A personal perspective on Komi Can’t Communicate volume 1

I love Komi Can’t Communicate — but I have to admit I’ve been lagging behind reading it. So that all changes right now — starting with a look at the first volume of the manga and how I’ve found it curiously, intoxicatingly, refreshingly relatable.

Speaking as someone who has a fair amount of difficulty communicating in more “casual” contexts thanks to a delightful mental health cocktail of Asperger’s and good old-fashioned social anxiety, I always very much appreciate it when a piece of media approaches this subject somewhat sensitively. It’s a frustrating affliction to live with, particularly as it’s the sort of thing that less understanding people might encourage you to just “get over” — but it’s also one where, when looked at from a detached perspective, you can understand that there’s also a certain amount of humour in.

Komi Can't Communicate

Komi Can’t Communicate strikes that perfect balance with its titular heroine, who is initially seemingly completely unable to speak to anyone. The interesting twist on how this sort of thing is sometimes presented, though, is that Komi isn’t someone who “looks” like she should be shy and insular — she’s not a nerd, in other words. Rather, she constantly has eyes on her thanks to being one of the most beautiful people in her school.

This, naturally, adds a ridiculous amount of pressure on her, which only makes her all the more likely to clam up and say absolutely nothing — and as a result of this, people tend to misinterpret her personality as being aloof, even arrogant. It’s an easy mistake to make; since we’re all wracked with a certain amount of insecurity even if we’re not suffering from more significant mental health issues, it’s understandable when someone assumes that another person refusing to talk to them or ignoring you is a malicious act, rather than one born from an internal struggle.

With people who have difficulty communicating “out loud”, it’s essential to put them at ease by allowing them to express themselves in a way that they do feel comfortable with. And this is something that Komi Can’t Communicate almost immediately depicts when protagonist Tadano finds himself in a distinctly awkward situation alone in a room with Komi.

Komi Can't Communicate

Recognising that speaking directly to her isn’t necessarily a productive approach — and that she appears to be reasonably comfortable communicating using the written word — he strikes up a “conversation” with her using the classroom blackboard. And, almost immediately, Komi is able to have a much more natural conversation — with the only distinction from a regular old chit-chat being that it’s all conducted completely in near-silence, with all the important words gradually spreading their way across the blackboard accompanied by nothing more than the “tak-tak-tak” of chalk.

This was a familiar situation to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a lot more comfortable communicating using the written word. Back in school, I vividly remember some of my most enjoyable social experiences being classes where the person sitting next to me and I were communicating using notes scribbled in our “rough book”. At university, I used to relish lengthy text message conversations with my favourite people. And even now, in many cases I’d much rather talk to someone via WhatsApp or Discord than via more “face-to-face” methods — or, God forbid, on the phone.

In fact, there’s a scene in volume 1 of Komi Can’t Communicate that perfectly encapsulates the relationship I’ve always had with the telephone: spend hours agonising over whether or not to actually make a call, accidentally make that call when not “ready” for it, immediately hang up, spend ages worrying over what the recipient of the call must think of me, and then feel a sense of complete, abject terror when they actually call back to see what on Earth I’m doing.

Komi Can't Communicate

Komi Can’t Communicate is full of wonderful moments like this, and the manga presentation really helps us understand what’s going on from multiple perspectives — as well as being a tacit acknowledgement of those of us who prefer written communication to face-to-face interaction.

This is one of the reasons why, while the recent anime appears to be fairly beautifully presented (subtitling issues aside), I feel like the manga is always going to be the optimal means of experiencing this story. There’s a really strong emphasis on “annotations” to the panels in the manga, for example, with arrows pointing out what people are actually thinking and feeling despite what they might appear to be doing — and this sort of presentation loses something when adapted to animation in my humble opinion.

Some of the most effective scenes in Komi Can’t Communicate are the ones where absolutely nothing happens for several frames in succession, because these scenes are some of the most accurate depictions of how it feels to have difficulty communicating. You’ll find yourself staring into space, running over conversations inside your head repeatedly — and this will continue for far longer than is necessarily comfortable for anyone around you, inevitably leaving them wondering if you’re actually all right.

Komi Can't Communicate

Again, as soon as I saw one of these scenes in Komi Can’t Communicate, I was able to relate it to something I’d actually experienced earlier in my life. Specifically, it’s a rather embarrassing memory, but we’re all friends at this point now, so in the interest of honesty, I’ll share it with you now.

Back at university, I randomly struck up a relationship with a young woman on AOL Instant Messenger. We connected pretty much at random — we didn’t even know we were in the same city at first — and got along swimmingly almost immediately. When it transpired that we were not only in the same city, but she was actually a housemate of one of my best friends, we thought it would be a good idea to meet. I was, naturally, absolutely terrified at the prospect — but I’d been pretty honest with her up until this point, so she was well aware that I’d probably find the experience quite a daunting one.

