If you were a bully, would you try to change who you were? If you were a victim of bullying, would you forgive your assailant? Koe no Katachi (literally translated “The Shape of Voice” in English) by Ooima Yoshitoki details the story of Ishida Shouya, and his growth from a savage terror in elementary school, concerned only with satisfying his own need for stimulation, to a young man with concern and empathy for those around him.
We’re first introduced to Shouya as a child, performing a “test of courage” with his friends. You see, dear reader, Shouya is afraid of boredom. School is boring, stagnating is boring, living is boring, so he has to do something to cut through that cloud of drivel. What does he do? He jumps off of bridges. He pours salt on slugs. He eggs his two best friends on into getting into the same sort of trouble that he does. Shouya is a problem child, and this is made very clear from the very beginning of Koe no Katachi. When he meets Nishimiya Shouko, a deaf girl who transfers into his elementary school, he does not treat her like a person – he treats her like a tool to alleviate his boredom. He yells in her ear, pours dirt on her, and tosses out her hearing aids, not thinking for a moment that she is just another human being. No, she’s an alien from the planet Nishimiya, and she doesn’t understand human speech.
Still interested in this manga? Hopefully, you are. The first part of Koe no Katachi is written so realistically that we can only feel hatred for Shouya as he goes through the motions of his existence. His behaviour toward Shouko and his sudden realization that what he has been doing is wrong is portrayed so masterfully as to be simply exceptional. This primarily unlikable child, Shouya, is the main character of this story, and this story is about his redemption as he transforms from a bully into a good human being. We watch him as he ruins his life, and we watch him try to build it back up again. His development is handled marvellously. His desire to better himself and help his mother (as well as Shouko, when he encounters her again later on) is commendable, and his ability to face the facts and stand his ground despite the shame and hatred he feels toward himself is nothing short of amazing.
However, since Shouya is the narrator of our story, he is also an unreliable one. We don’t learn much about Shouko due to his influence. Now, some people may complain that it is because Shouko is poorly developed as a character. I disagree. I think it is more because we see Shouko through Shouya’s eyes, and Shouya himself doesn’t know very much about her. The only thing he can see is her expressions and what she says through her hands. That is all we can use to infer how she feels and what she thinks. And, for the most part, she is very expressive. It isn’t too difficult to guess what her emotions are based on the way her eyes blaze or which way her mouth curves – up or down. What about the more intricate thought patterns, you ask? Well, that’s all up to our own interpretation, and Shouya’s, too, which is where we begin making mistakes, and where the majority of the problems our hero faces stems from.
We have the same amount of information about the other characters in the manga (of which there are numerous), but these characters speak with their voices, which is why we find them to be more readily understandable (and Shouya as well, by extension). None of the characters fall into regular tropes such as tsundere or yandere – although it could be argued that Ueno has traits of both – and they all feel like very real people. They are likable and dislikable just like regular old individuals. Some of the most important characters we come across are Ueno Naoka, Kawai Miki, and Sahara Miyoko, all of whom were Shouya’s classmates when he was a child.
Ueno, at first, seems like a fairly pleasant girl, until we learn how bratty and spoilt she is. She joins right in with bullying Shouko, and indeed doesn’t seem to grow up, as she carries her hatred with her all the way into high school. While she is definitely a dislikable character, she is a well-crafted one. She understands her flaws and she wants to change who she is, but she doesn’t know how to and isn’t sure how to move forward. Moreover, her own motivations trump any sort of misgivings she has for her own behaviour, and while she may do a lot of things wrong, she also does some things right. She is forefront, honest, and blunt. She speaks her mind, and in some ways is a true driving force for the plot later on.
Kawai may be kawaii in appearance, but personality-wise she is anything but. Giving off the façade of a well-to-do honour student, Kawai breezes through life by doing whatever best benefits her and her vision of the world. While not as influential a character as Ueno, she certainly has her part to play in Koe no Katachi, as you’ll see once you read it. Sahara is a shy bookworm sort of character who warms up to Shouko the best in elementary school, although her attempts at making contact are ruined by peer pressure and psychological abuse. She is one of the characters who truly tries to make Shouya portray how much he has changed as a person.
The rest of the haphazard group is composed of Nagatsuka Tomohiro, Mashiba Satoshi, and Nishimiya Yuzuru. Nagatsuka wants to become a movie director, and his attempts at making a movie are what draw the characters together in the first place. Mashiba is one of the people Nagatsuka drags in to his dream. Yuzuru, meanwhile, is Shouko’s younger sibling, and enjoys taking pictures.
No character roster of Koe no Katachi would be complete without naming Shouko and Shouya's mothers. Both are very well designed characters, Nishimiya especially, and they both showcase different forms of love to their children.
This manga is riddled with hints, foreshadowing, and seemingly insignificant or confusing phrases and expressions. Certain heart-tugging events that may leave you stunned and at a loss for words may seem very natural and even inevitable when you take into account the main character’s lack of understanding of the situation and the cryptic messages we were privy to earlier. The second part of the manga, detailing Shouya’s growth as a person while he tries to make amends to Shouko, mixes the genres of drama, psychology, and slice of life together in a wonderfully immersive tale. The third portion of the manga is just as well-written, if more drama-filled than the relatively tame second part. Nothing changes the fact that the author seems to have a very good understanding of the mind. While she certainly could have made this manga darker, it is very good for what it is, and realistic enough that it doesn’t need anything more depressing to be considered a masterpiece.
Ooima Yoshitoki is a very good artist. Koe no Katachi has stellar art for a manga published on a weekly basis, with very few inconsistencies and no deterioration in quality that I have been able to notice. Both characters and backgrounds are detailed, and each character has a distinctive design to make them stand out from the rest. Characters are actually fairly realistic looking apart from Nagatsuka. Screentones are used to their full potential and there are definitely no cuts and corners taken when it comes to the artwork.
What can I say about Koe no Katachi, in closing? It was certainly an amazing ride and I’m glad I came along for it. While it does have its issues here and there, one must take into account that this is the debut work of a very young author. It is truly an exceptional manga with the subject matter it tackles and the quality it is written, and I wholeheartedly label it a must-read for anyone interested in literature in general. Remember, kids, no matter what mistakes you’ve committed in the past, if you regret them and see them as they are, you’re a good person. Don’t be afraid of facing your fears, because that is only the first step of the journey you’re about to take. Growing up is a painful process – but we all have to do it. And at the end, you’ll reach a door. You know what you’ll find behind that door? Your future, yours to take into your own hands, as bright as you are able to make it. You can only help yourself as long as you are alive.