Many of my favourite manga have quirks that distinguish them from other graphic narratives. In Oyasumi Pun-pun, the protagonist and a few other characters are depicted in an abstract style that sets them apart from the world around them. However, the world makes no note of this difference: the dissonance we see in Pun-pun’s design comes to parallel the dissonance he feels from the world as we follow his troubled life. His crude form suggests a kind of innocence inherent in him; as his depiction transforms as the story goes on, the cruel nature of society becomes more and more reflected within him.
This technique is called ‘de-familiarization’: we see it often in surreal and abstract art, but it can find its way into all sorts of fictional media. Through patterns of genres and themes, stories tend towards a sense of habitualization when it comes to processing characters, settings and situations. But artistic choices can be made to isolate and distort particular aspects of a work, negating our expectations and placing us in a liminal position between understanding and uncertainty, disrupting the automatic consumption of a story and encouraging us to see beyond the surface of what we’re experiencing.
De-familiarization is a tricky task: make things too bizarre and you risk alienating an audience rather than bringing them closer into what they traditionally enjoy. When the entire premise of a work rests on the disruption of a particular reading habit, everything can fall flat if the abnormalities are poorly introduced or managed throughout the work. We could point to Handshakers as an example of a failed attempt of this: most of the attention the show received was made up of its followers pointing and laughing at everything they saw. There was little discussion of the potential artistic merits of the bizarre animation, because barely any potential was seen. Regardless of intent, the strange stylistic choices came across as little more than, well, strange.
You don’t need to be flashy to de-familiarize something in your story, though. Simple touches can be all you need to draw your audience in and make them feel like they’re experiencing something ‘new’. Some creators do this by not adding anything at all: rather, they take something away. In minimalist works, like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, this can be taken to the extreme: whole dimensions of setting and plot progression can be brought close to nothing. But again, one simple subtraction can be enough.
What if the most interesting character almost never spoke?
Komi-san wa Komyushou Desu (Komi Can’t Communicate) is a popular manga about an average high school boy, Hitohito Tadano, and his mission to help the school’s ‘Madonna’, Shouko Komi, to make some real friends. It’s an endearing comedy that juxtaposes the school’s perception of Komi, as an unapproachable goddess, against her real nature of having a communication disorder and a bubbly moe spirit.
Rather than simply fetishize Komi’s shyness and create a shallow cutesy comedy, mangaka Oda Tomohito does a lot to get the audience invested in the depths of her character and situation. Komi-san wants to communicate, but due to her disorder she finds herself forced to write most of her speech down. Having a notepad handy at all times becomes a comfort for her, and the other characters around her become more and more used to this, normalizing it in their world. The general arc of the plot paints a positive picture about how communities can come together to be cooperative of those with disabilities or disorders. But this only happens because of how Tadano responds to the unfamiliarity of Komi-san’s character.
The first thing we read in Komi-san, after seeing the iconography of Komi dominate the initial cover, is a core principal of Tadano’s consciousness: just because someone has trouble communicating doesn’t mean they don’t want to communicate with others. Tadano is introduced as a ‘timid coward’ himself, and we see that his history of being ‘overly expressive’ in the past is haunting him as he begins his next phase of high school life. Then he bumps into Komi for the first time, and tries to introduce himself: the manga juxtaposes two different perspectives on the school ‘goddess’. From afar, she looks shy and confused, but a closeup reveals an impenetrable gaze. This then transforms, as the perspective recedes behind Tadano again, to a dark and sinister outline of her that only reveals her eyes, still fixed upon him.
Tadano brushes the encounter off, certain that he’ll go on to live a simple and peaceful high school life, but then he discovers that Komi sits beside him.
When Komi comes to introduce herself to the class, she writes her name on the chalkboard instead of saying anything, and the class interprets this as an affirmation of her ‘higher’ status. They read her shyness as her being aloof, and they only interpret this positively because of her beauty: ‘she looks beautiful no matter what she does’, Tadano will later remark. What if she had her communication disorder without her looks? Tomohito frames the class’s reactions, through Tadano’s readings of them, as bizarre and problematic. He doesn’t join in: he himself is ‘above’ the class, and he’s therefore compelled to dig deeper into the reality of Komi’s character, and we are with him.
