I stumbled upon A Silent Voice when I was at my local library in the manga section. What piqued my interest was seeing that it was a story about living with a disability, something I seldom find in Japanese fiction. A story that isn’t about trying to get senpai to notice you, but instead the struggle of finding redemption and acceptance? Yes, I want to read that!
At the core, A Silent Voice is about learning how to communicate matters of the heart in a way that the other person will understand -heavy topics in the mind of a sixth grader for sure. In elementary school, Shouya Ishida tries to overcome boredom by bullying a deaf girl named Shouko Nishimiya despite how kind she is to him. Eventually the bullying becomes so severe that Shouko has to transfer schools. After she leaves, the class starts getting their revenge on Shouya by giving him a taste of his own medicine. The result of Shouya’s refusal to listen to Shouko is that he loses all his friends and the bully becomes the traumatized bullied.
Soon, Shouya is well acquainted with the feeling of being unheard. He lives depressed and lonely for years, tormented by regretful thoughts of what he had done to Shouko. Shortly his overwhelming regret propels him to seek some sort of relief. He decides to learn sign language and seek out Shouya to apologize.
Here we get to see the power of regret in Shouya’s mind. It manifests itself in many healthy, but also dangerous ways. Shouya flips between feelings of wanting to protect Shouko and devote his life to her, to wanting to end his life all together. In a lot of ways, his regret has given him a purpose to keep on living as well a reason to not.
This seams almost like a Hamlet moment for Shouya. The story takes a dive into the subject matter of what it means to be alive. Shouya questions if his regret is greater then his purpose of being alive or if his regret is his reason for being alive. The battle between holding onto the pain of the past or striving to right one’s wrongs is displayed for our hearts. This is a very common theme in anime and manga. The story tries to relate to the readers by showing an imperfect character walk a path in search for redemption. This technique of story telling isn’t only found in grand shonen anime like Naruto or Rurouni Kenshin. A Silent Voice work taps into the universal desire humans have to be redeemed and wanted, a desire seldom filled by human effort alone.
Shouko also deals with regret, not because of any past wrongs but because of her deafness. Shouko smiles constantly even when she is being physically or emotionally hurt. It’s the best coping mechanism she has for the pain she holds inside. Shouko believes that if she pretends that she is happy, her social community would stop blaming her for being a bother in their lives. However, when that tactic fails time and time again, she starts to take personal responsibility for their bullying against her. She feels that if she wasn’t different, then the lives of others would be better.
The greatest hurt Shouko feels isn’t her disability; it’s the fear that her disability makes her a burden on other people. This creates a mindset where she believes that because she is not as productive as her classmates, her life has less value. This reminds me of what my dad taught my sisters and I growing up. “Everyone has equal worth but different abilities” he said. This became increasingly more evident as my sisters and I grew up watching one another combat life with the trial and error method. The second oldest sister in my family has autism, and as sweet and kind hearted as she is, it became very obvious to my younger sisters that they were developmentally passing her. The social dynamics of my siblings has always been pretty fluid. For my youngest sisters, the older we get, the closer we seem to be getting to each other, but the farther away from understanding our autistic sister. We used to be able to play with her like little kids, hours on end of dress up and dolls, but as soon as we grew out of that stage of life, there didn’t seem to be anything keeping us connected.
Regardless, she is apart of the family and we include her in our lives. She’s very extroverted and wants our attention and time. The five of us in the family pour out as much love as we can bare because we value her as a member of our family despite being a little different. We tried to make sure that she understood that even with a disability, she had the same worth as the rest of the family members around her and that God looks at the heart, not one’s works. I feel that this is where Shouko’s family falls short. They didn’t go the extra mile to give her an accurate understanding of human value and because of that, Shouko started believing that her life was something she had permission to take away from the world.
Beyond the regret of Shouya and Shouko is a world full of other characters who have their own struggles. Most of the problems of the side characters are projected onto Shouya and Shouko to make their lives even worse. Lovely. Not only are Shouya and Shouko regretful about their lots in life, they’re emotionally manipulated into believing that their lives are a burden. While to the audience this might seem absurd, to the unfortunate lead characters it’s a logical conclusion to their bruised psyche. If you tell someone a lie long enough, they’ll start to believe it.
Despite this emotional abuse, what’s beautiful about A Silent Voice is that no one is portrayed as “normal.” Every character struggles with their deep hurts. Watching everyone’s pain unfold is very relatable to real life. This does make life a little more difficult for Shouya as he feels that he can’t really be heard and understood if everyone around him is struggling in his or her own little world of hurt. His greatest fear is that he is only seen as the bully he was in elementary school and none if his pain is worth validating. Deep down, he wants to just kill the monster of his past, but confuses his present, changed self with his past identity as being one in the same. Thus, he struggles with wanting to punish himself in a way he doesn’t deserve.
It’s hard to tell how serious Shouya is about wanting to kill his younger self. Those words obviously come out of the pain of guilt and regret, but if he were to follow through on the action it’s hard to sense if he would be doing it out of pain from his present or as a way to punish himself for his sins. Suicide in this sense is a form of redemption for him. I have the understanding that the culture in this manga is very much centered around the idea that a person’s life is just a collection of a pile of coals one heaps on themselves. Whoever ends with the least amount of coals “wins” and anyone with more coals then someone else is somehow less valuable as a person. The weight of the world is on everyone’s shoulders, and Shouya and his friends are desperately trying to find a way to relieve it. These are the monsters that Shouya is trying to defeat during the story.
Of course, in my opinion, this face-off with death’s hourglass is pointless. Romans 3:23 says, “For all fall short of the glory of God.” Every single person has done damage to another human being sometime in their lives. Humans are messed-up creatures. But to hold one’s good or bad deeds against another person’s and draw a conclusion from it is not only a terrible form of quantifying human value, it’s not objectively possible for anyone but God! God even tells us how to wipe away our sins, so going on an emotional quest to discover redemption through your own good deeds is a pointless venture. We do not have the capabilities to fulfill our own emotional needs.
There are some subtle and not so subtle dealings with the theme of death. Both main characters struggle with thoughts of suicide. This is an incredibly real struggle in the world we live in. Suicide in Japan takes about 70 people every day. This is a hot topic we’ve seen with the Logan Paul dealing as of late. The suicide forest in Japan is a symbol of the pain of playing the guilt game that cannot be won. The sad thing is, suicidal thoughts are common and natural when someone faces deep turmoil. Stopping the thoughts from becoming actions is the battle. But the war is facing trauma head on and searching for redemption .
I’ve had my fair share of depression. Coming out on the other side of that kind of hurt; I have a deep heart for people like Shouya and Shouko, and I want to be someone who listens. I feel that loneliness and misunderstandings are one of the deepest pains that someone can feel. When I was in the deep depths of despair, there was only one hope I could find. Just as Shouya acts as a savior to Shouko, I’ve seen God work in my life to save me from my depression and loneliness. There was a period of time where the only one who would truly listen, was God. That was the greatest redemption I’ve ever known.
If you haven’t read A Silent Voice yet, you should. It’s a powerful story that is easily relatable and digs deep into the audience’s empathy. Finally, if you or someone you know is struggling with hurt like Shouya, don’t be silent about it. Those of us here at Beneath the Tangles want to listen.