Based on the manga of the same name, director Naoko Yamada‘s A Silent Voice is an anime film dealing the issue of schoolyard bullying, and has finally found itself stateside. Not much a fan of anime myself (I know, I know, what sort of geek am I? I do love me some Cowboy Bebop, and Lupin III, though!), I was drawn to the animation style and the subject matter, and was genuinely invested in how well each character was developed.
Much like a later, less fantastical entry into Studio Ghibli’s catalog — although its tone, pacing, and plot development is like something Isao Takahata would perhaps find in his repertoire — this film is a much more deliberately paced, character-driven story. It also, genuinely, has a lot of heart in it. If you’re the anime fan looking for kaiju or fantasy creatures, this is definitely not for you. But if you’re looking for a story of friendship and atonement, this might just be worth tracking down and catching in theater (if your town is lucky enough to release it!)
Flashing back from what appears to be an attempted suicide by main character Shoya Ishida, to his school days, the story concentrates on schoolmates Shoya and Nishumya (given the nickname Shoko), a deaf girl who transfers in. Her attempts to assimilate into her new school is met with some mild success at first, but soon becomes much more difficult once Naoko Ueno directs the more popular clique of girls to rebuff their new classmate. We see Shoya in these scenes already a bully and outcast, regularly picking on several classmates.
His eventual targeting of Shoko is made easier by her inability to communicate effectively; she at first communicates through a notebook she carries, but when sign language classes are offered, her other classmates simply grow to resent her more. Following a series of escalating attacks by Shoko, which include throwing away her hearing aids, Shoya transfers to another school.
Here, the narrative jumps ahead a few years and we see how Shoya’s past attitude had affected and impacted his later relationships. He feels an overwhelming guilt for how much of a bully he was, and this manifests in an very palpable sense of shame. He had humiliated his family (his mother was forced to replace the hearing aides he’d destroyed), and ostracized himself by blaming his friends for bullying him, rather than admit to his own actions, when confronted by teachers.
Shoya takes many long strides to make up for how he was, even going so far as to learn sign language himself so he could apologize to Shoko in person after tracking her down in later years. His coming to terms with how his actions affected and harmed others, and how he tries to make amends for that, drives the entirety of the second and third act, and the film offers a hopeful resolution to Shoya and Shoko, both as individuals, and towards each other.
Ms. Yamada’s direction is fluid and leisurely, at times reminding me of Shinichiro Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame) in how both directors allow their characters plenty of moments to breathe and utilize the soundtrack in very interesting, dynamic ways. This style always impresses me with the anime I’ve come across: knowing how long to hold on such features as feet walking, or hand typing, or even just a face staring off-screen.
When it comes to deliberate pacing and organic composition, anime is by far the most mature animation style. And with A Silent Voice, the style works in spades: without allowing too many stylistic flourishes, the film remains grounded and immediate, addressing very real issue that sadly remains much more universal than I’d have at first realized.
The script (by Reiko Yoshida) gives what I can only imagine is a very thorough overview of Japanese school culture, and I can only imagine that it is at least somewhat faithful to the manga on which it is based; by midway through the film I felt as if I’d been steeped in the culture for years. That familiarity — with both the microcosm of Shoya and Shoko’s schools, but also the macrocosm of the larger Japanese culture — is, again, a credit to the direction and knowing what details are needed to enrich and develop the film’s setting and characters.
It was also intriguing to see how Shoko’s deafness is a cause for bullying: perhaps it says more about Japanese culture, or perhaps my own naivete, that i would never have figure THAT to be a cause for mocking.
As it is, A Silent Voice was my kind of anime: visually beautiful, deliberately paced, and socially relevant, while exposing a harder side to a culture I know only through pop culture. At just about two hours in length, one might sometimes feel the length (if one is not accustomed to this sort of deliberate pacing), and there were a few odd idiom choices early on that might have been due to the translation. It is nothing to derail the film, just curious little instances I’d noticed that perhaps speak to a larger cultural divide, but do little to negatively impact the film. 4/5 Hearing Aids!
A Silent Voice will be opening stateside in October 20th, 2017, and if you’re a fan of the manga, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t like the movie.