It’s been praised for its visual storytelling, its treatment of bullying, and its highlighting of the handicapped. Now let’s focus on how it depicts the overcomplicated nature of communication.
People make mistakes. Everyone has regrets. There are many different human factors involved in order to determine the exact path people take when it comes to dealing with their sordid past. In Shoya Ishida’s case, he decided to learn sign language and shut out everyone he doesn’t let into his world with visual purple “X” marks over their faces. And due to how he bullied a deaf girl, ended up costing his mother thousands of dollars (which he also spent a good chunk of his post-elementary school life working to pay back), and turned all of his friends against him as a result, he’s not exactly seeking to expand his circle anytime soon.
The boy knows how to punish himself, but when it comes to finding a release from that punishment, the best answer he could come up with was suicide. Most people who have attempted to kill themselves and survived can tell you that suicide is more an act of cowardice than it is an apology, and Koe no Katachi’s opening scene when Ishida nearly makes a fatal misunderstanding sets the underlying dark tone that accompanies him and the other characters as they spend two hours trying to talk to each other. Hope you guys have seen this movie before reading this post, because it spoils a lot of major plot elements, including the ending.
There are many different reasons for bullying to exist, and in regards to Shoya, he tormented main female protagonist Shoko Nishimiya due to his inability to communicate with her. The very aspect of a deaf girl was enough to make him blurt out how weird she was upon first meeting and things get worse when Shoko attempted to communicate with him and her classmates due to a combination of her naturally reserved personality and the sad fact that most little kids don’t want to go through the trouble of learning sign language, let alone in order to make one classmate’s life easier. Other classmates joined in on the bullying too when they saw Shoko’s attempts to communicate with them as a burden caused by her inability to understand where they’re coming from. There is never a good excuse for the hazing that she got as a result – or indeed the kind that Shoya got after things were taken too far – but one thing Koe no Katachi makes clear compared to other stories that deal with bullying is that the very root of the problem is something both sides have to take responsibility for, even if it’s clear who’s more at fault.
Communication is a very essential tool in real life for many different reasons. From the act of convincing a certain company why they should even consider giving you an interview to diffusing a hostile situation before it erupts into all-out war to the simple act of asking a girl out on a date, it is something we all use even though a majority of us does not bother to think about its importance, and an even smaller fraction ponders what is accomplished from a successful exchange beyond what’s in front of them. For the most part, said majority thinks about the results if they can impress in that job interview or how to shut someone out if it turns out that there are too many barriers and differing opinions getting in the way to make information exchange worth the hassle.
With the act of communication itself being interpreted differently by many individual scholars, it is practically impossible for one true communication that can unify all of the people on Earth to exist, so there’s nothing wrong with what the majority does. And like everything good in life, there’s an inherent selfishness to communication that we just have to accept because at the end of the day, self-motivation is practically required for us to survive. However, there are fundamental truths to communication that always stick to it no matter what form it takes or how it’s interpreted. And the biggest one that Koe no Katachi tackles through its cast is the necessity of compromise and how discovering the right middle ground in order for successful relationships to occur is a very complicated affair.
While there is definitely a lot more good to come out of Shoya learning sign language and such than there is bad, ask yourself this: why did he bother to learn it in the first place? Whether you see it as his way of atoning for what he’s done or punishing himself even further, Shoya can’t escape how ultimately he’s feeling better because of it. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with that due to the necessity of self-motivation I just mentioned, along with how no one wants to watch a protagonist whose entire arc consists of nothing but a self-defeating attitude to begin with unless their name is Shinji Ikari – and even then a lot of Evangelion fans can’t stand that sad sack as is. But what about when other parties get involved, namely when he meets Shoko again by chance a few years later and tries to make amends with her? Will she see his actions as a heartfelt apology or will she see it as a self-indulgent need to make himself feel better? And of lesser importance, how should we see it?
Of course, when it comes to making that decision, things aren’t just as black and white as choosing one or the other because they’re both inherently true. And it’s also an unfortunate fact that trust is easy to destroy but takes time to build. At the end of the day, it’s all up to the individual personality who’s being communicated with to weigh in all the factors they know before deciding how to communicate back, not helped by how one person cannot possibly have access to the exact same factors another person does. While Shoko accepts Shoya after seeing how much he’s worked to earn her forgiveness, her sister Yuzuru is not so forgiving due to a more tomboyish attitude and only knowing Shoya second-hand. It’s only when Shoya goes out of his way to help Yuzuru even when she gets him suspended that the two start talking to each other, but that still leaves the mother, and is there any reasonable parent who wouldn’t declare a boy dead to them when they discover that he hurt their daughter?
Even if we only utilize a few of them in our lifetime, the number of potential human factors that go into communication is astronomical, easily outnumbering China’s population. The most we can do is categorize them under common rules and offer universal truths that are relevant to said rules. Situation. Circumstance. Individual Personality. Compatibility. Even Shoya’s quick befriending of an easy-going guy like Nagatsuka has a lot going underneath it to consider, right down to the very fact that said friendship started because our lead happened to see the weird-haired dude in trouble at the right moment, help him out on the spur of the moment, and the person he helped happened to be a good guy who got his bike back for him. Honestly, it’s easier to just accept Nagatsuka’s reasoning that you don’t have to explain this sort of stuff because as long as you’re happy, who cares about the other stuff?
