Yoshitoki Ōima (mangaka), Ben Applegate (Editor), Steven LeCroy (Translator/Letterer)
Release Date: May 26, 2015
A review copy was supplied by Kodansha.
Shoya Ishida is a bully. A grade-schooler who thinks himself invincible, he leads a few cronies around his neighborhood, pulling dangerous stunts and causing headaches for his teachers and family. Shoya jeers at anyone who doesn’t go along with his schemes, even his own so-called friends.
Shoko Nishimiya is deaf. She communicates mostly through writing on a notepad and doesn’t have any friends. After facing difficulty in her previous schools, Shoko has transferred into Shoya’s class, where she immediately becomes his target.
A Silent Voice originated as a one-shot manga in 2008 and was redone in 2011 for the February issue of Bessatsu Shounen Magazine. This version won Yoshitoki Ōima the 80th Weekly Shounen Magazine Newbie Best Mangaka Award. After some debate on which magazine best suited its subject matter, it was picked up in Weekly Shounen Magazine as a series which then ran from late 2013 to 2014. The series was also sponsored by the Japanese Federation of the Deaf. In 2014, Crunchyroll licensed and released the manga digitally; Kodansha has since licensed it for print distribution.
The first chapter opens on teenage Shoya bumping into Shoko, his narration telling readers how he hated her and cuing a flashback to five years prior, when most of the volume takes place. Readers follow Shoya’s pre-Shoko antics, which mean-spirited but implied to be a way of getting attention. His single mother is almost always pictured on the job as a hair stylist who runs her business out of their home, and his sister regularly has different boyfriends in her room—or, rather, the part of a room shared with Shoya that is partitioned off with a sheet. Shoya bemoans his boredom with life and is always looking for a distraction.
Shoko’s disability is unfamiliar to Shoya, and so he is quick to label her as weird and therefore asking to be teased. This mentality of victim-blaming, particularly in the case of a bullying victim, echoes a truth in classrooms around the world. Shoko’s perceived weirdness—her status as the other—prompts Shoya to rationalize that she should know better. If she doesn’t want to be bullied, he figures, she should try to fit in more. The fact that teachers are more lenient with her and that she proves to be an excellent student when given the opportunity to keep up with the lesson irritate Shoya further.
His answer is to bully her. He makes noises behind Shoko, claiming to be testing the authenticity of her deafness. The laughter of his classmates—and even his teacher—encourages his behavior as his antics escalate from mocking Shoko’s speech impediment to stealing and breaking her hearing aids. The progression of Shoya’s bullying moves quickly; encouraged by the attention he gets from his peers and the lack of discouragement he faces, Shoya tries to top himself every time. His bullying starts in a place of ignorance and barrels into cruelty. At no point is it simply teasing, but what starts off as childish behavior that could be remedied with an apology worsens because the bullying isn’t stopped from the beginning.
While the whole volume rang true to me, from the childish logic about bullying to the adult fears of one’s child being ostracized, perhaps this was the point that stood out most. The early stages of bullying are often chalked up as harmless teasing, but there is harm in allowing these first signs to be the beginning and not the end. When peers and especially adults and authority figures don’t defend bullying victims, they’re allowing hurtful behavior to continue.
As easy as it is to blame Shoya—particularly when it becomes clear that he’s having misgivings about his own actions but continues anyway—the series doesn’t let the rest of the cast off the hook. One teacher suggests that the class learns sign language together, which another teacher rejects because there isn’t a teacher to instruct the class. Adults are shown laughing at Shoya’s earliest pranks on Shoko. Even her mother doesn’t get involved until five of her hearing aids have been broken. Five.
Despite Shoya’s bullying, Shoko remains calm and smiling. She continues trying to befriend her classmates, but they follow Shoya’s lead in excluding or picking on her. The bullying eventually reaches Shoko’s mother and the school board, and when confronted about the issue, the classroom is quick to pin the blame solely on Shoya. After Shoko must once again transfer to a new school, the bullying continues—this time with Shoya as the target.
Now on the other side of bullying, Shoya resolves to atone for what he did to Shoko. He commits himself to hard work, openly admits that he bullied a girl so badly that she transferred, and isolates himself from his peers. In one heartening panel, he plucks a beginner’s guide to sign language from a bookshelf. A Silent Voice chooses the best redemptive arc for its former bully: recognizing what he’s done wrong and making an effort to change in the future.
This series offers the best case scenario to its readers. I remember being a college student when I first had a graphic novel assigned for class; imagine the possibility of A Silent Voice being assigned reading for middle school students. Though the story is only just beginning, Yoshitoki Ōima’s narrative already imparts such an important message about how to treat others and being compassionate towards and respectful of those who are different from us. It reminds us that change is possible and forgiveness is an option. Perhaps this story will prevent a real-life Shoya from bullying and a real-life Shoko from hurting.
I am a firm believer in the power of storytelling, and perhaps even more so the power of listening. This manga may have a quiet voice—no robots, no prophecies, no battles—but its message could not be stronger.