(Warning: This film contains brief suicidal ideation.)
“Back then, if we could have heard each other’s voices, everything would have been so much better.”
How does bullying affect people, even years after it’s happened? When is it possible to overcome the trauma of bullying, or, in the perpetrator’s case, to set down the weight of guilt for what they’ve done? How can a victim forgive the people who have tormented them, especially when their bullies refuse to feel remorse?
These questions and more are addressed in A Silent Voice, a Japanese animated drama produced by Kyoto Animation. Dubbed into English and available on Netflix, A Silent Voice follows Shoya Ishida, a teenage boy struggling with depression. Years ago, Shoya was the ringleader of a vicious bullying campaign against Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf girl in their elementary school class. When fate throws Shoya and Shoko together in the present day, Shoya is desperate to make amends
I never expected to find this kind of film, much less one adapted into an anime. Far from the action/science-fiction/romance staples of anime, A Silent Voice is a thoughtful exploration of deafness and bullying among Japanese students. The victim at the center of the bullying is Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who communicates with other students via a notebook. When Shoko’s differences become too blatant to ignore – the notebook, her speech impediment, and, worst of all, her refusal to stick up for herself – Shoya and a few other students resort to tormenting her. This abuse ranges from throwing Shoko’s notebook in a creek to stealing her hearing aids, culminating in Shoko transferring to another school to escape.
I admit, I know very little about the Japanese school system – aside from what I’ve gleaned from anime, which is potentially very flawed – or how common bullying is within it. Nevertheless, the scenes of Shoya and other students ganging up on Shoko will hit home with anyone who has been bullied. That said, A Silent Voice digs past the surface of the story, delving into the perspective of someone who, in a less pensive narrative, would be irredeemably bad: the bully. The story is told by Shoya, beginning in his late teens as he struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide. Shoya grapples with isolation and social anxiety after becoming the scapegoat for bullying Shoko. His humanity, thoroughly explored throughout the film, paves the way to redeem several characters who played a part in the bullying.
Aside from tackling an important issue in a powerful way, A Silent Voice also shines in regards to the animation and music. The animation is fluid and attentive to detail, particularly in regards to setting a scene and tying themes together. Shoko’s sign language dominates many scenes, animated in a deliberate way that makes even foreign viewers pause and take note. Shoya’s own fumbling sign language is also featured, often to humorous effect.
Another noteworthy detail is Shoya’s perspective of other people: he mentally slaps X’s over people’s faces, too alone and afraid to look them in the eyes. (As someone who grew up struggling to make eye-contact with other people, this detail had a pretty strong impact on me.)
A Silent Voice would be worth watching simply for the visuals. Here are a couple examples:
In addition to lovely animation, the score is contemplative and powerful, often taking precedence over dialogue – which makes perfect sense. In a film about finding a way to connect beyond words, dialogue plays second fiddle to atmosphere.
A Silent Voice isn’t perfect – it falls prey to the melodrama of anime from time to time, exemplified in a scene near the end that has serious logistical issues. (My sister messaged me specifically to rant about it.)
These pitfalls aside, A Silent Voice is a moving, well-made film that can be enjoyed regardless of whether you like anime. If you appreciate strong, introspective stories with themes of redemption and connection, A Silent Voice is well worth your time.