I’ll be honest, I don’t like small kids very much. I mention this because I get the feeling that A Silent Voice might be agreeing with me. Let’s start with the short version. In elementary school our protagonist, Shoya Ishida, ruthlessly bullied a deaf girl and things didn’t turn out well for anyone involved. Several years later an ostracised, depressed Shoya tidies up his affairs, heads to a nice bridge and prepares himself to take a short drop to an ignominious end. But he doesn’t. He decides to go on living, even if he’s not entirely sure why. From there on A Silent Voice is the story of Shoya’s search for redemption, a way to reconcile with his past and find a way to live with himself. The film wants you to think and even more than that it wants you to feel and if you’re willing to let it lead you down its often meandering path it’s good – it’s really, really good.
Now a brief tangent, if you’ll indulge me. Way back in the sands of time when I was a university student (shut up, it feels like an age ago) I made the sort of bet that you do when you’re an idiot and I declared that no film could make me cry and if I was ever proved wrong then I would dye my hair blond. Lucky for me a sullen brick lurks inside my ribcage where most people keep a heart so I am still, to this day, safely and boringly brown haired. I bring this up because in the years since that sweeping proclamation I’ve developed something of a fascination with so-called tear-jerkers. Most are, inevitably, tat but when a film pulls it off it’s really something special. A Silent Voice may not have been the film to turn my hair blond, but it came closer than most.
One of the things I think A Silent Voice really nailed was the elementary school bit and I’m not just saying that because it has a montage with My Generation by The Who playing over it. A Silent Voice likes to take its time with things so when the deaf transfer student Shoko Nishimiya first arrives she’s a novelty rather than an annoyance, at worst merely ignored. The novelty slowly wears off and the more charismatic kids, most noticeably Noaka Ueno, the girl who sits next to Shoya, start to turn on the almost alien Shoko, taking exception to the difficulties her presence poses. Later Shoya joins in, but a tendency to show-off and a frustration with Shoko’s shy, passive reactions, drives him further. Eventually the adults step in to put a stop to it and fingers turn on Shoya, leaving him to take the blame for the whole ordeal alone.
With that driving, Shoya, now a high school student, is ostracised, guilt ridden and depressed to the point of suicide. This Shoya can’t look another person in the knee, let alone the eye, stands in sharp contrast to the gregarious, rough-and-tumble youth we came to know early in the film. Every step of character development Shoya goes through, especially in the early stages, is relatable. That being said what’s perhaps more impressive is how easy it is to root for Shoya in spite of his sins.
It’s easy to explain why though, it’s because he’s trying. The real meat of the film sees Shoya trying to redeem himself, primarily, to himself and that’s what makes him compelling, even likeable. It helps that the rest of the cast is fun to be around, especially the resident short and chubby comic relief Tomohiro Nagatsuka. He is a delight in nearly every scene he’s in which, in a film with heavy themes and subject matter like this one, is both necessary and endearing. This is a good thing considering that I hated him the first time his fluffy afro popped up on screen.
A Silent Voice comes to us from Kyoto Animation, A Silent Voice doesn’t look like the standard KyoAni fare though, this isn’t K-On!, Free! or Sound! Euphonium (no ‘!’ for starters). It has a somewhat muted colour palate and lacks the glossy, shiny feel of much of KyoAni’s recent work, if anything reminding me instead of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, a Madhouse film from back in 2006. I adore the way this film looks and without much, if anything, in the way of high action, fast moving scenes the detail given to the expressions sells the emotions of the characters.
Moving back to characters briefly, we ought to talk about Shoko. He may be the star of the show but the plot revolves around Shoko. It’s Shoko’s transfer that starts the film and Shoya’s reunion with her that fuels it. It’s not every day a deaf character makes their way into the pivotal role of a film, let alone in anime. It didn’t occur to me until the next day how easy it would have been to botch either, it’s easy to imagine her as a one-dimensional character, a beacon of goodness misunderstood because of her disability. Fortunately she is a rich, complex character shaped and warped by her disability in a very believable way. How credit should be split between the author of the original manga’s author, Yoshitoki Oima, and the film’s director and writer, Naoko Yamada and Reiko Yoshida, I can’t say, but the end result is superb.
I would be remiss not to mention before I wrap this up that, unlike many of its colleagues in the ‘Feels’ genre of anime, A Silent Voice features no supernatural elements. This was a good choice because whilst I don’t think such elements are necessarily bad I do think they would have cheapened the very human story A Silent Voice is going for, especially with its emphasis on personal redemption and the impact of disability rather than something more suited to supernatural metaphor and shenanigans based romance.
A Silent Voice isn’t perfect, the pacing is often wonky and its proclivity for showing rather than telling, whilst laudable, can be confusing. However there is a reason I spent a thousand words extolling its virtues rather than criticising its flaws. It touched me in a way films rarely do and I think I see the world a little differently now. A Silent Voice achieves exactly what it set out to do and it is, put simply, a triumph.