The turning point occurs in the fourth chapter: believing she’s alone because Tadano is asleep at his desk, Komi starts to think out loud just as Tadano wakes up. She berates herself for not saying anything in front of the class, and utters a soft ‘meow’ while playing with a small cat toy. Tadano overhears this, and blurts out that he didn’t hear anything; Komi starts to run away, and Tadano realizes she might just be bad at talking with other people. We get a panel of him exclaiming ‘hey, Komi-san!’ against a backdrop of all his memories of her aloofness, and he does his thinking out loud again, asking her if she has this problem before berating himself for lacking a brain-to-mouth filter again. The comedy of the scene revolves around them both failing to communicate while sharing in the one thing that will bring them together – losing the barrier between thought and speech.
Tadano then makes the most important decision of the story – confronted by Komi’s inability to respond to him regularly, he asks if she could write on the blackboard for him. He quickly runs out of conversation material and tries to escape, but Komi detains him, and starts writing more: that she really wants to chat, and she used to always eat lunch alone because of her disorder. The panels start to be consumed by her speech: her distress becomes framed by a series of erratic angles from which her messages begin to be read, emphasizing how she’s thought about how to overcome her condition in so many ways, but she only ends up fixated on her fears.
After outlining all her worries, she apologizes to Tadano, and then asks if he could forget everything he had seen. But as she starts to leave, Tadano picks up the chalk and starts writing on it himself.
It’s just small talk – ‘the weather’s nice today, huh?’ – but it signals to Komi that Tadano is willing to change himself instead of trying to change her. When Komi replies, Tadano gestures for her to say more, again without actually speaking. We then get a wide shot of their entire conversation on the chalkboard – completely disorganized, but beautiful in how it speaks of the friendship they’ve suddenly created together. Komi outlines that she dreams of having a hundred friends, and Tadano introduces himself as her first, and this scene summarizes how Komi will go about connecting to the rest. All this time she was worrying about how to change herself, but what matters is finding people who are willing to change for her.
Some people with speech impediments use text-to-speech software to simulate vocal communication, so they can fit in better. But by making her approach to communication primarily written, Komi places her speech textually within the story. When we read speech bubbles, there’s a distance we automatically cross between us reading the speech and the characters in the story hearing it. When we read what Komi writes, we’re participating with the cast with much more immediacy. In traditional narrative theory, direct speech is considered the most immediate form of writing: when we read what someone said in a story, we conjure the speech within the scene exactly as we read it, word for word, whereas descriptions involve syntax and temporal markers that we have to naturally unravel in our heads in order to make a narrative out of them. But in manga, the act of reading what other characters are reading is even more direct than reading speech bubbles.
This parallels how Komi’s disorder comes to bring people closer to her, and to each other, because her unfamiliarity encourages them to break down other norms that they encounter. We come across other aloof ‘tough guy’ characters who are actually incredibly soft underneath. All of this only happens because Komi represents a void in the lives of these characters – a space where they have to stop and think and act differently, where they can’t live their lives on automatic. Most of the school continues to see her as a goddess, but the more friends she makes the more people there are who have broken the mold of the normal – the kind of atmosphere discussed in Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, the energy of normal high school life that Tadano expected to follow along with, that most high school dramas, particularly those revolving around clubrooms, offer an escape from.
We can trace this theme of ‘encountering absence to escape the norm’ pretty far back in terms of Eastern philosophy in stories. My favourite poem is Don Paterson’s ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. When I show it to them, a lot of people think I’m joking. Aside from the title, it’s a blank page. Some of Paterson’s readers and audiences might think the poem is nothing more than a quick pun itself: the buildup from the long title leads to an anticlimax, a moment of ‘bathos’ that plays on the comedy of a fruitless journey. But the poem becomes a lot more if we consider the tradition of poems the title is drawing upon. Li Bai, one of the most influential Chinese poets to have ever lived, wrote a few works on the theme of ‘looking for a teacher and not finding him’ that Paterson drew upon for his empty poem.
