Books · Diverse Books · Manga · World Lit

A Silent Voice by Yoshitoki Ōima – Heartfelt Disability Representation

I haven’t read many books about physical disabilities. It’s not that I don’t have an interest, or that it’s a topic that makes me uncomfortable. The truth is that I haven’t been able to find many that offer proper representation of what it means to live with a disability. A lot of the stories that I do come across, when I manage to discover them, patronizes the victim, or paints this beautiful story of how strong they are. It doesn’t illustrate them as human beings with feelings and emotions, who do have those days when they are just so fucking fed up from being different, from being “special.”

Until now.

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A Silent Voice is a manga (Japanese comic, or graphic novel series) written by Yoshitoki Ōima. It’s about a boy named Shoya and a girl named Shoko. Shoya is the resident bully of his grade school, always picking on people whom he sees as inferior. His perspective is the one that leads us through this story. Shoko is a girl who is born deaf. When she begins to attend Shoya’s grade school, he bullies her, relentlessly. She’s different and he simply doesn’t understand how a girl who’s incapable of hearing has the audacity to go to a normal school and be a burden upon everyone around her. Consequences for his actions arise and eventually the whole class begins to pick on Shoya. He’s now isolated and an outcast.

I wasn’t sure how this manga would unfold, especially since we had to read it via the perspective of someone who treated others like shit. But I must say that this format was rather brilliant. It provides a whole new point-of-view that I don’t believe I have ever read before, in a manga or otherwise. We are taken into the mind of an abuser so that we can wholeheartedly understand the justification as to why they behave in the ways that they do; what drives them to be an asshole?

Understanding Shoya helped me to better comprehend the notion of belittling others to make yourself feel better about who you are, or the shitty situations that life can put you into. This is something that I see more often than I care to admit in Asian social structures. Coming from a South Asian family, I grew up watching my cousins brutally rip into one another, whether verbally or physically, just to place themselves on these pedestals of superiority. Almost in every single case, they had parents who just didn’t give a damn about them. If that wasn’t the issue, then they were just bored out of their minds. It’s something I never understood, nor cared to partake in.

This is a practice that we see with Shoya. His mother works very diligently at her own hair salon so she can provide for her kids (Shoya has a sister who’s barely a guest in the manga). As such, she doesn’t get to spend as much time with them as she’d probably like. While I can empathize with her plight, and I can understand Shoya’s need for attention, it still pissed me off. I had a difficult time making it through the first volume without sending it flying across the damn room. Then I realised that this is what I’m supposed to feel. I’m supposed to get angry at his behaviour. I’m not supposed to sympathise with a guy who abuses other people. I sat down with a more open mind and continued onwards.

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Character growth is quite possibly the fundamental facet of A Silent Voice. Watching Shoya go from bully to bullied causes a change within him, one that will span the course of six years. He struggles to cope with his childish behaviours and seeks out a means of finding redemption and forgiveness. I think this is brilliant for two distinct reasons. The first is that it paints a wonderful portrait of humanity. Being human is fucking up, learning from those fuck ups (hopefully), and evolving from that life experience.

The second comes in the shape of the effects that begin to arise. We always see the psychological damages that stems from being abused, but we fail to see that there are profound psychological impacts on those who commit these violent acts of hatred. Shoya is deeply impacted, on levels that he won’t fully grasp until about 5/7 of the way through the serial. Every act, every opinion, every characteristic of his adolescent life is intensely affected by these psychological remnants that stew silently within his brain. He has some of the best character growth that I have ever seen in young adult literature.

Shoko, the silent girl who is deaf, is bullied so terribly that she is forced to leave the elementary school for good. You see her as a meek person, and at first you genuinely feel bad for her. Maybe a swallow of pity will slide down your throat at you watch the obstacles she faces with her disability. Some of you may even wonder why she doesn’t just go to a school that’s specialised to deal with her condition. Because it’s bullshit, that’s why. Being deaf doesn’t make her any less of a person, or a human (yes, there’s that pesky little word again). It doesn’t detract from her intelligence or her ability to learn. It doesn’t dampen her desire to educate herself. It’s just a fact of life: she’s deaf. Yet the people around her will not let her forget. They armour her in it and it becomes her identity, whether she wants it to be or not.

She is picked on and abused for being different. Yet she never fights back, or starts yelling and screaming from frustration. What she does is bow and apologise. I read some reviews where people were infuriated with her behaviour. But you see, this is the power of Japanese etiquette and manners, which if you are unfamiliar with, will piss you the hell off.

In Japanese social practices, you are always humble and giving, respectful of those around you even if they may not be as kind to you. When they get upset, apologising is a way of acknowledging that you’ve upset them, or inconvenienced them somehow. It doesn’t make it wrong, it doesn’t mean they’re all pushovers. It’s a practice. I really like this practice very much. Dignity, sophistication, and humbleness are traits of classical and traditional Japanese behaviours and etiquette. It’s something that is becoming increasingly obsolete as the years go by, but this manga uses it and in a way that encapsulates the definition of human fortitude.

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Shoko does this and it sends a powerful message. By reacting to their abuse, she would in fact be validating its existence. She’s saying she deserves this treatment because what they are saying about her is correct, but it’s not correct at all. As she watches how frustrated people get with having to provide her with preferential treatment, it weighs very heavily on her shoulders. All she wants to do is be a normal girl with a normal childhood, however. People simply can’t see beyond the scope of her disability.

Her way of handling everything as politely as she does and for apologising is an examination of how lonely she is. How frightened she is of never being anything aside from deaf. These impactful details of her existence come into play much later in the manga that will blow your mind. We get a peek at the flesh underneath the hard exterior she builds up and we discover that she’s not some strong-willed person, who is “so brave” and “so courageous” for having a disability. Nothing here patronises her deafness.

Finally, while we see one side of Japanese social practices, there is another side. Another aspect that I’ve grown up with in Asian customs is that having a disability is seen as a huge burden, or sometimes punishment from a greater authority. In Japan, the stigma of being deaf (or even blind, mentally disabled, etc.) is seen as nothing more than a weakness and a problem. People are shunned for it on occasion. There is very little to no respect for these kinds of folks. The vast majority of Shoko’s family issues are because she was born deaf. The way that her mother treats her, refusing to learn sign language, shows us just how disappointed and frustrated she is with having a daughter who is “broken” and “good-for-nothing.” While they are polite to her face, behind her back Shoko is nothing more than a monstrosity that never should’ve been born. The yin-yang of these two community customs come together as an examination of the changing evolution of Japanese culture, and it’s marvellously imaginative and extremely provocative in nature.

I know this is a long review, especially for such a small series (seven volumes total). But there is just so much important information, and inspirational representation of culture, friendship, and the stigma of being different that I wanted to share as much of it as I could with you all. If you’re afraid that I’ve said too much, and given away all the details of the manga then you’d be highly incorrect. There’s so much shit that I still haven’t talked about, and I don’t want to talk about it because I really want everyone to read this series for themselves.

My love for Japanese literature and everything aside, to give you an objective opinion, I’m going to say that this is the only manga that has had every single volume be 5 stars for me. It deserves all 35 of them! I cannot recommend this enough to anyone and everyone who wants to read a story that means something, a story that is more than just a boy and a girl who have feelings and hormones.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Intense scenes of bullying. Some scenes of self-loathing & suicidal thoughts. A scene of attempted suicide.

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