As someone who was bullied and abused quite a bit during his formative years, I generally don't care to think of my past tormentors as human beings. When you're going through the thick of it all, they don't really seem like people as much as they come off as monsters. Of course, one of life's painful truths is that people are capable of changing for better or worse. There have been countless times in my adult life where I'm confronted with my past tormentors and I had to accept the reality that they weren't the same person they were back then. Some of them actually realised the errors of their ways, others had karma bite them square in the ass and they took a lesson in humility, and others still were victims of peer pressure who felt some twinge of remorse after the fact. So you know what? I don't really have /too/ many hangups over reading a story told from the perspective of the bully.
Come to think of it, that actually would be a refreshing change of pace considering how most works told from the perspective of the bullied basically come across as edgelord revenge fantasies set to the tune of late 90s/early 2000s nu metal (I'm looking at you, Onani Master Kurosawa!). However, I'm not so quick to simply jump in and hope for the best. There's a certain nuance to this type of thing which basically allows it to either be a great work about how there's good inside us all and it allows for all of us to redeem ourselves irrespective of our pasts OR being a work that justifies toxic behaviour because of how the abuser had some sort of past trauma. This doesn't even factor in whether or not the work takes into account things like laws, policies, etc because that in and of itself adds a crucial dimension to such conflicts that a lot of works just tend to overlook.
Craaaaaawliiiing iiiiiinnnn my skiiiiiin...
Thankfully, Koe no Katachi is very much in the former category and for the most part, it does handle the nuance quite well. With that said, it does get rather painful to read at some points. I suppose this stems from the very premise itself. For all intents and purposes, Shoko should /NOT/ have been enrolled in a general education school in the first place. Her deafness warrants specialised education that allows her to not only learn school subjects, but to also function in the real world. Granted, this is discussed later on in the manga's run and she /does/ transfer to a school for the deaf once the bullying became too much for her to handle. Still though, shame on the school administrators for even saying "yes" in the first place even though their teachers weren't properly trained to educate deaf students.
On that note, I suppose this does come down to a case of values dissonance as well. I did my time in the NYC public school system, which has a specialised school district (District 75) for students with learning disabilities, sensory impairments, autism, etc. Given this, seeing a deaf girl being placed in a general ed classroom without so much as a paraprofessional to help her understand what's going on comes across as ****ing weird to me. For all I know, maybe the general mindset in Japan is to send students with disabilities into specialised schools outright rather than having inclusive schools with specialised programmes like we have here in NYC. But I digress, so let's take a look at what Koe no Katachi gets right.
I know she means well, but there's a reason why paraprofessionals exist...
Our protagonist is Shoya Ishida and for all intents and purposes, he starts off the manga as a complete and total jackass. At this point in his life, all he's concerned with is finding a way to amuse himself and boy does he get a LOT of mileage out of abusing Shoko. To him, she's not a human being so much as she is a deaf alien from planet Nishimiya. His favourite game at that point in time was finding new ways to abuse Shoko from throwing her hearing aids out the window to shouting in her ears among all sorts of other things. Of course, he wasn't the only participant in this game. Most of Shoko's classmates at that point in time got some sort of mileage out of bullying her. Oh yes, if there's one thing that this manga gets right, it's the sheer sadism that children are capable of.
That all changes when the school principal threatens police action once Shoko's fifth pair of hearing aids goes missing. Her classmates needed a patsy, and so they picked Shoya to take the fall for their collective abuse of Shoko. Now subject to similar abuse that Shoko endured, he must learn to take responsibility for his actions. Eventually, he becomes a loner who isolated himself from everyone around him for one reason or another. One day during his senior year in high school, he has a chance encounter with Shoko and that's when his metamorphosis occurs. No longer a bully turned loner, this fateful meeting sets the wheel turning for Shoya to start developing compassion and empathy for his fellow human being.
Glad to know that bullying never changes whether it's in manga or in real life.
