⚠ This article contains spoilers for the manga A Silent Voice. Discretion is advised.
It’s been a long time since a contemporary manga has affected me quite like A Silent Voice. Having just finished the final volume last night, I’m struggling a bit trying to comprehend what I read and stop myself from ugly-sobbing for the umpteenth time.
Although A Silent Voice has been out in the US since 2015, it’s been completely off my radar for the past couple years. Shame on me, I know. When it was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2016, I was too busy wrapping up my communication studies degree to give it much attention—a little ironic given the subject matter, but I digress. So when I found the first volume at my local library last month, I had to check it out.
A Silent Voice (聲の形 – Koe no Katachi) is the work of Yoshitoki Oima, the award-winning mangaka behind To Your Eternity and the Mardock Scramble manga adaptation. In 2008, the earliest iteration of A Silent Voice won the 80th Annual Shonen Magazine Newcomer Manga Award, a feat that jumpstarted then-18-year-old Oima’s manga career. Bessatsu Shonen Magazine ran a refined one-shot version in 2011, and in 2013, Weekly Shonen Magazine finally picked up the title for serialization.
A Silent Voice follows Shoya Ishida, a former bully burdened by his guilty past. When he was in elementary school, he and his peers relentlessly abused their fellow classmate, a deaf girl named Shoko Nishimiya, to the point where she transferred schools to escape their harassment. After she left, Shoya’s classmates and teachers turn on him, leaving him isolated from his peers well into high school.
Completely alone, Shoya falls into a deep depression. In his mind, he believes the only way to redeem himself is to ask for—and receive—Shoko’s forgiveness. He even tasks himself with learning sign language to make a proper apology. But when he finally reconnects with both Shoko and his estranged classmates, Shoya finds that conveying his feelings, whether spoken or not, is harder than he thought.
And really, that’s what the story’s all about. Sometimes it’s hard to communicate, no matter how you do it. A Silent Voice‘s strongest point lies in how Oima’s characters uniquely navigate this lesson.
As a kid, acting out was the only way Shoya knew how to get attention from his friends and family. While it did keep people engaged, it definitely wasn’t for the reasons Shoya intended. It’s not until his bullying comes back to bite him that Shoya’s behavior shifts. Instead of wanting attention, he actively avoids it. He can’t even bring himself to look at other people, a behavior Oima portrays by drawing Xs over characters’ faces. When Shoya learns to trust others again, those Xs disappear.
On the other hand, Shoko has a habit of hiding her real emotions behind a smile to avoid conflict, and since she’s unable to verbally speak, other characters don’t quite understand how she actually feels. As a result, her suffering is literally silenced until Chapter 52, when Shoko finally cries out loud for the first time in years. This powerful moment gives her a chance to truly express herself and signals the start of her healing arc.
Oima doesn’t shy away from putting her supporting characters through their own communication conflicts. Lonely Tomohiro uses his fascination with movie-making as an excuse to make new friends. Yuzuru takes photos of death and decay to deter her sister from hurting herself. Naoka’s scheming attitude and violent outbursts keep her stuck in superficial relationships. Miki and Miyoko both try to better themselves through self-improvement, even if no one else is paying attention. Satoshi reasons in hypotheticals to hide his self-loathing. And Shoko’s mom thinks tough love will help her daughter solve her problems on her own.
But by the final volume, Shoya and the others eventually reach the same conclusion: communication, like friendships, isn’t formulaic. As much as you’d like for things to follow a logical sequence, the results of your actions are never guaranteed. It’s not until each character comes to this realization that they can truly begin to repair their relationships. As Tomohiro says, “Friendship is something deeper than words or logic. Being friends is something you feel.”