Review

Shino Can’t Say Her Name GN

Shūzō Oshimi may be best known for his series The Flowers of Evil and other similarly dark works, such as Happiness and Blood on the Tracks, but Shino Can’t Say Her Name makes a good case for him being able to create less melancholy or disturbing manga as well. While it isn’t an easy or a uniformly happy story, Shino Can’t Say Her Name is ultimately hopeful. It also adds to the growing body of manga that brings us needed representation of various neuro-differences with its depiction of a girl with dysphemia, more commonly known as “stuttering.”

The story follows Shino, a girl getting ready to start high school. We first meet her practicing her self-introduction, something common when a new class forms – everyone goes around the room and says their name and maybe a little bit about themselves. Shino knows that this is something she’s likely to have trouble with – she has a stutter that has exposed her to ridicule before, and the embarrassment that comes with that only makes words harder to get out. Part of the problem is that her name, when given in Japanese order, begins with a vowel – Oshima Shino. Vowels are among her problem sounds, and while she could simply introduce herself in Western order – Shino Oshima – that would also open the door for intrusive, and possibly mean, questions. Add in the fact that Shino just really wants to fit in and practice seems like the best way to approach what could be a new start for her.

Things do not, however, go as she hoped. As the teacher goes from the front of the room to the back, where Shino is sitting, the extra time only prolongs the anxiety, and when it comes time to speak, the words won’t come out. The depiction of this scene is excruciating: the focus is on Shino’s open, unspeaking mouth as her face around it gets redder and sweatier. We can feel the anxiety and anguish as she desperately tries to get the words out, made worse by the fact that the teacher and her classmates just think she’s either being weird or dramatic on purpose. When she eventually gets some sounds to emerge, it’s not her name, but her stutter, causing even more humiliation as the class giggles and titters around her and the teacher snaps. Shino does finally introduce herself, in Western order, but the teacher cuts her off with a curt, “That’s enough out of you.”

To call this opening scene, which all told is roughly the first sixteen-odd pages, traumatic would be just about right. Certainly, it’s worse if you’ve ever been in a similar position; although I don’t stutter, intense anxiety has landed me in a similar position more than once, and from this perspective, Oshimi absolutely nails the moment. No one is aware of, or cares about, Shino’s distress; they’re either laughing off their discomfort at her expense or just don’t give a damn. The teacher does try to make up for it by calling Shino into her office to talk later, but her words just prove that she’s had no education in how to handle this sort of issue: she calls Shino “nervous” and tells her to “try to be more positive and friendly” with her classmates. Even leaving out the idea that she’s asking Shino to be “friendly” to people who have been the exact opposite to her, this continues the trend of multiple disorders and differences being lumped under the catch-all “nervous,” which has roots in the dismissal of women’s health complaints as frivolous. Gender doesn’t play a role in this case, but the terminology perfectly indicates the lack of understanding or interest on the teacher’s part.

Shino’s road to self-acceptance is ultimately one that she has to find herself. She desperately wants a friend, but the first classmate to call out to her outside of the classroom is Kikuchi, one of the boys who made fun of her, and he continues the hurtful behavior by aping her stutter for his amused teammates. Shino is reduced to having lunch outside with a circle of imaginary friends (whom she can talk to without much trouble) when she meets Kayo, another loner member of the class. Kayo, rather than brushing Shino off when she tries to speak to her, actively attempts to help her, offering her a pen and notepad for when the words won’t come, and her own hesitance to befriend Shino stems not from annoyance or disgust, but rather from her own issues in middle school. Kayo helps Shino to realize that she can sing more easily than she can speak, and the two girls form a genuine friendship. The biggest obstacles, however, remain Shino and Kayo’s own emotional baggage, another piece of the story that rings true, because the Power of Friendship™ isn’t a magical cure-all and both girls have been hurt enough that the smallest bump in the road can feel like a huge roadblock.

One of the reasons this book is so successful is that Oshimi, in his afterword, shares that he has the same stutter that Shino does, so the manga really is drawn from his own lived experiences. (This may also be why the story appears to be set in the early 1990s.) But he also has the understanding of human nature to make the story work in all of its elements – the teacher, Kayo’s own hurt, and Kikuchi, who admits that he’s rarely aware of the impact of his words on other people and ultimately has to learn that sometimes an apology isn’t going to be enough. The ending is triumphant, not because Shino’s stutter magically goes away, but because the story was really about accepting and learning all along.

#Shino

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