By most measures, human beings are strange creatures. Doubly so when we look into how we enjoy ourselves. In the modern day, we can actively seek out pleasure for entertainment. It is a golden age of stand up comedy and witty shows. And yet for many of us this isn't enough. That which is enjoyable itself isn't widely seen as being great. Looking back at your favorite films, books, and media, there's likely an undercurrent of sadness and real pain. As much fun as we all had with Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy, we can all agree that Black Panther was the better film.
This sort of relationship can seem easy to understand at first glance. Life is messy and chaotic, and so the most relatable works will reflect that to some degree. People, of course, will have their preferences as to what appeals to them, what sort of struggle and how much of it, but time and time again we see that art that gains appreciation, depicts a level of relatable pain and conflict.
I write this because I recently did something I didn't think I'd ever do again. I re-read A Silent Voice.
For those of you who haven't heard of the title, both the manga and animated film follow the friendship and developing relationship of a pair of high school seniors reuniting years after they parted ways in elementary school. The twist is that the boy, Shoya was the principle bully of the deaf Shoko. The story is an examination of the lasting effects of bullying for both the bully and the bullied along with societal attitudes towards disability. The animated film was a fairly faithful adaptation of the source material and won several notable critics awards in 2016/17 but the seven volumes that make up the complete manga constitute one of the greatest works in modern literature I've ever read. I say that utterly without reservation or exaggeration. I own two boxed sets of the series. One for my own keeping, and another to loan out to those willing to give it a try.
Here's the thing. No part of this manga is 'happy'. It hurts you as a reader. It punches your emotions relentlessly. You are constantly bombarded by Shoya's ceaseless worries about being unworthy of the people around him. His quite serious depression and anti-social inner monologue are the filters through which you see most of the world of the manga. Along with that, you get the constant reminders of the truly excessive and often brutal bullying that various characters went through along with its horrifying effects. You see people pushed, over and over again and how they try to cope with what they see as just the trials of their lives. Until they snap. More than once you see these people hit their limit and the fallout of when they are pushed past their breaking point. Everyone is complex and has their own quirks, insecurities, triggers, and justifications. The manga isn't bleak per se but you quickly learn to treat the moments of levity and general happiness with trepidation.
I've only read this manga once before this reading and it's honestly so emotionally heavy and exhausting that it took me two years to pick it up again for a read through. But I love it. I love everything about it and there isn't a single frame, line or word I would change. It's painful to read, but therein lies its value.
Several years ago a family friend passed on something that her art teacher had said to his class. That the worst grade you could give a work was average. You see, he believed that the point of art is to evoke some sort of response, be it positive or negative. When you look at an artwork that fails to evoke any response beyond "It's fine" you are viewing something that has failed at the very idea of art. I personally disagree with the general philosophy of this teaching. Art has many, many functions and the evocation of a response is not always chief among them. Arts and entertainment media are produced with a wide range of goals and I believe they should be judged based upon whether or not they achieve what they set out to. The Meg is a pretty good movie because while it's just a dumb monster movie to waste a summer afternoon, that's the entire intent of the film. Does it borrow from classics like Jaws? Undoubtedly. But at no point does it try to compete with or unseat them. That said, when a work sets out with evoking emotion as its goal, that's where things change for both audience and critics.
Anybody of media work that sets out to evoke an emotion will always be a more successful work in one of two ways. Evoke a stronger emotion, or create a stronger emotional connection. Gorefest horror aims to do the former. Make things extra bloody and gross to turn the stomach in bigger ways. Works like A Silent Voice, create a connection. They usually do this by putting us into a position that is familiar to us. In A Silent Voice, this is done by having us re-live the social and emotional upheavals that make up much of the school experience, but to also extend that fraught time to a real-world extreme. Just about everyone was teased by someone as a kid; but how many of us or people close to us seriously contemplated or attempted suicide as a result? Watching it play out is relatable and intensely painful, doubly so if you are among the people that HAVE experienced such abuse and depression first hand. This relationship to human experience is what makes these sorts of work so emotionally intense since we connect to it.
This is odd, however. This manga is deeply painful to read, openly triggering depending on your own past, and yet it is intensely enjoyable. But why? Why is it that we enjoy what causes us the most closely relatable duress?
Because it's safe.
Stories like this, even ones with depressing or tragic endings, are ultimately fictional. We are taking part in an artist's interpretation of some of the most harrowing internal conflicts human beings are capable of feeling. It's hard to watch/read and can be deeply troubling. But because it's fictional, or at least not happening in front of you, it's removed enough that there's always the possibility of just walking away, and therefore safe. It allows us to experience and empathize with the harsher sides of life without actually being at risk at the moment. I would argue that this is the emotional equivalent to something like bungee jumping or riding a rollercoaster. The feeling of speed and falling is exhilarating when you know that you are safe. Knowing you are able to put down whatever you are reading or turn off the screen mid-sentence is like the safety harness when reading something like A Silent Voice. Perhaps this is why we seek out artworks that hurt us. That the false sense of emotional closure we get through the functions in the same way the false sense of survival makes things like roller coasters fun.
No matter the reason, I'm glad I went back to A Silent Voice, even if it did cost me a pair of tissue boxes.