We met, we hung out, we had a good time, I felt accepted. We made our friendship more “formal” and switched from AIM to the more personal-feeling text messages for conversations when we were apart. And, inevitably, as a lonely twenty year old nerd, I started to develop feelings for her — feelings that felt like they might actually be reciprocated for reasons I won’t bore you with the details of right now.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that one day I ended up sitting in her living room knowing that what I really needed to do was confess to her. I’m pretty sure she knew that I needed to do this, too, because while I sat there in silence for what felt like about six hours, taking in every detail of the eclectic pieces of art hung on the walls — the product of five girls with quite different tastes all living together and wanting to express themselves in the communal areas — she sat there patiently, waiting, until I finally mustered up the courage to speak.

I was in one of those scenes from Komi Can’t Communicate where nothing changes for several frames in a row. I have lived that situation. It was absurd and quite amusing, looking back on it — what a massive waste of time! — but it was nonetheless something that my particular combination of communication difficulties made happen. And I’m massively thankful to that wonderfully understanding young woman for putting up with me while I dealt with all that.

We never actually got together for various reasons, but I can’t say I was dissatisfied with how things turned out. I will leave the resolution of all that to your imagination, because we’re getting a tad off the point.

Komi Can't Communicate

Anyway, point is, when it comes to Komi Can’t Communicate… I get it. And I suspect many of the people who will end up reading Komi Can’t Communicate will get it too. But it doesn’t stop there.

By deliberately setting the action in an “elite” school whose entrance conditions appear to have been primarily based on the strength of personality someone demonstrated in an interview situation, Komi Can’t Communicate opens itself up to having an enormously colourful and varied cast.

In the first volume, we’re introduced to Tadano’s “childhood friend” character — a gender-ambiguous character with the rather on-the-nose name Najimi Osana — as well as Himiko Agari, a character who also suffers from communication difficulties, but in the opposite way to Komi. While Komi clams up and is unable to speak, Agari has a tendency to blurt things out or occasionally just make indecipherable noises. Again, this is both absurd and relatable; anyone who has ever inadvertently said something stupid or nonsensical and then spent what feels like an eternity hoping no-one noticed will very much get what is going on with Agari.

Osana, meanwhile, demonstrates a curious paradox that often surrounds people with communication difficulties: the fact that they sometimes find themselves able to become part of the “popular” group, even unintentionally. And I’m not talking about the self-consciously arrogant “mean girls” sort of “popular” group — I’m talking about the people who make a point of being friends with everyone, even when certain parts of that “everyone” wonder whether or not they’re really worthy of that friendship.

Once again, I could very much relate this to things I had experienced in my earlier life — particularly back at school.

Among other things, I studied drama at GCSE level because I had always enjoyed the performing arts, as well as having some good fun in drama classes further down the school. We had a pretty small GCSE class, what with drama being a relatively niche-interest subject — it nearly wasn’t offered at all in our GCSE year, in fact — and so, by necessity, we all kind of had to get along with one another.

In my drama class was a group of girls who had always struck me as very nice, but somewhat unapproachable. They were the kind of girls who were always in demand for social engagements, who were friends with people in college and university and who the teachers never seemed to have a word to say against. And they definitely weren’t “mean girls” — they were honestly some of the most admirable people in my entire year group. Smart, clever, attractive and popular — they had it all, whereas I arguably only had “clever” to my name.

Needless to say, I never thought my mop-headed, big-eared, zit-faced teenage self would ever have a chance at getting closer to this group — but I was very surprised once the GCSE drama classes got underway that I was not only immediately included in the activities, but I was welcomed as a genuine friend into the group. It made me regret that I hadn’t approached them sooner, because their friendship absolutely made the four years spent studying GCSEs and A-levels considerably more pleasant.

Such is the case with Najimi Osana in Komi Can’t Communicate. They’re a character who is known for immediately welcoming pretty much everyone into their friendship group — although interestingly, Komi is the one person they’ve never actually made any time for, because they made the mistaken assumptions that the rest of the student body had. With Tadano acting as an intermediary, however, Osana is able to discover that Komi is not what she initially appeared to be — and once that awkwardness is cleared up, she’s immediately accepted with no question.

Komi Can’t Communicate volume 1 is primarily about establishing the overall situation and some of the major characters who will be involved in the ongoing story. It’s kind of remarkable that even though relatively little actually happens over the course of its 19 chapters, it can still be so incredibly relatable and resonant.

And with that in mind, if you’ve ever felt or experienced any of the things I’ve described above — or at least situations a bit like them — I can heartily recommend jumping on board with this series and engaging with it fully! Just… maybe go for the manga rather than (or as well as!) the anime — it’s clear that the medium through which this story is told is actually rather important.

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Pete Davison
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