(The following trailer is in Japanese. You can turn on English subtitles in the settings)
Sometimes important issues, such as bullying and discrimination against the disabled, are not talked about enough. However, the manga series and subsequent anime movie A Silent Voice put these problems front and center, and addressed them in a powerful way. A Silent Voice came out in theaters in Japan earlier this year and is about a deaf girl named Shouko Nishimiya* who is bullied in elementary school by a boy named Shouya Ishida*. Ishida and his classmate’s bullying becomes so cruel that Nishimiya is eventually forced to transfer schools. Due to his behavior, Ishida loses his friends, becomes bullied himself, and goes through his school years isolated and lonely. In his final year of high school, he decides to seek out the girl he tormented and make amends. What follows is a moving story of sorrow, love, and forgiveness.
Thematically, A Silent Voice has a lot to unpack, and the comic book from which the movie came, nearly wasn’t even published due to its content. Disabilities, such as deafness, are often seen as a social shame in Japan, and in both Japan and many other countries, issues such as bullying and suicide are shied away from. Thus this movie provides some pretty excellent leaps in progress for tackling these problems. The use of sign language is prevalent in the film, and was done well so that those in the audience who could hear could also understand what was going on. Ishida himself would speak out-loud while signing, and also would repeat verbally what Nishimiya had signed. The meanings of certain phrases were kept hidden from the hearing audience until they were revealed at the same time the non-deaf characters understood them. An excellent example of this is the use of the sign that Nishimiya would attempt to repeat to Ishida in elementary school – “Can we be friends?” Upon meeting her again in high school, it is Ishida who makes the sign, and only then does it dawn on him what Nishimiya was trying to tell him the entire time. The only thing that admittedly disappointed me while watching the film, was that it did not include subtitles in the movie theater, like it had originally been advertised. The piece of information about the subtitles was on an English website about the film, so there could have been a misunderstanding or mistranslation, but I still think it would have helped with the all-inclusive message of the film if it had subtitles for its deaf audience as well.
While deafness is not as common or admittedly as relateable of an issue to a wider audience, bullying certainly is. The movie makes a point of showing that being different, such as having a disability that others don’t have, can make one a target for harassment. It was apparent that Nishimiya had had trouble in other schools before she appeared in Ishida’s. It also shows how trapped one can be when being a victim of bullying. When one female classmate of Nishimiya’s tries to get to know her and learn sign language from her, she herself is gossiped about and treated harshly by the other girls in the classroom. The movie brings up how much in denial people can be about how they treat others. When the issue of bullying is finally addressed by the teachers, the students all point to Ishida as the sole culprit. Even years later, many of the students ignore the fact that they had a part in Nishimiya’s distress. This also gives the students more of a reason to direct their abuse towards Ishida, after Nishimiya switches schools. An important point that A Silent Voice makes is that bullying leads to more bullying, and it is how we treat even the people who we see as the worst that can make a difference for the good or the bad. By high school Ishida has pretty extreme social withdrawal issues, and, as he puts it, “can’t meet people’s faces”. The film does a good job of making the viewer empathize with both the bullied and the bully. The movie shows how in the end both may lean on each other to help the other live.
The film’s themes and tone are accompanied by beautiful animation and music. The animation uses softer tones, and the “camera” interestingly often rests on other objects or on scenery rather than the people talking at the time. This may show the disconnection that the characters have from the people around them, and adds to the isolation that both Nishimiya and Ishida may be feeling. One clever way that the movie show’s Ishida’s inability to “see” people, is that it will show an “X” over people’s faces. When Ishida begins to connect with a person, the “X” then slowly falls away and reveals the person’s face. A majority of the music in the film is free-flowing, soothing, and mostly classical in style. It fits with the film’s slice of life drama, and paces itself well with the tension of the scenes.
When you have such beautiful animation and music paired with such a meaningful story, you can’t help but feel the humanity coming off the screen. You are able to feel for these characters because their situation is so real. It sometimes amazes me how much animation, a medium that is often seen as childish and unrealistic, can reflect real life. For a movie about a deaf girl, and much of the film being told through visuals and text A Silent Voice certainly speaks volumes. I hope that this film gets an English release so that its story may be told to a wider audience.
*Note: In this article I refer to the characters by their family names (Nishimiya and Ishida) because this is common custom in Japan, because for most of the film they are referred to as such, and because Shouya and Shouko are similar names and thus may get mixed up.