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by Nick Creamer,

A Silent Voice

GN 1

A Silent Voice GN 1
Shoya is not a nice boy. Driven by a relentless fear of boredom, he pressures his two friends to perform more and more outrageous stunts in “daily daredevil contests” - but his friends are growing up, and seem tired of his games. Fortunately, the new transfer student Shoko promises to bring new excitement to Shoya's life. Shoko is deaf, and as her disability prompts curiosity and resentment from her classmates, Shoya seizes the opportunity, making Shoko his premier bullying target. But in the vicious world of school cliques, it's only one small step from being the oppressor to being the victim.

A Silent Voice's first volume is not a comfortable read. It's slow and mean, full of small violences that make you wince and characters you just want to shake. That's not necessarily a bad thing though; in fact, it's often the best stories that make you uncomfortable, that make you care enough to feel pained by their characters' struggles. And this is a story all about the ugly side of childhood, so the fact that it made me grind my teeth about once every ten pages is probably a sign in its favor.

The manga follows Shoya, a young boy concerned principally with staving off his own boredom. He does this by pushing his friends to compete with him in feats of daring after school, but it's clear that he's the only one really into this activity. One friend tries to beg off by talking about cram school, and the other directly wonders if they shouldn't be growing out of this stuff. Shoya seems like the leader, but it's clear his position is tenuous.

The manga doesn't specifically call out the fragile dynamics of Shoya's circle - it's simply clear in their exchanges, as their conversations naturally evoke the tension and insecurity of childhood. The dialogue is the premier strength in A Silent Voice; this is one of those stories where you can feel like you've known a person for years after just having met them. Shoya isn't a likable person, but he's a very believable and fully constructed one, which helps keep the story sympathetic as it introduces its second protagonist, Shoko.

Shoko is the new girl in class, a girl whose deafness makes her an immediate target of interest and ultimately resentment. A Silent Voice's middle chapters naturally portray the casual cruelty of both children and adults, as well as how ordinary concern or ignorance can lead to bullying. Other kids feel angry towards Shoko for slowing down the class, and Shoya sees bullying her as an opportunity to regain his lost credibility. Teachers attempt to either give Shoko special treatment or ignore that she has a disability at all; unequipped to deal with her circumstances, they unintentionally make the situation worse for both her and others. Shoko's steady good spirit in spite of everything makes these chapters both relatable and heartbreaking, a strong and heavy combination.

Eventually the mob turns on Shoya, letting him take the fall for all their actions when the fact that Shoko's being bullied at school finally becomes public. In this volume's last act, Shoya finds himself isolated in class, and slowly retreats within himself as his former friends treat him like a phase they've grown out of. Shoko becomes the only person who'll treat him kindly, but Shoya doesn't want her sympathy - like with the casual cruelty of Shoya's classmates, this story doesn't shy away from the hard truth that becoming a more empathetic person isn't an immediate process. Kids are mean, and learning is hard.

In the end, we learn all of these events took place six years ago, meaning this whole first volume is essentially a prologue for the story to come. That story will hopefully not contain quite as much constant wincing as this one, but either way I'm on board - A Silent Voice's writing is phenomenal, its unglamourous insight into people as satisfying as it is uncomfortable. The art isn't quite as much of a standout, but it's still very solid; the character designs have a great deal of personality (though the choice to give Shoko dot-eyes somewhat limits his expressiveness relative to the others), and the anatomy is top notch. The manga's style of hair and tendency to prefer multiple sketched lines to thicker solid ones means it evokes a kind of loose feel while actually being quite detailed and precise; in the future, I'm hoping the artist leans further into that looseness, sacrificing a little realism and varying up the style of shots to let the dramatic moments breathe. But overall, A Silent Voice presents a first volume as painful as it is compelling. This drama may kill me, but as long as it's presented this well, I'm along for the ride.

Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B+

+ Well-observed dialogue and character drama make for a painfully acute portrait of childhood bullying.
Precise artwork occasionally feels a little too stiff for the material.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Yoshitoki Ōima
Licensed by: Kodansha Comics

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Silent Voice (manga)

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A Silent Voice (GN 1)

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