So many anime shows are about schoolkids at school, doing schoolkid things. I wonder if that’s a reflection of Japanese attitudes to adult life. Do they really believe that schooldays are the best days of your life? Once you graduate and become a wage-slave to some dark corporate overlord, then your life is essentially over? A Silent Voice takes this overused genre setting (even including the normally groan-inducing cliche of introducing a new transfer student to an established class) and does something interesting with it. This is schoolkid drama with bite. What other similar production has the guts to start with an aborted suicide attempt?
WARNING: SIGNIFICANT PLOT SPOILERS WILL BE DISCUSSED
Main protagonist Shoya Ishida is initially portrayed as a horrible kid. He’s the ringleader of the kids who bully the pink-haired deaf transfer student Shoko Nishimiya. Shoko is portrayed as an easy target - soft, eager to please and forever apologising, though she seems to be a genuinely nice kid and the early scenes of bullying do not hold back on the depiction of children as cruel little bastards. Never once does she hit back or even display irritation, yet like in real life that’s a red flag to a bull with some children. They tease her behind her back, ignore her, throw dirt in her face, steal her hearing aids, injure her ear and their apathetic teacher takes no action until the head teacher gets involved. Shoya’s mother has to humiliate herself by paying for replacements for Shoko’s hearing aid and is also implied to have her own ear injured in payback. After Shoko thankfully leaves the toxic school environment, it becomes Shoya’s turn as his friends scapegoat him as the ringleader and his social standing instantly crumbles.
I have to admit I did think serves you right for bullying the poor pink-haired girl, but eventually I had to recognise that Shoya never catches a break for years afterwards. Even after transferring to another school he can’t escape persistent rumours of his bully-boy behaviour, leading to total social exclusion and his development of a severe, pathological social anxiety. This is depicted in charmingly simple (and accurate) fashion - anyone he feels he can’t talk to (i.e. everybody) has an incongruous purple cross floating in front of their face. He can hardly even view them (or perhaps himself) as fellow humans. He leads his life minimising human interaction as much as possible. No wonder his mood plummets to the point he makes plans to end his life.
I had some issues with the scene where Shoya’s mother chews him out for his aborted suicide attempt (by jumping off a bridge)-it’s almost played for laughs, with the money he paid her back for Shoko’s injury accidentally going up in flames. In an otherwise grounded film, this exchange between mother and child did not ring true. If this had been my kid, I guarantee there would have been more tears and a subsequent visit to a mental health professional. I don’t know if this is a reflection on Japanese society or not, but do they not have school counsellors? Or doctors? Or psychologists? No-one seems to recognise Shoya’s mental illness or try to help him with it. It’s left to him and the group of kids he eventually befriends to try to pick up the pieces of his life. At over two hours in duration, this movie is a long journey towards good mental health and healthy relationships and I’m not sure it always sticks the landing.
Take the character of Naoko who from the beginning joined with Shoya in bullying Shoko. She is a truly rotten human being and every time she appeared on screen I wanted some kind of horrible, violent calamity to befall her. Honestly, what a bitch. She was unrepentant, antagonistic, cruel, selfish and utterly self-obsessed. She reminded me of the most unpleasant girls from my own schooldays. Why do her friends even tolerate her presence? Even at the end of the film when several other relationships are repaired and restored, she has not earned any kind of redemption in any way. Seriously the others should have got rid of her and been much happier for it. Perhaps she was meant to be a realistic portrayal of a certain type of toxic person.
Of the other secondary characters, the two that most stand out are Shoya’s self-proclaimed “best friend” Tomohiro and Shoko’s boyish younger sister Yuzuru. Tomohiro is initially portrayed as something of a comic relief “fat kid” character. (His hair reminded me, perhaps unfairly, of Mineta, the creepy bobble-haired kid from My Hero Academia.) To begin with, he seems like a pathetic hanger-on who latches on to Shoya because he doesn’t have any friends. Their friendship develops in interesting ways - Shoya shows him respect, unlike anyone else, and Tomohiro listens to Shoya’s problems and gives good advice. Even during one of Shoya’s later emotional breakdowns where he pushes away everyone who cares about him, Tomohiro is quick to forgive and accepts that Shoya doesn’t mean what he’s saying. They possibly have the healthiest relationship in the whole story.
