A Silent Voice: The Adults Aren’t There

Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains spoilers for both the anime and manga of A Silent Voice.

A Silent Voice begins with a flashback way back in elementary school, an insensitive thrill-seeking Shouya Ishida bullying a meek and deaf Shouko Nishimura.  Flanked by his pair of male childhood besties, the anime gives audiences a concrete illustration of Shouya’s escalating campaign of harassment:

screaming loudly into her ears; aping her tone-deaf nasally speaking; saying nasty things about her behind her back; writing nasty things about her on the blackboard; scribbling nasty things about her on her desk; stealing her school materials; ditching her school materials; stealing her expensive hearing aids; destroying her expensive hearing aids; making her ears bleed while ripping them off her ears; getting into a full-on scrap

All the while, the rest of her classmates grew distant from her, annoyed by the accommodations they’re asked to make for her special needs, afraid of being targeted for being seen as too close. A few  even join Shouya and pals in some of the lighter harassment.

Missing in this flashback and my description of these elementary school days are the adults. Well… more literally in my description and less literally in the flashback. A music teacher does make a brief appearance, a homeroom teacher with more frequency. More precisely, what’s actually absent here is responsibility, the responsibilities we expect adults to model for kids: parents and teachers especially. At the end of the day, school is more than just making kids absorb academic information. Much of that information ends up not being relevant and useful to most anyway, later discarded and forgotten. More than teaching kids math and science, school is also a socialization agent; it teaches kids how to live and get along with others in society.

The adults at school who fail to guide the kids they’re in charge of set those kids up for terrible failure as they grow up. Bullying between kids goes on in A Silent Voice in part because the responsible adults fail to notice or care enough to step in properly. The bullied develop debilitating social anxieties and crushing self-esteem issues. The bullies grow up with warped personalities and thought processes. The bystanders learn to be cowardly or callous, in huge part because of the homeroom teacher’s example. While this homeroom teacher maintains a significant role at the beginning of the movie, important scenes of his in the original manga story unfortunately didn’t make the film cut. His presence is that important to the themes of A Silent Voice that his actions and attitude in the anime and manga still bear addressing, regardless.

Now, at the moment of this writing, I’m also a teacher, and to a lesser degree, I’m afraid that fiction is being reproduced in reality with several, insensitive, thrill-seeking boys.

For those who don’t know, more likely because they don’t follow me on Twitter, I work in Japan as an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher. I’m an assistant English teacher basically, and it’s my job to help the Japanese instructor in charge to teach English well. I work in junior high schools, and I work in elementary schools. I have troublesome classes and students at both the secondary and primary levels of education, but for here, I will be narrowing my focus in this write-up to my primary school, elementary school experience. I have troublesome elementary school boys, and colleagues who are amiss at what to do. They aren’t so bad individually, but they are absolutely nightmarish once you put them together in the same room. Unfortunately, they’re classmates. Outside of class, they like to grapple and hit each other. Inside of class, they like to hit and grapple with each other. In addition to constant rough housing, they will not sit still during class. They will constantly talk over and occasionally, deliberately, disrupt their teachers and the lesson. Why do they do this? As far as I can tell, sheer boredom.

In A Silent Voice, elementary schooler Shouya monologues: it’s his sworn duty, every day, to defeat his boredom in battle. He’s especially fond of jumping off a local bridge into the relatively shallow creek below, a rush not unlike the kind some people get from skydiving. It’s forbidden and reckless action to many, but to him, it’s an absolute thrill and delight. He can’t jump off bridges all the time because he as school, but a surreptitious development seemingly saves his war: a deaf girl transfers into his school. To Shouya, his deaf new classmate Shouko is something different, novel, and exotic to poke at for an amusing reaction. She’s especially fun because, like the snails he’s salted and the ants he’s stepped on, she hardly ever retaliates back. It’s like she’s giving him permission to bully her, even as she (and probably the snails and ants) want the exact opposite. Other classmates put distance between them and Shouko because they’re irritated by her or want no trouble. Other classmates join in Shouya’s bullying because it looks fun or they want to fit in. The homeroom teacher does pitifully little about it until his hand is forced.

In an ideal world, I guess, people who get start getting bullied should speak up for themselves and fight back. Not all people are built like that though: not all adults and especially not kids. Kids are still figuring out how they need to act among others, and schools exist in part to train students for that end. In an ideal world, unequivocally, adults would not only lecture students on how they should behave. They’d also intervene, correct, and discourage future misbehavior. Sometimes before kids learn to abstain from drawing on the walls, adults and usually parents catch them in the act first. They communicate to them that they need to stop and never do it again — for some, just once, and for others, repeatedly.

