Tomohito Oda’s manga Komi Can’t Communicate (Japanese: 古見さんは、コミュ症です。, Hepburn: Komi-san wa, Komyushou desu.) has been serialized in Shogakukan’s Weekly Shōnen Sunday since May 2016. The English translation of volume one was published in 2019.
Shouko Komi is revered by her fellow students at elite Itan Private High School. The beautiful student never responds to attempts to converse with her, which her classmate take as an indication that they are but worms beneath Komi’s feet, a status with which the teens are surprisingly comfortable.
Komi is not aloof. She is too terrified to speak.
There is no social situation so straightforward that Komi cannot overthink it until the opportunity to speak has passed. Her paralyzing social anxiety isolates her while simultaneously permitting her classmates to read into her lack of reaction their unrealistic fantasies.
Her classmate, ostentatiously average student Hitohito Tadano, prides himself on his ability to read a room. This is the core skill that allows him to be perfectly normal and unremarkable. Whether or not he is superlative in understanding other people is open to question — he is a bit of a class pariah, in part because he has the coveted seat next to Komi — he has attained this key insight: that Komi does not speak because she cannot speak.
Komi’s communications handicap is specific to spoken language. Once it becomes that clear writing presents no impediment for Komi, Tadano resorts to back and forth on a convenient blackboard, becoming the first classmate to succeed in conversing with Komi. Once he discovers what she wants — one hundred friends — he declares himself her first friend, and vows to help her find the next ninety-nine.
Just one problem: Tadano is the class outcast. He has no friends to whom he can introduce Komi. Well, save for Najimi Osana. Social butterfly Najimi is friends with everyone. Ambiguously gendered Najimi is also a gleeful trickster, whose sense of humour makes asking them for help a calculated risk. Not that it matters because as Najimi makes clear, Komi is the one person Najimi is not willing to befriend.
It is not clear what’s going on with Najimi, who was a boy the last time Tadano met them1 and is usually a girl now (except when a local bully asks them on a date, when they firmly assert that they are a boy). My guess is that Najimi selects their gender of the moment based on what’s funniest.
Reader reactions to this gender fluidity have been mixed. I gather that some readers found it off-putting. IMHO, Najimi the trickster is the choice of an author who wants to write a character who is a plot facilitator; their moral axis runs from boring to entertaining, rather than right to wrong.
Speaking of tricksters, the omniscient narrator reveals that the primary quality the school looks for in students is personality, something that has not been communicated to the students. Why this criterion is valued above others is not clear but this appears to be why there are so many students with crippling social issues2. There’s no evidence in the manga that teachers make any attempt to help their students with their psychological problems. Perhaps the board of governors feels there’s a lot of entertainment value in a school filled with a collection of maladjusted poor communicators, deluded fools, obsessive stalkers, and the homicidally deranged. Or perhaps the author does.
The manga is rescued from becoming Battle Royale: Schoolhouse Comedy Edition by its focus on students doing their best to help each other. Tadano, for example, cheerfully invests time conversing via blackboard
and figuring out what circumstances might trigger Komi’s social anxiety (and which might not). He’ll do whatever is necessary to help his friend, even if his decisions forces him to be slightly unconventional. The manga is life-affirming and genial, as well as competently drawn and written. What it is not is not fast paced. By the end of volume one, Komi has just three new friends…
1: Tadano’s supposed superpowers of observation do not extend to noticing that schoolmate Najimi went from wearing a boy’s uniform to wearing a girl’s. It’s possible there is a large space between Tadano’s self image as the Guy with All the Insight and the reality.
2: Tadano, for example, isn’t average because he is remarkably unremarkable, but because he made a conscious decision to occupy the middle of every bell curve in the school. It’s his attempt to fit in perfectly. Just how effective this is can be judged by his lack of friends.