Content Warning: Topics on self-harm and bullying will be discussed.
The third year of middle school should have been a straightforward year for everyone. Mizuha would have remained the eccentric but cute girl people talk to in classes. Hibiki might have been the popular rebel in school. And Ryuusuke would just be the invisible kid in the corner of the room. Their teacher who looks way like a bad James Dean ripoff should be taking it easy to see this class off to high school as well.
Middle schools are rarely that lighthearted.
One day, Ryuusuke was beaten up and left barely alive. Hospitalized for weeks, he was literally and emotionally scarred from the experience; his disfigured face provided ample evidence of bullying. He never returned to school. The main perpetrator, Hibiki, remained profoundly ignorant of what had happened and no one dared to point out the obvious.
The class went on, aware of their precarious situation but uninterested in doing something about it. But what could they have done to stop Hibiki and his cadre? No one but him was in the wrong. Everyone in the class was — and is — neutral. It’s all Hibiki’s fault that they are entangled in this potential blacklisting from good high schools. They need to buck up their studies, so high school admission officers are willing to ignore the past. And in a way, isn’t this Ryuusuke’s fault too for not saying anything? The students can only mutter their complaints, look away from the scene of the crime, and move on with their studies.
But Mizuha understands guilt. Indeed, she may see herself as the embodiment of guilt. After taking a shower, she notices that the lacerations on her body she has inflicted on have not gone away. Rather, there is the tacit implication it may have increased. Overwhelming events force her to puke and collapse to the ground as if struck with a seizure. This event of Ryuusuke’s bullying is thus another manifestation of her guilt, of her low self-esteem, of her solipsism. It is but another episode in her life.
As the narrator of the book, she prefers keeping her observations in her head without mentioning her insights to anyone. A journalistic spirit emanates from her first-person narration that comprise the novel; yet, she knows she isn’t as objective as she wants to be. She is a part of the events. More importantly, she has witnessed what happened to Ryuusuke and is even called out for not revealing her involvement. She wants to be neutral, but she knows she is lying to herself. Accident or not, events in the book are influenced by her actions and desire for knowledge.
Take, for example, her meeting with Ryuusuke in the beginning of the book. It doesn’t take a Sigmund Freud to realize the boy is psychologically traumatized. Who in the world other than his mother would try to talk to him? But Mizuha’s James Dean-like teacher forces her to go on an errand and send him an invitation to the graduation ceremony. She goes to his house and finds out that he hasn’t come back yet; his mother says that he has gone to the batting center. Mizuha could of course excuse herself and leave. Instead, she decides to stay and meet him anyway. She wants to know what has happened to him.
When Mizuha enters his bedroom to wait, she realizes that all around her are posters of famous baseball players plastered onto his walls. Yet, they don’t seem to belong there: they are not the prized decorations of a typical baseball maniac but the artificial ornamentations of a tryhard. None of the baseball players are star performers; they’re just famous. In fact, the bedroom is so stereotypical it has to be unreal. And when Ryuusuke finally appears, Mizuha is surprised by his developed biceps, even though he has lost some mobility in his right arm. His new muscle tone has transformed him into an amateur baseball player.
Why did Ryuusuke, a nobody with few discernible interests in class, suddenly become interested in baseball? How did he become so muscular and fit in a few months? And how does he feel about going back to school and possibly attending the graduation ceremony? These unasked questions and more intrigue Mizuha, but they also frighten her when she remembers the guilt and how much of a role she has played in the bullying.
This isn’t just her own conscience. Ryuusuke confronts her because he sees her as being part of the class at first. What is her right to know more about how he is feeling? All he wants is revenge and retribution. He craves for the day when he could attend the graduation ceremony all bulked up and kill Hibiki. That’s why he has been practicing in the batting center and doing bicep curls at home. He wants to show he can man up and murder Hibiki in their own game. Ryuusuke thus sees Mizuha as an obstacle to his goals and threatens her by almost choking her.
Until she vomits and falls to the ground.
