“The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered Down”: Koe no Katachi and The Anxious Classroom Environment

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An expressive and enriching meditation on redemption and scars shared, Koe no Katachi is a cinematic triumph and perhaps Kyoto Animation’s most celebrated offering yet. Boasting what appears to be a cloyingly feel-good spectacle certain to reward those in search of penitence, The Who’s ‘My Generation’ elevating a kaleidoscope of youth, that the film’s central conceits would be as cheap as the premise feels ought to be something of an inevitability. An experience tenderly crafted by the studio’s finest however, Koe no Katachi highlights more achingly poignant modes of guilt and redemption with scars running deep between victim and victimizer as they struggle to transcend cyclical modes of abuse; moistening an arid interpersonal wasteland. Shouko is deaf and subjected to a particularly ruthless form of systematic ostracism carried out by protagonist Shouya and the rest of their class, ridding her of agency through discarding the notebook which serves as her primary form of communication along with ripping out hearing aids with such venom, it scars. So callous is their treatment of Shouko that it eventually results in her transferring schools – an entire five months after she first set foot in their classroom. And yet the notion beggars belief.

Why did the school let the bullying go on for as long as it did?

Why didn’t the homeroom teacher reprimand those jeering at her in plain sight?

Why were her peers so reluctant when it came to actively dissuading Shouya’s harassment?

Why did they mostly amount to passive spectators, in turn contributing to Shouko’s pain?

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Given fandom’s collective exposure to otaku media it would be a comparatively effortless process to assume that the level of victimisation found in anime is a touch disingenuous; exclusively the domain of tawdry shoujo spectacles swathed in scintillating veils of melodrama, social ruination left in a starry-eyed ringleader’s wake. Although school settings generally err towards the sensational fans are often left wondering whether anime-style bullying is yet another exaggerated aspect of Japanese society, dramatized for consumption. Despite the myriad series which do incorporate similar thematic threads, questionable in their salacious portrayals, bullying would be considered a social epidemic with a recent educational ministry survey indicating that cases have reached a record high [1] – and that’s only for the incidents which do ultimately get reported. In line with the country’s collectivist nature bullying isn’t so much an isolated instance as it is a profoundly group-driven phenomenon [3], student-student bullying remarkably low in comparison to other countries [4] with group-student instances among one primary and early secondary population amounting to a staggering 80% [5]. Motives are nebulous with individualism scorned, those that threaten to disrupt collectivist harmony perceived as transgressors liable for callous forms of persecution which often involve peers and teachers.

“A characteristic of Japan is that you should not stand out,” argues the head teacher of a secondary school in Tokyo. [3]

Less discussed still is Japan’s approach to students with specialized educational requirements such as Koe no Katachi’s Shouko, attending a public school lacking in appropriate facilities which instantaneously renders her an anomaly when immersed in the collective gaze of her peers. In no due part to a 2006 reform arising from conflictive educational politics, disabled students have been encouraged to attend public schools in order to heighten social integration and inclusivity, as schools specifically designed with specialized educational requirements have induced isolation among attendees [2]. Although such institutions provide sufficient facilities capable of catering to the student’s needs, they nevertheless tend to be quite expensive rendering public education a more cost-effective (if problematic) alternative.

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The school which Shouko attends is similarly ill-equipped from a pedagogical perspective as homeroom teacher Takeuchi assumes a laissez-faire, markedly passive-aggressive approach to her educational requirements. An earlier scene portrays him noting page numbers to be written down yet rather suggestively, neglects Shouko as she is left mystified, gazing around at peers frantically scribbling in their notebooks. Considering that Takeuchi ought to have received training from a specialized educational coordinator [2] his conduct certainly is questionable, negligence resonating across the classroom’s narrow confines as Shouko’s peers are left assuming the role of caretaker. Seeds of dissatisfaction are sown alongside expressions of doubt, the notion that tending to her comes at at the expense of their own learning prevalent. Yet it does not mitigate the fact that Shouko ought to have been granted assistance on a professional level; a collapse encouraging seeds to flourish amidst the vestiges of social perdition. Such a lack of professionalism extends to how Takeuchi approaches the class’ relational dynamics, lightly admonishing Shouya yet taking no further action despite the incident potentially providing an opportunity for nurturing compassionate modes of behaviour. A discussion ought to have arisen, research suggesting that interventions of this level can prove to be beneficial [5]. Yet that the authority figure’s flagrant unwillingness to intervene reinforces the bullies’ attitude is striking, passive acceptance transmitting a wordless, yet powerful, message: ‘I am not getting involved, I will not stop you, and you will not be punished’.

“Pupils have to lead a collective life when they are at school,” adds Koju Matsubayashi, an official in the anti-bullying department at the ministry. [3]

While relational dynamics within the classroom environment often prove to be fraught, Takeuchi’s lack of positive action is what ultimately permits prejudice against the marginalized as barbarism takes hold. An environment where discriminatory behaviour becomes a form of social capital, it faintly shifts in accordance with collective desires, away from inclusivity. Takeuchi’s reprehensible stance is by no means an isolated instance however, let alone salaciously dramatized for the sake of consumption, with a number of emerging studies demonstrating that teacher-student bullying is prevalent within the Japanese educational system. An early empirical study designed to address the paucity of data surveying 767 teachers and 1,211 students at primary and secondary level indicated that 12% of teachers actively contribute to this organized form of collectivist persecution; 14% of teachers at primary level admitting to bullying their students “sometimes” or “often” [4]. One especially disturbing case involved four teachers signing a sympathy card following a mock funeral for a severely bullied thirteen-year-old student, who later committed suicide [5]. It is a daunting state of affairs which needs to be addressed.