From a storytelling standpoint, the manga did a damn good job at showing off Shoya's change of heart along with every step of his progression in character. I just love how he doesn't magically earn the forgiveness of everyone he wronged. He actually had to work to make amends and more to the point, his growth isn't just something that gets stepped on just because he was a little ****. He actually does make new friends and he does fairly well for himself as time goes on.
As a character, Shoya is definitely the most well-written of the bunch. His desire to make up for all the trouble that he caused his mother and Shoko once she comes back into the picture is honestly one of the most wholesome things I've read in a long time. Make no mistake, his past actions are condemned to hell and back and he certainly built up a good deal of self-loathing over what a delinquent little **** he used to be. Still though, I gotta give the guy props for owning up to his mistakes and actually trying to make amends. His redemption arc is so masterfully done to the point where it almost rivals that of Zuko's from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The chance encounter that started it all.
In regard to Shoko and how she's handled, it’s important to keep in mind that this story is being told from Shoya’s perspective and he’s an unreliable narrator. Also not helping matters any is how Shoko herself doesn’t speak and Shoya doesn’t always tell us exactly what she signed so we tend to only get one half of the conversation. At the same time though, Shoko is quite expressive and so we’re able to understand on some level what she’s feeling. With that said, I really wish that we got some clearer insight into what her thoughts were.
Yes, it’s easy to look at her facial expressions and know that she’s jovial, that she’s sad, that she’s irritated, etc but at the same time, what precisely is it that’s going on in her head? We do get some insight into what she thinks at times, because there were points in the manga where she texts Shoya, that someone says exactly what she signed, etc but at the same time those moments were so few and far between. It would’ve been nice if we saw a group chat or something between Shoko, Shoya, and their other friends over the course of the manga but it’s sadly a missed opportunity.
An excerpt from one of my all-time favourite scenes in the manga. See what I mean?
The other characters as far as the manga is concerned are handled well enough, I suppose. Nagatsuka in terms of appearance reminds me quite a bit of Bling Bling Boy from Johnny Test, but thankfully he’s nowhere near as annoying. In fact, he’s actually one of the more endearing characters throughout the manga’s run. He’s the first person who witnesses Shoya not as an ex-bully, but as a person trying to improve his lot in life. As such, he sticks by Shoya through thick and thin and is responsible for a good deal of the manga’s more heartwarming moments.
Yuzuru was a character that I was irked by in the beginning, but she turned into one of my favourite characters by the end of the manga’s run. Yuzuru acted largely as Shoko’s protector and provided her with a good deal of empathy that was sadly lacking throughout most of Shoko’s childhood. Yuzuru not only gives us insight as to what Shoko’s home life is like, but she also ends up growing as the manga moves along.
They develop a rather... vitriolic friendship as time goes on.
Then of course, we have Ueno… and honestly, I really didn’t care /too/ much for her. She’s one of the many people who bullied Shoko when she was in middle school and was also among those who decided to blame Shoya for everything that happened to her. And yet, she somehow still has feelings for the dude and despite being a senior in high school, still wants to hold a bizarre grudge on Shoko? Granted, she’s far more tolerable than Kawai is because she’s actually self-aware to some extent and some of her more vitriolic tendencies get toned down as the manga progresses. In fact, she’s also responsible for some of the manga’s most poignant scenes so I can’t be /too/ upset at her. Still though, she’s more or less just a hate sink for me.
The last of the characters I’m willing to talk about are Shoya and Shoko’s mothers, and honestly… it took me a good amount of time to actually get used to Shoko’s mom. My big issue with her is that she still decided to enroll her daughter in a general education school rather than a school meant for deaf kids. Don’t get me wrong, she does have every right to be viscerally angry with Shoko’s bullies, but uh… she’s partly to blame for all this. Not helping matters any is how she’s unnecessarily stern with her deaf daughter. Don’t get me wrong, you have every right to be frustrated with your kids, but why scold them for using sign language every so often when that’s realistically their only way to communicate?
Is it sad to say the only joy I ever got out of Ueno is when Shoko's mom said "screw the law" and kicked her ass?
