Can Nanako speak? It shouldn’t matter. A quiet victory for mutism representation in Senryu Shoujo

Senryu Shoujo’s mute protagonist Nanako on the cover of the volume one manga

[I had selective mutism growing up, but that anecdotal experience should not determine the strength of my argument. So, I’ll also give an academic-adjacent reading recommendation as my main source, Selective Mutism in Our Own Words: Experiences in Childhood and Adulthood by Carl Sutton and Cheryl Forrester. It’s an excellent book both for its readable first-person accounts of the condition and for its rigorous literature review and references to guide further research. I have also consulted with a professional speech-language pathologist friend to assist me with a mock “diagnosis” of Nanako’s silence and increase the clarity of my writing about communication disorders. A thousand thanks for her expertise!]

I don’t read much manga because I can’t stand the dominant publishing model: chapters trickled out in pulp-periodical magazines, collected and resold into volumes when they reach some arbitrary mass that continues to expand anyway because the incentive to sell another volume discourages writers from hitting real resolutions or, often, even moving the plot forward (I hear a whisper on the breeze, ~Nisekoi~). So, despite the common refrain that “the manga was better,” I like to stick to anime if only because seeing “(ongoing)” attached to a double-digit volume list makes me doze off before even starting. I’ve picked up a few manga for series that have impressed me beyond expectation, but only if they’re short, they’re serious, and they’re over.

I broke my usual habits then when I bought the manga for Senryu Shoujo, a spring 2019 anime series that, despite some initial enjoyment, impressed me so little that I haven’t bothered to finish it. With a bland high-school-slice-of-life 4-panel format, it’s got nothing serious to consider, at nine volumes, it’s too long to finish (especially without an official translation… I’ve limped along in Japanese*), and, ugh, it’s (ongoing). But even if I didn’t much enjoy either the anime or the manga (I only read the first four volumes as a compromise with my sanity), I do think that Senryu Shoujo did something well worth praising: its depiction of communication difficulties, specifically, the mutism of its lead protagonist, Nanako Yukishiro.

* [Note: in the absence of an official English edition, I have provided my own amateurish translations]

But despite the centrality of mutism to Senryu Shoujo‘s entire premise, the relative silence on the issue online has surprised me — maybe just a footnote here, a brief mention in regards to social anxiety here, and an abundance of misguided terms like “shy,” “introverted,” or “non-verbal” scattered around various reviews, impressions, and discussion threads. Otherwise, most viewers just seem to treat it like a cute gimmick. But in an odd way, I take that lack of focus on Nanako’s mutism as a quiet victory for disability representation in anime; Senryu Shoujo has managed to tell a story about living with a rare condition that impedes communication without, it seems, most viewers even noticing the difference.

In this post, I will try to define the disorder that prevents Nanako from speaking, because her almost total reticence goes beyond a mere personality trait like shyness or introversion. Then, I’ll return to the question of disability representation in fiction by discussing how I think Senryu Shoujo excels compared to other media depicting similar communication challenges.

So, first…

Can Nanako Speak?

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Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

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Bad poetry is good in Senryu Shoujo

Huh, there really is an anime for everything…

[This week in bad things I like anyway: the poetry in the spring 2019 anime Senryu Shoujo. It’s a fun and funny show, so even if my snob is showing regarding junk like metrical analysis, I mock the poems out of fondness. Better yet though, the mockery is part of the point! Senryu Shoujo succeeds because it doesn’t take its poems too seriously, instead incorporating them into the otherwise-bland high-school gag comedy to offer a light, loving parody of immature — and maybe even bad — would-be-poets. So, i’unno… with the recommendation and positivity out of the way, proceed with the snobbery!]

You’ve probably heard this before, right? Good artists copy, great artists steal?

It’s one of those apocryphal quotes that shows up everywhere but never seems to have a consistent form. Maybe Pablo Picasso said it about artists, or William Faulkner said it about writers, or Igor Stravinsky said it about composers? — none of those, nope! T.S. Eliot said it about poetry, in print even, from his 1921 collection The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

I won’t pretend to know what makes a good or bad poem with the same confidence as Eliot, so I’ll defer to his expertise here (plus, every aphorism has its opposite: Eliot may have made “something different” out of a line from writer W.H. Davenport Adams: “The great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil”). However, can we at least agree that the first poem from episode one of Senryu Shoujo might deserve an “immature” classification? As rendered by the official subtitles on HIDIVE, followed by the Japanese, a transliteration, and a line-by-line translation:

As the cherry blossoms bloom / I’m so happy / That we met

桜咲く君との出会いが嬉しくて

sakura saku / kimi to no de-a-i ga / ureshikute

cherry blossoms bloom / the meeting with you / is happy

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How to read Leopardi? No, seriously, I’m asking! The paradox of choice in translation

Who’s that clever boy?
Image source: Wikipedia

[I am not a scholar or anything close… instead just a confused consumer trying to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in English and finding that it is much harder to choose a translation than I ever expected. But, I hope this post can maybe function as an un-academic bibliography of Leopardi translations, and for my own purposes, a purchase guide for leisure reading.]

Have you heard of the paradox of choice? The concept comes from the 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by psychologist Barry Schwartz, who popularized the idea among casual audiences with this 2005 TED Talk. It proposes the counter-intuitive behavioral economics hypothesis that consumer welfare might decrease when the market presents them with too many similar products because the costs of choosing the utility-maximizing option between those products will increase.

…or to eliminate the economics jargon and talk like a normal person, trying to pick the perfect product out of dozens can become stressful, especially for anxious people with what Schwartz calls “maximizer” personalities who fixate on ideals and feel prone to regretting their choices.

Of course, the concept has faced some substantial criticism by economists and the early experimental results have failed to replicate like so many other psychological studies popularized by TED (and then even if it did replicate, I’m not sure how much choosing between 6 jams or 24 can tell us about more serious decisions like purchasing a car or health insurance plan).

However, despite the weakness of the empirical results, I think Schwartz does propose a subtle insight that can apply to our most complex, difficult choices: in economics jargon, taking the time to consider the opportunity costs of a complex decision itself carries an opportunity cost. And in ordinary language again… instead of agonizing over a tough choice by trying to find the best one, you could just make a quick pick and go on to enjoy your day (the easy-going “satisfier” personality type identified by Schwartz).

Simple everyday experience can probably provide better examples of the idea than any experiment every could. Most grocery shoppers won’t worry much about grabbing one of the 175 varieties of salad dressing mentioned in Schwartz’s TED Talk, but they might have trouble choosing which of the 80 Vanguard ETFs they should invest in when planning for their retirement (if they’ve even settled on Vanguard out of dozens of investment companies!). Or to use an example from my own life abroad in Japan, I spent hours researching different remittance options to send money back home to America. But when I finally committed to one, I regretted my choice within a few weeks after I discovered that I could have saved money with a different company. It was the paradox of choice in action: the large number of complex options confused me, and when that confusion produced a suboptimal decision, my nagging “maximizer” personality dragged on my guilty conscience.

For the purposes of this post though, I have a much more trivial example of the paradox: which of the 40-some editions of Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi’s translated works should I read in the office between class periods? The question sounds simple, but then my “maximizer” personality strikes again; I’ve spent the last week reading about how to read Leopardi …instead of, you know, actually reading him. And then as I re-read this post before I hit “publish,” I can’t help but wonder if all of that choice hasn’t driven me insane…

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