A Silent Voice
Release Date: September 17th, 2016 (Japan)
Duration: 129 mins.
Director: Naoko Yamada
Writer: Reiko Yoshida (Screenplay), Yoshitoki Ooima (Original Manga)
Starring: Saori Hayami (Shouko Nishimiya), Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka (Shouya Ishida), Aoi Yuuki (Yuzuru Nishimiya),
Animation Production: Kyoto Animation
If love brings out our best qualities, hatred deform us. A lack of empathy and ignorance lead to hatred and victimisation. This is perfectly illustrated in A Silent Voice. Based on Yoshitoki Ooima’s award-winning seven-volume manga, Kyoto Animation (KyoAni), with their trademark eye for revealing the humanity in their characters through their focus on exquisite character designs and animation, create a quiet and searing tale of teens experiencing the poisonous effect of bullying, the fragmenting of relationships and their self-perception in a story that takes the rather unconventional step of showing it from the perspective of the bully.
Directed by Naoko Yamada, she and her team of animators at KyoAni create one of the most honest portrayals of guilt and perseverance in the name of redemption through every character, each of whom carries some form of guilt and each of whom has been lovingly drawn and animated to give them a life that emanates from the screen so we can relate to them. Lingering shots on facial expressions or mid-shots that focus body-language and sign language show the subtly shifting emotions of hate and love so we feel for all of the characters.
The film opens with what looks like an attempted suicide as a spaced-out high schooler named Shouya Ishida in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, arranges everything to be left to his mother and contemplates throwing himself off a bridge. While he is the victim of bullying, he was also a bully himself. The film goes back in time to show how he got there and it leads to a harrowing 20 minutes as we see his victim.
We meet Shouya again and he is the boy about town. Introduced with The Who’s My Generation, the song and the way he is animated show he personifies confidence and thoughtlessness as he and his buddies bounce around the environment and lark about with nary a care in the world. Then Shouko Nishimiya, a young deaf student who has transferred to his elementary school, appears in front of his class with a notebook.
From the very beginning we are aware of how she is his opposite and how she is an individual and seems quite vulnerable compared to the group she is stood before.
Everyone looks at Shouko from behind her desks and sees a girl with closed and nervous body language, best shown by how rigidly she stands, how she jumps at physical prompts from her teacher like a tap on the shoulder and how tightly she holds the notebook she wants her classmates to communicate to her with. This is coupled by a heartbreaking hopeful smile as she stands at the front of the classroom and introduces herself hoping to make friends and be accepted. She will be sitting in front of Shouya and he is curious.
Her acclimatisation to her new school gets off to a hesitant start as a couple of classmates take a superficial interest in her but as the inconvenience she poses for some of the less tolerant pupils begins to grate, they start to ostracise her and complain about her presence and this is when Shouya takes it as a cue to start bullying Shouko for her hearing impairment.
As Shouko Nishimiya’s isolation grows, she shows forbearance and forgiveness that will wrack the hearts of audiences, especially as Shouya Ishida’s idiocy and lack of empathy allows his cruelty to fuel some horrendous acts. It all culminates in a scene of physical violence that makes Shouko snap and fight back, both characters pushing and punching each other and knock over desks and chairs in the classroom. It is one of the most uncomfortable and heartrending fights I have seen in 30 years of watching animation because of that careful attention to detail that KyoAni showed in their characters and their movements that make us care about them. We have seen Shouko’s body-language go from broadcasting nascent hope for acceptance and her nervousness and unease as a new girl in class into this burst of violence that contains so much pent up pain and shame while Shouya hums with anger and confusion.
The sequences of bullying had me in tears. Whether Shouya’s intention with his acts was to show Shouko his uneasiness around her or for the sake of getting a laugh from the class, they are sure to set the audience against boy are but the film reverses the relationship dynamics so that Shouya becomes a victim of bullying as the film tries to give some explanation as to how bullying occurs.
Throughout everything we witness between the two leads, we always remain aware of others and what they do to foster the atmosphere. There are many different examples of behaviour where people goad Shouya or turn a blind eye to his behaviour. Miyoko Sahara is initially friendly to Shouko but, due to fear, refuses to get involved and stand up for her. Then there is Miki Kawai who pretends to care about others but is more interested in maintaining an image. The rest are either indifferent or intolerant. When Shouko transfers out of the class because of the bullying, the others turn on Shouya and use him as a scapegoat and that sees him put in a similar position to Shouko. By giving us a wider view of everyone in the classroom we can clearly understand how intolerance and group-think, peer pressure and ignorance, foster victimising anyone perceived as the “other”.