The first poem below, ‘Visiting the Taoist Priest Dai Tianshan But Not Finding Him’, introduces the core purpose of the theme:
A dog’s bark amid the water’s sound,
Peach blossom that’s made thicker by the rain.
Deep in the trees, I sometimes see a deer,
And at the stream I hear no noonday bell.
Wild bamboo divides the green mist,
A flying spring hangs from the jasper peak.
No-one knows the place to which he’s gone,
Sadly, I lean on two or three pines.
‘Looking for a Monk and Not Finding Him’ spells it out even more clearly.
I took a small path leading
up a hill valley, finding there
a temple, its gate covered
with moss, and in front of
the door but tracks of birds;
in the room of the old monk
no one was living, and I
staring through the window
saw but a hair duster hanging
on the wall, itself covered
with dust; emptily I sighed
thinking to go, but then
turning back several times,
seeing how the mist on
the hills was flying, and then
a light rain fell as if it
were flowers falling from
the sky, making a music of
its own; away in the distance
came the cry of a monkey, and
for me the cares of the world
slipped away, and I was filled
with the beauty around me.
These poems explore the concept of ‘ma’: negative space. In Japanese, ‘ma’ is best understood as an interval, a silence that makes everything around it more complete: as we hear in Daft Punk’s ‘Beyond’, “The perfect song is framed with silence”. In Buddhist teaching, as can be seen in the poems above, an encounter with the void can give a greater lesson than the teacher you were expecting to find – a better appreciation of your surroundings, the world you live in. Hence, Paterson’s poem works with this concept by taking it to its extreme. Rather than write about the power of such negative spaces’, he forces his audience to encounter one themselves, which encourages them to explore the ‘surroundings’ of the poem – its title, primarily – in order to see the Buddhist roots of the work coming to life before them.
This idea of negative space, and its benefits to those who enter into it with wisdom, is integral to understanding why Komi-san wa Comyushou desu is so effective at building a wholesome narrative: Komi’s disorder engenders ‘ma’ around her. The travelers in Li Bai’s poems could have interpreted the teacher’s absence as an expression of aloofness, a message that they’re not worthy enough to speak with them, as much of the class saw Komi’s silences. But Tadano acted on his violated expectations – the thought he could just make a friend and enjoy a normal high school life – by trying to appreciate his surroundings better. Because he penetrated past Komi’s shyness, with some help from Komi herself, he was able to understand her much better than anyone else in her school life had before. He gave Komi hope for finding friends, and in turn sent himself down a path to much more happiness from his high school life.
The message of Komi-san builds upon a long tradition of Buddhist philosophy: when our expectations are dashed and we’re confronted the absence of what we think we need, we shouldn’t try to change what we see. Rather than ignore the quiet people in our lives, or simply ask them to speak up despite their difficulties, we can take their silence as a chance to alter our own perspectives and discover something new.
One of the biggest silences in the world concerns mental health awareness. From mild anxiety disorders to depression that’s severe enough to lead some people to suicide, so many people suffer from their brains not working the way they should. But because poor mental health weighs down the mind, it can be impossible for some sufferers to speak up seek out the help they need on their own. We recently lost Etika, a renowned youtuber in the fighting game community, partly because the world simply watched on as his mental health degraded. Reaching out to friends and family with depression can be hard if you don’t feel you suffer from these issues yourself: it can seem rude to talk to someone who doesn’t want to talk about their struggles themselves. But we can respond to silence with a willingness to enter into it with them – to find a way of communicating that can comfort those who can’t normally communicate.
People can speak through more than just speech. If we can be ready to read more than what’s plainly written, there won’t need to be as many people suffering in silence as there surely are today.
It’s been a while since my last post – sorry to keep you all waiting so long, especially the Patrons who have kept supported me through this difficult time.
I *think* I’m gradually getting better. I have some big updates for UEM! coming shortly, so I’m hoping my health doesn’t do a complete crash again.
Thanks as always for reading!