A Silent Voice: Written by Reiko Yoshida, directed by Naoko Yamada. Starring: Miyu Irino, Saori Hayami, Aoi Yuki, Kensho Ono, and Yuuki Kaneko. Running Time: 129 minutes. Based on the manga of the same name by Yoshitoki Oima.
A Silent Voice is a rare gem of a movie, one that perfectly synchronizes its use of all the tools of filmmaking to explore a stunningly wide range of difficult themes, including bullying, suicide, depression, anxiety, struggles with self-confidence, and the challenges of either living with a disability or interacting with someone with a disability. Add to this its viscerally real grasp of the confused emotional dynamics of teenage life, and the result one of the year’s best films by far.
Adapted from the hit manga by Yoshitoki Oima, the film has two main halves to its story. The first part focuses on when its main characters are in junior high; the settled environment of a particular class is upended when a deaf girl, Shoko, joins the school. She soon becomes an easy target for ridicule and bullying, with one boy in particular, Shoya, going the extra mile to make her school days a living hell.
Although nearly all of the students are complicit, once things go too far and Shoko’s mother pulls her from the school, the other students single out Shoya as the ringleader, and soon cast him out of their cliques as readily as they denied entry to Shoko. The stark irony of the bully himself being bullied for being a bully is impossible to miss, and it provides a brutally effective example of how cruelty, and people’s endless ability to deflect their sins onto others, can so easily lead to vicious, self-perpetuating cycles of pain that ultimately harm all involved, not just the initial victims.
In the second half, the children are all now teenagers in high school, though they’ve mostly gone their separate ways. Shoya, whose reputation as a heartless bully preceded him to high school and continued his social alienation, is seriously contemplating suicide when he sees Shoko again by chance, and almost on a whim decides to see if he can somehow make things up to Shoko for his past treatment of her.
The core of this film’s greatness starts in how the story never lets itself go the easy, predictable route in tackling its characters’ problem. It would have been all too easy for this story to be a basic romance/redemption arc, but it commits wholly to going far deeper than that, and reaches greater heights as a result.
Similarly, it would been all-too-simple to just have Shoko be a paragon of innocence and virtue, unjustly brutalized by an unfeeling world, but like the children who hurt her, she has her own demons she has to confront. Both she and Shoya are wonderfully nuanced and shaded characters; I know their pains all too well. Both feel achingly vulnerable and, above all, real. I want both of them to somehow get through this crap all right, and that visceral emotional connection to each is priceless.
Life with a disability, so often either ignored or inaccurately portrayed in film, is obviously a major, front-and-center theme; the ins and outs of Shoko’s life with deafness and how that affects her family are a big part of the second act. Yet here, too, the film goes the extra mile. Its visuals are combined with an inspired sound design to both visually and audibly explore various types of deafness, psychological as well as physical. The two main characters are almost mirror opposites in this regard. Shoko is literally deaf, and yet is sharply in tune to other people and their emotional states. Shoya is physically “normal,” but has been so battered by everything he’s experienced that, by the time he reaches high school, he’s become metaphorically “deaf” to the people around him.
This is visually portrayed with a very interesting trick- when we see the world through the eyes of teenage Shoya, nearly every face outside his immediate family is covered with a giant “X” at all times. It’s as if his mind has already determined there’s nothing to be gained by speaking with, or even looking at, anyone else, so better to just pretend they don’t exist. The moments when a few new friends are finally able to break through his hardened shell, causing the X to literally peel off their faces and drop to the ground, rank among the most powerful moments of the entire film.
It’s actually a bit mind-boggling, trying to grasp all the ways this movie tackles various types of psychological problems; anxiety, anti-socialism, suicidal thoughts, deep depression, and struggling with self-confidence are all handled with such deftness, understanding, and mturity that it’s almost something of a miracle this film exists at all. The weaving together of both halves of the story, tracing how events twist and circle back around to all those involved, builds up to a masterful, perfect ending, one that delivers a remarkable gut punch of emotion I found hard to contain after watching it.
The film can’t wholly shed its literary origins- several characters and minor plot points from the manga were clearly trimmed for time’s sake- but that is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a beautiful work of art that, despite all the tragedy and heartache it contains, nonetheless succeeds in being one of the most empowering and uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time. A Silent Voice is one of the best movies of 2017, animated or otherwise.