though the author was caught between realism and a storybook happily ever after, and in the end faltered for a confused compromise.

The other notable weak point of Koe no Katachi is Ishida’s “best friend,” Tomohiro Nagatsuka.  In a series full of amazing characters, he is a caricature.  We learn almost nothing about him, except that he is slavishly devoted to Ishida because of his lack of friends and he has dreams of being a director.  He receives no development and his main purpose is to act as hybrid of comic relief and font of positive energy.  Even his visual style doesn’t match the rest of manga.  That I never took him seriously as a person is the harshest critique I can give.

Finally, I want to leave a remark about the captions at the beginning and ends of the chapters.  They were terribly mismatched with the tone of the series, frequently full of phrases that sounded like cheap commercial endings.  “What will happen next?  Only the clear blue sky knows!”  “Now…the story…begins...”  “How will everyone respond to this reunion?”  Thankfully I could mostly disregard them as they had no actual impact on the story.

As I end this review, I fear that I have given a false impression by my criticisms.  Koe no Katachi is a deeply moving portrait of what it is like to live in the shadow of others’ lack of empathy, and a hopeful expression that such times do not last forever.  I was moved to tears by its poignancy.  It is a story that I would recommend to anybody, if just to remind them how important being understood and valued is.

“The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved -- loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” - Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

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