In a neat montage we see Shouya be a victim of similar bullying as scenes mirror what he put Shouko through and so we get a real taste of what bullying does to a person as we see it from both sides. We also see his slow realisation as to what a fool he is as he learns more about her background, both kids being raised by single-mothers, both working-class and, now, both outsiders.
And so we understand how Shouya becomes a suicidal teen as he finds himself ostracised and feeling immense guilt over what he did. But he refuses to give up and makes it his quest to apologise to the girl then the film does the amazing job of making us empathise with him as well as Shouko.
The film tracks him finding the girl and trying to break down barriers, hesitantly and uncertainly, but with genuine feelings of remorse. He shows he has learned sign language and accepts his role in her torment.
For every step forward, there are setbacks as the film slowly details how they both grew into teens dealing with internalised self-loathing thanks to their experiences being bullied, everything shown in their body-language. Shouko flees from the sight of the boy and there is a nervousness that her hopeful smile doesn’t always mask. Shouya has his head almost permanently cast downward because he cannot meet the gaze of others. His shame is made palpable by this and the way he always imagines people talking about him negatively if they are glancing in his direction and he gets lost in memories of unpleasant moments shown in flashbacks.
The extent of the damage each individual suffered is unveiled throughout the rest of the film and, while the narrative is baggy, it is heart-stopping stuff as we see them try to overcome their shared past and make a better future for themselves. It’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions that will grip your heart especially as every little gain these kids get leads to a brittle front that crumbles to pieces when arguments and guilt flare up. But of course, the skilled animators use their abilities to show not just the devastation of bullying but the hope these kids cling on to of things getting better and we see friendships forged during this time that show how important human connections are.
Nagatsuka, a comedically short and podgy chappy bursting with emotion, is the first to slowly but surely draw Shouya out and others follow as he realises he needn’t live life as a recluse. Every new moment of human contact sees Ishida wonder about the meaning of friendship and the delicacy of it. From outside the toxic soup of his past is Mashiba, a guy who has no connection to the incident who can offer level-headed views and then there is Shouya’s family, an unconventional lot whose constancy and support is vital.
The same goes for Shouko whose family are also key players, her mother having a believable hardness created by their situation while the others being selfless. The extent of her self-hatred over her deafness is horrific and leads to dramatic twists but the thing that stands out is her courage as she accepts Shouya and faces her past. Their budding romance feels vital in the context of what they suffered and while some may think it unbelievable, it is also real in the way that they search for excuses to see and be with each other and work up the courage to tell each other their romantic feelings and try to present a positive front.
The movie builds up towards an optimistic view of life, how we are not alone and that by learning to support and love others we can create connections to ourselves and the world. This realisation culminates in a dreamlike finale that shines with hope as all of the kids shed their learned negative behaviour and become more open and accept and understand their emotions and those of others and it is made through the care and attention that KyoAni typically lavishes on everything.
Movies prime us to believe that characters will become romantically linked and it seems that A Silent Voice ends at this moment but it might be smarter to see the feelings between Shouko and Shouya as just another stage on a journey through the vacillating emotions of adolescence, having shared the same trauma, having a desire to be accepted, having had to confront and overcome self-loathing and guilt that has metastasised and searching for self-worth. Whether they stay together or not, the two are on a path to self-actualising personalities and it is an ending that is earned for both characters after they have suffered so much and the animation perfectly details everything and makes their struggle come to life.
However you choose to see them ending up, it cannot be denied that they have been on an emotional journey so honest and humane in its depiction thanks to the animators at Kyoto Animation that A Silent Voice stands as one of the best anime movies of all time (or at least this decade). It teaches a lesson in overcoming guilt and learning to empathise and that helps audiences come to a common understanding of humanity. It culminates into a lesson on how our better emotions such as love and generosity are keys to understanding and loving ourselves and that is something we need more of in this world.
I saw it twice at a cinema. Each time there was a lot of sobbing from the audience throughout the film and I myself was in tears. The second time I walked out of the building and heard a father and two daughters talk about the film and how they had never cried so much in a movie before. That’s evidence of the film’s power.