Shoya can be forgiven for mistaking Yuzuru for a boy, especially as she first poses as Shoko’s (significantly younger!) boyfriend - much to Shoya’s palpable discomfort. She’s very protective of her older sister, so much that sometimes she acts as if she is the older sibling. Some of her actions betray her emotional immaturity though, such as when she runs away from home and Shoya finds her sleeping in a playpark. She goes from initially distrusting Shoya to eventually becoming a cheerleader for him and her sister to get closer, and even defends him to their mother, who understandably dislikes him. She helps portray one of the central themes of this film - that people can grow and develop, and perhaps they shouldn’t be judged for their past actions when they are given a chance to change. The past has held Shoya down for years, to the point that arguably the bully has suffered more than the one he bullied.
So that brings me to discuss the one character whose complex emotions tie the whole film together. Shoko, the pink-haired suffering girl. Do Japanese school pupils truly get no warning that they’re about to receive a transfer student? Would it not have been more sensible to warn the class about her difficulties beforehand? The kids first of all treat her like an interesting oddity, then an irritation, and finally an object to abuse. Shoko is so insecure that she makes no attempt to defend herself and apologises constantly to people who have no business being apologised to. Her entreaties to become friends with her bullies are desperately sad. Apart from her pained/anxious expressions, the film restrains from giving any insight into her internal thoughts during the childhood phase of the story. She always looks hopeful that someone might finally respond positively to her, it’s only once she’s physically damaged that she gets the message and her family removes her. I couldn’t help wondering if that useless teacher had done something earlier it may have made a difference.
When Shoya seeks her out as some kind of (possibly misguided) attempt to get his karma in order before he kills himself, she is understandably much more wary of him than she ever was as a kid. Perhaps aided by the fact that she has grown up to be a very attractive teenage girl, Shoya keeps coming back to pursue her. At least on his part this seems at first to be motivated by guilt, but I wonder if the absence of any real human connection in his life makes him think that if he can at least fix the mistakes he made with Shoko in the past, then there is hope for him to move on. His persistence pays off in that Shoko starts to see past her memories of him as a bully and to recognise what a caring, if damaged individual he has become. Of course he’s too dumb to notice her growing feelings for him, and she struggles to communicate it. Shoko’s frustrated reactions are very convincing - like running home to bed, collapsing face first into her pillow and kicking her legs into the air. We get much more insight into her mental state as an older teen than we did with her as a child.
Shoko’s communication struggles lead me to bring up one of the quite remarkable aspects of the English dub. My wife who watched this with me said she didn’t like Shoko’s voice - it sounded weird and like they were making fun of deaf people. It turns out that they cast an actual deaf voice actor (Lexi Cowden). At times her speech is very difficult to understand, and it does sound weird. That’s the point. Not even the original Japanese version was dubbed by a deaf actress. Extra marks for the English dub team for accuracy and representation. The other English dub voice actors are fine too, it seems like a lot of care and effort were put into the production.
It’s only towards the end of the film that Shoko’s deepest darkest feelings come to light - her profound self hatred and hopelessness that she’d kept hidden for so long culminate in the film’s second depiction of attempted suicide. In an act of poetic symmetry, this time Shoya does manage to plummet from a height into water, accidentally sacrificing himself to save the girl he now realises he loves. This action in turn leads to another slight problem I had with the film - the contrived way it wraps up the emotional fallout from this with Shoko calling his name, Shoya awakening from his coma and then magically finding her at just the right place in the middle of the night. There must have been a better way to do that.
Overall, despite its somewhat bloated length, A Silent Voice is a very worthwhile anime movie. It looks attractive, and while the animation is not up to something like 2D Disney’s cinematic animation quality, it’s certainly a cut above most anime. The characters are well drawn, complex and sympathetic (and occasionally hateful). I did find my attention drifting away as the movie approached its conclusion, but it was a captivating experience that triggered a real emotional response with some of its more upsetting scenes.
Director: Naoko Yamada (Kyoto Animation)
Japanese Cinematic Release: 17th September 2016
Languages: Japanese and English with closed captions
Region: B (PAL)
Distributor: All the Anime
UK DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: 30 Oct. 2017
Run Time: 130 minutes