The solo debut of mangaka Yoshitoki Oima, A Silent Voice (Koe no Katachi) has finally made its way to English publication despite its controversial publication origins. Although the series won Oima an award for Best Rookie Manga in 2008, it didn’t see publication until February 2011 as a one-shot due to legal disputes regarding its subject matter. The series finally continued in 2013 as a publication Weekly Shounen Magazine before finishing in 2014. Kodansha Comics provides the English language adaptation with Steven LeCroy as translator.
A Silent Voice‘s controversy stems primarily from its subject matter. The story opens in a very slice-of-life setting centered around Shouya Ishida, an elementary school sixth grader. Shouya and his two friends, Kazuki and Keisuke, are the sort of thrill seekers that you’d expect from 12 year old boys. They spend their after school days running around seeking thrills whether it’s jumping off of bridges into the river, chasing wild animals, or getting their just desserts from a local bully who stole Shouya’s shoes. However, the story and Shouya’s carefree life take a drastic turn at the introduction of a new transfer student to his class: Shouko Nishimya, a deaf girl.
It’s quickly revealed that Shouko’s transfer to Shouya’s class is due to the fact that she was bullied for her disability at a previous school. Her mother has hopes that her new school will better accommodate her daughter’s disability and provide her with a place to fit in. However, faced with a disability so foreign to his world, Shouya lashes out at Shouko with an onslaught of bullying and mockery. All around him, he sees his teachers and fellow students doing the same, whether it’s talking about Shouko behind her back, refusing to learn sign language in an effort to communication, or stealing and destroying her hearing aids. Yet when the school principal confronts the class and threatens to bring the police in to investigate the matter, Shouya quickly finds himself more alone in his mockery of Shouko than he originally imagined.
Despite its seemingly innocuous start, Oima expertly delivers a harsh and biting social commentary as A Silent Voice moves beyond its introduction. Shouya and his friends are established clearly with the sort of believable antics that we see in elementary school children that draws the reader to sympathize and identify with them only to have that familiarity pulled out from under their feet as the real brutality of childhood bullying comes to light. The work offers a very rare chance to see characters with disabilities represented on the page and a harsh light shed on the way that Japanese culture handles this difficult topic. Though there is some disappointment in the story’s focus on Shouya’s strife as he copes with the consequences of his action rather than allowing Shouko to occupy a more focal point in the story, it’s an important step taken in terms of representation within the genre and forcing the reader to re-examine their biases and treatment of disability in the world. LeCroy’s skill in translation and lettering also lends well to allowing Oima’s story and characters shine through in the text.
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.