Kids change their behavior in response to negative reinforcement, out of a conditioned recognition that their misbehavior will result in something displeasing to them. That negative reinforcement can range from being scolded and shouted at to having enjoyable privileges taken away and withheld.  It’s important though for parents and teachers to communicate clearly why a certain behavior is bad and not good. Failing to do so may otherwise give kids warped ideas about what’s right and wrong later in life. For example, I barked initially at my troublesome Japanese elementary students to sit down, stay on task, and stop fighting each other. I’m not in the best position to explain why, given my limited Japanese language abilities, but I did what I thought was right.

Anyway, word later got back to me about why I had to be so harsh with them when their homeroom teacher wasn’t. They were receiving mixed messages, and I was eventually told it wasn’t my responsibility to enforce discipline on students. It was the homeroom teacher’s to discipline their class, and I was out of line and inviting trouble for myself. The moral they probably got from this story was that it’s perfectly fine for them to misbehave so long as they could get away with it. They certainly are for now, but I can’t help but a continuing lack of self-control will harbor for their futures. Society gives kids the space to bruise themselves and learn from their mistakes, but when they become adults? As mentioned before in my ReLIFE article, the consequences can be far more severe and damaging to the individual and the rest of society. The individual will get shit for it and the others around them also get sullied.

The homeroom teacher I work with happens to be person that’s gentle soft-spoken in nature. And to clarify, there isn’t any bullying going on as far as I or anyone else can see to mark an intervention as urgent. The homeroom teacher in A Silent Voice is someone who can make himself sternly and angrily heard without trouble.

Shouya’s homeroom teacher can see that there’s evident teasing, harassing, bullying toward someone who doesn’t wish it going on. The guy takes him aside now and again to tell him to knock it off, though not in a way that rings of seriousness or sincerity. Shouya asks why, and he brings up the abstract  concept of “morals” that the boy then replies he doesn’t understand.  So instead of explaining what “morals” are in a concrete way he can understand, he shows how unfit and dangerous he is as both homeroom teacher and public servant. He first complains about how much Shouya’s parents and guardians failed at teaching him “morals” before concluding it’s one of those things he has to follow, leaving Shouya confused and unchanged. He later undermines his music teaching colleague’s attempt promote sign language learning to the class as a better connect with Shouko, claiming it’s unfair to make everyone who doesn’t want to.

The truth behind his objection becomes clear when he admits that he doesn’t personally object to what Shouya’s doing, giving him mixed messages. He doesn’t explain to him what “morals” he mentioned earlier means because he either doesn’t fully understand them himself or he doesn’t really agree with them. “Morals” are only relevant to him insofar as he must follow them enough to keep his job.  Even with this admission though, he’s half-assed in his indulgence of it to Shouya, since that’s not something he should be clearly admitting because of society’s “morals”. So the homeroom teacher closes his final talk with Shouya before he gets busted up for bullying by telling him not to embarrass him. The message obviously doesn’t register with Shouya, and he continues doing what he likes.

It also just so happens the one who does eventually bust Shouya up for his bullying is this same homeroom teacher, and no one else. He doesn’t care about the bullying since it’s not his personal problem if it’s manageable, or he believes it’s too much trouble to care about personally until it blows up. And when it does blows up, when his superiors catch on to the class’s problem and makes his personal problem, when he’s presumably told to get to the bottom of it all and find the culprit quickly, he chooses… him. He immediately and unhesitatingly fingers Shouya, and only Shouya, the most prominent bully, without any prompting from his other students. If there was any prompting involved, it was him encouraging his students to lie, just like him, about their complicity in the bullying.

Teacher and students lie about their complicity in the bullying, making Shouya the sole fall guy and letting everyone else save face. By implicating just him and not anyone else in Shouko’s bullying, the homeroom teacher especially saves his crooked half-ass. It’s bad enough that one of his students was seen as a bully, but if multiple students were also identified as being complicit, what does that say to parents, his superiors, and society-at-large as someone in charge of kids? That he was so negligent or incompetent at his job that he didn’t notice so many of his kids breaking bad? Since he manages a large class size, he could maybe get away with one of his kids being awful to his superiors because he could only pay attention to one student for so long before attending to others.  The homeroom teacher skates by without injury to his employment, but what moral did this entire situation impart to his kids, ultimately?