This is where the peculiar relationship between Ryuusuke and Mizuha begins to form. Mizuha becomes a willing accomplice to Ryuusuke’s plans, even though murder is a heinous crime. She accompanies him to the batting center, gives him tips on what Hibiki and others are doing, and even intends to help him on the day of the event. We never get to understand why she has decided to team up; zero explicit reasons are given. But it is telling that she wants to learn about people’s motivations in life and their possible sociological implications. Mizuha wants to use that knowledge for something. She doesn’t know what that something is yet, but she is ready to pursue it at all costs.
That means she can be a double agent since she also wants to understand Hibiki’s role in all of this. Mizuha stalks him and finds herself entering a seedy district where crime and business depend on each other. She meets a sketchy labor agent who goes by the alias Kaname and Hibiki may have some dealings with him. References to black markets and illegal labor are abundant and suggestive of something darkly political and economical going on. It seems this instance of bullying is not as black-and-white as common sense dictates.
No particular faction is rendered in a positive or negative light. We can perceive sympathy and maliciousness between Ryuusuke and Hibiki. This comes from Mizuha’s rather contradictory feelings of curiosity and guilt, her main sources of agency: without them, there will be nothing to impel her to interact with Ryuusuke and Hibiki. No one is utterly good or evil and it would also be too simple to say this was all caused by the banality of evil as well. Structural factors and unquestioned narratives such as masculinity and hierarchy constitute and possibly create these unhealthy behaviors of bullying, self-harm, and more. We don’t just hurt ourselves and others because of our own actions; we may have been guided by society to inflict self-harm on our mind and bodies.
This diagnosis leads us to a yearning for some kind of solution or catharsis. Unfortunately, Mizuha is unclear on what her role is in this triad of characters, let alone answer the ultimate question of what is to be done. The question is left unresolved and any answer she strives to come up is ambiguous. That is understandable: Mizuha is merely a third year middle school student; it is implausible of her to solve some of Japanese society’s repressive problems. Even adults struggle to decipher questions of identity and social relationships. This is where it is appropriate to ask an adult or at least someone who has a better perspective on things. After all, we search for answers in authority figures like grownups and books.
But she hesitates. She could beg for someone to give her a meaning of life and resolve the ambiguity embedded in her worldview. The answer would be at the end of her journey, but she realizes this is merely the beginning of her journey to adulthood. Such an answer at this stage of her life would be half-hearted and delusional. Mizuha wants to find her own unique solution to the human condition.
And so, that answer awaits her in another phase of her life — a phase we readers will never be able to observe.
This is the grand theme Enami Mitsunori, the writer of Strange Voice (his debut novel), wants to impress upon us. The lessons we learn from stories and the catharsis we seek in narratives aren’t in real life. They are merely the same strange voices Mizuha hears and subconsciously blocks out when her classmates bicker about how everything isn’t their responsibility. Most of us are unable to filter out these strange voices because they sound normal to us. Because of mainstream fiction, we fail to recognize the interdependence of societal mechanisms that make us behave in abnormal ways since we prefer simple, cathartic narratives. After all, school castes are just symptoms of our postmodern condition.
Therefore, Enami implies that fiction about real life can only attempt a sociological analysis of the societal systems in place and nothing more; it cannot provide us a bandaid to fix ourselves and others. Strange Voice is satisfied with being the tutor who points out our character flaws, not the teacher nor counselor for problems. We leave the book with problems, not answers. Just like Mizuha, we have to search elsewhere — outside of fiction and possibly inside ourselves — for relief against the gears of society.
And it is this bitter and unfulfilling aftertaste that makes Strange Voice a peculiarly compelling read. Many people who just want to be entertained will fail to appreciate its depth and honesty in its approach to these dark themes. Certainly, it is debatable if such a work could be classified as a “light novel”. But the title goes beyond superficial and fashionable descriptions of psychological and societal criticisms: it makes us readers sober about what fiction can do to change our lives.
Strange Voice and others can never lead us to salvation, but they can teach us to ignore the sirens who tempt us away from the difficulties of life.
Kastel’s Rating: Very recommended as long as one is aware the “entertainment” value comes from examining its philosophy. Comparisons to classical Russian literature like Fyodor Dostoevsky are apt.