Unfortunately, Shoya does have to care somewhat, because the other cast members he tries to befriend from the “nice but irresponsible” Miki Kawai to the “mean-spirited tsundere” Naoka Ueno aren’t exactly as easy-going. While there’s no doubt that our lead male is the one who has to be the bigger man in practically all of the situations Koe no Katachi puts him in, it’s also a truth that the people he’s communicating with have to meet him partway, and when they refuse to do so, Shoya is within his right to cut off ties with burdensome people rather than continue to hope for something better. Because there comes a point when the person’s demands in exchange for sharing information – whether it be professional or personal – becomes unreasonable. And there are very few instances where meeting said demands leads to a relationship that can be considered either fair or healthy.
After all, the end goal of any relationship is that it be a good one, even if the definition of “good” is up for debate. And while people may have reasons to keep a relationship that’s not so ideal alive, internal pain will always emerge as a result regardless of your personal tolerance for it. Worse yet, it can even have an effect on your healthy relationships, as Shoya demonstrates from his frequently forced interactions with the Nishikawa sisters after things don’t work out regarding his relationships with the supporting cast. While said interactions do eventually pave way for Shoya to make amends with the sisters’ mother, it also leads to our lead female attempting suicide in order to prevent the kid from destroying himself. Isn’t suicide from the other party too drastic a response, you may ask? Yes it is, but it all ties back to Shoya’s attempted suicide near the beginning of the film along with how Shoko herself isn’t the best contributor when it comes to the relationships she forms with people.
Shoko is, at the end of the day, a human being with her own thoughts and interpretations regarding the world around her. And just like the boy she has a crush on, she didn’t fully take into consideration what something as drastic as suicide actually means to the people she’s trying to communicate with through said action. If you could communicate with people just by being a good person, then nobody would ever hate you, plus there’d be far less problems in the world. And in her attempts to be helpful, Shoko not only contributed to people hating her, but ironically made a demand that was far more unreasonable than what the nastier members of the cast wanted from Shoya if they were to continue hanging out with each other – not helped by how even when most of the blame will come to her in regards to her decisions, there’s no denying that Shoya had a part in her judgment that he can’t just ignore. Depending on how you interpret that can make you sympathize with Shoko more or slam her into a fence for thinking that any good could possibly come from what her meek personality lead to.
Ueno may have gone too far in regards to beating up Shoko in the aftermath – or indeed any of the scenes she’s mean to Shoko – but there’s no denying that the mute girl’s actions had consequences that she should have taken into account before even considering killing herself. In addition to nearly getting Shoya killed when he tried to save her, what would have happened if both of them had died? And assuming he lived, how on earth would setting Shoya free from being with her help him when he’s grieving to the point that he probably won’t want to talk to anyone ever again, along with Ms. Nishimiya hating him forever for leading her daughter to commit suicide after all the hard work that was done in regards to patching things up for his actions in elementary school? There are probably even more consequences that I can’t think of at this moment, which just goes to show how complex a subject matter Koe no Katachi is dealing with underneath its simplistic surface elements. This post itself only scratches a fraction of the major themes regarding communication and the compromises required to make it work that are imparted through these characters’ actions. If I tried to analyze everything this movie has to offer, I could probably write my own textbook.
And even then, that textbook wouldn’t match up to what the experts have already written because Koe no Katachi is just a two-hour long movie with characters that are a little less complex than real-life people. It’s not a doctoral thesis on something most professionals would have trouble summarizing coherently and it’s not looking to provide answers that honestly no one has the capability to fully provide aside from the people involved. When you get down to it, it too is a method of communication, and what we take away from it depends on a lot of factors that convince us to even watch the movie, let alone the number of human elements that drive our own interpretation of what we see. The most it is capable of is diagnosing common elements of an interesting subject matter in a manner that will hopefully reach out to most audiences. And it also comes with an ending where no matter if you agree with Shoya’s ultimate destination, there isn’t anything you can reasonably ask of him by the movie’s end to make him more deserving of it.
Yes, Koe no Katachi’s final act starts with Shoko getting the supporting cast back together by communicating with them on even more terms, leading to a series of events that ends with Shoya feeling he’s finally redeemed himself and opening up his world so that the X-marks he sees on people’s faces no longer exist. With an internal journey that contained many hard challenges and acknowledgments, even forcing him to be unlikable at points so that he can be likable later on, what exactly did he learn at the end to finally make the decision to be free? My interpretation of the ultimate lesson, which is only aided by how Shoko herself learns it too, is that while reaching out to people can be daunting and there are definitely bad sides to it, you should never give up on it because there might be people who you are reaching out to that you aren’t aware of. And why give up on them when you can make yourself happy by helping each other live?
You will have to atone for mistakes you make. You will have to contribute more than the other party at times. There’s the issue of how Shoya can’t possibly form bonds with everyone in that festival and there’s no telling what the future has for his current bonds. But no matter what happens, you should never lose the ability to hear other people’s voices. Because when you lose it, you’ll most likely never get it back. And just like how this movie hoped to reach out to many people with what it has to say, here’s to hoping this post diagnosing what I think are the most interesting aspects of Koe no Katachi is understood by most of you guys. Plus if you’ve got your own interpretations, I’ll be willing to attempt communication with you in the comments section below.