Apparently, that it’s okay not take responsibility for your actions so long as there’s someone else to blame.  Miki Kawai grows up completely blacking out her own parts in fueling the escalating drama of Shouko’s bullying, following the homeroom teacher’s lead and defaulting blame to Shouya and just him. Naoka Ueno grows up blaming Shouko for ruining hers and Shouya’s happy elementary school life, despite being the second person to throw Shouya under the figurative moving bus (the homeroom teacher was the first). When kids are still kids, they observe what adults do and copy their behavior. Within the walls of a school classroom, where kids learn how to act in society when they are adults, teachers are not only supposed to lecture about morals. They are also supposed to model them. When the teacher and most significant adult in the classroom is a dishonest, selfish, responsibility-dodging asshole…

…should we really wonder that the children that are supposed to learn from him mimic his dishonest, selfish, narcissistic-asshole behavior? Even if parents and guardians do lapse to teach their children morals, that is no excuse for teachers to abdicate their own moral responsibility. Both parents and teachers are expected by society to act as socializing agents, because society would otherwise be overrun and rendered dysfunctional by assholes.

What are these “morals” that society wants to promote, and why do they matter? A society is a collection of people that are bound together by social contract. This social contract allows people to reside and cooperate with each other to achieve endeavors they would otherwise be unable to do by themselves, such as living in peace without want. Predatory, bullying, and asshole behavior by enough people, enough actors, undermines the social contract and threatens society itself. It’s entirely possible to understand the social contract in terms of transaction, which is how Shouya’s homeroom teacher interprets his place as a member of society. He follows the rules at their minimum so as to not be overly recognized and penalized by society-at-large as a bad actor. It makes what he’s doing in his teaching position especially insidious if not fully intentional, training the next generation’s members of society to be bad actors.

The best defense of the social contract are people who are taught to be sensitive and considerate: actors who are empathetic. Nowhere in the homeroom teacher’s half-assed attempts at making Shouya wise up does he ever ask him to imagine how he’d feel if he was in her shoes, if he was being bullied. And Shouya does wise up. He does feel regret and guilt what he’s done to Shouko, but only after the tables get turned and he became a victim of bullying by Ueno, Kawai, his former male besties, and the rest of the class. It is through the traumatically unambiguous communication of experience does he realize that bullying is wrong, that his struggle with boredom is not worth someone’s pain. All this suffering on Shouya and even Shouko may have been avoided though, if the homeroom teacher tried explained to Shouya how  “morals” mean empathy and why empathy is important. The homeroom teacher doesn’t value empathy though. He’s an asshole, and what’s worse, he’s an adult.

Adults should know better. But Shouya’s still a kid. He still has space to learn, and he has.

The adults at school who fail to guide the kids they’re in charge of set those kids up for terrible failure as they grow up. Bullying between kids goes on in A Silent Voice in part because the responsible adults fail to notice or care enough to step in properly. The bullied develop debilitating social anxieties and crushing self-esteem issues. Shouko Nishimura and later Shouya Ishida remain victims of these feelings of inadequacy and guilt even up to high school. The bullies grow up with warped personalities and thought processes. Miki Kawai and Naoka Ueno especially with complexes that absolve them from any wrongdoing way back when. The bystanders learn to be cowardly or callous, perhaps like me with my troublesome kids. These are the lessons they initially draw from their childhood: that others are cruel, that they should be cruel like others, or both. They learn these lessons because the adults that are supposed to guide them are either absent or cruel, too.

I am not in a great position to help my misbehaving Japanese students. I can’t speak Japanese well enough to communicate to them why they need to stop. I don’t have the authority or the presence in their lives that the homeroom teacher possesses. The music teacher that they don’t see every day couldn’t reach Shouya’s class about being more empathetic Shouko because she was undermined by the homeroom teacher. I, the ALT that my kids don’t see every day, can’t reach my boys with my seriousness and sternness because the homeroom teacher is a gentle and soft-spoken person by nature. At least they aren’t bullies yet, I think. But, given the right circumstances, they may. The biggest thing in their lives right now is their seemingly dire and urgently self-important battle against boredom. As they move from one education level to the next, I hope someone better equipped than I can teach them to be… better.

Management: For more on how people’s education as kids can make and break their lives as adults, here’s an article from a while back on ReLIFE.

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