Ooima, Yoshitoki. A Silent Voice v.1. 2015. New York. Kodansha USA.
6th-grader Shoya Ishida is a bully. His philosophy of living life as “a fight against boredom” has him doing dangerous things like jumping off bridges into rivers and deliberately luring a boy from another school out for a fight. His usual friends start drifting away as they get older and their parents are pressuring them to focus more on school, so Shoya is feeling bored and lonely when a new student transfers into his class.
The new student, Shoko Nishimiya, is the first deaf person Shoya and his classmates have ever encountered. While most of the class is initially welcoming, Shoya goes out of his way to torment Shoko. His attitude spreads to the rest of the class, with the other boys joining in his bullying and the girls talking about Shoko behind her back and refusing to help her anymore. Shoya is frustrated and confused by Shoko’s refusal to act out in response. The apathetic teacher is finally forced into action when Shoko’s parents threaten to bring the police in, after her hearing aids are stolen repeatedly. Because Shoya was the most obvious perpetrator of the bullying, he’s made the scapegoat for the stolen hearing aids, and becomes the new focus of the class’s negative attention after Shoko’s parents pull her out of school.
Several years later, Shoya is lonely and isolated, still living with the consequences of his actions and finally feeling guilty over what he did to Shoko. He decides to find her, and to try and make it right, even though he isn’t sure how.
Many stories that deal with bullying do so from the victim’s point of view, and the reason for that is fairly obvious: it’s hard to care about and sympathize with a bully, no matter what explanations or excuses the story tries to give for their behavior. Shoya is not a particularly likeable kid from the get-go. The way he treats his “friends,” classmates, and even his mother aren’t balanced by any obvious redeeming values, even before he goes from foolish thrill-seeking into outright bullying. What makes reading the majority of this book interesting and even moving rather than just irritating is that readers get to see the reasoning Shoya has behind his actions. While he’s clearly in the wrong—the story has no ambiguity about that—his ideas make sense according to his badly uninformed morality and worldview. His biggest problem seems to be the lack of a sensible adult who’s willing to take the time to sit down with him and explain why he should be good, rather than just repeatedly telling him to be good.
Shoko’s character doesn’t get nearly as thorough an exploration, at least in the first volume. Her behavior might come across as unrealistic, especially the lengths she goes to in order to try and be friendly with the people bullying her. Her reasons for this aren’t explicitly stated, but it’s likely that she was trying to avoid her protective and controlling mother finding out about the bullying so she wouldn’t have to change schools again, or to prove that she could handle the situation on her own. Fortunately, Shoko’s willingness to put up with bullying to the point of refusing to defend herself isn’t shown as a good thing anymore than Shoya’s behavior is. While it has the somewhat positive effect of causing Shoya to question his own actions—although he doesn’t make a timely change—it’s obviously not something she can keep on doing forever, and she eventually does fight back and really stand up for herself. Unfortunately, this happens right before she has to leave the school.
From a technical standpoint, the pages are well-composed, not plagued by some of the crowding and layout issues some series have. The way the characters are drawn isn’t “pretty”; Shoya looks like he’d be the antagonist or obnoxious side character in most other manga series (undoubtedly intentional). Readers who typically go for shojo/romance and prefer the idealized designs common to those genres might be put off by the art style. None of this is to say the art is bad. The backgrounds are well-executed and beautifully detailed without overtaking the foreground, the anatomy and facial expressions—while stylized—are spot on and never feel lazy or stiff.
This promising first volume is fairly unique in terms of tackling bullying in a serious but non-melodramatic way, to say nothing of featuring a prominent deaf character. Manga fans who like realistic drama (and aren’t looking for a fluffy romance right out of the gate) should give it a try. It’s also one of the more accessible manga I’ve seen in terms of readability for an audience not used to the right-to-left reading order, thanks to the excellent page composition.
2008 Rookie Manga Award
“Manga that engage in more straightforward social commentary is a rare sight to see, but Oima’s determination in bringing A Silent Voice to publication is certainly not misplaced. The work delivers in its depth of character and emotional strength that makes it truly worthy of its recognition as a nominee for the 8th Manga Taisho and Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize.” – Teresa Kramer, comicsbulletin.com
“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.” – Paige Sammartino, womenwriteaboutcomics.com
An anti-bullying campaign or event at a middle or high school might include this series in a recommended reading list or book display. It deals with bullying and its effects on both bully and victim in an up-front way that invites discussion about how we treat people we see as different, and exactly why it’s wrong to harass another person.
One of the most powerful moments in the first volume is when one of the teachers suggests that the class learn sign language to be more welcoming and helpful to Shoko. The way the scene unfolds says a lot about how apathy can do as much harm as active bullying. A book or manga club might talk about this. When have you been in a situation where doing the right or kind thing could make you unpopular? What did you do?
Review by Rachel C.