The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 87: Disability Corner: Komi-san Can’t Communicate

Disability Corner: Komi-san Can’t Communicate

I’m willing to bet at least a few of you remember that wave of autism self-diagnoses that swept the Internet several years back; for a while, it seemed like every awkward misfit who struggled to connect with other people announced they were on the spectrum. The resulting backlash was, looking back, disproportionate and honestly driven much more by cringe culture and ableism than logic, but it was a hot-button issue for a time. Apparently, something similar’s happening in Japan right now, where kids describe themselves to each other as having a “communication disorder”. What exactly a communication disorder is in this context isn’t clear to me; at least in Western usage, communication disorders describe specific issues in forming or expressing language rather than the general communications issues I found mentioned in English discussions of the subject (most of which seemed convinced it’s just a Japanese euphemism for autism). I have a sneaking suspicion it’s one of those things where similar conditions manifest differently in different cultures, so attempts to slap a precise definition on it might end up tripping over their own assumptions and falling flat in their face. Whatever’s actually going on, it’s an ongoing cultural phenomenon, enough to leak into manga.

(From here on out will be minor spoilers; I can’t talk about what I want to talk about without going into how the plot shakes out. Read lightly or skip to in the next post if you don’t want to spoil yourself, though this thing has too many character arcs for me to spoil them all in like five pages.)

Komi-san wa Comyushō Desu features as a protagonist a prep school student so beautiful the whole school worships the ground she walks on. She never interacts much with anyone, but that just adds to her allure; it makes her seem untouchable, almost supernatural, and the whole school eats it up. When the class holds elections at the start of the year, they immediately proclaim her president without her even entering the running; her friends deflect the nomination by declaring she deserves a higher title, which the class unanimously agrees to and declares her class goddess.

They did that for her because she’s actually a huge dork scared shitless of the spotlight. See, her name is Komi Shouko. Change that to komiushouko and you get a phrase that means “communication disorder girl”, which is the core of her characterization. Whatever that term actually means, with Komi it means such severe social anxiety she’s developed a bad case of selective mutism. That aloofness? Nearly every time someone around her sees her as otherworldly or untouchable, her internal monologue shows she wants to get involved and participate but chokes on her own anxiety. She doesn’t speak a word until like the second volume, resorting to writing her thoughts down on a notepad and hiding behind it; even when she does speak, she limits it to a few sentences most translations render in all lowercase.

Our other protagonist, Tadano Hitohito (“ordinary guy”), is so painfully middle-of-the-road it beggars belief. This is a guy whose height, weight, appearance, and test scores are all exactly average. At one point, one girl’s friends gather around a picture of him and several classmates to determine which one is her crush. His name doesn’t even come up because he looks so boring. He really doesn’t want to stick out. At first. Except he’s apparently capable of telepathy, since by volume 2 he has Komi so figured out he can have conversations with her by reading her mood, and she’s not the only one he does this for. It throws him into the heart of the story.

As you can probably guess, the bulk of the manga revolves around their relationship, but we do get a sort of tritagonist in Osana Najimi (“childhood friend”, as any good weeb will tell you, which goes to show how lazy some of these puns are). Najimi is everyone’s childhood friend, so much so they’re on first-name basis with every student we see (unusual by Japanese standards) and can hold conversations with eight people at once. They’re heavily implied to be nonbinary; while they do identify as male at one point, they take pride in blurring gender lines, consistently crossdressing and blending in equally with male, female, and mixed-gender crowds. No one ever judges them negatively for this, it’s just approached as a character quirk. They’re also the best, because they are a huge troll. Half their screentime is devoted to them punking their friends or organizing dumb games for them to play; they’re at least partially aware they live in a gag manga and absolutely love it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have some depth. Najimi is a skilled manipulator who tempers their desire to fuck with people with a genuine care for their well-being, using their astonishing communication skills to rig up encounters or social events just to forward their relationships. You wouldn’t think the childhood friend character archetype would map well to someone that plays people against each other for their own good, but it’s a natural outgrowth of what you’d expect from someone who could genuinely and happily be everyone’s childhood friend – and that’s how Komi-san works.

Instead of relying on predetermined plot beats or relationships to keep the story moving, the author extrapolates personalities from dirt-simple puns, sets up situations, and lets the dominoes fall. For instance, one character is named Ase Shibuki (“Sweats Like A Pig”). That’s her thing, she’s really sweaty. So where do you go with that? The author builds her into a nice girl whose self-esteem has been worn down by years of excessive sweating leaving her constantly low-key humiliated. Ase also has a friend named Isagi Kiyoko (“Clean Freak”). I mean, you COULD just make are obsessed with cleaning or something, but that’s kind of boring. So the author makes her fastidious about everything. She’s diligent, dedicated, and driven by a strong moral code: to her, untidiness is disgusting, misbehavior is worse, and human suffering is worst of all. She sees all of those as different kinds of filth she feels compelled to clean up, even in herself. So to bounce them off each other, the author portrays them as childhood friends who grew apart after Ase touched Isagi with her sweaty hands and she reacted very badly. Ase forgave her when she apologized but internalized it, and Isagi never forgave herself for lashing out like that and pushed her away. Them processing their mutual past forms the emotional core of an entire arc; Isagi runs for class president on a platform of improving the school, only to face both the disappointing legacy of her predecessors and her own failings, culminating in the two hashing out their differences. At another point, Ase’s classmate Naruse Shisuto (“Narcissist”) gets swept out to sea while grandstanding on a beach visit with their friends. He makes it out safe, but has to spend some time recovering – time he spends with Ase, who connects with his embarrassment as someone who feels embarrassed by existing. Naruse, too used to ignoring his own flaws to even notice hers, bonds with her, and they soon become love interests. Except after they make up, Isagi takes issue with Naruse’s attitude (at one point he gets kicked out of the library literally because his personality was too loud) and somehow always shows up to prevent any… Questionable behavior. This all gets played for comedy, but it adds an emotional resonance that lifts it above the gags.