However, her reasons for being this way are actually explored on some level of depth as the manga goes on. I suppose the best way to explain without too much in the way of spoilers would be to paraphrase what Momiji from Fruits Basket said about raising a child that’s part of the Zodiac: if you have a deaf child (rather than a Zodiac spirit), would you abandon it because you can’t bear the thought of raising someone disabled? Or would you cling to your child for dear life, and try to keep them protected no matter what? Shoko’s lack of a father figure in her life shows that he decided to take the former route, erstwhile Shoko’s mother decided to take the latter and it did take a big toll on her psyche. Gradually, she becomes much more endearing as Shoko’s circle of friends expands and she goes on to be one of the manga’s most endearing characters.
Shoya’s mother on the other hand is an amicable person right off the bat who genuinely wants to see her son change for the better and understandably, gets frustrated whenever he does something stupid. She’s an unending beacon of love and support for her son, and we actually get to see the joy on her face when she finds out that Shoya is actually making friends again rather than just isolating himself from everyone else. My only real complaint is that we don’t get to see more of her, but then again, that’s par for the course in most shonen manga these days.
Well, Shoya and Shoko are friends now so isn't it fitting that their mothers get hammered together?
Moving away from all that talk about storytelling and characterisation, let’s focus on the superficial stuff. I absolutely adore the manga’s artwork. All the backgrounds are drawn well, and I absolutely love the artistic decision to put gigantic Xs over the people that Shoya doesn’t want to associate with because it further reinforces the isolation he put himself into. As far as the characters are drawn, I absolutely adore the fact that Shoko isn’t drawn like a typical KyoAni moeblob with the big sad puppy eyes that take up half her forehead. She’s cute, but she still looks like an actual person. The same thing can be said about all the characters, really.
The artwork so done so well to the point where its most iconic scenes (i.e. Shoya and Shoko meeting at the bridge where they feed the carp in the rain) can be used as actual wallpaper for your desktop. With that said, there were points where you can tell the mangaka phoned it in and didn’t put /as much/ effort into some panels, but that’s to be expected considering how this manga was publishing on a weekly basis. Plus, you only really notice them if you read the scanlations from when the manga first came out. The actual volumes have cleaned up the artwork quite a bit since then.
ITT: Post smiles you want to protect
When I was reading this manga for the first time four years ago, it was an emotional rollercoaster ride for me. I grew so attached to Shoya and Shoko and I genuinely wanted to see the both of them move on from the hardships of their past. Every chapter at that point in time had me on the edge of my seat, and there were points where I was actually starting to get misty eyed and actually hesitated to load up the next chapter on Batoto. As an adult now, I’d say that this manga still manages to get me ****ed up but not anywhere to the same degree as it once did. I suppose part of this can be chalked up to the casuals that won’t shut the **** up about how great the movie was but there’s more to it than that. Four years ago, I was still fresh out of high school and I didn’t have the hindsight as to how the schooling system worked because I never decided on becoming a teacher back then. As someone who’s trying to become a teacher now, Koe no Katachi really does test my suspension of disbelief at some points with its portrayal of the educational system. Granted, I can’t be too harsh considering there’s things like values dissonance at work but it still manages to raise an eyebrow at many points. Even then, I would still say that the manga does a phenomenal job with its storytelling to the point where I can reluctantly look past the stuff it gets wrong.
Koe no Katachi ultimately did a great job of showing us that we’re all capable of changing for the better, and on a more personal level, it taught me that sometimes your past tormentors are capable of changing for the better. Even now as an adult, it taught me that some grudges are better left behind in the past. Koe no Katachi was far more than just an emotional rollercoaster. In some ways, it was therapeutic and in other ways, it was a work that left a major impact on my way of thinking. For all those reasons and many, many more, Koe no Katachi definitely gets high marks from me. Maybe it won’t from you, but you wouldn’t know until you give it a shot.
Give the movie a shot too if you have the time.
Edited by Renkotsu, 05 July 2018 - 12:36 AM.