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Once a representative from The Hearing Classroom (presumably an organization focusing on social integration for deaf children, similarly dispelling the stigma surrounding their circumstances) arrives, attempting to implement sign language classes proves to be a most challenging prospect. The inquisitive brouhaha enveloping Shouko’s arrival has long since faded, leaving a lingering malaise which threatens to seep into established modes of conformity. While the students’ attitude as a collective whole is illustrative of her tenuous position, it is reflected most prominently through Ueno’s resounding dismissal which resonates across the classroom’s claustrophobic confines. An earlier playground scene boasts cinematography emphasizing the distance between the two, not only separated by a bulky tree but an intricate mesh of metal which Ueno doesn’t possess the emotional maturity to approach, let alone disentangle. That she would brazenly challenge the notion which The Hearing Classroom’s representative posits regarding Shouko’s preferred means of communication is concerning, serving as a statement of intent. Supporting writing as opposed to sign language is a means of further silencing Shouko, amplifying the haze of egocentric malevolence permeating Ueno’s existence; an attitude carried into her teens, a form of arrested development. A coping mechanism in the face of unprecedented change for a child.

Erika, an 18-year-old who left her school in Tokyo after being bullied, agrees. “I was told by teachers to adapt or quit, so I quit.” [3]

Sahara forging solidarity with Shouko serves as a striking refutation which echoes deep into the heart of the class’ myriad discriminatory philosophies through siding with the victimized, rendering her liable for potential transgressions. It is a prohibitive means of decreasing Sahara’s social capital which manifests through Ueno openly vilifying her fashion sense as Kawai half-heartedly dissuades the ringleader. Attempting to disturb the status quo comes with unfortunate repercussions as evidenced by Sahara transferring not too long after, reasons for leaving shrouded in mystery. In line with the classroom’s rigid adherence to conformity Shouko’s ostracism is orchestrated with precision, statement of intent emblazoned across the blackboard startling in its venom – boys scrawling malevolent messages, girls grinning. Tacitly encouraged through Takeuchi’s indifference toxic modes of behaviour seep into the classroom, leaving its denizens with no other choice but to succumb lest a similar fate befalls them. Shouya taking advantage of a rolled-up paper’s reverberations to startle Shouko is rewarded with a blasé “we’re still in the middle of class”, by no means an act that could possibly be construed as tomfoolery let alone a particularly noxious case of ‘boys will be boys’, especially in light of the evidential signals pointing towards her marginalization. Suggestively, Takeuchi later announces Shouko’s transfer as if it were yet another point on the daily agenda to be hurried through, switching gears immediately. He hasn’t learned a thing. No one has, it seems, the extent of Takeuchi’s involvement in the life of a student in peril amounting to criticizing whoever skipped out on flower duty – not knowing Shouko had been tending to them all along. Giving them all the warmth and kindness which she had never been granted in return, a plea unheard.

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As was the case with Kawai’s precariously fashioned modes of detachment towards Ueno’s treatment of Sahara, conflictive stances are avoided among bystanders as conformism is imperative to sustain group functioning. Neutralizing potentially adverse repercussions via nonchalant “c’mon, quit it” and “you’re going too far, man” offerings arise in order to secure roles once the environment lapses into destructive cyclical patterns. Due to the profoundly group-driven approach to victimization anxiety pervades classrooms where bullying is ongoing, those tangentially involved unwilling to report instances in fear of disrupting the collective thrill derived from the act [4]. Uncertainty and fear take hold as the victimizer may become the victim and vice versa [4], one drawing attention to themselves criminal. Once Takeuchi casts Shouya as the culprit an escape route is provided through facilitating the smooth transition from victimizer to victim in the public sphere, essentially a means of legitimizing a decrease in social capital. When questioned Ueno and Shimada deny their involvement, yet Kawai cements the shift through positing Shouya as a transgressive existence which threatens the sanctity of their community. When later accused of partaking in Shouko’s harassment Kawai once again portrays herself as a virtuous figure, actively pitting Sahara against Ueno through claims of Ueno criticizing her in private; bars of the river encasing them in a prison of their own egocentric malevolence.

That Shouya would be subjected to a similar fate is representative of the cyclical nature of abuse within the Japanese classroom leaving pain and revulsion in its torturous wake, Shouya and Shouko alike burdened with deep, deep emotional scars. Purposefully distancing himself from others, Shouya stumbles through a claustrophobic throng as cinematography is firmly trained on legs and crossed-out expressions, voices this collective buzz. All traces of individuality fade into a nebulous haze fuelled by self-loathing, Shouya erecting an impenetrable barrier… ‘My Generation’ a distant idyllic dream. It is one of the more agonizingly intimate sequences which portrays ramifications of the past long into the future, rendering Shouya and Shouko’s intertwined narratives all the more meaningful. The scars may remain, but victimizer and victim can transcend the cycle and learn how to live. For themselves.

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Sources Addressed

[1] Number of reported bullying cases in Japanese schools hits record high. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/10/27/national/school-bullying-cases-hit-record-high-japan/

[2] Mithout, A. (2016) Children with disabilities in the Japanese school system: a path toward social integration?. Contemporary Japan, 28(2), 165-184.

[3] Why bullying in Japanese schools is especially traumatic. (2017). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21720643-evacuees-fukushima-are-latest-suffer-torment-class-why-bullying-japanese-schools

[4] Yoneyama, S. (2015). Theorizing School Bullying: Insights from Japan. Confero: Essays on Education, Philosophy and Politics, 3(2), 120-160.

[5] Ishikida, M. Y. (2005). Japanese Education in the 21st Century. New York: iUniverse.

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