I recently re-read the first volume of 聲の形 (Koe no Katachi,) a comic by 大今良時 (Ooima Yoshitoki) which depicts the bullying of Nishimiya, a deaf elementary schooler. When I first read the comic I was merely struck by the cruelty of Nishimiya’s classmates and their harassment towards her, but this time something else caught my attention: the burden which Nishimiya herself brings upon the class.
Due to her deafness, she relies on her classmates to inform her of what their teacher says during lecture; she slows down the lectures when she’s called upon, and she even ruins the chances of the girl’s choir club to win a competition. (As her choir instructor says in a bit of an understatement, 「硝子ちゃんが少しオンチなの。」) In other words, she brings down the group as a whole due to her disability. This all causes Nishimiya’s classmates to lash out against her in the form of harassment. By the lead of Shouya, the male protagonist of the series, they write nasty insults about her on the blackboard, toss dust at her, and throw away her expensive hearing aids numerous times. While this is all awful behavior, it now occurs to me however that Nishimiya’s classmates can’t exactly be blamed for this behavior.
Obviously, it’s bad to bully and harass someone, and Nishimiya does not deserve such treatment. But is it not only natural to lash out against someone who drastically interferes with the flow and functionality of a group, to the detriment of everyone? The characters of course act unjustly towards Nishimiya early on, but it’s relatively harmless name-calling. This sort of behavior is still inexcusable, but it’s not until after Nishimiya starts to clearly hinder the group in the aforementioned ways that the real bullying begins. In other words, the behavior of Nishimiya’s classmates towards her starts out as teasing once they are presented with someone different from them, someone who could potentially interfere with the status quo of the group in negative ways, and intensifies once this proves to be correct, or at least appear to be correct to them.
Coincidentally, on the same day I started re-reading the comic, a friend vented to me about an online chatroom which he is a member of, wherein the members treat him as a “certain personality” whom they must deal with. This in turn, reminded me of another incident within the chatroom that my friend informed me of a couple weeks beforehand. There was an individual in the group who had something of a mental breakdown, where he ranted about how his life was worthless and that there was no way of it getting any better, and that he even had thoughts of suicide. Despite such an alarming cry for help however, my friend was the only person who bothered to engage with the person. All the other members present in the chatroom at the time did their best to ignore the situation and brushed off his remarks. Such avoidance of a crisis like this cannot be excused, and I stress that I do believe we have a moral obligation to calm down anyone who has such a mental breakdown, especially when it could be a matter of life and death in regards to suicide. Having said that though, I can’t help but understand why these people would want nothing to do with this person.
We are often taught when we are young that we should help those in need, and that we should be inclusive and sympathetic to others who just want to be friends with us, that no one should be left out from having fun with everyone else. But when someone requires a good deal of assistance, whether physical assistance in the case Nishimiya’s hearing disability, or because they require emotional assurance in the case of the chatroom user, it becomes tiresome and emotionally draining to interact with these people, no matter how much we may sympathize and hope that they do find friendship and happiness in life. In all honesty, I don’t believe it’s fair to expect others to go out of their way to befriend those with special needs unless they truly want to be friends with this person, as Shouya does with Nishimiya in volume 2 of 聲の形.
And so the more I think about it, the more difficult I find it to blame anyone in 聲の形 for the bullying of Nishimiya. The fact of the matter is that Nishimiya was a deaf student placed into a classroom designed for hearing students, and so it’s inevitable that her presence would be disrupting. That’s why they have schools specifically designed for deaf students, but perhaps Nishimiya’s family had no such school near them. Barring that, ideally the school could have hired a sign-language interpreter, which is how many schools accommodate their students with hearing disabilities. But Nishimiya’s school may not have had the funding for that, especially for just one student. Perhaps the teachers could have done better to accommodate Nishimiya and intervene with the bullying. It’s unclear how aware Nishimiya’s homeroom teacher was of the hearing-aid thefts after the first incident, but he still could have taken more responsibility for the situation instead of placing all the blame on Shouya. But even then, he and the choir instructor just seem to me like normal adults who are trying to deal with a stressful, probably underpaid job, and who lacked proper training on how to deal with a situation like this. Teaching, especially for elementary school, is not particularly known for being a well-paid profession.
The true tragedy of 聲の形, at least with regards to the first volume of the series, is not simply that Nishimiya was bullied, but that such a kind-hearted and good-natured child could be the cause of such harsh treatment on herself through no real fault of her own. All she wants is to make friends and have a good school life, but no matter what she does the situation only gets worse, eventually resulting in her transferring out to another school entirely. Nishimiya would most likely have excelled more both academically and socially had she attended a school for the deaf, but I don’t mean to imply that such segregation from hearing people is the only solution either. We should strive to be open and empathetic towards others, but that alone won’t stop situations like Nishimiya’s from happening. Rather, it’s equally important that a system is devised in which children like Nishimiya can interact with able-bodied children without interfering with a group’s flow and functionality.
Note: I have yet to read the whole series in its entirety, so I am unaware of how the rest of the comic expands on these themes. This post simply draws upon my observations on the first volume of the series.
Originally published on Anime Is Dead on July 12, 2016. Revised December 3, 2016.