This format also makes setting up new situations or changing things up easy and frequent because all it takes is rotating characters into the spotlight; their quirks are simple, memorable and lead logically to their decisions, making bringing in different personalities to bring out different aspects of the main characters simple. The manga focuses on Komi and Tadano’s evolving relationship, but that relationship exists in the context of the people around them. While it never goes away, getting a handle on her anxiety is a group project that involves most of her classmates, each with their own quirk and personality, bonding with her in some fashion. It makes for a potent ensemble cast that sticks in your head while taking a backseat to the core story arc whenever it comes forward.

But that’s not why you’re here, so let’s talk disability.

I wasn’t kidding when I said she never gets over her anxiety. The manga plays fast and loose with the definition of “communication disorder”, has a nasty habit of implying disorders come from childhood trauma, and uses neurodivergent-coded behavior as a source of jokes (no more than any other kind of behavior, but still). But it does get the trajectory of neurodivergent personality development pretty right. The manga establishes and emphasizes from Chapter 1 on that a communication disorder does NOT mean a person doesn’t want to communicate, just that they struggle to do so – and that viewpoint is very important to remember when talking about how a disability affects a person’s life. In the 300+ chapters and two-and-a-bit in-universe years this thing’s been running, Komi’s gone from completely silent even around her family to talking with acquaintances by writing in a notebook and chatting with her friends in a whisper. At no point is her progress presented as inevitable or something performed by others; she inexplicably manifests cat ears every time she resolves to push her comfort zone, which happens at least every couple chapters. Her growing friend group offers her support, yeah, but she’s the one who takes initiative, and we’ve talked about how vital having control over their life is for a disabled person.

While the manga milks her shyness, anxiety, and inability to speak for jokes, she’s not treated as inherently weirder than the rest of the cast – hell, compared to classmates like Gets Involved in Other People’s Emotions, Likes Summer Uniforms, Obsessed with Graduation Ceremonies, and Likes Boobs, her anxiety and self-doubt reads as relatable. It even plays her condition for tragedy sometimes, albeit with a comedic tinge; she’s never needed a phone before, not having anyone to call, so after she gets her first she sits around listening to ringtones because she has no idea what else to do with it, then excitedly mimes having a phone conversation before panicking when she accidentally dials Tadano. Honestly, she reminds me a LOT of Hanako. They share complexes about their appearance and a specific kind of relative boldness; their comfort zones may be very small, but they’re a hell of a lot more enthusiastic about pushing them than most. Even people who take pride in pushing their comfort zones often only do it in specific ways they’re used to, doing increasingly wild or dangerous things instead of risking boredom; Komi and Hanako regularly face down stuff that leaves them literally shaking, then pop back up and keep going. It’s very human, and very admirable. They both exploit the “respectable protectable” instinct I talked about earlier to great effect.

As time goes on, we get to meet Komi’s family. Her mom is perky, cheerful, and outgoing; she enthusiastically introduces herself to her daughter’s friends as “eternally 17”. Komi’s father and brother are both as silent as she is. Her brother is frankly kind of a dickbag, but I want to focus on her parents, her dad particularly - not only does he still have intense social anxiety in line with that of his kids into adulthood (which lines up with a lot of people’s experiences), but his life is happy, stable, and successful in spite of that. While their family dynamics act as springboards for jokes, we’re talking things like “Komi and her dad decide to go out for shaved ice by staring at each other” and “Tadano can read the men in her family as well as he reads Komi” and “her mom and dad still fawn over each other despite having been married long enough to put their kids into high school”. That last one deserves extra coverage, because the author sets aside several chapters for flashbacks to when they fell in love. The two were very different people from Tadano and Komi and their relationship developed in different ways, but her father’s social anxiety still features as a factor. A relatively minor one, one mostly used to squeeze comedy out of the situation instead of implying the two may not be right for each other. God knows they’re still in love at least 15 years later with no roadbumps in sight. We just covered in the last disability corner how overwhelmingly rare relationships like this are in media. This doesn’t happen!

