Finding redemption in friendship.
At first glance, A Silent Voice may appear to be an elaborate warning about the destructive effects of bullying, but labeling it as such simply wouldn’t do the film justice. In unearthing the serious and ugly consequences of persecution among peers, K-On! director Naoko Yamada’s beautifully animated film—based on Yoshitoki Ōima’s manga—delivers an emotional and redemptive journey through the depths of depression to uncover the meaning of friendship.
Upon transferring to a new elementary school, a hearing-impaired girl named Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) is preyed upon by her unrelenting peers, including the mischievous Shoya Ishida (Miyu Irino). The way in which his “harmless” teasing, which is initially written off by their teacher, quickly spirals out of control, is portrayed in a disturbingly believable fashion, underscored by the subtle peer pressure that propels Ishida’s actions. All the while, the bullying has left Nishimiya guilt-ridden, as she blames herself for a disability she can’t control. This is beautifully evidenced in her evocative facial expressions, which go a long way in communicating the pain and frustration of someone who can’t express themselves verbally.
Instead of demonizing Ishida and making him out to be a one-dimensional jerk, A Silent Voice flips the script, making Ishida not only someone you sympathize with, but someone you can’t help but root for. When Ishida’s bullying reaches a breaking point, he finds himself ostracized by his peers, which exposes an even greater view on the cruelty of youth and how quickly one’s so-called friends can turn on them to protect their own skin.
Filled with loneliness and self-resentment, Ishida slips into a severe state of depression that is expertly teased in the flash forward that opens the film. In an effort to escape the pit of despair that traps him, a high school-aged Ishida sets out make amends, which serves as the narrative springboard for this story of redemption.
What follows is an emotional coming-of-age journey about opening up to others and learning to forgive oneself. While a romantic element is present, it serves to complement, rather than overshadow, Ishida’s pursuit of the true meaning of friendship, which, according to Ishida’s bushy-haired classmate Tomohiro Nagatsuka (Kenshō Ono), “lies somewhere beyond things like words and logic.”
Likewise, the expanded view into Ishida’s home life, as well as that of Nishimiya’s, provides additional context for understanding the mental states of both Ishida and Nishimiya, thereby heightening the emotional impact of their actions (both past and present) and the ripple effect it has on those closest to them. One particular scene during which Ishida’s mom confronts him about his dire physiological state is extremely effective in hammering home the wide-reaching impact of depression, however insular it may seem to the person crippled by its effects.
Ishida’s stark 180-degree turn from being an ignorant, self-absorbed bully to an emotionally bankrupt teenager, humbled by a desperate desire to atone for the sins of his elementary school days, is entirely believable, thanks to the brilliant pacing and expertly woven narrative threads that create an emotional coherency to the progression of his character. As someone whose childhood friendships were built in service of self-gratification, Ishida’s road to establishing genuine friendships is a cathartic journey that nearly everyone will be able to relate to in some capacity.
Kyoto Animation is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most talented animation studios, and A Silent Voice certainly lives up to the studio’s pedigree. The dynamic camera offers multiple perspectives of any given scene, providing a real sense of place and preventing the film from ever feeling visually stagnant. Likewise, the camera’s varying focus goes a long way in not only adding to the film’s visual appeal, but outwardly reflecting Ishida’s internal state. Shots of the ground provide a first-person perspective of Ishida’s downcast disposition, and accompanying shots of the bustling crowd around Ishida, with only his face in focus, reinforce his detachment from those around him. The film goes so far as to superimpose purple X’s on the faces of those to whom he’s estranged, and while this visual cue initially appears a bit unnecessary and distracting, the way in which it’s handled over the course of the film, right up to its emotionally rousing end, ultimately justifies its inclusion.
The gorgeous backgrounds must also be praised for their lovingly-crafted, painterly aesthetic, which marry beautifully with the varied, yet coherent character designs. From the sunshine-soaked, lush outdoor locales to the dark and rainy streets that reflect the headlights from passing nighttime traffic, each and every setting is incredibly detailed and a sight to behold.
The only minor gripe I have with A Silent Voice is the inclusion of one particular song amongst an otherwise subdued and moving score. The somber and introspective tones that accompany the harrowing flashforward that opens the film come to an abrupt halt when The Who’s “My Generation” blares as we’re transported back in time to see a young Ishida playing with his friends. While the song may suit the mood of that sequence when taken in isolation, it feels out of place in the greater context of the story and tonally incongruous with the rest of the film. Conversely, the rest of the soundtrack is appropriately subtle and sparse, given the film’s subject matter, and comes to an emotionally satisfying climax at the very end.
A Silent Voice opens in theaters October 20.