There’s plenty more I could talk about here. Like, at one point they introduce Katai Makoto (“hardliner”), a huge, dangerous-looking mound of muscle with a gravelly voice who’s actually just as kind and timid as Komi: less intimidatingly attractive and more just intimidating. Dude has everything he stutters out come out sounding like a death threat. This trait, too, is shared by his relatives, and at one point we get his entire extended family, all of whom look like Yakuza, sitting around a table utterly terrified of each other :allears:. Once again, we see it passed down through the family instead of it being some kind of personal failure.

And Isagi Kiyoko, who I mentioned above, is one of the most interesting characters in the manga, and it’s a testament to how evergreen it is that she doesn’t get introduced until chapter 192. She can get pretty hardcore when she tries to hold other people to her standards, interrupting “illicit relationships” between students by wielding one of those comedy accordion squeaky hammers like fucking Musashi, but she’s consistently shown to be responsible, caring, and a natural leader who deserves her job. She’s also a dead ringer for autism and NOT in the way you see in Western media. Something you won’t find in scientific studies or shitty sitcoms but do find in many real autistic people is a deeply humanitarian but deeply rigid code of honor, something Isagi practically embodies. This is a girl who cringes and physically shakes when she makes physical contact with another person, but she forces herself to hug classmates when she judges they need real comfort. At one point, Komi catches her stalking Ase and Naruse and confronts her about it, eventually managing to ask her if she trusts her best friend’s judgment; Isagi just stops, gets up, gives the squeaky hammer to Ase, and leaves. Every time the author introduces an element that calls into question (she didn’t have any problem with dirt before fifth grade), he introduces several others that back it up (she refuses to eat food she hasn’t prepared, her face is so expressionless it scares off people trying to bully her classmates). The tics, the loudness, the rudeness, the stereotyped speech and special interests, all the hallmarks and stereotypes that follow autistic people in Western media like the plague are gone, replaced with something that seems awful familiar from the other side. Like, look. I like to speculate on whether a given character is autistic or not. It almost never actually pans out (Entrapta and Symmetra are the only ones who got any kind of payoff there) and there’s probably a lot of projection involved. I know, and I don’t really care. But we are talking about a manga with a neurodivergent protagonist named Neurodivergent Protagonist here, so I’m genuinely unsure how intentional the similarity is. I can tell you that, in line with the rest of the humor it uses, the manga never judges or condemns her behavior, making her exactly as comically strange as the rest of the cast. People frequently make noises about equal treatment, but often that boils down to idealizing us like we’re in some 90s special instead of letting us be ordinary, flawed people. Seeing somebody actually follow through on that, intentional or not, is an unexpected pleasure.

Speaking of unexpected pleasures, Komi-san recently got adapted both into a live-action drama and an anime, the latter of which already has a few episodes up on Netflix at time of writing. I went and watched them. The production values are sky high: the animation beats out most of the anime I’ve seen in the last few years both in framerate and quality, with some real visual creativity on display. The manga stylistically sets itself apart by both working in constant sarcastic commentary boxes to make character motivations clear when they don’t line up with their behavior (very useful for these characters) and by drawing faces exaggerated like Junji Ito when the emotions ARE clear. Instead of copying or suppressing those quirks, the anime elaborates on them, turning the commentary into flowing curtains of characters or flashing text boxes and punctuating facial transformations with impeccable comedic timing; we end up with a sort of comic-augmented animation philosophically similar to what they did in Into the Spiderverse, and that’s high praise indeed. You don’t get product like this unless the people behind it are both very creative and very experienced. The music is only good instead of great, but the sound design and voice acting specially are top-notch; they managed to net Koga Aoi to voice Komi, and that kind of talent doesn’t come cheap. They even found writers who could build on the original without obscuring it, tightening the scene structure and making Komi stutter more to show off Koga’s skill at emoting through random noises. Somebody with a great deal of experience and a great deal of influence is very, very confident this anime will make them real money and they invested in it appropriately. But even though the anime’s pulled back a bit on talking about communication disorders, it still presents Komi like a textbook case of an anxiety disorder and if anything spends even more time driving home that people like her both genuinely struggle with and genuinely want to form relationships – and that’s not the sort of emphasis you get in something milking a disability for kicks.

I haven’t been able to find much on Oda Tomohito, the mangaka behind Komi-san Can’t Communicate. Apparently he’s male, married, and has a child; his wife is also a mangaka, one who does a lot of yuri. While there may be more biographical information on him out there, I doubt it’s in English. His Twitter page seems entirely devoted to Komi-san (at least as far as Google Translate is concerned), and he has no other social media; I couldn’t even find any press releases or interviews aside from a video of him sketching with a few softball questions thrown in (Komi’s personality is partly based on his wife’s). I don’t know if he’s disabled himself, though some other things he said in the “interview” and his reticence to engage the public hints he might be. But really, given the end product, I’m not inclined to care. I routinely and heavily emphasize how important it is to put disabled creators in charge of creating stuff about disabled people, but as KS itself shows, it is possible to do us good by being sensitive and intelligent. It’s just that that’s vanishingly rare. But whoever Oda Tomohito is and whatever he brings to the table, I think he did good by us here.